Posts Tagged ‘Terence Dudley’

Due to the unique way the BBC managed its archives in the early 1970s (it involved a furnace), the vast majority of the third series of Doomwatch is gone – missing, presumed burned or wiped. It’s easy to give the corporation a hard time for its short-sightedness in this respect, as it completely failed to foresee the rise of the market for home entertainment, but I’ve heard it argued that Equity should shoulder some of the blame too – the actors’ union imposed strict limits on the number of repeats the TV networks were allowed to run, meaning that the majority of programmes in the archives were never likely to be shown again, making the costs of their preservation unjustifiable.

Well, either way, we’re left with only three episodes of the twelve – a small irony being that one of these episodes was never shown on TV in the first place. The first survivor, Terence Dudley’s Waiting for a Knighthood, is the fourth episode of the series, and watching it now one gets a distinct sense of arriving late to a party – developments have clearly, um, developed in the early episodes of the season.

Ridge has gone nuts, for one thing, and this has taken the form of more than just dressing up as Luke Cage now and then – apparently in the first episode he stole some anthrax and attempted to hold the government to ransom with it. By the time of this episode, he is safely ensconced in a rubber facility and has apparently made a full recovery. Replacing him at Doomwatch is a new character, Stafford, who may in fact be a mole for the Minister. Or not. Chantry has also been banished to the outer darkness, but at least Barbara the secretary is still there, and also apparently making regular appearances is Anne Tarrant, Quist’s shrink from the start of season two – the two of them appear to have shacked up together, in an unexpected move towards a more domestic Doomwatch.

Waiting for a Knighthood features Ridge and does, to some extent, focus on the reasons for his peculiar behaviour. It opens with a vicar going full-on bonkers mid-sermon, collapsing in the aisle of his church, and needing to be rushed off to hospital. This happens at Tarrant’s local church and so Quist gets wind of it. A little investigation reveals the hapless clergyman was a keen mechanic who was regularly exposed to fumes from organic lead in his petrol, and that his breakdown may have been caused by lead poisoning of the brain.

At this point someone remembers that Ridge was also a keen mechanic and welder (oh, really?) and that lead poisoning may have been a factor in his episode of atypical behaviour as well. However, the issue of whether or not to fully exonerate Ridge and get him back on the team (never going to happen; Simon Oates didn’t want to be in the show full time any more) becomes rather secondary, when a woman whose young son died of lead poisoning gets wind of what’s been happening and kidnaps the young son of a wealthy oil man whom she blames for the pollution of the environment.

Doing an episode about lead poisoning is clearly within Doomwatch‘s mission statement, especially when you consider the long-term environmental damage done by lead in petrol (the life story of Thomas Midgley, pioneer of this development, and also CFCs in fridges, is a real eye-opener). But this script never quite seems to come to grips with it. It revisits a couple of the classic themes – particularly how everyone wants a cleaner world but nobody wants to actually be the one to pay for it – but on the whole the sense of driving anger which characterised the Davis-Pedler seasons is absent, perhaps epitomised by the way Quist himself has become a more human figure, less of a voice of morality. It seems much more interested in the various political goings-on between Doomwatch and the ministry, and the somewhat underpowered kidnapping plot. Terence Dudley clearly seems to have found no shame in nepotism, for once again he casts his own son Stephen Dudley in a crucial role (he was previously Rat Attack Victim in season one, and would be a regular for most of the run of Survivors).

I’d hesitate to call this episode actively bad, but it’s very bland and unengaging stuff, with the new characters and emphasis making the show a more comfortable and mainstream drama – which surely was never the point in the first place. One gets a definite sense of a shark having been jumped.

Episode six is better, but not quite good enough to dispel this impression. This is Hair Trigger, by Brian Hayles, who (the attentive will recall) wrote The Iron Doctor, one of the best second series episodes. Things get underway at a secure research facility under the auspices of the DHSS, which sounds like a joke but isn’t. Dr Tarrant is visiting the place in her professional capacity as a psychiatrist attached to the civil service. She discovers that patients with serious psychological disorders are being given computer-controlled therapy, to the extent that they have electrodes implanted in their brains which can both monitor and control their behaviour. A violent psychopath, Beavis (Michael Watkins) has a homicidal episode artificially triggered and then controlled for her benefit.

Naturally, Tarrant is disturbed by this, and (in another lengthy domestic scene between her and Quist) she explains why – it’s not just that the line between treating patients and experimenting on them seems to have become rather blurred, but that the focus of the procedure is not really to treat at all. The emphasis is on controlling dangerously violent individuals rather than addressing their problems on a human level.

There are various scenes of civil servants and scientists discussing this all in a rather clubbable manner, with Quist and the rest of the Doomwatchers somewhat peripheral figures. Tarrant decides to speak in more detail with Beavis himself, to get a better idea of how he feels about this. Beavis is twitchy about the prospect of the conversation, only wanting to talk about the treatment he’s received, not his own past, and as they talk in the unit’s grounds he becomes agitated and there is a struggle. Tarrant is knocked unconscious and the receiver which controls Beavis’ brain function is damaged. He flees the scene and takes a young woman in a nearby farmhouse hostage…

The ethics of how to treat the criminally insane was one of those issues which many people weighed in on in the early 70s, one way or another. This episode was broadcast in 1972, and it’s hard not to see it as being in some way influenced by the previous year’s A Clockwork Orange, which similarly suggested the solution was to artificially condition the brains of contenders, or possibly even the Doctor Who story The Mind of Evil, which took the more radical step of suggesting hardened recidivists should be fed to alien mind parasites. Much of it is good solid humanistic stuff, arguing that people should be treated as people, rather than malfunctioning machines, even if they are a danger to themselves and others. The implications of computers directly controlling human behaviour are not overlooked, either, although the more loved-up season three Quist is less outraged by this than the original version would have been, I’d suggest.

The problem is that once the suspense-thriller element of the episode kicks off, about half way through, and Beavis goes on the run, all the more thoughtful aspects of the story are essentially dropped in favour of this. The resolution is dealt with solely in terms of characters and personalities, with the big ideas of the story completely forgotten about. This is still a watchable episode of a reasonably good thriller series, but it is largely lacking in the moral and intellectual power of the best offerings from seasons one and two.

And so to Stuart Douglass’ Sex and Violence, the final completed episode of the series, which may have survived simply because it was never broadcast as planned – nor has it ever been shown on British TV, as far as I have been able to determine. Exactly why this is the case remains somewhat obscure, and watching the episode itself is not especially illuminating.

The episode opens with a public meeting led by a moral campaigner, decrying the so-called permissive society of the day and the ‘filth’ permeating all levels of the media. No sooner have the pre-titles concluded and the credits got underway than you find yourself thinking ‘this is an odd topic for a Doomwatch episode’. Quist agrees, when Doomwatch is tasked with assisting an inquiry into whether censorship laws should be tightened or not – chemical pollution, certainly, but moral pollution?

He shifts his position a little when Anne Travers is co-opted onto the inquiry committee, which includes a morality campaigner, a bishop, a sociologist, an educationalist, and a pop star (playing some of these are Brian Wilde and Bernard Horsfall, so at least the performances are good). As part of her duties Travers goes to see a controversial play and is attacked by a protester. What motivates these self-styled guardians of public morality? And what motivates the shadowy figures who are funding their crusade?

Well, this is very definitely another for the ‘they don’t make ’em like this any more’, for much of Sex and Violence is a very talky discussion of some rather abstruse topics – the work of Wilhelm Reich is casually debated, which doesn’t happen on BBC1 very much nowadays. It’s very different to any other episode of Doomwatch – when Quist does attend the committee, all he does is sit quietly in the corner.

So why has the episode never been broadcast? The popular theory seems to be that it’s because it includes documentary footage of a public execution taking place in Lagos, Nigeria, but this seems a little implausible since the same footage has been shown on TV since. It seems to me to be more likely that concerns were raised about the fact that at least one of the characters is a thinly-disguised caricature of a significant public figure of the period. Whether the pop star is intended to be Cliff Richard or not, I’m not sure; but it seems a dead cert that ‘Mrs Catchpole’, scourge of the permissive society, is based on Mary Whitehouse. Whitehouse and the National Viewers And Listeners Association which she founded were a power in the land in the 1970s (managing to get Philip Hinchcliffe effectively sacked from Doctor Who in 1977, for example), and you can imagine the BBC getting a little nervous about an episode in which she is explicitly depicted as a fanatical extreme-right bigot (the fact she is played by June Brown, best known nowadays as Dot Cotton, is just one of those historical quirks), especially given her litigiousness.

Then again, none of this is exactly rigorously impartial: Quist tracks down the financier of the anti-permissiveness campaign, and finds a right-wing millionaire with political aspirations. Persuade people to give up their freedom to decide what they watch, read, and listen, runs the argument, and in the fullness of time they will happily hand over their other freedoms to the state – when the right leader comes along. Given the BBC very much had a dog in this fight, this would have been touchy stuff even back in the 1970s (quite how far back the routine Tory-press whine about ‘left wing bias’ at the BBC goes is not something I’ve been able to discover, but political bias may well have been another issue).

In the end the episode concludes with the status quo unchanged, and Quist musing on the rise of Hitler from joke to despot in less than a decade, while Bradshaw informs him the computer has suggested sex and violence in the media have no effect on people’s behaviour. (It is at least somewhat appropriate that the final scene features the two remaining original characters.) ‘No change… no change…’ says Quist. This may not be a particularly strong episode of Doomwatch, but like the best of the series, it deals with issues which are alive and kicking today. No change, indeed.

Read Full Post »

The first episode of the second series of Doomwatch is an early example of what I would call a ‘consequences’ episode – a character-based piece in which the focus is specifically on how the protagonists come to terms with something particularly momentous which has just happened to them. Another notable instance would be the episode of TNG in which, having spent most of the previous story being assimilated by the Borg, Jean-Luc Picard retreats to his family vineyard, argues with his elder brother a bit, and ends up weeping amongst the grapes. Doomwatch 2.1 is arguably the same sort of thing.

Of course, we are in a slightly odd situation here in that, due to the unique way the BBC used to manage its programme archive, the climactic episode of season 1, Survival Code, has been wiped, although the title of 2.1 tells you everything you need to know: it’s called You Killed Toby Wren. Yes, due to Robert Powell’s refusal to sign on for a second series, the first one ended with him being blown up while trying to defuse a nuclear bomb which somehow got lodged under a pier. Luckily the climax of Survival Code survives as the pre-credits sequence of You Killed Toby Wren.

Naturally the death of Wren and two others causes ructions at the Ministry, which is back under the control of the chap from The Plastic Eaters (John Barron), despite at least two other people having had the job elsewhere in season 1. The Minister sees this as a golden opportunity to bring Doomwatch under tighter control and, perhaps more importantly, get shot of Quist.

Meanwhile, back at Doomwatch HQ, Pat the secretary has been overcome by grief at Toby’s death and quit the series, to be replaced by Barbara the secretary, who quickly grasps the essentials of the job (answering the phone and making coffee for everyone else). It’s not a great time to be starting a new job as Quist’s guilt over Wren’s death is making him even grumpier than usual, and this is exacerbated by Ridge’s deliberate attempts to wind him up over the matter. (Ridge himself seems to have been left somewhat unbalanced by the affair, as he has come in to work wearing a canary-yellow shirt with a dog-collar accessory round his neck – not a clerical collar, the actual thing you’d expect to find on a labrador. It’s almost like a rather awkward attempt at  Simon Oates trying to cosplay as Luke Cage; my understanding is that the dog collar at least was included to win a behind-the-scenes bet.)

What follows basically has a three-pronged structure. We have Quist, articulating his feelings and motivations to a comely psychiatrist (we also learn he sculpts in his free time) – this is quite well-played stuff, though inevitably a bit theatrical. Then there are the various pseudo-political shenanigans surrounding the enquiry into the deaths of Toby Wren and the others. The Minister sounds Ridge out about potentially taking over from Quist, should he be sacked, and Ridge seems not at all uninterested to begin with – the dislike between the two is at its most palpable, with Quist actually sacking Ridge (temporarily) partway through the episode. Given that this story is another example of the auteurship of Terence Dudley (written, produced, and directed by) it’s not entirely surprising to find a Survivors pre-union of sorts in progress at the enquiry itself, with Edward Underdown and Robert Gillespie both on the tribunal (these actors both recurred in a number of third season Survivors episodes, which Dudley also oversaw).

However, the most memorable part of the story concerns an investigation Ridge undertakes on a freelance basis, after being tipped off by Hardcastle, a young scientist involved in genetic research in Norwich (insert your own joke at this point). The researchers are working on genetically-engineered hybrids, and have got to the point where they’ve produced live specimens. Quist seems oddly unconcerned by this, but Ridge manages to gain access to the laboratory (mainly, it must be said, by knocking off one of the female scientists) and is appalled by what he finds: dogs and chickens with multiple human heads. Somehow, the very primitiveness of the special effects used to realise this (real chickens in rubber masks) only adds to how repellent it all feels. Faced with this, Ridge goes sort of berserk and ends up breaking the jaw of one of the lab technicians trying to throw him out; the sequence concludes with the female scientist proudly revealing that she herself is pregnant with a human-animal hybrid. It’s grotesque, nightmarish stuff, but the oddest thing is that this whole strand of the episode just seems to be there to push Ridge over the edge and allow him to empathise with some of the questionable decisions that Quist made prior to Wren’s death. There’s no indication that the issue of this project and the bizarre chimeras it is producing will ever be touched on again; one has to conclude it’s partly there to give an episode mainly composed of middle-aged men talking in offices a bit more water-cooler value.

In the end, Quist’s natural astuteness and quick wits allow him to survive the enquiry with his authority undiminished (the scene where John Paul is questioned by Robert Gillespie is, as you’d expect, a good one), and both he and Ridge have come to know themselves and each other a little better – the hostility between them seems to have drained away, for the time being at least, and the team has recovered from the loss of Wren and found a new determination to carry on doomwatching for the rest of the second series.

Which they do, starting with Invasion, a lavish big-scale episode with loads of location filming. Ridge and new recruit Hardcastle are in Yorkshire, checking nitrate levels in the local water table. To assist with this they’ve engaged the services of a couple of local lads who are into potholing and cave-diving, but there’s a bit of a panic when the duo disappear while exploring a local cave system. Having checked out the geology of the area, Ridge concludes they may have emerged near the Grange, a big local house that has been abandoned for years.

Of course, it turns out the Grange is not as deserted as it appears, for it is subject to a high-security military presence who insist there is no chance of the missing lads having been there. Ridge’s curiosity is piqued by the nature of the military presence, and attempts to do his world’s-worst-spy act in order to sneak in; he is caught, which upsets everyone.

Quist (who hasn’t bothered coming to Yorkshire until this point) discovers that the Grange was used for decades as a testing facility for bacteriological warfare, and the potential for infection is still worryingly high. This is why all wildlife going near the house is shot by the guards (hmmm, that doesn’t sound particularly reliable to me) and no-one is allowed in. Quist is disturbed by the existence of this kind of place, scorning the notion of germ warfare as a defensive weapon, but accepts there’s nothing to be done about it.

In any case, the missing lads turn up quite well, and deny ever having been in the Grange. Case closed, surely? But a slow accumulation of evidence leads Quist and Ridge to conclude that someone isn’t being completely straight with them, with dire consequences for the local community…

Invasion is a solid, straightforward episode written by Martin Worth, later head writer on the latter part of Survivors. The rural setting and comparative lack of political wrangling marks it out as a bit different – there’s not much needle between Quist and Ridge compared to usual, either. The story develops satisfyingly, and concludes with another of those memorably downbeat Doomwatch endings: faced with the fact that the contamination has escaped from the Grange, Quist is forced to call in the army and have the villagers relocated, their old homes placed in quarantine just as the Grange was. Their community is broken up, their livestock and pets all shot. The images of the deserted village patrolled by armed soldiers in hazmat suits is one of the series’ most striking. There’s not much moral ambiguity here, not much personal drama (something of a shame, as the great Geoffrey Palmer appears, but doesn’t get much to do), not really very much SF content – an atypical episode, compared to what we’ve usually seen up to this point, but a good one.

The next episode, Louis Marks’ The Islanders, is so much a companion piece to Invasion that it initially almost feels like a continuation of the same story. It opens in what looks like some kind of internment camp, where Ridge is attempting to fingerprint the inhabitants – who seem to be a collection of everyday country folk. They take violent issue with this.

Well, it’s not much of a pre-credits sequence, but it turns out we’re effectively six months into the story already. The people in the camp are the former inhabitants of a remote Pacific island, forced from their homes by an earthquake, and relocated to the UK. Due to their near-total isolation from modern civilisation, they are effectively a control group allowing scientists to measure the effects of industrial progress on human beings – hence the interest of Quist and the other Doomwatchers.

It soon becomes very clear which way this story is heading – the island elders bewail the way their close-knit community bonds are dissolving in this new world, as their young people become distracted by the pleasures and pitfalls of 1971 society. Ridge comes down with a mild case of the flu, which he inadvertently passes on to the islanders, who have no resistance: there is at least one death as a result.

Naturally, Quist starts to question the wisdom of bringing the islanders to the UK at all, but there’s a problem with sending them back – their old home is in a politically-sensitive region and is being considered for use as a military base. And then it transpires that the whole area has become contaminated with mercury leaking from a sunken ship, condemning anyone who does go back to a premature death…

Another story of Displaced Persons and a community under threat, then, though the tone is less ominous and more one of regret and resignation. There’s something slightly simplistic in the telling of it – it’s hard to shake the impression that the islanders are being depicted rather patronisingly. At one point the young islander who’s the key guest character says he finds working on a factory assembly line much more interesting than being a farmer, and – although he doesn’t notice it – Quist and the others are clearly viewing him with a mixture of condescension and pity. Then again, as this suggests, the story is also big on the idea that living close to nature is somehow better than modern technological life, and it’s just a shame that the former is being crowded out by the latter.

It’s fairly effectively done, the key problem for me being that nothing about the islanders themselves screams South Pacific to me – I could easily buy that they’re from the Scilly Isles or the Hebrides, or the next island over from Christopher Lee’s mob in The Wicker Man, but the South Pacific? I suppose they’re meant to be analogous to the Pitcairn islanders, but I still don’t think the episode quite convinces on this front. It doesn’t help that Quist’s visit to the island near the end of the episode has clearly been filmed somewhere rather closer to home, BBC budgets not extending to location shoots in the south Pacific in 1971. Nevertheless, this is a relatively minor point, and the episode sustains its theme and its tone rather well: no-one really lives on an island any more, these days, no matter how much we might wish it otherwise.


Read Full Post »

It is early in the Earth Year 1970, and BBC1 is launching a brave new take on the SF genre, as a semi-secret UK intelligence group, led by a brilliant but somewhat eccentric scientist, takes on a chilling plastic-oriented threat to human civilisation! What? No, no it’s not the revamp of Doctor Who with the episode Spearhead from Space. No, certainly not. This is a different show for a brand new age. This is the age of Doomwatch!

Well, what can I say – as frequent readers (may God have mercy on your souls) will have noticed, I recently spent a very satisfying few weeks watching the mid-70s version of Survivors, produced by Terence Dudley, and just the other day I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon in front of The Invasion, an epic 1968 Doctor Who story based on an idea by the scientist-turned-SF writer Kit Pedler, sometime collaborator of Gerry Davis, with whom he created the Cybermen (of course). Dudley, Pedler, and Davis came together in 1970 to make Doomwatch, an undeniably cool name for what’s a slightly peculiar mixture of procedural (sometimes political) thriller and science-based speculation. I’m obviously much too young to remember this show when it was on (though I do remember catching the 1972 movie version when I was a teenager, and bought one of the VHS releases when it turned up on discount), but as it’s finally out on DVD…

Things kick off with the episode The Plastic Eaters, written by Pedler and Davis themselves. The pre-credits sequence finds an airliner coming in to land experiencing peculiar difficulties, as significant chunks of the plane appear to be liquefying for no apparent reason. Tragedy ensues.

After some very serious music and a suitably ominous credit sequence, there follows the narrative equivalent of having a wheelbarrow full of produce dumped over your head – lots of interesting and important bits bounce everywhere, but keeping track of them all is a little bit tricky. Well, first and foremost, we are introduced to the core Doomwatch team, although quite what Doomwatch is is a little unclear – it’s initially suggested that Doomwatch is the nickname of the team’s computer, but generally it’s shorthand for the Department of Observation and Measurement of Scientific Work, something that these days would probably get called a quango, devoted to stopping scientists from destroying civilisation. Doomwatch was, it’s implied, intended to be largely for show, and the fact that it has teeth is down to its leader, Dr Quist (John Paul).

Quist is a Nobel-winning mathematician haunted by his role in developing the atom bomb, and generally tetchy with everyone. Also on staff is the rakish John Ridge (Simon Oates), who appears to be the world’s least competent spy, Wendy Hall as Pat the secretary, who’s mainly there to be patronised, and Joby Blanshard as a slightly camp northern technician. Joining the team in this first episode is Robert Powell, playing scientist Toby Wren. You would expect Wren to be the audience point of identification throughout – what’s new to the audience is new to him as well, after all – but the new boy is packed off to South America pretty much for the duration.

Someone has tipped Doomwatch off to a connection between government research and the plane crash, but their ministerial contacts are refusing to play ball, resulting in Ridge going off and turning over the minister’s office (security was clearly a lot less rigorous back in the early 1970s). Having done so, he then goes off and – with equally absurd ease – breaks into a top-secret bacteriological research establishment – the place is so top secret that from the outside it looks uncannily like a secondary school.

Well, it turns out that the government has been cooking up a new bacteria or virus (the episode uses the terms interchangeably) which feeds on plastic, breaking it down into liquid – it’s part of a waste disposal initiative. Of course, the virus – ‘Variant 14’ – has got out of the lab and ended up on the plane, causing the initial accident. Now, unfortunately, Toby Wren is flying back with virus-laden samples of wreckage, and it’s just a question of whether he can get home before his own flight melts…

The episode eventually breaks down into two main strands – the material with Powell on the plane, which gradually disintegrates as Variant 14 starts doing its stuff, and the more political aspect, as Quist and Ridge get dragged over the coals for their cloak and dagger shenanigans and try to establish not just a connection between the government lab and the crash, but also ministerial culpability for the escape.  The latter stuff is slightly dry and melodramatic, with the senior members of Doomwatch proving a fairly unsympathetic lot, but the scenes on the melting plane have a delirious, almost psychedelic quality.

This is partly because we are, after all, in early 1970, with floral shirts and cravats in common usage, and the series making every attempt to reward those viewers who’d stumped up for a colour set. Garish hues of every type fill the screen, clashing weirdly with the drab film footage used in CSO sequences in the cockpit of the plane. Trippiness abounds.

In the end, though, the episode can’t quite tie the two strands together in a completely satisfying way – there’s a limit to how exciting they can make the landing of the plane on a BBC budget, and the stuff in the minister’s office is rather talky. This episode has an interesting borderline-SF gimmick, but it can’t quite find a way to convert it into a proper thriller. I wonder if this will prove to be emblematic of the series as a whole.

Due to the unique way the BBC managed its archive in the 1970s, 14 of the 38 episodes of Doomwatch are missing, presumed wiped, which means the next one available for perusal is the fourth – Tomorrow, the Rat, written, produced and directed by Terence Dudley. Very much a Dudley family outing, in fact, as the pre-credits teaser features Dudley’s son Stephen (later a Survivors regular, of course) as a toddler who is set upon by a rat.

Yes, this is the one with the rats, the episode that gets dragged out for cheap laughs whenever lazy shows about the ‘hilarious’ BBC SF shows of yesteryear are broadcast. A series of rat attacks on people around London draws Doomwatch’s attention, and Quist’s antennae perk up when he notices that one of the research scientists in the pest control authority is noted genetic engineering expert Mary Bryant (Penelope Lee).

Again, the plot basically has two angles to it: Quist packs Ridge off, basically with orders to seduce Bryant and see what she’s been up to, and there’s a lot of supposedly charged interplay between the two of them, which has not dated well. I can’t help thinking a lot of this episode would be quite different if Bryant had been a man, because much of it is about Bryant’s personal issues and self-doubt. (There’s also the implication that some of Bryant’s beliefs – her ultimate goal is the eugenic improvement of mankind via genetic engineering – are made all the more shocking by the fact they’re held by, gasp, a woman.)

Much more interesting is this episode’s SF element, which concerns Bryant’s genetic experiments on the rats. As you might expect, these have not quite gone to plan, and rather than rats which eat each other and thus keep the pest population down, a super-intelligent breed of killer has been unleashed on London. There’s a moment where Toby Wren gradually realises that the rats he’s been trying to catch have used makeshift tools to jam the traps open, and that they’re effectively dealing with a new species, rattus sapiens. Powell’s performance does a great job of selling this as one of those transcendent, SF-shivery moments – and then he and the camp northerner go through a ridiculous attacked-by-rubber-rats routine (said fake rodents are glued onto their trousers, and so on), and it utterly ruins the whole thing.

Once again, it feels like the programme can’t quite get the two aspects of the story into sync so they properly support one another, and it’s also at a bit of a loss as to how to depict a plague of super-intelligent rats on a 1970 BBC budget – we get shown the rats’ handiwork much more than the beasts themselves. The resolution of the rat problem is disappointingly pedestrian, too: the exterminators, police, army, etc, are called out, and it’s all done very quickly in a montage sequence.

One obvious question is whether Tomorrow, the Rat was an influence on James Herbert, who started writing his notorious horror novel The Rats in 1972 – the novel depicts London beset by a plague of deadly mutant rats, and the slightly shambolic establishment response to this. It is a strikingly similar tale in many ways – the biggest difference is that Doomwatch leaves most of the rat attacks and the associated nastiness off-screen, whereas Herbert revels in the gore. The novelist always suggested his inspiration was the 1931 film version of Dracula, which on the face of it has much less in common with the other two pieces of work, and it seems very possible to me that he saw this episode (Doomwatch was a very popular show) and either never consciously realised its influence on him, or didn’t want to tempt legal action by admitting he’d been inspired by a TV show.

Tomorrow, the Rat is a bit more visceral and character-led than The Plastic Eaters, which has a stronger focus on its political wranglings, but the two episodes do have a lot in common – really interesting high-concept ideas, which they struggle both to use as story material and to bring to the screen on the budget the show has been assigned. On the strength of these two episodes, does Doomwatch live up to its reputation as one of the most interesting pieces of SF drama made by the BBC in the 1970s? Well, maybe, but only just; you do have to cut this programme some slack, but if you do it is by no means without points of interest.

Read Full Post »

The third season of Survivors opens with Manhunt, the only episode where the writing credit is given to Terence Dudley, producer of the series. Anyone familiar with the Dudley oeuvre from his time as a regular contributor to Doctor Who could be forgiven for buckling their seatbelt and reaching for a stiff drink, as all of his scripts to that show are eccentric (to say the least) – they’re about giant frogs using androids as part of a plan to go back in time and meet God, or android versions of British royalty being used to try and stop the signing of the Magna Carta. To be fair, Black Orchid doesn’t feature androids at all, but such are the manifold peculiarities and absurdities built into a running time of less than 50 minutes that a DWM writer has largely devoted a column to a detailed exegesis of just how weird this one story is for the last couple of years now.

Despite all that, Manhunt starts promisingly enough, with a reasonably impressive pack of feral dogs. The dogs are pursuing an injured Jack, who is found and taken in by Seth the blacksmith, a minor character from the end of season 2. Most startling for modern viewers is the fact that Seth has, during the inter-season hiatus, apparently shacked up with Dot Cotton (June Brown), who is clearly a real survivor. At once you are aware of how much darker and dingier and grimier everything seems compared to season 2; gritty and frayed around the edges. The post-apocalypse has finally caught up with the series’ tone and design choices, and (as usual) you can’t help but think about how terrific it would look if they could have afforded to make the whole thing on film.

Well, a message is sent to Charles, Jenny, and Pet, who have relocated from Whitecross between series, along with the children – although Lizzy seems to have had a facelift along the way (Tanya Ronder departed to concentrate on her own career as a playwright). It seems that in the six months since New World, Greg, Jack, and Agnes have managed to get all the way to Norway and back. Unfortunately, Jack has been left delirious by his ordeal with the result that Charles, Jenny, and Hubert set off on a rescue mission which may not in fact be necessary…

Their journey takes them to an armed camp under military control, where drugs are being produced. They come across a man staked out on the ground, apparently left for the dogs – severe discipline is enforced, too (it’s all a bit like the settlement in The Chosen). Are Greg and Agnes still being held prisoner here? Or have Charles and Jenny somehow got the wrong end of the stick?

They’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Sorry to break it to you so bluntly, but, well, yeah. I suppose you could argue that the main plot of Manhunt subverts the usual ‘characters arrive at an inviting place only to discover the horrifying secret at its heart’ story structure, by creating a place which initially seems rather grim but which actually turns out to be relatively benign, but novelty value alone does not a great story make; the conclusion is arguably a bit of a let down. (And let’s not even dwell too much on the climax – oh, go on then: Jenny gallops into the camp to rescue Charles and throws him a shotgun, but of course she throws like a girl, hitting him on the head with the weapon and knocking him unconscious. It’s written as farce, but the realisation is even worse – simply primitive and unconvincing.)

The story fiddles about with ideas connected to discipline and law and order – the new settlement is being raided by ‘primitives’ in search of recreational drugs – but doesn’t really have a great deal to offer on these subjects. I suppose there’s an interesting moment where Charles’ plans of federating the country are mocked on the grounds that he’s much too soft and nervous a man to take on such a significant task (well, maybe: it does seem like everyone else is ahead of him, if nothing else). It’s initially quite striking, if only for the change in the look and tone of the series (bleak naturalism is now in effect), but I suspect once you get accustomed to the series 3 ethos this is much more clearly a silly and insubstantial story which is most significant for setting up the new ‘on the road’ format for the show.

It becomes clear that the new look of the show is all-pervasive when we see Greg in the opening moments of A Little Learning, written by Ian McCulloch – even he is looking rather scruffed up following his trip across the North Sea and back. It’s nice to see McCulloch back, as both writer and leading man, but you almost wish they had held this episode back a few weeks in the running order – he’s only in two all series, after all.

That said, this is about as bizarre a story as Survivors ever indulges in. It opens with a weird, presumably-meant-as-comic scene between Greg, Agnes (now Anna Pitt), and an eccentric old bigoted woman (nice to see UKIP going strong even after the plague) who complains about Indians stealing her chickens.

Greg goes off to investigate by himself and discovers an old school which has been taken over by a group of children who are living without adult guidance or supervision. Their leader, Eagle (Joseph McKenna) seems capable enough, but a strange illness is afflicting the children, causing them to suffer from convulsions and gangrene of the extremities (nice pre-watershed stuff this – the past is another country, and 1977 particularly so it would seem).

Mixed up in all of this are the activities of a pair of dodgy traders, Miller and Mackintosh, one of whom has his eye on Jenny. Yes, Jenny is in this episode, but all she does (pretty much) is to ride round and round the fringes of the plot, never quite meeting Agnes or Greg. Is this supposed to be ironic or bittersweet somehow? I’m not sure. It just comes across as an annoying distraction from the main storyline.

The episode’s most effective sequence sees Greg hunted across country by a band of armed children, one that recalls Peter Pan and Lord of the Flies in equal measure (this follows a scene in which Greg shows an alarming tendency to let people who wish him ill sneak up on him, possibly intentional foreshadowing of the end of the season). Based on this and the startling scenes dealing with the disease, this could have been a very memorable horror story of an episode, but instead it ends up going off in all sorts of directions – Greg reveals his encyclopaedic knowledge of folk legends, puts a young girl out of her misery by smothering her to death, discusses juvenile delinquency with a teenage boy, and organises a musical parade, and then right at the end an elephant turns up out of nowhere.

McCulloch and Dudley apparently agreed that the director, George Spenton-Foster, ‘****ed up’ A Little Learning, but there are some effective moments and a very arty sequence where the faces of Jenny and the girl Greg’s about to kill fade into one another repeatedly, and I’m not exactly sure how you could make such an eclectic collection of elements work as a coherent story. Still, nice to see Ian McCulloch again, if nothing else.

Ian McCulloch is basically just now an occasional guest star in a series not previously much known for barnstorming performances from the visiting cast, but one of these does form the centrepiece of Martin Worth’s Law of the Jungle, a more obviously philosophical and focused episode than the other ones so far this series. Again, you wish it was made on film, because as it stands it looks rather like an experimental zero-budget student film.

Jenny meets up with Charles, Agnes, and Hubert again, and together they visit what they previously thought was a flourishing farm. But it is deserted, the family who lived there having vanished. It transpires that the young men of the family have fallen under the sway of Brod, a pre-death slaughterman turned hunter chieftain. Brod has rejected the settled lifestyle completely, and he and his followers live solely by hunting and scavenging, with Brod maintaining his dominance through a combination of sheer personal charisma and brute strength.

(Some sort of not very subtle retcon seems to have occurred at some point, because this is the second episode in a row to apparently feature members of the same family who all survived the plague – a mother and her sons here, and a pair of siblings in A Little Learning. With the possible exception of Abby and her son Peter, there was no suggestion that resistance to the virus ran in families – Paul and Arthur both lost their children to the disease, though it makes sense for the offspring of two resistant parents (like Greg and Abby’s son) to inherit it. The revision of the series’ ground rules does not end here, either.)

On paper, Brod is another one of the series’ small men turned despots, but he’s lifted to a new level simply because he’s played by Brian Blessed (one of his final pre-bearded appearances, I think), who blasts everyone else off the screen with his sheer charisma. Blessed exudes the same kind of jovial malevolence he occasionally displayed while playing Augustus in I, Claudius the previous year, to say nothing of his raw physical presence. If I found myself living in an apocalyptic wasteland with Brian Blessed, I’m pretty sure I’d want to be a member of his tribe, too.

On one level, the episode represents a clash between Brod’s primitivism – never mind trying to hang on to an industrial revolution level of civilisation, Brod’s looking to go back to the iron age – and Charles’ more idealistic conception of survival.  As you might expect, Charles finds himself on the back foot when trying to contend with Brod’s enthusiastic barbarity (in much the same way that Denis Lill is when trying to act opposite Blessed, to be honest), and his espousal of civilised values means he can’t do what everyone is urging him to do and just kill Brod. There’s another level going on too, though, dealing with something a bit more psychological – Brod is such a rampant alpha male all the time, it seems, because his performance in another somewhat more intimate arena is quite simply not up to scratch. (That’s the kind of plotline you never get in Blake’s 7.)

After quite a lot of speechifying and boisterous bullying from Blessed, the plot resolves in interestingly ambiguous style – Hubert decides that if Charles won’t see sense and take Brod out of the picture, someone else will have to, and puts a crossbow bolt in Brod’s back himself, quite cold-bloodedly. Hubert has been threatening to turn into an interesting character for a while now, and this is another important step in his development, as well as being another example of the kind of thing you hardly ever see even in supposedly ‘edgy’ genre TV shows. Everyone is free to go, but the duel of philosophies between Charles and Brod is unresolved at best. The first strong episode of the final series, although it still has that third-season undercurrent of oddness running through it.

Read Full Post »