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