Doomwatch – Flight into Yesterday

flight

Flight into Yesterday has an arresting pre-credits sequence – the Minister (John Barron) and his assistant Duncan (Michael Elwyn) are at Number 10, anxiously awaiting the arrival of Quist.  Quist has just stepped off a flight from Los Angeles and has been rushed in a ministerial car to an urgent meeting with the prime minister.

But when he enters the room he appears to be disorientated – his speech is slurred and he staggers against the wall.  “He’s drunk” says the Minister, shocked.  But it only takes a second before he realises this is just the excuse he needs to get rid of Quist once and for all ….

This was John Barron’s third Doomwatch appearance and it’s an episode that puts him front and centre.  There’s so much to enjoy in his performance – the Minister’s initial shock at Quist’s appearance followed by his delight just a few beats later for example, or his wordless horror when Ridge enters his office for a meeting, dressed in his usual unconventional attire!

Martin Worth’s script centres around the Whitehall intrigue we’d previously seen in You Killed Toby Wren.  With the Minister having placed Quist on sick leave, he’s keen to groom Ridge as Doomwatch’s next boss (as was hinted in the series two opener).  The meeting between the Minister and Ridge is a fascinating one, played very well by both Barron and Oates.  Quist was in Los Angeles to deliver a speech about a proposed American Doomwatch.  The Minister is convinced that Quist planned to say that all the major threats to the environment could be laid at the door of governments.  He then casually admits that Quist is right of course, but it’s not the sort of thing you can say in public.  It gives us a brief but fascinating glimpse into the Minister’s true opinions – political expediency means that he has to be circumspect when making on the record remarks.  The clear inference is that if Ridge is prepared to be malleable then he’ll have a promising future.  It’s ironic that Quist’s speech said no such thing, but that almost becomes an irrelevance.

You Killed Toby Wren presented us with a Ridge whose motives and loyalties weren’t always clear and here that ambiguity has affected his colleagues.  It’s jarring to see Ridge sitting in Quist’s office, neatly dressed and issuing orders and Geoff seems certain that Ridge is only looking out for number one.  “The Minister’s out to nail Quist.  And if you ask me, Ridge has agreed to be the hammer.”

Fay believes that both Quist and Barbara (who was also on the flight) are suffering from nothing worse than a bad case of jet lag, but the Minister is disdainful.  So Ridge is able to manipulate him into travelling to Los Angeles to deliver Quist’s speech and if the Minister is at all disorientated when he arrives he’ll have no choice but to reinstate Quist.  But Quist is keen to protect the Minister’s reputation – he tells Ridge in no uncertain terms to ensure that the Minister rests for twenty four hours if he seems at all unwell when the plane touches down.

But there was more than just jet lag at play. Jim Ainsile (Robert Urquhart) is a charming Scottish PR man working for an American firm.  He entertained both Quist and Barbara, but he also took advantage of the long flight to use brainwashing techniques to manipulate Quist.  It didn’t quite work on him, but the Minister is a more susceptible candidate.

Also on the same flight as the Minister are Fay, Ridge and the Minister’s press secretary Thompson (Desmond Llewellyn).  Fay becomes increasingly anxious as Ainsile encourages the Minister to eat and drink heavily, whilst it’s notable that Ridge does nothing.  All of Fay’s entreaties to the Minister to take some rest before they arrive fall on deaf ears, so it seems inevitable there’s a disaster in the offing.

A totally studio-bound story, America is presented via stock footage and music.  This just about works, although the shot of Fay CSO’d into film of an American airport isn’t terribly convincing (although luckily it’s quite brief).  There’s more CSO later, as the Minister is badgered by American journalists into commenting on the usefulness of Doomwatch.  During this scene there’s also an interesting use of incidental music. The music continues up to the point where the Minister collapses (presumably from a heart attack) and then it cuts out.  It’s a slightly unusual moment, but a memorable one.

Right at the end there’s a faint rekindling of the Quist/Ridge battles of old.  Ridge tells him that he was well aware what Ainsile was doing to the Minister, but was content to let him continue as Doomwatch could only be strengthened if the Minister was removed (although there’s no suggestion that he was cold-hearted enough to know he would collapse).  Quist takes the opposite view – Doomwatch’s best chance of survival would be if the current Minister remains (better the devil you know maybe?)

If Ainsile’s brainwashing  tricks seem both a little far-fetched and overplayed, it doesn’t detract too much from another tightly written and well acted script.  John Barron is excellent throughout and even Vivien Sherrard (in that most thankless of roles – Doomwatch’s secretary) has a few nice scenes.  Science may take a back seat in this one, but the character dynamics are strong enough to ensure that’s it’s not a problem.

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