Making its TV debut in February 1970, hard nosed science fiction series Doomwatch was must-see viewing for the British public. However, despite regularly clocking up views in excess of 13 million, the BBC’s home economic policies of the time saw most of the video masters wiped for reuse once the shows had been broadcast. Now thanks to copies exhumed from archives and returned from foreign sales, the surviving episodes of the cult show’s three seasons are at last released on a set of seven DVDs.
Show creators Kit Pedlar and Gerry Davis were already seasoned BBC Sci-fi pros, having designed the Cybermen for Dr Who, and it was their ingenious idea to tap into the contemporary vogue for environmentalism and the social responsibility of science that led to the conception of the Department of Measurement of Scientific Works or Doomwatch.
As a government agency that investigated potential scientific disasters, Doomwatch was headed up by the irascible physicist Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul). A veteran of the Manhattan Project that designed the Atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Quist had a massive print of a mushroom cloud on his office wall just to remind viewers of his psychological baggage. His principal sidekick was action-man Dr John Ridge (Simon Oates, star of the very dreadful Amicus Scifi flick The Terranauts), a cigar smoking, Lotus driving former spy. Curiously enough Oates had actually served in the British Army Intelligence Corps during his National Service. Quist’s other regular accomplice was computer technician Colin Bradley (Joby Blanshard), whose main job was to run whatever information the team uncovered through his gigantic computer and state the obvious as only a blunt Yorkshire man can.
Completing the first season’s Doomwatch team were secretary Pat Hunissett (Wendy Hall) whose function was to look good in a mini skirt while serving coffee and putting up with Dr Ridge’s ingrained sexist comments, together with a fresh faced young actor by the name of Robert Powell as the smoulderingly good looking Toby Wren. Wren’s taste in outrageous Paisley patterned cravats and chunky knitwear did give John Ridge’s colourful 1970s wardrobe a serious run for its money although it never quite equalled the leather dog collar, vivid lemon shirt and corduroy jerkin combo that Ridge often sported in Season Two.
Sadly only eight of the 13 episodes from Season One have survived, but they do include the season opener The Plastic Eaters where genetically engineered plastic waste chomping bacteria escape and happily chew their way through all the plastic holding an airliner together and the classic Tomorrow the Rat. Ask anyone who is old enough to have seen Doomwatch the first time around what they remember from the series and it will be Colin Bradley and Toby Wren being attacked by the selectively bred super rats with a taste for human flesh. The sheer comedic mayhem of Powell and Blanshard walloping the plastic rats that are so obviously sewn onto their trouser legs, with a frying pan, is pure gold slapstick. However, despite the bargain basement special effects, Tomorrow the Rat does have some genuinely chilling moments and may well have inspired the rat hive mentality of James Herbert’s classic The Rats.
In the other surviving Season One episodes Quist’s investigative family encounter a ‘Big Brother’ style computer, an insane British Astronaut, subliminal cigarette advertising, hypersonic shockwaves from a secret aircraft project, deadly agricultural weed killer side effects and genetically engineered trout that render the fish farm workers impotent. And as if Quist and his chums don’t have enough to contend with there is also the lurking threat from the Departmental Minister (John Barron). He thinks Doomwatch’s meddling into the affairs of the influentual big pharma companies and defence corporations are just a bit too inconvenient for the government.
Powell only signed on for one season so Wren conveniently gets himself killed at the end of the Season One’s lost closing episode. Fortunately all of Season Two is still with us. Wren’s replacement is Geoff Hardcastle (John Nolan) who has a fashionable chip on his shoulder about being under 30 and a penchant for wearing leather car coats. And to redress the oestrogen balance and prove that women can do science too, biologist Dr Fay Chantry (Jean Trend) joins the team.
Over the course of Season Two’s thirteen episodes, some highly controversial 1970’s topics are examined including: biological warfare, drug resistant bacteria, DNA profiling, medical computers, mutated viral pesticides high density high rise living and toxic industrial gases. Vivisection and animal experiments raised an ugly head in a story about human animal hybridisation and then again in another episode that featured imported rabid laboratory dogs, a particularly hot topic following the 1969 UK rabies scare and with its localised wildlife cull still a bitter memory.
For Season Three the Doomwatch team underwent more changes with Chantry and Hardcastle gone and Ridge banged up in a secure mental institution following his attempt to force world leaders to protect the environment with the threat of an anthrax epidemic in the lost season opener. Quist and Bradley are joined by government mole Commander Neil Stafford (John Bown) and Quist’s recently acquired second wife, psychologist Dr Anne Tarrant (Elizabeth Weaver).
Having a psychologist on board was pretty useful for Season Three’s two surviving broadcast episodes, which explores a link between mental health and atmospheric lead and then controlling the criminal brain with a computer implant. Tarrant also gets a fairly big part in the ‘banned’ episode Sex and Violence, when ministerial pressure is put upon Quist to determine whether permissive 1970s attitudes to sex and nudity were causing a decline in public morals. This was a hot potato in the early 1970s when the BBC were running scared of the influence of clean-up TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse from the National Viewers and Listeners Association.
Although Sex and Violence may seem pretty tame to us today, parodying Mary Whitehouse as Mrs Catchpole (June Brown, Dot Cotton from BBC soap Eastenders) was probably getting far to close to real life for the bosses at the BBC to be comfortable with and the episode was never broadcast. It probably didn’t help naming the Cliff Richard style pop star Dick Byrne either.
From today’s perspective Doomwatch’s production values do creak a bit. Much of the action is studio bound and as a consequence the show is very dialogue heavy, which combined with the rather theatrical cast performances common to British TV drama at the time, does make some of the episodes look a bit stodgy. Despite that it does have some well managed creepy moments and the odd good jump scare, The show does have a lot of nostalgia value and it was quite fun spotting familiar faces such as Bond’s Q Desmond Llewelyn, Sally Thomsett from The Railway Children and Blackadder’s Nursie Patsy Byrne among the bit players.
Sure some of the storylines misfire, the production values and special effects are not as slick as some of its more cinematic ITV competitors such as Jason King or The Persuaders, however what really makes Doomwatch so interesting after all these years is that many of the subjects explored by the team, such as genetic engineering and drug resistant bacteria are just as relevant today.
DVD extras include the BBC documentary The Cult of Doomwatch featuring interviews with cast members and critic Kim Newman.