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Posts Tagged ‘Re-entry Forbidden’

There’s an extremely well-worn old saying to the effect that, contrary to popular opinion, science fiction does not attempt to predict the future – science fiction attempts to prevent it. Not that it necessarily seems to be doing a very good job, although I suppose things could always be worse. Whether or not Doomwatch actually qualifies as bona fide SF is an interesting question – Wikipedia seems very sure that it is, while the actual DVD box declares it to be a ‘ground-breaking science-fact… thriller’. Who to believe? What a dilemma I find myself in.

Well, actually, it’s fairly obviously SF, some of the time at least, given the super-intelligent killer rats we were talking about last time round. I am glad to report that, at the time of writing, southern England is not in imminent danger of being devoured by organised tool-using rodents, but the next episode does end up somewhere a little closer to reality, although it certainly takes a circuitous route to get there.

Said episode is Project Sahara, another Gerry Davis script, which opens with the Doomwatch team hard at work evaluating a top secret biochemical warfare programme codenamed, well, Project Sahara. To help with this they have recruited Stella Robson, a brilliant biologist, whom they are all much impressed by. Robson is played by Hildegarde Neil, an actress perhaps most notable for marrying Brian Blessed forty years ago. (She is not much seen on screen nowadays, probably because she became profoundly deaf thirty-nine years ago.)

The team are alarmed that Project Sahara’s brand of agricultural warfare could prove devastating to the environment, but before they can complete their work word comes through from their government masters – Toby Wren and Stella Robson are both suspended from duty, effective immediately!

Toby goes off down the pub and gets wrecked, and – in another of those rather uncomfortably unreconstructed scenes which pepper this series – suggests that if Stella really wants to cheer him up, the two of them can have a roll in the hay together (so to speak). She declines this romantic offer, leaving him to pour his heart out to an older man he meets in the bar.

Quist is rather concerned when the same man (played by Nigel Stock) turns up in the Doomwatch offices and announces he is Commander Keeping, head of a new internal security agency  responsible for vetting the staff of this kind of operation. Quist suspects political pressure has been brought to bear to protect Project Sahara, but is there something else going on?

Well, yes there is, though it’s while until just what it is becomes apparent. It turns out the whole Project Sahara element, with its overtones of Silent Spring, is a bit of a red herring, because the episode is really about something else: Quist eventually discovers that Keeping’s agency is making decisions based in part on guidance given by a computer system. The system has a spooky electronic voice (provided by Peter Hawkins, one of the original voice actors on both the Daleks and the Cybermen in Doctor Who) and a frankly rather bizarre monitor screen, so accepting it as something sinister feels reasonably natural.

The episode thus devolves to being about the primacy of human decision-making in a world where computers can assess facts at a vastly greater speed and with immensely greater accuracy. The same theme as, for example, the Star Trek episode The Ultimate Computer, but this episode is rather more ambiguous – the M-5 computer in Trek rather predictably turns out to be sentient and goes spectacularly mad, requiring Kirk to talk it to death. The security system in this episode is just a very complex predictive network, not actually any kind of AI with its own consciousness, and the episode indicates it knows what it’s talking about – its prediction that Wren is a security risk proves unfounded (as far as this episode goes), but it turns out to be on the money about Robson, who has skeletons in her cupboard and proves potentially vulnerable to subversion.

Quist’s objection to the use of the machine is thus almost wholly a sentimental, philosophical one, rather than being based on its actual performance – there are things that men must do in order to remain men, as Spock puts it (in rather sexist terms) in The Ultimate Computer. And Quist’s victory is a heavily qualified one – the system is still running at the story’s conclusion, it’s just that its decisions are mediated by the human insight of Keeping, for the time being at least.

I imagine the average person will respond to Project Sahara in one of two ways: either it rings an impressive number of bells when it comes to the whole issue of Big Data and the predictive powers of computers, given it’s 47 years old, or it’s just another one of those slightly quaint examples of people from the past getting into a bit of a tizzy about stuff which everyone nowadays takes for granted – rather in the same way that people were at one point genuinely worried that transplant surgery was a threat to personal identity.

Personally I tend towards the former position, given the extent to which we are already influenced by the manipulation of our personal information by internet giants and their algorithms. Amazon already does a pretty good job of suggesting books and DVDs to me that I might like to partake of, the same is true of all the big internet and social media corporations. Not long ago I read Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus, in which he suggests that the future will see this kind of system improving to the point where the systems’ abilities to analyse and predict human behaviour will far outstrip human ability in this field – in short, the machines will know us better than we know ourselves, and what value will there be in human oversight or decision-making in a world like that? It’s a peculiar notion, but one I suspect we may have to get used to thinking about.

Then again, I suppose you could equally argue that the rise of these kinds of systems, and the fact that nothing particularly awful seems to have happened yet, just proves that Quist is being ridiculous in his concerns – and it’s not like computers have the power of life or death over humans yet. Well, maybe not, provided you discount the algorithms used to monitor and respond to the international stock markets, which of necessity operate without direct human oversight. I’m not saying I necessarily agree with Quist (and, I suppose, Davis) on this one, but I do think the episode looks a long way ahead with unusual clarity.

We’re back to the ‘is it or isn’t it science fiction?’ question with a vengeance for the next episode, Don Shaw’s Re-entry Forbidden, which deals with issues to do with the manned space programme – which was very much science fact at the time, but can’t help feeling a bit fantastical nowadays. The Apollo programme is never mentioned by name, but James Burke and Michael Aspel briefly cameo as themselves in a sequence clearly intended to imitate the BBC’s moon-landings coverage. It was obviously a no-brainer for any science-based TV drama to do an episode which tapped into public interest in spaceflight around this time – Doctor Who had a go with The Ambassadors of Death at virtually exactly the same time that this episode was in production, and apparently the two shows split the cost of the expensive space-capsule set used in both programmes.

There are faint shades of Quatermass as the episode begins – a NASA mission code-named Sunfire experiences difficulties on re-entry and ends up splashing down in the North Atlantic. Quist is initially concerned about the potential dangers of a nuclear-powered spacecraft burning up over a densely populated country, while Pat the secretary gets to articulate that argument that manned space travel is too expensive to justify in a world full of starving children (no-one seems very keen to debate her).

A lot of the episode isn’t even about the Doomwatch team, much, as it focuses on Larch (Michael McGovern), the first British astronaut to participate in the NASA programme. Larch does not seem like a happy bunny, is possessive of his wife, defensive when it comes to the mission, and so on. It was his decision that put the re-entry in danger, and so he is the focus of the ensuing enquiry. He is also an ex-student of Quist’s, who wrote him a reference.

This gives a NASA psychologist (Joseph Furst) the chance to deposit Larch with Doomwatch, requesting that Quist carry out a few discreet tests to establish Larch’s mental state – did he genuinely see a warning light, causing him to miss the planned re-entry window, or are there more serious issues? Quist finds himself rather reluctantly taking the mission on.

Definitely no genuine SF here, as this is another character-based drama – though sort of vaguely topical at the time it was made, given it was transmitted the month before the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. It is, yet again, a rather talky piece of work, and it takes a long time to get going.

Actually, given a few more weeks and it’s very possible the episode would never have been broadcast at all on the grounds of taste, given it has a startlingly bleak conclusion. Quist gives Larch a clean bill of health, deciding that if he does have issues, NASA will have time to identify them – but then two things happen: Wren, talking to Mrs Larch, recognises her description of his various issues as resembling the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia, triggered by going into zero gravity, and Larch’s team are unexpectedly bumped up the flight roster, going back into space only a few weeks later.

Quist and the others rush off to the nearest ground station, deciding that it’s essential that mission control know that Larch is a paranoid schizophrenic, but due to a cock-up with the radio, they end up beaming the information straight to the space capsule. Larch responds poorly, shall we say, and the ensuing struggle and confusion means the capsule misses its re-entry window, condemning the entire crew to die in space.

There are various things one can reasonably say about the ending of Re-entry Forbidden – is it likely that NASA’s exhaustive pre-flight testing would miss the fact that Larch is an incipient paranoid schizophrenic? Is it credible that he’d end up on two launches in not much more than a month? Isn’t Quist arguably to blame for the whole disaster, by his cack-handed attempt to share his (anecdotal and non-professional) diagnosis of Larch’s condition? How does anyone at Doomwatch manage to hang onto their job after being mixed-up and possibly culpable in the death of three NASA astronauts? But in the end it’s the conclusion of the episode that gives it its dramatic power and interest. Apart from that it’s just a curious historical piece about the demands and cost of the space programme. This is proving to be a very curious and unpredictable programme, although I must confess to finding the more overtly SF episodes more interesting.

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