Doomwatch – Public Enemy

public enemy

After a young boy retrieves his football from the roof of Carlingham Alloys he collapses and later dies.  His death shocks the local community, not least Arnold Payne (Derek Benfield).  Payne’s family had previously owned the factory but sold it some time back to a major multi-national concern (and he now views it with a very jaundiced eye).

Carlingham are developing a new process to produce a low-cost substitute for carbon fibre.  If they succeed before the Americans then the profits will be immense – which explains why lead scientist Dr Anthony Lewis (Trevor Bannister) spares little thought for the fate of a child who had been trespassing.  But the later death of a factory worker confirms there is a major problem and Quist and the others are on hand to suggest a series of measures which will tighten up safety procedures to ensure such tragedies never happen again.

But the story doesn’t end there …..

Public Enemy is a Doomwatch tale of two halves.  It begins very much in the mould of a series one episode – a mysterious unexplained death which the team investigate.  The show had also covered the conflict between big-business and the environment before (for example in Train and De-Train).  Indeed, it’s interesting to directly compare this episode with Train and De-Train.  In Train and De-Train, Mitchell, the head of Alminster Chemicals, is only concerned with Alminster’s profit margin.  If they’re responsible for environmental damage along the way then that’s regrettable, but to him it’s just a fact of life (his chief scientist is the one shown to have scruples).

In Public Enemy the position is totally reversed.  The managing director of Carlingham Alloys, Gerald Marlow (Glyn Huston), totally takes on board all of Quist’s safety recommendations and promises to ensure they’re put into practice.  It’s Dr Lewis who’s shown to be dismissive and obstructive – he feels that as the boy shouldn’t have been on the roof it’s not really their fault that he died.  His attitude appalls Quist – Lewis is the sort of scientist who, in his opinion, cuts corners and is therefore dangerous – which leads to a major confrontation between Quist and Geoff.

It’s a lovely moment which helps to flesh out Geoff’s character in what turned out to be his final appearance (it was Fay’s last story too).  After the pair spend a few seconds staring at each other following Geoff’s outburst, the atmosphere is lightened by Ridge who asks Quist if he’d like him to throw Geoff against the wall to see if he bounces!

Both Glyn Houston and Trevor Bannister (best known for his later role in Are You Being Served?) offer first-rate performances.  Houston plays Marlow as the sort of caring, considerate employer who seems almost too good to be true whilst Bannister’s Lewis spends most of the episode simmering with barely concealed rage at the nosy do-gooders from Doomwatch.  When Marlow first tells him that Doomwatch have been called in, he reacts by calling them “failed boffins”.  Marlow then counters by replying that Quist can hardly be called a failed boffin, but Lewis doesn’t reply, he simply smiles faintly.

After Doomwatch have identified the problem, that seems to be an end of it.  But Carlingham are not prepared to pay the hundred thousand pounds needed to implement the safety procedures recommended by Quist – instead they decide to close the factory and move production up to Leicester.  All the workers’ jobs are secure, but few are keen to up sticks and move.

This is where the second part of the story kicks in.  Up until now both the works committee and Payne have been fully behind Quist’s recommendations.  But Payne (a noted local businessman with several shops) knows that once the factory closes he’ll lose most of his trade, so his former virulent criticisms of the factory’s safety record now undergoes an ironic adjustment.  If it means keeping the workers here, then surely a little pollution is a small price to pay?  The works committee also accepted Quist’s recommendations and indeed welcomed them, but if it’s a choice between a move to Leicester and staying at the old factory (even if, as Quist says, they could face serious lung problems in as little as five years time) many would prefer to stay put and take their chances.

The shift in emphasis helps to spin the story off in a very different direction.  Had this been a series one episode then it’s highly likely that the creative team of Pedler and Davis would have chosen to highlight the heartlessness of profit-driven modern corporate business (as happened in both The Red Sky and Train and De-Train).  But that doesn’t happen here, which is a good example of how Doomwatch changed direction once Terence Dudley wrested creative control of the series from Pedler and Davis.

The episode culminates in a blistering final scene, excellently performed by John Paul, as Quist addresses the various vested interests who have most to lose if the factory closes. As Quist finishes his impassioned speech, the camera zooms into his face as he stares directly down the lens.  Breaking the fourth wall like this was unusual and it can be taken as a clear hint that Quist’s message was meant for the watching millions at home as well.  The speech isn’t subtle, but it’s powerfully delivered and closes series two very memorably.

Raise production, raise consumption, raise wages, advance the standard of living. But is anyone any happier? All that happens is that the debris that must inevitable accumulate in the process, slowly builds up until one day it must choke us.

Now we all want a clean, healthy world to live in, don’t we? We’re all against pollution in any form? But only when the cost of fighting it is borne by someone else. When our own pocket’s hit, a shilling on the rates, six weeks on the dole, a capital investment which makes a company merely viable, then no thanks, let’s forget it. Well, I’m warning you, forget it and you’re dead.

Not just this community, but the whole of industrial civilisation. The way we’re carrying on, the way we’re polluting, over-crowding, chemicals, noise, we’ve got thirty years. Thirty years of, dirty, slow, dirty dying. Or it’s thirty years for us to clear up the mess. That’s the choice! That’s your only choice! Pay up or pack up! Not only you, or you, or you, but every single one of us, every living one of us, all of us.

It’s a pity that both Jean Trend and John Nolan were written out of the series following this episode. Nolan spent most of the second series doing very little, but that’s no criticism of him as an actor – simply that Geoff Hardcastle was such an undeveloped character. When he was given a role to play – his double act with Ridge in Invasion or indeed in this episode – he was very watchable.  Trend will also be missed.  As she was replaced by the rather similar character of Dr Anne Tarrant during series three (who had first appeared in You Killed Toby Wren) I do find the change a little baffling.

Other major changes would occur during the third and final series, but with only three episodes existing from the transmitted twelve, sadly most of the stories now are only accessible via scripts or synopsis.

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Doomwatch – The Logicians

logicians

Fay and Ridge are at Beresfords, a major pharmaceutical company.  Beresfords have been been developing a powerful new antibiotic, K27, which Doomwatch have been closely monitoring – due to concerns over possible side-effects.

But since all the potential problems now seem to have been ironed out there seems no reason why K27 shouldn’t go into production.  However the next day, Beresfords’ managing director, Priestland (Noel Johnson), discovers that the formula has been stolen.

Although Ridge briefly becomes a suspect, he’s intrigued that a party of boys from a nearby private school called Elsedene were at Beresfords on the day of the robbery.  He and Geoff visit the school and Ridge is perturbed to see how dominant both computers and logical teaching methods are.  Could this be a breeding ground for emotionless, logical criminals?

Based on a story outline by Kit Pedler, it explored themes that he’d already developed in several Doctor Who stories, notably The Tomb of the Cybermen and The Wheel in SpaceTomb introduced us to Klieg and Kaftan, members of the Brotherhood of Logicians.  Pure logic was clearly something that perturbed Pedler – as it allowed Kleig to ally himself with the Cybermen with no thoughts given as to the consequences of his actions.  The Wheel in Space has even closer links to The Logicians, thanks to the appearance of Zoe.  Zoe, like the boys in this story, is a product of computer teaching and is shown to be emotionally deficient (“all brain and no heart”).

The scenes in the school, with the boys working at computer terminals, is clearly meant to be disturbing – although to a modern audience it probably seems perfectly normal.  Geoff isn’t happy with what he finds.  “It looked more like a space shell than a classroom to me. All the kids in headphones, wired up to a computer being fed questions and feeding back answers.”  This would have been a science fiction concept in 1971, but in 2016 it’s nothing out of the ordinary.

Quist approves of logical teaching for the young.  “Youth without an adult’s emotional stresses can absorb an enormous amount of this symbolic training. The ability to think straight, a cool appraisal of any situation, uncluttered by emotion or bias, that’s what the modern world needs today.”  But there are inherit dangers to this type of schooling.  Ridge tells Quist that the boys appeared to be display a type of mental arrogance (likening them to the Hitler Youth).

One slight flaw with the story is the notion that the boys are potentially dangerous because they’ve been computer taught – i.e. without the input of human teachers.  But when Ridge and Geoff observe them, the class is clearly being run by a teacher and the computers are only used as a aid to the lesson, they aren’t in control.  Elsedene is also the sort of public school where the only type of discipline is self-discipline, so even had the pupils not had access to these type of logical computer lessons they still might have developed along similar lines.

Although they’re criminals, it’s later revealed that the boys only stole the formula in order to extort a ransom (£25,000) from Beresfords so they could anonymously donate the money to Elsedene (which has been suffering from extreme financial difficulties).  But the unanswered question is what will happen when they leave school?  Will logic once again triumph over universally held notions of right and wrong?

Although the idea of a school dominated by computers may carry little resonance in the twenty first century (it’s a fact of life today) there’s plenty to enjoy in Dennis Spooner’s script.  Spooner was always the sort of writer who liked to inject humour whenever he could and this is reflected here.

Ridge is the recipient of many of Spooner’s funniest lines and Simon Oates delivers them perfectly.  Ridge and Geoff have some nice bantering scenes – Ridge turning his nose up at Geoff’s new coat and Geoff being theatrically disappointed at being forgotten when Ridge lists all the other members of the Doomwatch team.  Ridge is also on hand to pour cold water on Priestland’s gallant attempts to chat up Fay and he’s also entertaining when tangling with the police.  When Ridge later makes a clandestine call to the Doomwatch office from Elsedene and calls Fay “mother” you know that Spooner is enjoying himself!

Noel Johnson (Radio’s original Dick Barton) is suitably solid and dignified as Priestland, he’s a major plus point throughout the story.  Amongst the schoolboys is a young Peter Duncan, who’d turn up later in the Terence Dudley produced Survivors, as would Michael Gover (here playing Priesland’s number two, Kelsey).

If The Logicians is another Doomwatch story which feels a little underdeveloped (is there enough evidence to suggest that computer and logical teaching alone is responsible for turning the boys into criminals, or would that have happened anyway in the rarefied atmosphere of an unsupervised public school?) Dennis Spooner’s script clips along at a decent enough pace to cover any lapses in, well, logic.

Doomwatch – The Human Time Bomb

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Doomwatch have been asked to investigate the Amblethorpe project.  The brainchild of Sir Billy Langly (Kevin Brennan) it aims to solve the problem of population overcrowding.   Langly paints a nightmarish vision of the future to Quist.  “By the year 2000 there’ll be over eighty million people living in this country. They’ll want cars and places to park them. They’ll want clothing and feeding and educating and work to do, to say nothing of housing…”

Langly’s solution is to build more and more high rise flats.  With a booming population, he sees no other solution – but concerns have been raised about the dehumanising effect such places have on their occupants.  Fay has been assigned to do research at a typical block of flats – the Langly estate – living and working there for an extended period.  There certainly seems to be a malaise affecting some of the people and Fay herself also begins to crumble under the pressure …..

The Human Time Bomb has a social, rather than a scientific, problem to deal with.  Although tower blocks were still a fairly modern concept at the time, it’s plain from the tone of Louis Marks’ script that their inherent dangers were already clearly understood.  We open with the unfortunate Mr Hetherington (Talfryn Thomas).  As he joins his neighbours waiting for the lift, he gives them a cheery greeting – only to receive blank contempt from them.  As the lift descends, his anxiety at being jammed in like a sardine begins to tell.  Once he gets outside he rushes straight into the path of an oncoming car – still observed with dispassion by his neighbours.

When it’s later revealed that Hetherington worked for the planning office, it’s possible to wonder whether Langly is targeting people who might be a threat to him.  Fay has begun to receive crank calls and also has to deal with innuendo and abuse from some of her neighbours, whilst another member of the planning team, Scobie (Roddy McMillan) also has a breakdown.  This turns out not to be the case though as it simply all seems to be a coincidence, which is slightly hard to swallow.

The Human Time Bomb is an excellent vehicle for Jean Trend.  Fay, seemingly by the nature of the work she’s doing at the Langly estate, becomes isolated and paranoid.  This is demonstrated best when she asks the odd-job man Donovan (Ray Armstrong) to come to her flat to repair her lights.  He does so, but Fay interprets his attitude as hostile and attempts to attack him with a hammer.  Armstrong cleverly plays the scene in a fairly neutral way, so although his line about her promise to make his visit worth his while could be taken several ways, it does seem that Fay jumped to the wrong conclusion.

Quist is fairly dense throughout.  He seems to regard Fay’s concerns as the ravings of an unbalanced woman (surprising, since he’s supposed to consider her a first class scientist) and it’s only at the eleventh hour that he realises she could well be right and rushes back to her flat – just in time to save her from attacking Donovan.  Earlier, he failed to acknowledge that she saved him from being attacked by a young boy with a hammer – which confirms that by not living in the Langly estate like Fay he’s been unable to pick up on the atmosphere of fear and alienation.

If the vision of urban, inner-city life we see here isn’t terribly oppressive in a visual way (later productions would do it much better – in The Human Time Bomb everything still seems a little too neat and tidy) then Louis Marks’ script still manages to pile on the misery.  There’s few moments of light relief – even Ridge doesn’t really crack any decent gags – so the overall impression is quite relentless, which I presume was the tone Marks was aiming for.

The main flaw with the story is that it’s debatable just how much the tower block environment is responsible for the behaviour we see. Quist is convinced – but there’s little of the rigorous, methodical research he usually champions to back this up (instead, his conclusions seem to be derived more from hunches and guesswork). Fay’s bouts of hysteria do give Jean Trend something decent to work with, but it also has the unfortunate side effect of making her character seem rather neurotic.

So whilst this isn’t the strongest that series two has to offer, thanks to placing Fay front and centre it’s certainly of interest.

Doomwatch – In the Dark

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A swimmer dies off the Scottish coast.  Quist doesn’t consider this to be much of a mystery – after all, people have been known to drown before.  But he begins to show a little interest when Ridge reveals that the man died of mustard gas poisoning.  Some twenty five years earlier, a ship commanded by Lionel McArthur (Patrick Troughton) sank nearby.   Since it carried mustard gas it therefore seems likely that somehow this deadly cargo has started to pollute the area.

Although McArthur is an old friend of Quist, he elects instead to send Ridge along to investigate.  But Ridge finds McArthur to be a very elusive man and even when he tracks him down he finds his answers to be rather vague.  Eventually the truth is revealed – the man posing as the public face of Lionel McArthur is actually his cousin, Alan.  The real Lionel McArthur exists in a vegetative state – kept alive by machines.  But he doesn’t regard this in a negative way, for him it’s a positive triumph.  His body became diseased, so he replaced it with machines …..

Although In The Dark has a striking pre-credits sequence showing the hapless swimmer’s death (and following the credits there’s another memorable shot of the man’s dead face in the water, overlaid with the story title) this part of the story is little more than a MacGuffin – designed to get the Doomwatch team interacting with McArthur.  It’s not the first time this sort of plot device has been used, but it still feels a little clumsy.

But no matter.  Once we get past the first twenty minutes the story proper can begin.  Immobile in a hospital bad, with only his head visible, Patrick Troughton still manages to dominate the screen.  It’s interesting that given the subject matter of the story you might have expected it to be scripted by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, rather than John Gould.  McArthur is basically a Cyberman – his body fell ill, so he cheated death by replacing it.  The only part of him that remains human is his head, and he has plans to do something with that as well.  He tells a horrified Quist that he wishes to remove emotions – “anger, fear, love, hate” – in order to make him function more efficiently.  Anybody familiar with the first Cyberman story, The Tenth Planet, will instantly see the parallel.

The question of what existence actually means is at the heart of the story.  Both Ridge and Quist regard McArthur’s half life as no real life at all.  Quist asks McArthur some probing questions.  “We have no bodies, no needs, no desires. What’s the purpose of existing at all?”  McArthur responds he wishes “to become pure. To achieve that state that all the mystics have tried to achieve in their little futile, frustrated ways.  I may not look it to you Quist, but I am perfect. I am perfect man, because I am only brain.”

Alethea Charlton, as McArthur’s daughter Flora, has a small, but telling role.  She loves her father dearly, but implores Quist to try and persuade him to turn off the machines.  Unlike him, she’s realised that he’s now barely human and that although he’s gained a version of immortality it’s been achieved at a terrible cost.  Her husband, Andrew Seaton (Simon Lack) doesn’t share her concerns.  Somewhat coincidentally he’s in charge of McArthur’s treatment, telling Fay that “we virtually abolished death for him” and clearly regarding this to be a positive thing.

As for the Doomwatch team, Geoff and Bradley once more get the short end of the stick with just a few lines apiece.  It’s clear again that Quist, Ridge and Fay are the main characters and Gould’s script is tailored to all three of them.  Quist faces a moral dilemma – McArthur is a leading scientist and an old friend, so he feels an obligation to stay and do what he can to help.

Ridge has a wonderful monologue directed at Quist.  “You absorb all life into your own, did you know that? Everything that ever happens becomes a part of you. When you’re pre-occupied sometimes, I watch you walking. You don’t walk down ordinary, mundane streets, jostled by ordinary, mundane people. You pace the streets of a deserted village, or you tread the shattered planks of a seaside pier.”  Fay now occupies the same place in the narrative that Toby did during series one – acting as something of a buffer between Quist and Ridge.

The conclusion of the story doesn’t come as a surprise, but it’s still a powerful conclusion to a tale that poses difficult questions about how technology and medical care should co-exist.

Doomwatch – The Web of Fear

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The Minister of Health (John Savident) and Duncan are ensconced on a health farm, located on a remote island.  Quist is anxious to speak to the Minister as he needs an answer about the urgent flood problem, so isn’t best pleased to learn that the island has been placed in strict quarantine due to a suspected case of yellow fever.

Quist isn’t particularly interested in the yellow fever case, but it provides him with an excuse to travel over to the island with Fay to discuss the flood issue.  The Minister’s a wily old bird though and he agrees to read Quist’s paper – as long as he helps the island’s doctors with the yellow fever outbreak.  And it’s maybe just as well, as things aren’t as straightforward as they seem at first ….

Since this is a Gerry Davis script, it’s no surprise that it feels a little more like series one Doomwatch episode.  Something happens for which there seems to be an obvious solution, but scientific detective work is able to prove otherwise.

En-route to the island, Quist and Fay bump into the scientist Griffiths (Glyn Owen) and his wife Janine (Stephanie Bidmead).  Quist knows Griffiths very well (as we’ll discuss in a minute) but Fay has never heard of him.  Griffiths is keen to get to the island but is refused permission (although that doesn’t stop him, as both he and his wife charter a boat).  One major weakness with the script is that Quist never seems to stop and wonder why a notable scientist like Griffiths is so keen to get to the island .  Therefore it becomes clear to the audience much earlier than it does to Quist and the others that Griffiths unwittingly holds the key to the mystery.

Griffiths is a fascinating character, played with typical bluffness and spiky humour by Owen.  Quist explains to Fay a little about his history.  “He presented a paper at 2.00 pm at the Stockholm conference in ’65. By five o’clock it had been completely demolished. An elegant, almost perfect concept, ruined by inattention to detail.”  Three scientists were responsible for pointing out several flaws which invalidated his paper (which had taken him fifteen years to prepare) and one of them was Quist.  It’s a remarkable coincidence that they should now bump into each other again, but that’s television for you.

Although his life’s work was destroyed over the course of a few hours, Griffiths still doesn’t accept his research was flawed in any way, instead he still blames Quist and the others.  This is why he’s kept his latest work under wraps and this secrecy will be the death of him (and others).  It’s another sign that his researches are flawed – Quist tells Fay that a good scientist welcomes challenges to their theories (it helps them to refine and redraft) but the trauma of 1965 proved too much for Griffiths.

And what of Janine?  Stephanie Bidmead and Glyn Owen share several well-crafted scenes that do nothing to advance the plot, but help enormously to bring their characters into focus.  Janine shared Griffiths’ disappointment in 1965, but she’s been able to see that his paper was at fault and now she mourns less for him as she’s more concerned about the family they never had or the various other opportunities that passed them by, all because he was driven to chase something that always remained just out of his grasp.

The Web of Fear is a fairly bleak story although there are a few lighter moments.  Ridge’s description of Janine always seems to move chestwards (“and she has a nice pair of …..”) whilst John Savident has a couple of comic moments.  But the Minister, once he understands the gravity of the situation, is all business and is happy to back Quist once a solution is found.

What seems obvious from very early on is eventually confirmed.  Griffiths’ latest work (a man-made virus designed to combat the moths which attack the island’s apple crops) is proved to be responsible for the apparent yellow fever attacks.  Although the virus prepared by Griffiths only attacks moths, it can also trigger another virus in a new host.  So the moth is ingested by a spider and the spider then becomes deadly.  The attentive viewer would probably also have twigged this, as several times we hear different people commenting on how many spiders there seem to be –  a good indication that this is an important plot point for later.

Griffiths is stuck down a tunnel and faces danger from both the spiders and their webs.  Ridge elects to get him out and this forms the climax of the story, although it’s a little too drawn out for my tastes.  Plus the over dramatic stock music saps the tension a little.

Another problem with this scene is that Griffiths dies off camera a few minutes later, which makes all the effort to rescue him something of a waste of time.  But his death does allow Quist to give him a good eulogy.  After Janine sadly reflects that her husband wasted twenty five years of his life and ended up with nothing – not even a decent reputation, Quist begs to differ.  “He was a brilliant, intuitive scientist of the stamp of Pasteur, Einstein. The measure of the man is not that he failed, but that he so nearly brought it off. Twice.”

Although the story somewhat runs out of steam during the last twenty minutes or so, it’s still not a total write-off.  Glyn Owen and Stephanie Bidmead both have well-written parts and the core team of Quist, Ridge and Fay work well together.

Doomwatch – Flight into Yesterday

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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.

Doomwatch – The Iron Doctor

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Quist is amongst a group of interested observers who have come to view a pilot scheme at Parkway hospital.  Dr Whittaker (James Maxwell) proudly shows them around a geriatric ward where the patients have been linked up to a powerful computer, designed to monitor every aspect of their treatment.  In all cases,  their life expectancy has been extended well beyond normal estimates and Whittaker is fulsome in his praise for the computer.  “Utterly efficient, never tiring, absolutely impartial, the iron doctor.”

But Dr Carson (Barry Foster) isn’t quite so sure and when several patients die in mysterious circumstances he becomes convinced that the computer independently decided to cease treatment.  This shouldn’t be able to happen – the computer is programmed only to make suggestions and the final decision always rests with the doctors.  However, there is evidence to suggest that the computer has begun to think for itself …..

In some ways The Iron Doctor is a development of themes expressed in the series one story Project Sahara.  Both look at the way that computers might begin to supplant human beings in the decision making process, but in The Iron Doctor it’s literally a matter of life and death, whereas in Project Sahara the computer was only concerned with people’s suitability for employment.

The fear that computers would come to dominate human beings was a common one during the sixties and seventies.  There’s several key examples in Doctor Who (which also have direct links to Doomwatch).  The War Machines saw an all-powerful computer called WOTAN attempt to take over the world’s computer infrastructure (this was the first Doctor Who story to feature input from Kit Pedler).  In The Ice Warriors, we see a  Britain in the far future which is menaced by another ice age.  Leader Clent is a man who’s abdicated his personal responsibility to the computer and won’t admit that it could ever be wrong, whilst a member of his team, Penley, regards the computer as no substitute for human actions and intelligence.

Both The Ice Warriors and The Iron Doctor were written by Brian Hayles, so it’s possibly not a surprise to find there’s certain parallels in the stories.  Whittaker, like Clent, remains totally convinced about the computers infallibility, although in Whittaker’s case it’s a little harder to understand why.  He dismisses Carson’s fears very airly, telling him that he’d no doubt be happier returning to the days of the leeches.  Whittaker is presented as the sort of misguided scientist who’s become so blinded to the possibilities of future gains (although it’s all purely for the benefit of mankind – there’s no suggestion that he’s interested in personal glory or financial rewards) that he’s not prepared to listen to any suggestions that his current research could be flawed.  It’s a tricky part to play, but James Maxwell does so with aplomb – especially at the end, when he’s forced to admit his mistake and elects to take full responsibility.

Equally good is Barry Foster as Carson.  Later to become a familiar television face thanks to Van Der Valk, Foster is a key figure in the story, since he’s responsible for bringing the deaths to the attention of Doomwatch.  Carson is – despite Whittaker’s claims – no luddite, he knows that the computer can be a valuable tool but the evidence suggests that it’s somehow begun to think for itself.   The first man to die, George Mason (Harold Blewitt), was very ill and would have died shortly anyway, but Carson’s fear is that the computer realised this and decided independently that it was useless to carry on treatment.

Events then take a slight science fiction turn (although still just within the bounds of possibility) when Carson decides to take a closer look at the computer.  It detects Carson’s presence and electrocutes him. Later, when a critically ill Carson is hooked up to the computer’s life support systems, it suddenly cuts off.  The computer was developed from a war games machine and like those models it has a built in defence mechanism as well as a capacity to learn.  Although it’s a bit of a stretch to swallow that the computer was able to record a conversation where Carson stated that it was dangerous and then take steps to remove this threat.

The story’s a good one for most of the Doomwatch team (except Barbara, who only pops up briefly with a cup of tea).  Quist is, as usual, Doomwatch’s moral centre – stating his belief that computers shouldn’t be able to act independently as well as being the one who’s finally able to convince Whittaker that the computer is flawed.  Ridge goes undercover at the hospital – complete with rolled umbrella and posh accent.  It gives Simon Oates a chance to inject a little bit of humour into the story (and naturally enough he gets to ogle a nurse or two!)  Fay has a very decent scene with Whittaker early on, where she casts doubt over his research and even Bradley gets something to do for once – venturing out of the office to take a look at the computer.  Geoff probably gets the short end of the stick again, but with an expanded regular cast it’s inevitable that not everybody will have a great deal to do.

If the story has no mystery (the computer has to be acting by itself – if the patients had simply died of natural causes then it would have been a rather uninspiring fifty minutes) The Iron Doctor is still a very watchable episode, thanks to the guest stars and the thought-provoking topic.