Synopsis: Doomwatch centres on a team of scientist who are heavily involved in keeping a check on both the private and public sector when it comes to new scientific advancements. The team is led by Dr. Spencer Quist.
Review: Released just yesterday is this wonderful DVD Box set, which brings to light perhaps one of the most underrated science fiction drama series of the early 70’s.
The set includes all the surviving episodes of the series, which centres on a team of scientist who monitor the potential threats caused by new advancing sciences and the public and private sector companies that try to rush them through development.
The series was an early starring role for Robert Powell who played investigative scientist Tobias Wren who works under the Nobel prize winning scientist Dr. Spencer Quist (John Paul).
The series played on real life fears with regards to advancing technologies and gave a series of cautionary tails about subjects involving chemicals, plastics and endless other scientific advances that were happening at the time.
‘Doomwatch’ is short for ‘Department of Measurement of Scientific Work’, which is a government funded team of researchers who fast become the first point of call when science runs amok.
The set includes seven DVD’s, which make up all the surviving episodes from all three seasons of the show, which back in its day did roughly 13 million viewers a night.
The series was created and developed by Kit Pedlar and Gerry Davis who already had some science fiction form having both developed and designed the Cybermen for ‘Doctor Who’.
The genius behind this series was its focus on a contemporary team of scientist dealing with the ramifications of irresponsible the private sector rushing ahead with scientific projects without adequate research and checks.
In the series Dr. Quist is a veteran of the horrific Manhattan project, which saw the creation of the two nuclear bombs that were used in Japan during the latter stages of the second world war. Quist even has a poster of the mushroom cloud in his office, which served to remind viewers of the emotional baggage he carries with him.
His principal sidekick was action-man Dr John Ridge who was kind of played a bit like James Bond in that he was often the character that did the spy work and seduced the women. John Ridge is played by Simon Oates.
The series begins with Toby Wren (Robert Powell) joining the team and being seemingly put straight to work with absolutely no ceremony at all.
Sadly only eight of the thirteen episodes from season one survived, but the ones that did are fantastic viewing and in parts genuinely scary. The first season comprises of ‘The Plastic Eaters’, which kicks off the series with a plane being brought down due to a rampant plastic eating bacteria, which literally eats the plane apart.
Also included in season one is ‘Tomorrow the Rat’, which sees genetically altered rats running rampant and attacking people. Rats were a subject of many horror and science fiction shows back in the seventies and I suspect this episode of ‘Doomwatch’ is an early example. We most likely have the James Herbert novel ‘The Rats’ to thank for this episode.
If you ask anyone who remembers seeing ‘Doomwatch’ when it first aired. They’ll likely point to the moment where Colin Bradley and Toby Wren are attacked by the selectively bred super rats with a taste for human flesh. The sheer comedic mayhem of Powell and Blanshard whacking the plastic rats that are so obviously sewn onto their trouser legs, with a frying pan, is solid gold slapstick. Despite the limited special effects of the time. ‘Tomorrow The Rat’ still manages to provide some chilling moments.
Other surviving episodes include a ‘Big Brother’ style computer, an insane British Astronaut, subliminal cigarette advertising, hypersonic shockwaves from a secret aircraft project, deadly agricultural weed killer side effects and genetically engineered trout that render the fish farm workers impotent.
Adding to all this mayhem is the threat lurking from Departmental Minister (John Barron) who thinks Doomwatch’s meddling into the affairs of the influentual big pharma companies and defence corporations are just a bit too inconvenient for the government.
Powell leaves the series after the first season, and is killed off in the final episode of the opening series, which is sadly one of the lost episodes. He is replaced by Geoff Hardcastle (John Nolan) who has a fashionable chip on his shoulder about being under 30 and a penchant for wearing leather car coats.
The second season of the show gets more and more progressive as it tackles controversial subjects of the day such as: biological warfare, drug resistant bacteria, DNA profiling, medical computers, mutated viral pesticides high density high rise living and toxic industrial gases. Vivisection and animal experiments also raise their ugly head in an episode about animal hybridisation and again in a story that featured imported rabid laboratory dogs, a particularly hot topic following the 1969 UK rabies scare, which I remember being discussed in the media in the mid seventies.
The third season saw more changes for the team as Chantry and Hardcastle leave and Ridge gets banged up in a secure mental institution after his attempt to force world leaders to protect the environment from the threat of an Anthrax epidemic in the lost season opener. Quist and Bradley are joined by government mole Commander Neil Stafford (John Bown) and Quist’s recently acquired second wife, psychologist Dr Anne Tarrant (Elizabeth Weaver).
The addition of psychologist to the team proves pretty useful for Season Three’s two surviving broadcast episodes, which explore the links between mental health and atmospheric lead and then controlling the criminal brain with a computer implant. Tarrant also gets a big role in the banned episode ‘Sex and Violence’, when ministerial pressure is put upon Quist to determine whether permissive 1970’s attitudes to sex and nudity were causing a decline in public morals. This was a hot topic of the time, and something that often came up throughout the seventies and eighties, which was a time when the BBC were running scared from Mary Whitehouse from the National Viewers and Listeners Association.
By today’s standards ‘Doomwatch’s’ production values are a bit on the rough and ready side. A lot of the action takes place in the studio, because the budget was to tight to allow for to much location filming, which was a common problem in the 70’s. In spite of the these limitations the series still manages to provide some real creepy and scary moments. The show does have a lot of nostalgia value as well thanks to guest appearances by much loved actors like the late Desmond Llewelyn, Sally Thomsett from ‘The Railway Children’ and ‘Blackadder’s’ Nursie Patsy Byrne among the bit players.
Although some of this shows story-lines slightly miss the mark. It’s still an interesting watch due to many of the topics such as genetic engineering and drug resistant bacteria being still of relevance to this day.
The DVD extras with this set include the BBC documentary ‘The Cult of Doomwatch’, which features fascinating insights and interviews from cast members and critic Kim Newman. Given the nature of the series and the fact that much of the science investigated is still relevant to this day. I’d liked to have seen a few more extras on the set.
Summing up. This DVD set is well worth it for those that remember the series and would like to revisit it, but its also worth having as a piece of television history from a time when the BBC were considered to be a little less conservative when it came to broadcasting original science fiction and horror, which was heavily based in the here and now.
- DVD Transfer10