Doomwatch – DVD now due for release April 2016

doomwatch

Update 27/10/15 – I’m delighted to say that Doomwatch will be released on DVD by Simply Media in April 2016.  More info here.  That happily means that this post, written when a DVD release looked unlikely, is now out of date.  I’ll leave it up though, as some of the info about the archive status of the series may be of interest to some.

As you’ll see, my thoughts were that if any company was going to take a risk on the series it would have been the BFI.  I certainly wasn’t expecting Simply to do so!  But credit to Simply for taking the plunge and I hope that the sales are healthy – if so, it might encourage them to continue digging through the BBC archives.  My DVD review can be found here.

Doomwatch has long been a series that many fans of British telefantasy, and indeed fans of British archive television in general, have wished to see released on DVD.  But it remains unreleased.  Why is this so?  I thought it was worth discussing some of the possible reasons and debating whether this is likely to change in the future.

Firstly, like a great many archive BBC programmes, a major stumbling block is the BBC themselves.  BBC Worldwide (and previously 2Entertain) have tended to only release archive programmes that they expect will sell well (classic Doctor Who, comedies such as Dad’s Army, Fawlty Towers, etc).  This was highlighted a few years back when BBC America released the Douglas Wilmer Sherlock Holmes stories.  2Entertain stated that they didn’t plan to release it in the UK, as they considered it was uneconomic to do so.

BBC Worldwide’s policy is the complete opposite from a company such as Network.  Over the last decade or so, Network have released a staggering amount of titles drawn from the ITV archive.  It must be said that many of them can’t have sold in particularly large quantities (unless I’ve dramatically under-appreciated the popularly of the likes of Yus My Dear for example!).  So Network seem to be happy to make a small profit on a large number of titles, whilst BBC Worldwide appear to be interested in making a larger profit on fewer titles.

This, of course, is frustrating for those of us interested in British archive television.  One of the solutions would be for other companies to licence BBC material – and in recent years there has been a notable increase in this.  Acorn DVD (Z Cars, Dixon of Dock Green) and Simply HE (Softly Softly: Task Force) are two companies that have a growing selection of BBC DVD titles.

And after a gap of many years, the BFI have also started to release BBC titles again.  Last year they had a season of programming entitled Days of Fear and Wonder which covered not only screenings but also DVD releases such as Out of the Unknown, The Boy from Space and The Changes.  They are also planning to release the Douglas Wilmer Sherlock Holmes later this year.

Inevitably, when the BFI announced the Days of Fear and Wonder titles, it was hoped that Doomwatch would be amongst them – but sadly this was not to be.  It would have fitted in with the other programmes released, but as we’ll see, its non-appearance may be due to the amount of work required on some episodes before they could be released on DVD.  First though, let’s see exactly what remains in the archive.  Existing episodes are highlighted in bold –

Series One

The Plastic Eaters
Friday’s Child
Burial at Sea
Tomorrow, the Rat
Project Sahara
Re-Entry Forbidden
The Devil’s Sweets
The Red Sky
Spectre at the Feast
Train And De-Train
The Battery People
Hear No Evil
Survival Code

Series Two

You Killed Toby Wren
Invasion
The Islanders
No Room for Error
By the Pricking of My Thumbs…
The Iron Doctor
Flight into Yesterday
The Web of Fear
In the Dark
The Human Time Bomb
The Inquest
The Logicians
Public Enemy

Series Three

Fire and Brimstone
High Mountain
Say Knife, Fat Man
Waiting for a Knighthood
Without the Bomb
Hair Trigger
Deadly Dangerous Tomorrow
Enquiry
Flood
Cause of Death
The Killer Dolphins
Sex and Violence

Looking at the list above, the first series has a fairly decent survival rate, series two is complete whilst series three is very patchy, with only three existing episodes – although one of them (Sex and Violence) is an interesting curio since it was never transmitted.

But things start to get complicated when we look a little closer at what formats the surviving episodes exist on.  The original videotapes remain in the archives for the following episodes – The Plastic Eaters, Project Sahara, Re-Entry Forbidden, The Devil’s Sweets, The Red Sky, The Battery People, Public Enemy, Waiting for a Knighthood, Hair Trigger and Sex and Violence. So all of these stories exist in a high quality format.

The original videotapes for the other existing stories were wiped in the 1970’s, but luckily NTSC 525-line recordings were made and sold to Canada, who returned them to the BBC in the early 1980’s.  These were then converted back to PAL 625-line recordings, although by then they were already at least three generations down (i.e. the original PAL 625-line tape was convered to NTSC 525-line tape which was then converted back to PAL 625-line tape).  Each conversion would degrade the picture (motion would be blurry, for example) but whilst the picture quality wasn’t perfect, it was still pretty watchable and these copies were broadcast on UK Gold in the 1990’s.

A process called Reverse Standards Conversion (RSC) was developed several years ago and it was designed to restore something of the natural PAL videotape look to programmes like these.  All of the BBC archive holdings of converted 525 NTSC tapes were processed with RSC, but unfortunately many of the original NTSC tapes were then junked – leaving only the new, raw RSC conversions.

The RSC conversions require grading before they can be issued on DVD and this seems to be one of the major factors in preventing the release of a Doomwatch DVD.  All of the Doomwatch RSC episodes can be made ready for DVD release – but it will cost time and money.  And it appears that the amount of money required for grading is greater than the potential profit of a DVD release, so at present it seems that these stories are fated to remain in the archive.  It does seem a shame that the 525 NTSC tapes were wiped, as it would have been possible for them to be released.  They wouldn’t have looked great, but at least they would have been watchable.

The 625 PAL episodes (comprising a good selection from the first series, one episode from series two and the three existing episodes from the final series) could be released on their own though.  And there is a possibility that B&W film recordings of the stories that now only remain as raw RSC dubs are still in the archive.  Black and white copies of these episodes would be better than not having them released at all.  Of course, the best scenario is that we get a fully-restored release, along the lines of OOTU.  For that possibility, the BFI would seem to be our best hope.

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Doomwatch to be released on DVD by Simply Media – April 2016

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My article about Doomwatch and its current lack of availability on DVD is one of the most read posts on this blog.  That does seem to confirm that many people are still very interested in this classic early 1970’s series.

So it’s extremely welcome news that a six disc Doomwatch set will be released by Simply in April 2016.  It will contain all the existing episodes (including the untransmitted episode Sex and Violence as well as a documentary – The Cult of Doomwatch).

In all, twenty four episodes remain in the archives.  They are as follows –

Series One

The Plastic Eaters
Tomorrow, the Rat
Project Sahara
Re-Entry Forbidden
The Devil’s Sweets
The Red Sky
Train And De-Train
The Battery People

Series Two

You Killed Toby Wren
Invasion
The Islanders
No Room for Error
By the Pricking of My Thumbs…
The Iron Doctor
Flight into Yesterday
The Web of Fear
In the Dark
The Human Time Bomb
The Inquest
The Logicians
Public Enemy

Series Three

Waiting for a Knighthood
Hair Trigger
Sex and Violence

As can be seen from the above list, the archive status for series one is pretty good (eight out of the thirteen episodes exist), series two is complete whilst series three is by far the patchiest (only three of the twelve episodes remain, although it’s slightly curious that one of the survivors – Sex and Violence – was never transmitted.  You’d have assumed It would have been one of the first to be wiped).

As I discussed here, when it comes to picture quality, what we have left is something of a mixed bag.  Ten episodes exist on their original format – 625 PAL videotape and so should look pretty good (although the film inserts will no doubt have deteriorated over the past four decades).  The remaining fourteen episodes were returned to the BBC from Canada and it’ll be interesting to see what they look like.

The Canada episodes would have been converted from 625 PAL to 525 NTSC before they were sold, then converted back to 625 PAL when they were returned to the UK.  It was these converted copies that were broadcast on UK Gold in the mid 1990’s (and a couple of episodes were also released on VHS a few years prior to that).

The conversions from PAL to NTSC and back again to PAL would have degraded the picture somewhat, although a process developed several years ago called RSC (Reverse Standards Conversion) has been applied (this should restore something of the original PAL look).  Examples of RSC can be seen on various Doctor Who DVDs, although I have to confess that the results haven’t always pleasing to my eyes (especially the three episodes on The Sea Devils release).

As it’s doubtful that Simply will have a particularly large budget for restoration it’s probable that the RSC episodes will look a little rough around the edges, but if it’s a choice between having them in a less than ideal state or not at all then it’s a no-brainer.

Update 25/3/16 – My DVD review can be found here.

Doomwatch – Simply Media DVD Review

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The Series

Created by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, Doomwatch was an unsettling programme which ran for three series during the early 1970’s.  By this time, Pedler and Davis had been collaborators for several years – ever since Davis, working as script-editor on Doctor Who during the mid sixties, brought Pedler on board as a scientific advisor.  Although a scientist himself, Dr Christopher Magnus Howard Pedler had deep concerns about the way certain scientific advances were impacting on the world.  In Doctor Who this was given voice when Pedler and Davis created the Cybermen – today just another monster, but in their debut story – The Tenth Planet – there was room for debate about the morality of spare part surgery and where it might possibly end (would we all become emotionless Cybermen?).

Moving forward a few years, Pedler continued to be appalled by numerous scientific and ecological stories that he was reading about in the papers and various scientific journals.  Like Davis, he was concerned that mankind was slowly destroying their planet and both of them wanted to raise the public’s consciousness – and so Doomwatch was born.

Always keen that they should base their stories on science fact rather than science fiction, the pair quickly drafted a raft of story outlines.  These were then passed over to a team of writers who would flesh out Pedler and Davis’ concepts into fully fledged scripts.  Appointed as producer was Terence Dudley, who also crafted one of the series’ most memorable early episodes – Tomorrow, The Rat.  As is well known, Dudley enjoyed an uneasy working relationship with both Pedler and Davis and eventually the creators of Doomwatch were eased out as Dudley took creative control during the third  and final series.  History would repeat itself a few years later, when Dudley ousted series creator Terry Nation from Survivors and recreated that show to his own tastes.

Whilst later behind-the-scenes squabbling might have affected the show, cracks were beginning to appear as early as the second series (when one of the regulars, Simon Oates, announced he wanted to leave).  Since so little of series three remans it’s hard to really pass judgement on Dudley’s sole stewardship (although some light can shed via the book Deadly Dangerous Tomorrow which contains a number of scripts from wiped Doomwatch episodes, most of which are drawn from the final series). It currently seems to be out of print, so it’s worth keeping an eye on the publishers website (Miwk) to see if there’s a reprint in the future.

In the opening story, The Plastic Eaters, it’s explained that the Department for the Observation and Measurement of Scientific Work, nicknamed “Doomwatch”, was created by the government in response to overwhelming public concern about the dangerous side-effects of modern scientific research (such as pollution and other environmental hazards).  We’re told that the Doomwatch organisation was one of the chief reasons why the government was re-elected, but it’ll come as no surprise to learn that the Minster (John Barron) distrusts the small band of scientists and is keen to close them down.  Doomwatch are frequently seen to come into conflict with both the government and private companies, keen to ensure that this independent organisation doesn’t reveal truths they’d prefer to remain hidden.

They’re headed by Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul) a nobel-winning scientist who remains haunted that his research work was responsible – in part – for the creation of the atomic bomb.  John Ridge (Simon Oates) is his polar opposite, as whilst Quist is methodical and stern (although with the occasional glimmer of humour) Ridge is younger, much more flippant and very much the ladies man.  Resplendent in a series of impressive cravats, Ridge is used on occasions as Doomwatch’s secret weapon.  If there’s a lady scientist to be seduced, then Quist has no compunction in letting Ridge loose!

Colin Bradley (Joby Blanshard) tended to be stuck in the office during the early episodes, sometimes fretting over his computer (also called Doomwatch).  Doomwatch’s secretary, Pat Hunnisett (Wendy Hall) remained the most undeveloped character during series one.  Presumably created to provide the series with a little bit of glamour, she spends most of her time standing around looking pretty, stating the patently obvious or beating off the unsubtle advances of John Ridge.  She does have at least one episode that allows her to shine a little though – The Devil’s Sweets – where she’s central to the conclusion of the story.

These then are the characters who Tobias “Toby” Wren (Robert Powell) meets when he enters the office early in episode one for a job interview.  Toby is young and idealistic and neatly acts as a buffer between Ridge and Quist – he’s not as playful as Ridge but he’s also not as driven as Quist.

This line-up would remain in place for series one, but there would be several changes before Doomwatch returned for a second series.  Powell had decided to leave, as he didn’t want to get tied down to a long running show, and Hall, no doubt tiring of having little to do, also departed.  Geoff Hardcastle (John Nolan) was introduced as something of a Toby Wren clone, although he didn’t have much of a character and therefore remained a fairly secondary figure.  More interesting was Dr Fay Chantry (Jean Trend) who became a fully fledged member of the Doomwatch team.

I’ll go into more detail about the existing episodes when I start an episode by episode rewatch shortly, but there’s plenty of interest in what remains (with, it’s fair to say, a few undeniable duffers).  From series one, Tomorrow, The RatProject Sahara and The Devil’s Sweets have all long been favourites.  You Killed Toby Wren (a great performance from John Paul) and Invasion are early highlights from series two and whilst series three only exists in very reduced circumstances it’s good to have a decent copy of the untransmitted Sex and Violence.

The DVD

Doomwatch has been a desired release of many for a considerable time, but until Simply announced that they’d licenced it late last year it seemed doomed (as it were) to remain out of reach.  Four episodes were released on VHS in the early 1990’s and two of these were ported over to DVD in the early days of the DVD format.  There was also a single repeat run on UK Gold in the mid 1990’s, but after that everything went quiet.

A total of thirty eight episodes were made (thirteen episodes apiece for the first two series and twelve for the final run).  Eight from series one, all thirteen from series two but only three from the third series remain in the archives.  Ten episodes (six from series one, one from series two and all three from the third series) exist in their original PAL format whilst the remainder are now only available as NTSC conversions (the PAL tapes were converted to the NTSC picture format for sale to Canada and then back again to PAL when they were returned to the UK).

The quality of the NTSC episodes will be the main point of interest for many and it’s fair to say that they’re a mixed bag.  Although it was believed that the BBC had processed all the NTSC tapes they held in their archives with a process called Reverse Standards Conversion (RSC) and then dumped the original tapes – thereby only retaining the raw RSC output – looking at the varying quality of the NTSC episodes on this release I wonder if that was the case.

Some – like Tomorrow, The Rat – look very nice indeed, not too far removed from the original PAL master, whilst others – such as You Killed Toby Wren and Invasion – seem to be very noisy, raw RSC conversions.  But later series two episodes – The Iron Doctor, Flight Into Yesterday – might possibly be the original NTSC tapes which therefore lack the RSC process.  If so, then I find this preferable to the raw RSC look – these episodes may look a little blurry but for me that’s better than the heavy picture noise.

My main fear was that all the NTSC episodes would look like You Killed Toby Wren, luckily that’s not the case.  In an ideal world the episodes would have had extensive restoration, but it seems that little or no work was carried out.  That’s not a criticism of Simply – it’s more than likely that restoration and picture grading would have pushed the RRP to a point where the release wouldn’t have been economic.  So although some episodes do look poor in places it shouldn’t detract from the fact that we now have Doomwatch on DVD – better to have it looking a little rough around the edges than not at all.  It also has to be understood that there’s only a finite amount of work that can be done anyway – several Jon Pertwee Doctor Who DVDs include RSC episodes which have undergone a great deal of restoration work, and even those don’t look perfect.

The extras are the untransmitted episode Sex and Violence and the thirty minute documentary The Cult of Doomwatch.  Narrated by Robert Llewellyn, it’s a decent little programme which is chiefly of interest due to the interviews with Robert Powell and the late Simon Oates.

One puzzling thing about the DVD is why Simply haven’t included the episode titles, either on the packaging or on the DVD menu screens.  So if you want to watch, say, In The Dark, then it might take a little trial and error to select the right disc and then find the correct episode.  Hopefully in future Simply can provide an episode listing somewhere, it’ll make things much easier!

But apart from that minor niggle, this is an excellent release at a very decent price.  Simply’s catalogue of archive BBC releases continues to grow and this is a very worthy addition.  Highly recommended.

Doomwatch is released by Simply Media on the 4th of April 2016.  RRP £39.99.

Doomwatch – The Plastic Eaters

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Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis use an old story-telling trick to introduce the audience to the Doomwatch team – we meet them through the eyes of a new recruit, Toby Wren (Robert Powell).  Wren, young, keen and eager, first meets Dr John Ridge (Simon Oates) and Pat Hunnisett (Wendy Hall).  Ridge is a non-conformist and something of a lady-killer, which is confirmed when he confides to Toby that Pat would have introduced them, but she’s still upset as he pinched her bottom earlier on!  The nattily dressed Ridge screams early seventies, and whilst his behaviour can be a little eyebrow raising at times, it’s usually rescued by Simon Oates’ spot-on comic timing.  And as we’ll see as the series progresses, he’s also no slouch when it comes to playing the dramatic scenes.

Pat has little to do except stand around and look attractive, which is pretty much par for the course for all the stories she appears in.  Colin Bradley (Joby Blanshard) is the technical expert, and comes across as somewhat blunt and absorbed in his work.  He’s also not very well developed here, mainly existing as a line-feed for Quist.

That just leaves the head of Doomwatch, Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul).  It’s made clear early on that he’s a celebrated scientist – a Nobel Prize winner, no less – but it’s also established that he’s battling demons from his past.  It was Quist’s mathematical genius that was, in part, responsible for the creation of the atomic bomb.  This is something that continues to haunt him (and Ridge, knowing this, can’t resist mildly taunting him about it).  The Quist/Ridge dynamic is key to the series.  Both respect the others abilities, but there’s often no love lost between them (and they rarely see eye to eye about how to achieve their goals).  The first law of decent drama is that you have to have conflict and Quist and Ridge will certainly deliver this.

If Quist sometimes has trouble from his subordinates, that’s nothing to the problems he encounters from the Minister (John Barron).  The Minister regards Quist and the Doomwatch organisation as an irritation and aims to close them down at the first opportunity.

Toby is dispatched to investigate why a plane crashed, whilst the others work on the same problem at the office.  With the Minister so keen to curb Doomwatch’s wings, it’s rather a coincidence that the trail leads to his office, but there you go.  Ridge suggests that they burgle the Minister’s office to find the information they need and Quist, after a brief struggle with his conscience, agrees.  As a former intelligence operative, Ridge is happy to work outside of the law.  Quist prefers to play things by the book, but when he feels that information is being withheld (and lives could be at risk) he’s prepared to put his finer feelings to one side.

A top-secret formula which can break down plastic is found to be responsible for the destruction of the aircraft.  The increasing proliferation of plastic was a major concern at the time and whilst this formula could eventually be of immense use, it should never have been let out into the open.  This only happened due to carelessness at the Minister’s office (something which Quist can later use as a lever to guarantee the Minster’s cooperation).

Additional drama is generated when the plane that Toby’s travelling back on is infected by the same plastic virus – although to be honest the drama level is fairly low.  It would have been unusual (although not impossible) for Toby to be killed off in the first story, so we can be fairly sure that he’ll be safe.  And if he’s safe, then so are the rest of the passengers and crew, which makes the various attempts to generate tension slightly futile.

So although the ending is something of a damp squib (and the pre-credits sequence, showing the original plane crash is also less than effective, thanks to the too-obvious stock footage of crash-test dummies) The Plastic Eaters is still a decent opening episode thanks to the efficient way it introduces the main characters.

Doomwatch – Tomorrow, The Rat

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Tomorrow, The Rat is one of the best-remembered Doomwatch episodes, partly for the concept of super-intelligent rats but also for the sequence in which Robert Powell struggles with patently some fake rats which were attached to his trousers.  Powell’s very successful later career inevitably meant that this clip would be a favourite to be wheeled out when discussing his early acting days.  But this unintentionally hilarious scene shouldn’t detract from the quality of the story as a whole.

As Doomwatch progressed, there were two differing opinions as to how the series should proceed.  In the one corner we had series creators Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis and in the other was series producer Terence Dudley.  And because Dudley writes, directs and produces this episode, it offers a clear distillation of the programme he wanted Doomwatch to be.

With two missing episodes, most people go direct from Pedler and Davis’ The Plastic Eaters to this, and it’s quite a jarring transition.  The Plastic Eaters was written in a fairly cold and clinical way, as although there’s a considerable loss of life (the crashed plane) we never really got to know any of the people on the plane (only indirectly, via the Minister’s secretary) and so their fate doesn’t really resonate.

Tomorrow, The Rat is quite different, as the dangers of scientific meddling are shown to have a direct impact on ordinary people (the Chambers family).  And Dudley is very happy to ramp up the tension as the Chambers family are first menaced and then later attacked by the rats.  There’s also a certain amount of gore as we see both a mutilated horse and then later a mutilated human, Mary Bryant (the scientist responsible for the super-rats).

As with The Plastic Eaters we see how the government has indirectly led to the crisis – a combination of penny pinching and a wish for deniability regarding Bryant’s research has ensured the rats weren’t housed in a secure facility.  Instead they are placed in an ordinary London house, so it’s very easy for them to escape and terrorize the immediate neighbourhood.

Doomwatch are called in, and Quist’s investigations soon lead him to Dr Mary Bryant, who has been working for the Ministry on rodent disposal.  He dispatches John Ridge to seduce and (as it were) pump her for information.  Quist has clearly no qualms in using Ridge’s lady-killing skills to the benefit of the department, which is an eye-opener.  In a post-coital atmosphere, Bryant outlines her ultimate aims to Ridge – rats are just the first step.

We roll in the hay, I’m less than careful, you have a chromosonic idiosyncrasy and I give birth to an abnormal child. In my view, the height of human irresponsibility. The work I do on rats will be extended to human beings. By adding and subtracting from the genetic structure you can eliminate the abnormal.

She’s not the first person to hold such views of course, a chap called Adolf Hitler also was keen on genetic engineering.  As might be expected, this doesn’t go down with the Doomwatch team, but they also have the more pressing need of dealing with the rats at large in the community.

Bradley and Wren take up residence in the Chambers household and wait for the rats to appear again.  This leads to the famous rat attack scene and also it allows Wren (and the audience) to appreciate just how intelligent these rats are.  They managed to use spoons and forks to jam open the traps left by Wren and Bradley (although it’s probably best not to dwell too much on exactly how they could manage to extract the cutlery and manoeuvre it).

Overall, Tomorrow,The Rat is an excellent episode that manages to successfully juggle the demands of producing a story that not only has a strong scientific message but also has human characters in peril that we can identify with, plus a few scares thrown in along the way.  There are a few puzzling moments though – I’ve never quite understand how Dr Bryant’s desire to remove chromosonic instabilities in human beings connects to breeding intelligent rats who have a taste for human flesh, for example.

But although the plot seems a little loose at times, it definitely was an episode that sparked debate amongst the viewing public – it was obviously fiction, but like many of the Doomwatch stories there was always the chance it might happen.  And the number of times that a storyline from Doomwatch actually came true was a vindication of how the series managed to keep its pulse firmly on the latest scientific advances.

Doomwatch – Project Sahara

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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 Stella 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’ve already seen Keeping at the start of the episode – he works for the National Security Section, department XJ7.  Keeping opened the episode by reviewing the files of the Domwatch personnel via computer and waited for the computer to pass 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 the 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 could wield 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 from 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.

Doomwatch – Re-Entry Forbidden

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Re-Entry Forbidden was yet another story which was very much of its time.  During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s NASA’s numerous space missions had extensive television coverage and Re-Entry Forbidden taps into this by having Michael Aspel and James Burke play themselves at the start of the story.

The story was transmitted in March 1970, and the real-life problems encountered by Apollo 13 happened only a month later.  Although this could be seen as an example of prescient writing on behalf of the production team, it’s fair to say that space stories did seem to be popular at the time.  The Doctor Who story The Ambassadors of Death was also in production and has a solid connection to Re-Entry Forbidden since both productions agreed to split the cost of the space capsule and re-use it in both series.

Dick Larch (Michael McGovern) is the first British astronaut to journey into space.  He’s part of a three man crew piloting the NASA module Sunfire 1, along with American colleagues Bill Edwards (Craig Hunter) and Max Freedman (Noel Sheldon).  During re-entry, Larch is given the task of punching the co-ordinates into the computer.  He makes an error, unnoticed by his colleagues and Mission Control, which causes the module to drift off course.  Corrected co-ordinates are fed to Sunfire 1, but the last minute adjustments could make their return to Earth something of a “a hot ride down.”

Quist and the rest of the Doomwatch team are following the events on television.  Quist is concerned that there would be enough radioactive fuel on-board the module to create a major disaster, although James Burke reassures anxious viewers at home that there would be no danger of radioactive fall out.  The capsule splashes down safely and while Quist is happy there wasn’t any radioactive contamination he seems disinterested about the fate of the astronauts.  This puzzles Ridge, especially since Dick Larch was a student of Quist’s and Quist was responsible for providing Larch with a reference when he applied to join the space programme.

Although all three astronauts are unharmed, Larch seems to be in a slightly odd mood.  He snaps at his wife Carol (Veronica Larch) and doesn’t respond well to the questions of NASA psychologist Doctor Charles Goldsworthy (Joseph Fürst). Goldsworthy visits Quist and suggests he conducts some tests on Larch to see if he can identify any problem areas. Quist isn’t keen as he believes that Goldsworthy is organising a witch-hunt to find somebody to blame for the re-entry error.  “Scapegoat without reason, draped in the Union Jack” as Quist says. But eventually he agrees and Larch is invited to the Doomwatch office.

The tests are inconclusive, but Quist can console himself with the fact that Larch won’t be part of the next mission. Several months pass and Carol visits the Doomwatch office. She’s come to thank Quist for apparently giving her husband a clean bill of health. During the conversation Quist is concerned to learn that the same crew on Sunfire 1 will also be piloting Sunfire 2, due for blast-off shortly.

Toby chats with Carol and wonders whether being the first British astronaut put an extra strain on her husband.  Carol agrees and ponders if this was the reason why he was so edgy.  Toby asks her to elaborate and apparently he blamed everybody else for the error – even her.  This example of his behaviour concerns Quist and he, Ridge and Carol travel to the tracking station.  Once there, Quist is quite blunt. “We have evidence that Larch is a schizophrenic paranoiac and could endanger the mission. Over.”

Disastrously, this message is accidentally broadcast to the capsule and the astronauts sit in stunned silence, just as the re-entry co-ordinates are read out to them.  Larch attempts to leave his seat to input the co-ordinates, there’s something of a struggle and the window to input the data is lost.  The capsule seems doomed and Command Pilot Bill Edwards broadcasts a final message to Houston.

We have missed the corridor due to my error and my error alone. … What you may have seen just now on your screen… Dick Larch is a friend of mine. We are not judged by how we die, but by how we have lived…

Re-Entry Forbidden is a human drama where the Doomwatch team have to take something a back seat.  Dick Larch is the central character here and the whole story revolves around him.  What’s captured very well is the national and political tensions that the original re-entry creates.  Whilst there may be some suspicion that Larch was responsible for the error, there’s no proof and the Americans are well aware of the potential political fall-out if they accuse, without solid evidence, the only British member of the team.

It does stretch credibility to breaking point that nobody spoke to Carol about her husband and also that she didn’t discuss her concerns with anyone.  Had this happened then it’s probable the tragedy would have been avoided. Quist should also shoulder some of the blame – he was fairly detached throughout the story, much more concerned with the problems that would arise from radioactive fallout than with the possible physiological stresses encountered by the astronauts.

Because it never feels like a  Doomwatch story, there’s something a little unsatisfying about Re-Entry Forbidden.  It’s not really possible to feel any empathy with Dick Larch and the catalogue of blunders that lead to the fatal error – did nobody spot that he might not be A1? – feels a little contrived.