On Monday 9th February, 1970, a British Latino Airlines passenger jet on final approach to El Dorado airport, San Pedro, suffered an unexplained catastrophic failure which resulted in a crash with the loss of life of all on board; through the investigations of the Department for the Observation and Measurement of Scientific Work, the cause was traced back to “Variant 14,” an experimental biological agent designed developed at the Beeston laboratories to reduce plastic waste and supposedly kept under strict quarantine.
Led by Nobel Prize winning physicist Doctor Spencer Quist, assisted by physical chemist Doctor John Ridge, formerly a security agent, and analyst Colin Bradley who had built the analogue digital hybrid computer known as “Doomwatch,” a nickname by which the whole department eventually became known, for the next three years they would investigate unusual threats arising from new technologies.
“We were set up to investigate any scientific research, public or private, which would possibly be harmful to man. In fact, the government was practically re-elected on this very issue,” Quist was quoted as saying, but the position was not without frustration. “Now we’re the dustbin for every brainlessly routine job that can be shoved onto us. When we do get anything relevant, the essential information is withheld.”
Based within the Ministry of National Security and directly answerable to Sir George, a particularly evasive minister, Quist and his team were frequently in the unenviable position of being seen to be applying the brakes to progress, applying caution and insisting on rigorous standards of safety, ultimately meaning that many avenues of research would be delayed or cancelled entirely with the result that Britain would be less able to compete with foreign nations on the global platform.
“Most people think of scientists as stockbrokers in white coats. What they really are is a bunch of weirdos.” – Colin Bradley, You Killed Toby Wren
Doomwatch was created by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, one a former medical scientist turned writer and the other the former script editor of Doctor Who, who together had written The Tenth Planet, the final story of William Hartnell which introduced the Cybermen, a blending of the organic and synthetic turned monstrous and inspired by advances in medical prostheses which led them to ask the question of what would happen when replacement organs became dominant over what remained of the human beneath.
Both ardent readers of science and science fiction who had fed this into their collaborations on Doctor Who, it was this same approach which informed Doomwatch, taking ideas from articles in popular science journals and the often alarmist headlines of newspapers and extending them into the fictional realm, taking a modern day realist approach as championed by writer Nigel Kneale and producer Rudolph Cartier with the hugely successful Quatermass stories and asking – what if?
Consciously aimed at a more mature audience than Doctor Who, there was communication between the two production teams which allowed the cost-saving exercise of the interior set of a space capsule to be used both for Doomwatch‘s Re-Entry Forbidden and Doctor Who‘s Ambassadors of Death, both broadcast March 1970, but while Doomwatch began its run at the same time as the Doctor entered his Earthbound exile the two could not have been stylistically more different.
Requiring scientific solutions to scientific problems, there were no aliens in Doomwatch; instead, the challenges were a lack of foresight, the cutting of corners, the refusal to share information, poor experimental protocols, inadequate safety measures and the unfettered ambition of researchers blinded by their own self-conceived genius, and largely devoid of fantastical elements it would inform later BBC “hard” science fiction series such as Moonbase 3 and Star Cops as well as produce a direct descendant in The Eleventh Hour, similarly themed though less highly regarded.
“Tests conducted to find out the limits that people can tolerate. How large can it be without making people feel exposed? How small without being suffocating? The best answer lies somewhere in the middle. Find the answer to that and the development corporation can pare the costs to the bare bone.” – Doctor Fay Chantry, The Human Time Bomb
The three series of Doomwatch were produced by Terence Dudley who would later undertake the same role on another science fiction show examining the repercussions of unforeseen events in a real-world setting, though with more catastrophic results, in Terry Nation’s Survivors, as well as directing and writing episodes of Colditz, Secret Army and Doctor Who.
It was Dudley who wrote one of the most notorious episodes of the first season, fortunately extant, Tomorrow, the Rat, where a researcher working from home in order to facilitate deniability by her employers selectively breeds rats of enhanced intelligence, only for them to exceed their anticipated potential by developing problem-solving skills which to allow them to outwith her and escape their enclosure, their atypical aggressive behaviour leading to attacks on the public and the death of a child, the shocking final scene matched the following year by the chilling image of armed soldiers barricading an English village having evicted the inhabitants.
Throughout the run, Doctor Quist was played by I, Claudius‘ John Paul, Doctor Ridge by The Terrornauts‘ Simon Oates, Blanchard by Moon Zero Two‘s Joby Blanshard and Sir George by The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin‘s John Barron, the first season also featuring The Asphyx‘s Robert Powell as Tobias Wren, a popular character who became the face of the show, his youth and impulsiveness a contrast to his more experienced colleagues, and whose death defusing the detonator of a nuclear bomb shocked audiences.
Of the thirty eight episodes recorded, in common with many BBC shows of the time the value of the videotape was considered more than potential revenues from repeats, and fourteen episodes are missing from the archives, five from the first season including the cliffhanger Survival Code, the final scene preserved in the recap of You Killed Toby Wren which opened the second series, fortunately retained in its entirety, while of the final season a mere three stories survive, the other nine lost.
“The sooner we stop thinking about further expansion, the sooner we’ll have a world worth living in… We all want a clean, healthy world to live in, don’t we? We’re all against pollution in any form? But only when the cost of fighting it is borne by someone else.” – Doctor Spencer Quist, Public Enemy
Sharply written and acted, the scripts of Doomwatch overcame the limitations of the production, with wobbling walls and microphones entering frame all too frequently, yet the topics considered by Pedler, Davis, Dudley and their other contributors, among them Brian Hayles, Louis Marks and Robert Holmes who all worked on Doctor Who, The Avengers‘ Dennis Spooner and Crown Court‘s Ian Curteis, remain relevant and pressing five decades later.
Guest stars were a cornucopia of established and upcoming talent, including The Dam Busters‘ Nigel Stock, Connections‘ James Burke playing himself, Yes, (Prime) Minister‘s Paul Eddington, The Ruth Rendell Mysteries‘ George Baker, Butterflies‘ Geoffrey Palmer, Star Wars‘ Shelagh Fraser, and Secret Army‘s Bernard Hepton.
Unsurprisingly many faces were familiar from their roles on Doctor Who, among them Richard Hurndall (Spectre at the Feast, lost), Peter Miles (Hear No Evil, lost), Anthony Ainley (No Room for Error), Elisabeth Sladen (Say Knife, Fat Man, lost) and Nicholas Courtney (Cause of Death, lost), while In the Dark features the former Doctor himself, Patrick Troughton, as a paraplegic kept alive by artificial means, his commanding performance confined to facial expressions and the power of his voice.
The investigations were similarly diverse, with the potential threats of chemical weapons (Project Sahara), the toxicity of pesticides (Train and De-Train), artificial hormones in the food chain (The Battery People), multi-drug resistant bacteria (No Room for Error) genetic profiling (By the Pricking of My Thumbs…), automated involuntary euthanasia (The Iron Doctor), sleep deprivation (Flight Into Yesterday), quarantine and disease transmission (The Inquest), environmental toxins (Waiting for a Knighthood), rising sea levels (Flood, lost) and animal rights (Killer Dolphins, lost), raising not only the immediate questions of a chain of evidence and the burden of proof but the ethical implications which would often fall directly on the shoulders of Doctor Quist as the man required to decide a course of action.
“You’re not curing him, only controlling him…the ethic is indefensible.” – Doctor Anne Tarrant, Hair Trigger
A widower, his wife having died the same year he received his Nobel Prize, Quist was one of 130 scientists who had jointly signed a letter asking for a demonstration of the power of atomic weapons to end the war rather than a direct strike against the enemy, his guilt at having been involved in the Manhattan Project an ongoing burden which drove him to never allow another atrocity on his watch.
Neither Quist nor his colleagues were immune to the perils they encountered, he enduring hallucinations in The Red Sky, Doctor Ridge suffering an apparent breakdown in lost episode Fire and Brimstone and Doomwatch secretary Pat Hunnisett (Wendy Hall) prompted to take up smoking by subliminal advertising in The Devil’s Sweets.
The member of the team closest to Toby Wren, following his death Pat Hunnisett took a leave of absence and never returned, her replacement Barbara Mason (Vivien Sherrard) enduring a baptism of fire when she was appointed in the aftermath, arriving as Quist was fighting with John Ridge who held him responsible and the minister who wanted him removed in order to make the department more malleable to his will, but on the whole women were well represented, professional equals to the men.
Doctor Stella Robson (Hildegard Neil) was asked to be part of the team before her security access was revoked, not through her own actions but because of the betrayal of her married lover, but Doomwatch would eventually be joined by Doctor Fay Chantry (Jean Trend) and Doctor Quist would often seek advice from Doctor Anne Tarrant (Elizabeth Weaver), both easily seen as closer successors to Doctor Who‘s Doctor Elizabeth Shaw rather than the beloved but scatty Jo Grant, though Jo herself proudly reflected Doomwatch’s environmental concerns.
“Everybody seems to be jumping on the anti-pollution bandwagon; hardly a day goes by without some sensational headline… must we legislate for idiots?” – lobbyist Richard Massingham to Sir George, Waiting for a Knighthood
The psychiatrist who appraised Quist prior to the hearing into the death of Toby Wren, providing perspective on his decisions and actions, Doctor Tarrant’s expertise would prove valuable in cases where changes in mood and behaviour were a concern, possibly altered by outside influence, where experimental therapies were proposed to rehabilitate offenders (Hair Trigger) or simply to provide insight into human nature (Sex and Violence, unbroadcast during the original run).
Doctor Tarrant who would ultimately become Quist’s second wife, while Wren’s man-in-the-field duties were taken over by the equally impulsive Geoff Hardcastle (Person of Interest’s John Nolan) in the second series and the more responsible Commander Neil Stafford (Vampire Circus’ John Bown) in the third.
Reflecting the “real world” ethos of the production, the team were rarely presented with easy solutions, and few episodes offered what could be considered a happy ending; Invasion sees a village abandoned and livestock culled after an agent developed for bacterial warfare escapes from the supposedly secure facility where it was developed, while Public Enemy saw the team advise health and safety improvements following an industrial accident, the cost of which make it more economical to close the plant with the entire workforce made redundant.
Indisputably and much to the frequent consternation of Sir George, recommendations were made because they were valid, not preferable, as when the normally reserved Colin Bradley proposed all animals in the area surrounding a rabies outbreak be put down without exception; it was not a suggestion he wished to make, but it was necessary if a larger epidemic was to avoided.
“A computer is not a lot of things, you do understand that. It’s not good or bad, moral or immoral. It’s not judge or jury. Morals are not a question of mathematics.” – Colin Bradley, Sex and Violence
Yet despite the subject matter, Doomwatch was not without humour; John Ridge was serious about science but the antithesis of a stuffy boffin in his flamboyant patterned shirts, and when told by Bradley to dress appropriately for a meeting with the minister he duly put on a suit but opted not to wear a tie, preferring to remain in his leather dog collar, while on another occasion Toby Wren casually glanced through air crash photographs while flying over the Atlantic, oblivious to the horror of the passenger sat beside him.
As was common for popular television programmes at the time, a feature film version of Doomwatch was released in early 1972, shortly before broadcast of the final series, though unusually it was not a reworking of an existing story but an original although derivative script by Clive Exton; directed by The Stone Tape‘s Peter Sasdy, it saw Doctor Del Shaw (The Watcher in the Woods‘ Ian Bannen) investigating mutations on an island where toxic waste has infected the waters, the islanders catching and eating them and so accumulating the poisons.
Featuring the television cast in cameo roles, monitoring the situation from afar in a suddenly expanded laboratory, the film is adequate if underwhelming, but was more faithful to the original intent than the overblown 1999 television movie Winter Angel which was to have served as a pilot for a relaunch, starring Waking the Dead’s Trevor Eve as Neil Tannahill, caught up in a conspiracy involving an unstable experimental power station powered by a black hole.
“This isn’t just a job; this is Doomwatch!” – Doctor Spencer Quist, No Room for Error
An uncompromising drama series of real world issues in an increasingly industrialised age, Doomwatch has lost none of its power in the years since it was first broadcast, many of the issues dealt with which were merely hypothetical when tackled by the team now embedded in current affairs and political discourse and those who champion them facing the organised opposition of the corporations who own much of the media and finding it is more expedient to silence the messenger than heed the message that change is needed.
Even politics itself was tackled with disturbing prescience, the use of the media to provoke and manipulate public outrage in order for a new movement to gain a foothold and momentum, their righteous platform only a stepping stone to more radical goals, but beyond greed, malice or lack of foresight, too often the enemy then, and now, was misinformation or ignorance, both of the public and of those in power, reflecting the ease with which leaders can dismiss global scientific consensus as foreign propaganda.
Released as a DVD box set in 2016, billed as “the remaining episodes,” the effort at restoration was minimal and no new ancillary material was created, possibly understandable given the variations in source material and quality and that few of the key cast and creatives are still with us, but less forgivable for the definitive collection was the laissez faire attitude towards the packaging with no guide to which episodes were included or on what discs, even the menus using numbers rather than titles, a disappointing treatment for such a significant series which deserves greater respect and recognition; now, more than ever, Doomwatch is required viewing.