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Doomwatch: The Remaining Episodes

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Simply Media
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
John Paul
Robert Powell
Simon Oates
Joby Blanshard
Jean Trend
Bottom Line: 

One of the most fondly remembered DOCTOR WHO stories of the first half of the 1970s is the four-part adventure The Green Death, broadcast in 1973. The show had managed to survive for ten years, since its inception in 1963, partly by finding new ways to reflect the changing cultural landscape of the times -- and this story in particular had everything that continues to define the concerns of the decade in the public consciousness, most of all, an increasing, almost paranoid nervousness about the effects of pollution on the environment, and the role played in it by both science and industry when they're placed at the beck and call of corporate interests. Writer Robert Sloman and show producer Barry Letts came up with a story that found imaginative ways of illustrating all this during a period when the show was forced to become more than usually sensitive to such issues thanks to the decision to confine Jon Pertwee’s Doctor to the planet Earth and make him a scientific adviser to the task force UNIT, effectively turning the renegade Time Lord into a civil servant who, thereafter, would often find himself grappling with stuffy bureaucrats and arrogant governmental ministers & officials during his efforts to defeat various alien menaces. It’s often remarked how the series during this period had much in common with Nigel Kneale’s “Quatermass” serials of the 1950s and ‘60s, but in the first three years of the decade, DOCTOR WHO was actually developing on a parallel track to another now-much less-often seen cult BBC science fiction production called “Doomwatch” – the brainchild of former WHO script editor Gerry Davis and the scientist-turned TV writer, Kit Pedlar. The two first met when Pedlar was employed on DOCTOR WHO by producer Innes Lloyd to bring more knowledge of real science issues to the series; this was a crucial make-or-break period in the show’s history, as it was about to embark on the risky experiment of changing its lead actor from the grandfatherly William Hartnell to the impish Patrick Troughton. Pedlar was something of an anti-establishment figure in the world of science though, despite once having been head of the electron microscopy department at the Institute of Ophthalmology, University of London. He was especially interested in how science’s relentless advancement in an age of escalating modernisation might impact society, with the development of new technologies bringing medical breakthroughs and producing ethical quandaries such as those entailed by, for instance, organ transplantation. His synthesis of all these issues resulted in the creation of one of the longest lasting villains in the DOCTOR WHO pantheon of monsters: the Cybermen, first introduced during Pedlar’s story “The Tenth Planet” -- also Hartnell’s swansong -- and brought back even more successfully in a number of stories and story outlines contributed to the series by Pedlar throughout the remainder of the 1960s.  

“Doomwatch” was a much more down-to-earth, contemporary spin on the same themes, which followed the investigations of the fictional ‘Department for the Observation and Measurement of Scientific Work’ – a semi-independent, Government-sponsored agency tasked with monitoring scientific research and assessing its potential risk to mankind.  Across 38 episodes, broadcast over three series from 1970 to 1972, the show was to tackle a host of speculative scientific breakthroughs and examine how they might go horribly wrong by visiting ultimate disaster upon humanity. Many of these issues -- such as genetic modification in plants and animals and the development of synthetic materials and plastics using biological processes -- have since become even more prescient than they were at the time the series was being broadcast. Particularly up-to-the-minute are the episodes that deal with the idea of new resistant strains of disease spreading like wildfire through the population as an unintended side effect of genetic engineering, with the resultant mutating viruses potentially causing devastating pandemics. Such doomsday scenarios make the show seem like a close cousin to Terry Nation’s similarly apocalyptic 1975 series “Survivors”: there is a feverish, almost paranoid quality to the earliest surviving episodes of the first series, that feels indicative of the times. Some of its ideas make the show sound like the very embodiment of extreme anti-science, anti-progress ‘green’ sentiment, and the Doomwatch team often finds itself stymied by money grabbing corporations and pompous, corrupt officialdom at the heart of the British establishment, much like Pertwee’s Doctor during the same period. But whereas the Doctor in his third patrician incarnation was able to play the mandarins of Whitehall at their own game by out-condescending them, Doomwatch’s head, Doctor Spencer Quist (John Paul) is required to play a more cat-and-mouse game in his relations with the ministers to whom he is seconded during his agency’s investigations -- a quality that leads many episodes to play like a bizarre cross between “Yes Minister” and “Quatermass”.

Early on we are treated to some memorable, sometimes disturbing imagery, when scientific or official negligence in the worlds of government, big  business and advertising brings about some disastrous consequences. Davis and Pedlar came up with the idea for the pilot episode of a lab-developed bacterium that can be spread from person to person, but which eats plastic. The climactic sequence has the interior of a passenger jet literally melting and turning to liquid as it attempts to make an emergency landing; also, producer Terrence Dudley contributes perhaps the show’s most often remembered episode, in which a strain of super intelligent rat that drinks human blood and has developed tool-using capabilities, escapes from its creator’s home lab experiment and start attacking humans on the streets of London. This horrific story is widely mocked for its weak special effects during a scene in which several members of the Doomwatch team are supposedly being attacked by the creatures, but are in fact clearly throwing themselves about the room and pretending to beat off the rigid, stuffed rodents that have been sewn onto their clothes! But what isn’t so widely recalled is that there were hundreds of complaints and questions in Parliament asked about this very episode because it also featured a storyline in which babies and young children are routinely being cannibalised by killer rats; and it sports a still horrific shot at the conclusion of the episode, depicting, in graphic close-up, the half-eaten corpse of the female scientist responsible for creating them -- outwitted and killed by her own intelligent creations after the grieving mother of one of the dead children injures her with a carving knife, and the rats catch a whiff of her blood! Stunningly, it’s as gory as anything Lucio Fulci might have cooked up for later ‘video nasties’ such as “Zombie Flesh Eaters” or “The Beyond” and, after the fracas stirred up by it the episode, the series was never to venture quite so far into horror territory with its imagery again.

As the series entered its second run, the stories became noticeably more nuanced in their general attitude to the practice of science; and many episodes, including a Robert Holmes story called “The Inquest”, play more as scientific detective stories than paranoid anti-research/anti-private business warnings. The shows highlight how the team uses a pure science approach, involving logical reasoning and the monitoring of patterns of statistical occurrence, in order to reach the right conclusions as to the true causes of the phenomenon they’ve been called in to investigate. Sometimes the more outlandish ‘Frankenscience’ possibility will be set up as the fall guy, only for a more prosaic explanation to be revealed as the true culprit at the end. The social side of scientific practice comes into play much more often, too: how clashes of personality, human desire, and the personal ambitions of the scientific researcher can impact the ideally ‘impartial’ scientific process and play a role in corrupting its results. One particular episode looks at the abuses of genetic profiling and examines how a faulty theory (in this case the idea, popular in the 1960s and also used as a basis for the TV thriller “The XYY Man”, that an extra Y chromosome in males causes criminality) can have incalculable social consequences on lives if allowed to unfairly influence policy. More than that, the episode also looks at how irresponsible reporting of such stories can have a negative effect on public understanding of important scientific issues: one only has to think of the whole MMR vaccination scandal in the UK several years back, which saw the media hyping up the results of incomplete trials and downplayed the results of larger, more thorough clinical studies because they contradicted the ‘maverick-researcher-going-against-the-establishment’ narrative that the news media instinctively, almost unconsciously, wanted to promote. In the episode, a pupil involved in a school lab prank that goes wrong and leaves another child blind, is expelled by the headmaster after a well-respected researcher who’s been testing the pupils’ blood, reveals that one of the offenders carries the XYY chromosomal mutation. The boy in question later discovers that his own foster dad, an ex-journalist, wrote a series of scaremongering articles a few years before, warning of the dangerous of  a plague of XYY ‘psychopaths’ who could be lurking in our midst. Convinced he has ‘bad blood’ and there is nothing that can be done about it, the rejected boy goes on the run, and attempts to commit suicide on an airport runway.

The show was formatted in a way that allowed it to take a wide-range of approaches to the scientific and societal subject matter it was designed to feature because, each week, it could foreground a different member of the varied group of doctors, chemists and computer analysts who, at one time or another, make up the rest of Doctor Quist’s Doomwatch team. Quist himself is approached as a sort of series equivalent to Bernard Quatermass; a figure, much like Pedlar himself, who believes in good scientific practice but is equivocal about the uses and abuses it inspires. Quist’s office wall is decorated with a series of large prints depicting a mushroom cloud emerging from a nuclear blast. It turns out that Quist is haunted by guilt because of his deep involvement in the Manhattan Project, and he keeps the prints on the wall facing his desk, not as a piece of groovy but tasteless pop art, but as a reminder of the destructive effects of scientific hubris and social irresponsibility that the bomb represents. The character actor John Paul, who plays Quist, coincidently looks much like a heavier set John Pertwee, while the character is written as an iconoclastic authority figure who fights the system from inside the establishment – much like Professor Quatermass in Neale’s postwar science fiction TV landmark. Quist is joined in the first series by Robert Powell as dashing chemistry research graduate Tobias Wren; Powell was the show’s sex symbol, apparently -- his lanky good looks drawing a strong female viewership to the show. He only stayed for one series though, allowing Davis and Pedlar to unexpectedly kill him off in a shock series one finale. He’s replaced in series two with lookalike Geoff Hardcastle (John Nolan). Blunt Yorkshireman Colin Bradley (Joby Blanshard) was the series lab-coat wearing, backroom computer boffin; while ITC inflected action/espionage duties fell to cravat-wearing, sports car-driving lothario Dr John Ridge (Simon Oates) – a Roger Moor and Jason King-like former intelligence agent whose primary method of operation involves seducing the sex-starved female researchers or clerical staff who, luckily enough for him, always seem to be found working at the various institutions under investigation each week, after which he gets to, err … ‘pump them’ for information with the full blessing of Doctor Quist, and all whilst sporting a garish range of brightly coloured shirts, sued jackets or tasteless bathroom robes.

This brings us to the one issue that really does seem to have dated the show, even allowing for basic BBC budgets and studio-bound, three camera gallery production methods: the show’s sexual politics are unfortunately rather less progressive than its attitudes to the environment. Ridge is introduced as he’s subjecting the team’s only female member in series one, secretary Pat Hunnisett (Wendy Hall), to sexual molestation in the workplace, with a ‘light hearted’ pinch of the bottom. Poor Wendy Hall’s mini-skirted character is never treated as anything less than an empty bubble head and never gets much to do. When a strong, independent female character does emerge, it’s usually only to be portrayed negatively, as is the sexually adventurous and defiantly single Dr Mary Bryant (Penelope Lee) in “Tomorrow, the Rat”. She drinks alone in pubs and brushes off unwanted sexual advances with a crushing, witheringly rehearsed line, but is not averse to a one night stand when it’s on her own terms. Naturally she has to turn out to be a crypto-fascist with delusions of grandeur, and it is she who gets punished by being gruesomely nibbled to death by her own flesh-eating rats! In series two and three there are thankfully signs of a new approach to sexual politics with the introduction of Dr Fay Chantry (Jean Trend) and then Dr Anne Tarrant (Elizabeth Weaver) to the team, but by series three both Gerry Davis and Kit Pedlar had become disillusioned with their own creation as the show’s version of James Bond, John Ridge, becomes a much darker Jack Bower-like figure, who turns to eco-terrorism and becomes, in effect, the prototype for the Uni-Bomber: threatening the world with an anthrax attack in order to highlight how huge dangers to the environment are being ignored by a society blinded to its imminent destruction by consumerist complacency.

This being a 1970s BBC production, many of the episodes were wiped from the archive so that the video could be reused, just like the episodes of DOCTOR WHO which are still missing. Over the years many have been re-discovered and returned, usually from overseas sales, and the Simply Media 7-disc set includes all the surviving episodes: eight of the thirteen that make up series one, all thirteen of series two, but only three from the final series -- although one of the surviving episodes from series three included here, “Sex and Violence”, was never broadcast, possibly because of its satirical treatment of Mary Whitehouse! The episodes have been cleaned up enough to look presentable on DVD, but are nowhere near being the beautifully restored transfers created by the DOCTOR WHO restoration team.  The only extra is an enjoyable half-hour BBC documentary “The Cult of Doomwatch”, narrated by Robert Llewelyn and featuring interviews with the cast and crew.


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