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May 2016


cast: John Paul, Simon Oates, Robert Powell, Elizabeth Weaver, and Colin Bradley

creators: Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler

1030 minutes (15) 1970-2
Simply Media DVD Region 2

RATING: 9/10
review by J.C. Hartley


It started with the rats. Only it didn't, it started with The Plastic Eaters, in which a virus does just that. When I saw the trailers for this, in 1970, I hoped that the series was going to be a straightforward popular science fiction show. I would be 12 at the time, and a big fan of Doctor Who and Star Trek. When I realised it was basically a hard-science drama concerned with environmentalism I rather lost interest, shallow child that I was. Looking through the episode lists I realise I actually saw more of these than I initially thought; The Red Sky certainly, The Battery People - about chemicals affecting workers' hormonal balance, The Islanders - about a community being repatriated to the British mainland, and Fire And Brimstone - from the final series. But I never saw the rats. At school, after the broadcast of Tomorrow, The Rat, everyone was talking about it, and the impact of that episode, the fourth to be broadcast, helped establish the series.

Something about rats and me; I don't like them. I think it started when I read 1984, and the re-broadcast in 1977 of the 1954 BBC production, adapted by Nigel Kneale, and starring the great Peter Cushing, did little to alleviate my feelings. That original broadcast in 1954 has gone down in television history, as a viewer with an existing condition suffered a fatal seizure during the Room 101 sequence. I remember lying in bed at night listening to a curious scratching inside the walls of our cottage and believing it to be rats. I remember my grandmother's garden suffering a rat invasion, the birds setting up alarm calls, as the rats raided the bird-table on top of the old water-pump wherein they'd presumably built their nests. One occasionally encounters dead rats in the street. Delivering the mail, one Saturday morning, I stood on a live rat in a shop doorway, it squeaked, squirmed under my foot, and hurried to its home in the Iceland supermarket, which made me laugh.

Visiting my friends Brennan and Bridget after another humiliating job interview, sometime in the 1980s, I lay on the floor of their flat while Bridget's pet rat ran all over me, I eventually realised it was chewing through the breast pocket of my suit to get at a snotty paper handkerchief I'd hastily shoved in there. When a row of terraced houses in Carlisle was demolished to make a new route into the city, Castle Way, and eventually expedite the creation of the roundabout at Hardwicke Circus that was to prove the ruin of many a young learner driver (I know because I'm one), it's said that a formation of rats deserted the crumbling houses and was seen heading presumably for the river. In actual fact, as revealed by my old economics teacher, they made their home in the Technical College, where a team of electricians, exploring the roof space to carry out rewiring, discovered a veritable storehouse of food, pilfered from the domestic science kitchens and hauled up there by the ingenuity of the rodents.

Clever, and unfortunately carnivorous, rats feature in Tomorrow, The Rat. I'd always assumed that these horrors were simply the result of natural selection causing mutations as a response to the modern world, but actually they are the result of experiments by the beautiful and arrogant Dr Mary Bryant, who has been tasked by the Ministry (a 'ministry' is behind many of the technological and biological screw-ups unearthed in Doomwatch), to create cannibal rats to solve the rat problem. Dr Bryant isn't interested in rats per se, she's looking at genetic modification to eradicate birth defects and, as ever, the names of Frankenstein and Hitler are brought up when Dr Ridge (Simon Oates) argues with her about ethics. For anyone interested in this subject, beyond the limits of a 50-minute 1970s' scientific drama, I can heartily recommend Unnatural by the science journalist Philip Ball, a book without which I wouldn't have got a distinction in my MA dissertation 'Frankenstein's Creature and the Development of Self in Narratives of Artificial Life.'

Actress Penelope Lee, who features as Dr Bryant, played Lady Rowena's maidservant in Roger Corman's The Tomb Of Ligeia (1964), and was instrumental in a superb scene from that great film. Lady Rowena, haunted and possibly possessed by her husband's late wife, sits at her dressing table attended by her maid. Looking up in the glass she sees the maid's face contorted into an expression combining horror, disgust and imminent violence, as she, and we, anticipate some horrific event, the maid suddenly sneezes and apologises to her mistress; a simple scene of terror, but wonderfully effective. But I digress.

Conceived by Dr Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, famed in Doctor Who lore as the creators of the Cybermen, and helmed by producer director Terence Dudley, this series would feature some of the great names of British cult TV, people like Kevin Stoney, Patrick Troughton, Nigel Stock, and John Barron, and an early appearance by Jonathan Pryce. Doomwatch featured a team assembled to be a watchdog on environmental and technological issues. The department is led by Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul), a spiky Nobel Prize winner, still haunted by his involvement in the Manhattan Project. Along with Quist, and often pitched against him, is Dr John Ridge, formerly of MI6, ladies man, sporter of offensive 1970s neckwear, and played by Simon Oates, one of the stars of the BBC's answer to Danger Man, The Mask Of Janus, and its follow-up The Spies.

Oates is one of the five million names of Bond - actors credited or claimed to have at some point been in the running to play the eponymous hero in the James Bond franchise. The third member of the team is youthful and idealistic graduate Tobias Wren, played by the 26-year-old heart-throb Robert Powell. Wren is famously killed-off at the end of series one, trying to defuse a bomb in Survival Code, an event which resulted in the traditional flood of letters to the BBC; and which proves that unexpected and controversial fatalities, such as those in Spooks, and Game Of Thrones, are nothing new in television. The rest of the initial team are secretary Pat Hunnisett played by Wendy Hall, and lab assistant Colin Bradley played by Joby Blanshard. Pat is something of a 1970s stereotype: pretty, blonde, knee-length white boots, occasionally ditzy. When we first meet her she is cross with Dr Ridge as he has tried to pinch her bottom. Fortunately, while Pat is given a bit more to do as the first series progresses, there are plenty of other strong roles for women in the series as a whole, and while many of their characters prove unethical, and sometimes arrogant and un-likeable, they are given speeches which define them as scientists and not simply as women.

Although Dr Ridge brings his suave charm and self-proclaimed masculine self-confidence to bear, to get a number of these women into bed, we are left in no doubt that the ultimate decision to join him there was theirs. The presence of these strong female characters from the outset is something the documentary short The Cult Of Doomwatch fails to pick up on, concentrating instead on the portrayal of characters like Pat, and her successor Barbara Mason (Vivien Sherrard), in run-of-the-mill secretarial roles, or as prey for the predatory Dr Ridge. Eventually, as well as the recurring role of Dr Anne Tarrant (Elizabeth Weaver), Doomwatch featured Jean Trend as biologist Dr Fay Chantry joining the team.

At the start of series two, You Killed Toby Wren sees the fall-out (no pun intended) from the detonation of the bomb and Wren's death. Ridge blames Quist and there is a high-level campaign by the Minister to remove him from the Doomwatch team. Quist has psychoanalysis from therapist Dr Tarrant and seems to come to terms with both his involvement in the Manhattan Project and the death of his wife. There is even the suggestion of the beginnings of a romantic attachment between the pair. The character of Dr Tarrant returns in some subsequent episodes.

Meanwhile, Ridge hears of a gene splicing experiment creating animal-human hybrids, from postgraduate Geoff Hardcastle (John Nolan, whose later screen credits would include appearances as a Wayne Enterprises board member in Nolan's Batman trilogy). Ridge, who is preparing to testify against Quist at the latter's tribunal, wines and dines Dr Judith Lennox to gain access to the facility where he discovers a chicken with two tiny human heads and a similarly spliced mammal. Ridge reacts violently and then is berated by Dr Lennox in an extraordinary outburst, in which she accuses him of revelling in morbidity, and then she reveals that the research is designed both to cure infertility and discover ways to prevent rejection in organ transplants. Dr Lennox's tirade is remarkable in that it is wholly unapologetic about what Ridge and we viewers have just seen; the model used for the special effect is pathetic in the original sense, balanced precariously on a line that invites pathos or ridicule. A triumphant Dr Lennox reveals that the next stage is human-animal hybrids, that she has plenty of female volunteers, and she herself is three months pregnant and if she had met Ridge three months earlier he would have been the one to fertilise her.

Inevitably, Doomwatch plays upon the paranoia that scientists are monomaniacs blinded by some utopian vision that obscures ethical considerations, and that they are encouraged by venal corporations out to make a quick profit, and weak governments looking for shortcuts and quick fixes to social and economic problems. These issues are as relevant now as 40 years ago. Thankfully, while the Doomwatch format insists that scientists are often going to be shown to be ultimately to blame, they are just as likely to be shown to be responding to pressure from above, forced into mistakes, or to have allowed noble ambitions to obscure those all-important ethical concerns. The programme stopped short of being simply an alarmist piece of Luddite propaganda, all too easy in a country where to this day the tabloids refer to scientists as 'boffins'. The Cult Of Doomwatch reinforces how influential and indeed prescient the series was.

The series spawned a spin-off movie in 1972, Doomwatch, written by the prolific Clive Exton, and featuring all the main TV characters while starring Ian Bannen and Judy Geeson, and playing up body-horror. There was also a TV revival in 1995 on Channel 5, in a movie length episode Winter Angel, about an artificially created black hole; it was hoped this TV film would lead into a new series but this never came to fruition. Only 28 episodes survive from the original broadcast of 37, the never-broadcast Sex And Violence from series three is included as part of this DVD release. There is some criticism online about the quality of this DVD release; there is little sign of restoration work and the menus are pretty basic with no titling for the episodes. I think most fans would be happy just to be able to see these again and if, like me, you grew up watching TV on a black and white set, with dodgy contrast and an erratic horizontal hold, it takes a lot to make you complain. The series three opener Fire And Brimstone is one of the missing episodes, this saw Ridge finally crack-up and hold the government to ransom over environmental issues, with stolen anthrax. An explanation for Ridge's behaviour is offered later, and he is rehabilitated.

Sex And Violence was never broadcast, perhaps for its subject matter and perhaps for its portrayal of characters based on actual morality campaigners. The episode breaks with the usual format somewhat as the team are called in to examine moral pollution. Thoughtful and intelligent, the episode features a right-wing politician using a morality campaign to drive his ambitions; he makes the point that when simulated sex on a West End stage generates more headlines than unemployment or massacres, who is he to ignore that opportunity. The planned series finale The Devil's Demolition was never made, and The Cult Of Doomwatch suggests the programme came to an end through increased tensions between the creators Pedler and Davis on the one side and producer Dudley on the other.

With a host of British character actors and great writers like Robert Holmes, Dennis Spooner, and Robin Chapman, Doomwatch proved that wordy intelligent television could make riveting drama out of social issues.

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