Time Ma­chine

The curious story of the BBC’s “post-sci-fi” se­ries, as re­called by Alan Barnes

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents -

how ’70s TV drama Doomwatch was a rad­i­cal de­par­ture from the norm…

It re­mains one of the most ar­rest­ing open­ings to a tele­vi­sion se­ries it’s pos­si­ble to imag­ine, the idea alone enough to stir the bow­els of the most fre­quent flyer. In the cock­pit of a pas­sen­ger liner, cruis­ing at high al­ti­tude, pi­lot and co-pi­lot watch in help­less hor­ror as the con­trols all around them be­gin to bleed molten black. Crash.

First broad­cast on 9 Fe­bru­ary 1970, “The Plas­tic Eaters" caused the BBC’s Doomwatch to im­pact upon the pub­lic con­scious­ness with all the force of that dis­solv­ing jet on the ground be­low. The rea­son for that un­sched­uled de­scent, as the episode’s ti­tle sug­gested, was ac­ci­den­tal con­tam­i­na­tion by a plas­tic-eat­ing bac­te­ri­o­log­i­cal agent, “Vari­ant 14” – making a meal of wire in­su­la­tion, not do­mes­tic waste, as in­tended. “The days when you and I mar­velled at the ‘mir­a­cles’ of science… are over,” co-cre­ator Gerry Davis told Ra­dio Times. “We’ve grown up now – and we’re fright­ened. The find­ings of science are still mar­vel­lous, but now is the time to stop dream­ing up science fic­tion about them and write what we call ‘sci-fact’. The hon­ey­moon of science is over. That’s what Doomwatch is all about!”

That “we’re fright­ened” was highly telling. Doomwatch, in part, was de­signed to shock and awe with tales of techno-hor­ror from the fringes of cur­rent sci­en­tific pos­si­bil­ity: in “Fri­day’s Child”, mon­key hearts trans­planted into ail­ing tinies, and a brain­less foe­tus bred for spare parts; in “Re-En­try For­bid­den”, a para­noid schiz­o­phrenic aboard a nu­clear-pow­ered space shot; in “Spec­tre At The Feast”, an LSD-like chem­i­cal pol­lut­ing the food chain. “The Red Sky”, mean­while, con­cerned brain-bust­ing noise pro­duced by a “hy­per­sonic” air­craft, caus­ing those af­flicted to suf­fer in­fer­nal vi­sions – an en­tirely lit­eral trans­la­tion of the ex­is­ten­tial threat un­der­ly­ing all of Doomwatch; science with­out con­science, the show sug­gested, opened the gate­way to hell. Its cre­ators, of course, had form in this field. High-fly­ing opthal­mol­o­gist Dr Christopher “Kit” Pedler had first met for­mer Doc­tor Who script ed­i­tor Davis in 1966, when the lat­ter was seek­ing to re­cruit a sci­en­tific ad­viser to the se­ries – which by that time had long-since ceased to insert even the oc­ca­sional O-Level physics poser as part of its re­mit to “in­form, ed­u­cate, en­ter­tain”. Hav­ing (ba­si­cally) in­vented the in­ter­net as a means for a su­per-com­puter to take over the world in “The War Ma­chines” (1966), Pedler pon­dered where elec­tive spare part surgery might lead mankind, and came up with the (lit­er­ally) heart­less Cy­ber­men. Back in the Earthly realm, how­ever, the power of what would be­come

Science with­out con­science, the show sug­gested, opened the gate­way to hell

known decades later as the “mil­i­tary-in­dus­trial com­plex” vexed Pedler even more – gov­ern­ment and busi­ness us­ing fund­ing to set the re­search and de­vel­op­ment agenda. “Put a sci­en­tist un­der po­lit­i­cal pres­sure, and he’ll do any­thing you like… I know,” No­bel Prize-win­ning Dr Spencer Quist de­clares in “The Plas­tic Eaters” – guilt over his part in the de­vel­op­ment of the H-bomb hav­ing led him to be­come the di­rec­tor of “Doomwatch”, a gov­ern­ment depart­ment “set up to in­ves­ti­gate any sci­en­tific re­search, pub­lic or pri­vate, which would pos­si­bly be harm­ful to man”.

with their jointly-au­thored pi­lot script “The Plas­tic Eaters” ac­cepted by the BBC, Pedler and Davis went to work de­vis­ing episode ideas suf­fi­cient to com­plete a 13-week run, most of which would then be del­e­gated to out­side writ­ers. Staff pro­ducer Ter­ence Dud­ley, ap­pointed to the project, bagsied a couple to script him­self – in­clud­ing an idea about a species of can­ni­bal rat ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered to cir­cum­vent the for­bid­ding stric­tures of the An­i­mals (Cruel Poi­sons) Act 1962, by eat­ing its own kind. Trans­mit­ted fourth, Dud­ley’s “Tomorrow, The Rat” ex­ploited a par­tic­u­larly 1970s neu­ro­sis – the hum­ble rat as a metaphor for mod­ern de­cay, seen in the pages of James Her­bert’s schlock best­seller The Rats (1974), heard in the lyrics of David Bowie’s Di­a­mond Dogs LP (“Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats…”), and reach­ing its ul­ti­mate man­i­fes­ta­tion in epoch-defin­ing re­ports of Le­ices­ter Square turned into a ro­dent-in­fested rub­bish dump dur­ing the so-called Win­ter of Dis­con­tent. But it wasn’t Dud­ley’s glee­ful chore­og­ra­phy of rat­tus sapi­ens at­tack­ing mo­torists, leap­ing on house­wives, crawl­ing out of toi­lets and stam­ped­ing school­child­ren that caused (as the front page of the next day’s Daily Ex­press re­ported) that archety­pally ’70s event, the jam­ming of the BBC switch­board. It was the episode’s last-but-one shot, a meat-be­decked dummy rep­re­sent­ing the gnawed corpse of the rat-breed­ing lady ge­neti­cist re­spon­si­ble.

The first se­ries con­cluded with the con­ven­tion-de­fy­ing dis­patch of Quist’s ju­nior as­so­ciate To­bias Wren, blown up by a bomb whose timer ac­tu­ally ticked past “001”. But Toby ac­tor Robert Pow­ell, all-but un­known 13 weeks be­fore, wasn’t the only in­di­vid­ual whom Doomwatch had turned into a star; un­likely as it might have seemed, the bald­ing, polo-necked Pedler had be­come the tabloids’ bof­fin of boffins. He was signed up to head the Daily Mir­ror’s very own ‘Doomwatch’ panel, “wait­ing to hear from YOU about the things that worry you – from air­craft noise to in­sec­ti­cides, from the state of your break­fast kip­per to the state of your lo­cal river. In fact any­thing, how­ever triv­ial or baf­fling, that dis­turbs you about the con­di­tions of your daily life. CALL IN DOOMWATCH! THEY ARE READY FOR AC­TION!” MPs sought to co-opt Pedler onto Doomwatches of their own de­vis­ing; sens­ing the op­por­tu­nity to ef­fect real-world change, Pedler ap­pears to have lapped it all up – and who can blame him?

The sec­ond se­ries com­menced that De­cem­ber, with Dud­ley’s “You Killed Toby Wren” – in which John Bar­ron’s slip­pery Min­is­ter, ex­ploit­ing Wren’s demise in a bid to rid him­self of the tur­bu­lent Quist, ad­vised his Per­ma­nent Sec­re­tary: “You’re very much mis­taken in as­sum­ing that Quist is Doomwatch… Doomwatch re­mains a good idea, an ex­cel­lent watch­dog, but it must learn to come to heel – and it will do it a lot bet­ter with­out Quist snarling around our an­kles.” Sub­sti­tute “Pedler” for “Quist”, and one gets a sense of what had been oc­cur­ring be­hind the scenes. As doc­u­mented in Michael Seely’s au­thor­i­ta­tive guide to the se­ries, Prophets Of Doom (Miwk Pub­lish­ing, 2012), Dud­ley had re­jected many of Pedler and Davis’s story con­cepts as more Doc­tor Who than Doomwatch; in this, he was sup­ported by BBC Head of Se­ries An­drew Os­born, who ap­pears to have imag­ined Doomwatch as sim­ply a 1970s up­dat­ing of his pon­der­ous 1960s “Min­istry of Re­search” se­ries, R3. And so Doomwatch’s sec­ond sea­son con­tained fewer sci-fi shock­ers than the first – among them, though: “The Iron Doc­tor”, in which an ex­per­i­men­tal com­puter in­stalled in a geri­atric ward grav­i­tated from

eu­thana­sia to out­right mur­der; Davis’s own “The Web Of Fear”, which gave arach­nids some­thing like the “Tomorrow, The Rat” treat­ment; and “In The Dark”, which guest­starred Pa­trick Troughton as a ter­mi­nally-ill in­dus­tri­al­ist de­ter­mined to live for­ever as a dis­em­bod­ied brain. ith Davis leav­ing to plod out his script ed­i­tor’s con­tract on po­lice show Softly, Softly, and Pedler re­fus­ing to fur­nish Dud­ley with fur­ther story ideas, Dud­ley was free to re­work the third year ac­cord­ing to his own de­sign. Both Wren’s re­place­ment Ge­off Hard­cas­tle (John Nolan) and Doomwatch’s sole non-sec­re­tar­ial fe­male, bi­ol­o­gist Dr Fay Chantry (Jean Trend), were sum­mar­ily dropped. The se­ries opened with Dud­ley’s “Fire And Brim­stone”, in which Quist’s sec­ond-in-com­mand, bum-pinch­ing of­fice Lothario Dr John Ridge (Si­mon Oates) – equal parts Ja­son King and the Milk Tray Man – went sud­denly barmy, steal­ing six phials of an­thrax from Por­ton Down and post­ing them far and wide, so forc­ing the world’s news­pa­pers to print his per­sonal eco-man­i­festo. “Out­law the poi­son­ers! Out­law the filth makers,” he raved. “Public­ity! It’s our only chance! Public­ity, public­ity and still more public­ity…” (This star­tling de­vel­op­ment was nois­ily dis­owned by Pedler and Davis, com­man­deer­ing the press for their pur­poses.)

On screen, Ridge’s melt­down en­abled the Min­is­ter to place an In­tel­li­gence man in­side Doomwatch – Com­man­der Neil Stafford (John Bown), the Depart­ment’s first non-sec­re­tar­ial non-sci­en­tist. Quist, hith­erto a grumpy loner with no sex life to speak of, sud­denly ac­quired a wife – psy­chi­a­trist Dr Anne Tar­rant (El­iz­a­beth Weaver), with whom he could dis­cuss Great Moral Is­sues over the break­fast ta­ble of their charm­ing cot­tage – as in “Wait­ing For A Knight­hood”, 50 min­utes’ worth of brow-fur­row­ing over the is­sue of lead in petrol (re­vealed to be the cause of Ridge’s ma­nia). New Sci­en­tist had ear­lier re­ported that Dud­ley in­tended to elim­i­nate “card­board char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion” from the se­ries – but here that amounted to af­ford­ing an oil baron char­ac­ter the op­por­tu­nity to put for­ward his point of view, un­chal­lenged: “Ev­ery­body seems to be jump­ing onto the anti-pol­lu­tion band­wagon… the com­mon good is not served by panic leg­is­la­tion.” No won­der that a week or two af­ter the episode went out, a dis­grun­tled school­boy viewer wrote to New Sci­en­tist to com­plain that the se­ries had “sold out to its ul­ti­mate con­trollers: in­dus­try and… the CIA”!

Doomwatch was soon can­celled, of course. For want of a proper end­ing, we might, per­haps, have imag­ined Quist and his team go­ing out with a bang, rac­ing to track down a chemist in the Far East who’s de­vel­oped a very scary virus… but ar­riv­ing too late to pre­vent the cat­a­strophic spillage that her­alded the be­gin­ning of the end in Dud­ley’s next-but-one as­sign­ment: pro­duc­ing Terry Na­tion’s post-apoc­a­lypse saga Sur­vivors (1975–7). But no.

Quist’s quest­ing, in fact, con­cluded 27 long years later in “Win­ter An­gel” (1999), a one-off TV movie pro­duced by Work­ing Ti­tle for the fledg­ling Chan­nel 5. Quist, we learn, “was re­tired as a pain in the arse, but he never gave it up”; now, he was seek­ing to re­cruit as­tro­physi­cist Dr Neil Tan­nahill (Trevor Eve) into the young band of eco-war­riors he’s gath­ered to in­ves­ti­gate sin­is­ter go­ings-on at a de­com­mis­sioned nu­clear power sta­tion. In­side: a man­made black hole, cre­ated to gen­er­ate un­lim­ited en­ergy – but its in­sta­bil­ity meant it now re­quires vast quan­ti­ties of im­ported nu­clear waste to feed its in­sa­tiable ap­petite. Philip Stone re­placed the late John Paul as Quist, who met a fiery end at the hands of hired as­sas­sins – but he’d be­queath to Tan­nahill CD-ROMs hold­ing the com­plete Doomwatch files: “Ev­ery sci­en­tific night­mare known to man…” Dull eco­nomics pre­cluded the pro­duc­tion of fur­ther TV movies, as had been in­tended – but “Win­ter An­gel” proved a pretty de­cent post­script, nonethe­less.

Doomwatch is be­ing re­leased on DVD in April 2016.

Doomwatch’s first episode gets a strik­ing RT cover.

“We’ve dis­cov­ered some­thing else that is brown!”

Cre­ators Kit Pedler, Ter­ence Dud­ley and Gerry Davis.

Robert Pow­ell dis­cov­ers that it’s to­day, the rat.

See, they did some­times laugh on the show… John Paul (back) has a sci­en­tific peer. But where’s Ge­orge and Ringo?

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