Doomwatch – Project Sahara

sahara

Scripted by N.J. Crisp, although it was heavilly rewritten which made him ask for his name to be taken off the credits, the Project Sahara of the title is something of a McGuffin.  The Doomwatch team are investigating a new defoliant, Sahara, and have been joined by Dr Stella Robson (Hildegard Neil) who is an expert in this field.  Her presence has certainly ruffled some feathers (Pat dislikes her desk being covered in plants) but it’s not surprising that John Ridge is more than happy to have another pretty face around the office.

The results of the tests on Sahara seem to be conclusive – it’s deadly to any form of plant life and Robson is also concerned about the effect Sahara would have on the soil, she posits that it could take years to recover.  It’s been designed as a weapon, but a horrified Robson insists it should never be used. A normal Doomwatch episode (even this early in the run) would then develop this theme, but Sahara is merely a means to an end, as the main plot now comes into view.

Quist calls Stella and Toby into his office and tells them they have both been suspended on the orders of the Minster.  The reasons why are far from clear and Toby takes it particularly badly.  Both Stella and Toby have a few drinks to drown their sorrows and after Stella leaves the bar Toby has a few more.  He is joined by Commander Keeping (Nigel Stock).  We have already seen Keeping at the start of the episode – he works for the National Security Section, department XJ7.  Keeping was seen reviewing the files of the Domwatch personnel via computer and the computer passed judgement on each team member.

Toby, of course, is completely unaware of this and in his increasingly befuddled state finds Keeping a sympathetic shoulder to lean on.  Toby proposes a toast. “Here’s to false hopes, false dreams, naive idealism and pure fantasy.  Whilst Toby and his new friend leave the bar to find another place that’s still serving drinks, Quist asks Ridge to find out exactly who’s behind these suspensions.

Ridge discovers department XJ7 and Quist has a meeting with Keeping where they have a lively exchange of views.  Quist believes Toby and Stella have been suspended as part of a witch-hunt, whilst Keeping maintains there are vital national security considerations.  Quist wants to know where the information about Toby and Stella came from. He’s clearly perturbed to discover that it came from a computer and is far from impressed with its findings.  “Wren has occasional drinking bouts during which his reliability cannot be guaranteed.  Stella Robson is considered unreliable because of her Arab background and her assumed antipathy to Israel.”

He maintains that even the most sophisticated computer is no match for human understanding and dismisses its recommendations.  The fears concerning the power that computers would have over us were just beginning in the early 1970’s and it’s a debate that continues to this day.  The computer seen in Project Sahara is naturally large and unwieldy, but the basic themes expressed in the story are still valid today. Quist’s vision is of a nightmare future, where computers hold a vast store of information on every person that can be accessed at the click of a button. And worse than that, it would be computers who were charged with making decisions about people.

Quist, naturally, favours human interaction and intuition.  And it’s interesting that ultimately Keeping is also of the same opinion.  He’s eventually able to confirm that Stella was a security risk (her boyfriend attempted to steal information about Project Sahara) but Keeping discovered this by good old-fashioned police work.  After talking to her, he become convinced she was hiding something, “I felt she was lying.  Her manner. I’ve seen women like her before. My trade, Doctor. Thirty years experience.”

So although the computer was right about Stella, it was for the wrong reasons as it didn’t know about her boyfriend.  Toby is reinstated and Stella’s time at Doomwatch comes to an end.  The message of the story is clear – computers will come to play an increasing part in many areas of society, but human judgement must always have the last word.  If not, then as Quist says, “God help us all.”

This is an episode where science very much takes the back seat and the team dynamics are brought to the fore.  Both Hildergard Neil and Nigel Stock are very effective guest stars.  Neil could have easily slotted into the Domwatch setup (we’d have to wait until series two for a female scientist to join the team) and Stock gives his usual efficient performance.  Stock’s character initially seems to be unsympathetic (he works for a shadowy department that can make, in employment terms, life or death decisions) although in the end his suspicions are seen to be sound.  Robert Powell gets a decent share of the story and is able to demonstrate his drunk acting, which is entertaining.

One of my favourite episodes of the first series, if there had been problems with the script (which necessitated Gerry Davis’ rewrite) then it didn’t show in the finished product.

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