Posts Tagged ‘Tomorrow the Rat’

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.

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