Train and De-Train opens with John Ridge investigating several hundred wildlife deaths in Somerset. The evidence suggests that some form of pesticide has been used, so Quist asks Toby to contact all pesticide manufacturers in the area and obtain samples.
Rather conveniently a container is found near the dead animals marked “AC” which suggests that Alminster Chemicals are involved (that’ll save Toby a lot of running about). It’s also a coincidence that the chief chemist at Alminster is Mr Ellis (David Markham) who was Toby’s old tutor.
One of the main themes of the story concerns Toby’s rashness and way he acts without considering the consequences. This sets him apart from the others, even Ridge, who all favour a more rigid, analytical approach. In science, you have to be sure of your facts – something which Toby has trouble with (although it’s ironic that his information is what finally saves the day).
It seems likely that Alminster are responsible for the animal deaths. They’re developing a new pesticide called AC3051, for export use in counties which have seen vast areas devastated by locusts, and it’s probable that they’ve tested it in Somerset, hence the animal deaths, but there’s no proof. Toby’s first mistake occurs when he meets Alminster’s managing director John Mitchell (George Baker).
Toby’s delight in meeting his old tutor is tempered when he realises how badly he’s being treated by Alminster. Ellis has been the victim of a creeping campaign by Mitchell which is designed to break his morale and force him to resign. First Ellis’ carpet from his office went, then his parking space was reassigned, next his phone was taken away and the ultimate insult is when he finds somebody else in his office. After demanding an explanation from Mitchell, he receives a blunt answer. “Oh for god’s sake, do you not see that you’re no use to us anymore?”
Ellis is fifty one and therefore is regarded as over the hill. As Ridge later explains, it’s the American way of business – if you can’t force the person to resign with these sort of methods then you “de-train” them – make them take a more lowly position in the company.
Mitchell is quite clear – they have to export and it has to be in considerable numbers. If not, the company has no future. This touches upon a similar argument to the one expressed in The Red Sky, where commercial interests are seen to be (in some people’s eyes) the most important thing. George Baker is splendidly controlled and arrogant as Mitchell, which makes his eventual comeuppance at the end of the episode (his mishandling of matters sees him replaced) even more satisfying.
So Toby’s not only appalled at Mitchell’s off-hand manner, he’s also angry at the way Ellis has been treated. This eventually makes him launch into a tirade against Mitchell, which is tape-recorded and forwarded onto Quist. Quist has no compunction in (temporarily) firing Toby because, irrespective of the rights and wrongs, he’s proved not to have the objectivity that a scientist requires.
Although Train and De-Train revolves as much around office politics at Alminster as it does about the pesticide issue, it’s still another strong series one entry. With Quist largely absent, it’s Toby who’s the focus of the story, meaning that for once Ridge has to play the voice of reason. David Markham seems a little distracted as Ellis, but that may be as scripted. Ellis is portrayed as the sort of compromised scientist that any of the Doomwatch team may become – if they let their standards slip.
Ellis knew that 3051 was dangerous, but went ahead with the tests in Somerset anyway. Following his resignation he commits suicide, but beforehand he writes a letter to Mitchell. Mitchell treats the letter with contempt – using it to light a cigar – but a copy was sent to Toby and it’s this piece of evidence that sinks Alminster, as it links them to the pesticide tests.
Given that 3051 was designed for use against locusts I’ve never really understood why they decided to test it in Somerset (not many locusts about there). Mitchell does make the very good point to Quist that although 3051 could be dangerous in an environment with varied wildlife, that won’t be an issue in the places where it’ll be used. So the tests only serve to draw attention to Alminster.
Mitchell also mentions that the locusts are responsible for deaths now – so they have to press the pesticide into service straight away. Yes, there may be some ecological side-effects, but they can be worked on in due course (to delay would be to cause more deaths). Mitchell’s undeniably motivated by the profit margin, but there’s a certain logic in what he says.
The shades of grey that make up Don Shaw’s script are fascinating. It would have been easier to make Alminster and Mitchell “evil”, but although George Baker relishes the ruthless side of Mitchell’s character things are not as straightforward as they seem at first.