Sunday, November 12, 2006

XXXII. DOOMWATCH (CLASSIC FORGOTTEN T.V) 1970 - 1972

DOOMWATCH

Ecological disaster abounds ! : test tube ethics, urban neurosis, euthanasia, mutant viruses, industrial espionage, government corruption, overcrowding, big brother intrusions and the flooding of London.

This is not a resume of the week’s news in our look-over-your-shoulder society we have inherited; these are instances and insights into a long forgotten BBC television series called Doomwatch which ran from 1970-1972.

Doomwatch regularly drew in 12 million viewers, was regularly praised by the daily tabloids and, for it’s time, made one episode so controversial it had to be pulled from the schedules. Mondo made its way into this particular episode and with audacious boldness showed a real life military execution to hammer home its point. This did not result in getting the episode banned contrarily to popular belief but it did help, more on that later….

With the current trend on ‘environmental dread’ fuelled by the media, and quite rightly so, now is the perfect time, in my opinion, to think seriously about making a programme of this ilk again. Doomwatch was the first ‘green’ programme and covered topics such as immigration and overcrowding so more relevant now than at the time the series was first shown.

One episode was titled ‘The Human Time Bomb’ and explored the devastating effects of ‘living on top of each other’ as the occupants of a block of flats were unknowingly going mad by ‘urban neurosis’. Such effects could still be applied to what we are experiencing in the now as overcrowding and urban incarceration could potentially make a human pressure cooker blow. How relevant is Doomwatch today – I say very relevant.

Like most early seventies television programmes some of the scripts are a bit wordy and verbose but due to the calibre of writing makes for compulsive and intense experiences by time you have adjusted.

Irrespective of it’s mini-skirts, flowery cravats and stereotypes Doomwatch holds up amazingly fine and is a true classic of British television. Doomwatch deserves that rare stamp of being ‘totally head of it’s time’ relying on science fact rather than science fiction.

"At the rate we are going… at the rate we’re polluting…overcrowding…chemicals…noise…we’ve got thirty years. Thirty years of slow, dirty dying".

(Quist . ‘Public Enemy’) (what a prophecy!!)

Doomwatch was broadcast 9th February 1970 on BBC1. It filled the 9.20 p.m – 10.10 p.m ‘adult drama’ slot; it can clearly be seen why. Doomwatch is uncannily prophetic and after watching all available source material it always manages to prick the conscience that we aren't doing enough to protect what we need to survive . The series also didn’t shy away from the odd chemical burn or genetic horror visually.

Within 50 minutes the audience were exposed to a mutant bacterium that eats plastic. In an age where this relatively new material reigns supreme we only now understand the problematic environmental aspect of bio-degradability mentioned in our modern world all too often.

Sticking to it’s other objectivity of ‘technology gone too far’ we have a potential solution but due to bureaucratic obstinacy and utter carelessness had resulted in one plane crash and to the main protagonists’ horror will result in another.

What works extremely well is the startling ‘melt’ of the everyday objects we take for granted; reduced to a runny goo. Doomwatch continued to fulfil its morbid promise of jarring the viewer a bit and succeeds. I feel shock is too strong a word and would be more appropriate if writing this in the 1970’s.

Although some of the gilt has rubbed off due to time, several episodes still maintain their potency and a couple of images remain in the brain long after the credits have faded.

In 1966, Dr.Kit Pedler and scientist Gerry Davis immortalised a sci-fi Frankenstein for the definitive science fiction series Doctor Who. They were responsible for the 4 part ‘regeneration’ story titled ‘The Tenth Planet’ which saw, a la ‘Thing from another World’, a group of scientists fending off menacing aliens in the isolated wastes of the arctic.

The aliens were the ‘Cybermen’, the horror not lies souly in the iconic design, which has maintained a high standard; despite their ‘outings’ being a bit hit and miss; it lays with the unsavoury fusing of organic matter and technological superiority too.

This nightmarish vision of science successfully impacted with the audiences and made the creators names ingrained with Dr. Who fans as well as terry Nation et al. So already the ‘style and representation’ of Pedler and Davis’ visions was delighting a thrilled audience.

Eventually they were offered the chance of creating a new drama for adults with a sci-fi slant. As this would prove to be less constrictive as adult in nature in what could be discussed and shown compared to Doctor Who, work began on a new series.

Pedler had kept a scrapbook full of cuttings relating to eco-disaster and scientific advancement. This was fundamental for the series advancement and was used to produce some of the most memorable outings for the department.

Together they created Doomwatch, it stood for 'The Department of Observation and Measurement of Scientific Work' and was a fictious organisation dealing with environmental threat whether from our own neglect or from a laboratory somewhere.

Filming began in autumn/winter 1969. The first series was fresh and there had literally been nothing like it before. The birth of colour television in the u.k in 1967 meant this new advancement in visuals was used to decent lucidity just as the early ‘70’s Doctor Who were.

Secondly the series offered the viewer the teaser before lunging into the ‘alarmist’ powerful credits. The music is a brass and thunder accompaniment composed by Max Harris bursting out of the speakers whilst red filtered atom bomb explosions are intercut with the words ‘DOOM’ and ‘WATCH’ until ‘DOOMWATCH’ flashes from purple to white on the screen. Waking us all up to what is going on right under our noses or is about to happen if we ignore at our peril.

Thirdly and most jaw dropping of all was the death of one of the best loved characters at the end of the first season. People were just not used to seeing their heroes snuff it on screen. This further cemented the programme into the decent adult drama niche and Toby Wrens death , albeit quite ‘sudden’ for a series, caused important momentum that still echoed well into the third season and left the gateway for Dr.Quists ‘romance’ with his psychiatrist whilst she counselled him over Tobias’ death, amongst other things and the breakdown in the relationship between Quist and Ridge.

Dr. Spencer Quist was the main protagonist expertly played by John Paul who stuck out the three season tenure. Steadfast, determined and perturbed Quist lived in the shadow of guilt as we learn he was responsible for the first atom bomb. He is also haunted by the memory of his wife, Helena, and her death from leukaemia. Both these tragedies are the impetus for Quists battle with authority and his ongoing crusade against those that are turning the planet into an over brimming bedpan.

He was joined by Dr. John Ridge, the dashing womaniser but he too had ‘issues’ until finally in the third season he attempts to hold the world to ransome for their eco-crimes with phials of anthrax. Although arrogant, Ridge underneath it all is as vulnerable as most with the interesting and unpredictable habit of going off at tangents which played with conviction by Simon Oates, triumphs alongside the characters fascinating instability.

Colin Bradley was the third member of Doomwatch and provided expertise on the departments’ computer, reports and stats. Fortunately this character wasn’t left to 'tinker' in the background and had some interesting escapades of his own. One is a chilling (and very talky) episode called ‘The Inquest’ involving rabies and the call to destroy all dogs and cats within a 5 mile radius. Topical and riveting.

Tobias Wren was the fourth personnel, fresh faced and dedicated to the cause, Wren fitted into the mix very well indeed. His stay with Doomwatch was a short one as an attempt to diffuse a bomb goes horribly wrong and he ends in bits.

Pat Hunnisett provided the ‘dolly-bird’ appeal but as with Colin Bradleys' character was given a bit of limelight in some of the episodes and nearly had a brush with the reaper in the story ‘The Devils’ Sweets’.

Doomwatch not only caused a stir in the ratings but nationwide politically. The Daily Mirror set up its’ own Doomwatch department intent on challenging the threat of environmental disasters. In the government at the time motions were put forward to set up a similar department life imitating art. Gerry Davis was asked to be part of the group. It didn’t surface, but I ask how many times you recall a television programme inspiring such. Not many times I think you agree.

The series developed further but it is argued that the series became too soap-opera by its third season concentrating on the home lives of the character and of course affairs of the heart. Terence Dudley the producer defended this saying that the environmental pollutants and potential disasters are still at the fore. The third season did feature episodes that covered flood, immigration, pesticides, lead poisoning but then tried to diversify with more ‘fantastical’, 'audience grabbing' elements such as killer dolphins (not as b movie as it sounds) and a lipstick that acts as a contraceptive as well as an aphrodisiac.

Unfortunately we may never be able to judge the content of the third season. With no script reprints or accessibility (can anyone help here?), no screenshots and soundtracks and with the scantest of reference we can only surmise. The difficulty with Doomwatch is there seems to be decent research for the first two seasons and then midway through season 2 it kind of fades into obscurity.

As you would have deduced a part of the first season and nearly all of season three has been deleted. I only wish attention to this was in as much effort as Doctor Who. Doomwatch is a pertinent unsung hero of British Science-Fiction that deserves a re-make and a re-appraisal. Why this isn’t due to commence productionfor us to view in the near future is totally baffling.

Can’t Russell T.Davies do something with it this time around, without having to set it in Wales for a change? Come on you stuffy corporate media big wigs look at your past to inspire the present. Doomwatch was more than a representation of the golden age of television it was practically the crown jewels.

If you have any further information, source material to plug in any of the season one and season three gaps I would love to hear from you.

What follows is an aide memoir of the season one episodes with a brief story synopsis. Season 2 and 3 reviews will feature at later stages.

I hope you enjoy a look into the series , what it covered and the relevancy not only to early 70’s Britain but also to these torrid times, for those lucky enough it can also be a trip down memory lane - how I envy you !

DOOMWATCH

Broadcast; 9th February 1970 to 11th May 1970

Mission Brief

Any Good

Archived

Season One





The Plastic Eaters by by Kit Pedler

and Gerry Davis

9th February 1970 @ 9.20 pm – 10.10 pm

A mutant virus that eats plastic

A classic episode 10/10

Yes (Available on DVD region 2)

'Friday’s Child'

by Harry Green

16th February, 1970 @ 9.20pm - 10.10pm

Genetic Engineering, Heart Transplant ethic

No sources available

No - wiped

'Burial at Sea'

by Dennis Spooner

23rd February, 1970 @ 9.20pm - 10.10pm

Chemical warfare compound dumped at sea

No sources available

No - wiped

'Tomorrow, The Rat'

by Terence Dudley

2nd March, 1970 @ 9.20pm - 10.10pm

A breed of super rats with carnivore tastes attack society

Another classic example of classic British sci-fi 10/10

Yes (Available on DVD region 2)

'Project Sahara'

by Gerry Davis

(Additional material N.J. Crisp)

9th March, 1970 @ 9.20pm - 10.10pm

A wildlife destroying spray and computer privacy invasion

Excellent story, cracking opening 9/10

Yes – (unbroadcast since appearance on UK Gold in the mid nineties (when it was good!!))

'Re-Entry Forbidden'

by Don Shaw

16th March, 1970 @ 9.20pm - 10.10pm

Weightlessness that induces paranoia and nuclear devastation

Thought provoking with a downbeat ending 7/10

Yes – (unbroadcast since appearance on UK Gold in the mid nineties (when it was good!!))

'The Devil’s Sweets'

by Don Shaw

23rd March, 1970 @ 9.20pm - 10.10pm

Subliminal advertising, receptor controlling drugs.

Another classic episode still relevant in our disposable lemming society. 10/10

Yes – (unbroadcast since appearance on UK Gold in the mid nineties (when it was good!!))

'The Red Sky'

by Kit Pedler

and Gerry Davis

6th April, 1970 @ 9.45pm - 10.35pm

Sonic sound and hazardous levels of noise resulting in death

Excellent stuff again with gruesome ingenuity. 10/10

Yes – (unbroadcast since appearance on UK Gold in the mid nineties (when it was good !!) was on VHS 1000 years ago)

'Spectre at the Feast'

by Terence Dudley

13th April, 1970 @ 9.45pm - 10.35pm

Food poisoning, hallucinatory toxic induced visions, political sabotage.

No sources available

No - wiped

'Train and De-Train'

by Don Shaw

20th April, 1970 @ 9.45pm - 10.35pm

Mass deforestation in Somerset, American ‘de-training’ psychological damage.

Horrible glimpses into pesticide effect 9/10

Yes – (unbroadcast since appearance on UK Gold in the mid nineties (when it was good!!))

'The Battery People'

by Elwyn Jones

27th April, 1970 @ 9.45pm - 10.35pm

Effects of chemicals on virility, hormone and their genetic effect/damage. Serum that destroys bones in fish.

Another super piece of drama as progression devastates a small Welsh community 8/10

Yes – (unbroadcast since appearance on UK Gold in the mid nineties (when it was good !!))

'Hear No Evil'

by Gerry Davis

4th May, 1970 @ 9.45pm - 10.35pm

Manipulating private lives of employees by bugging them and using fear.

No sources available

No wiped

'Survival Code'

by Kit Pedler

and Gerry Davis

11th May, 1970 @ 9.45pm - 10.35pm

Nuclear weapon negligence and potential devastation.

No sources available

No - wiped. A reprisal can be seen in the follow on story for the season 2 opener . This was Robert Powell’s last appearance as Tobias Wren and Wendy Halls character ‘Pat Hunnisett’.

Regular Cast for Season One; John Paul (Doctor Spencer Quist), Simon Oates (Doctor John Ridge), Robert Powell (Tobias Wren), Joby Blanshard (Colin Bradley), Wendy Hall (Pat Hunnisett)

Semi regular appearences were made by a character called 'The Minister' played by John Barron he epitomised the bumbling public school types who governed in England at the time. This was Quists 'foil' but an amicable one .... at times. Some superb showdowns appear between the Doomwatch team and this character throughout the three main seasons.

Produced by Terence Dudley

Next Time ; Doomwatch has a slight change of personnel as we peek into this superb programmes second season.