Doomwatch finally comes to DVD for the first time in all of its remaining glory. A victim of the cultural vandalism of the 1970s when the BBC happily wiped loads of their programmes because they needed the shelf space and couldn’t imagine that anyone might want to watch the shows again, Doomwatch was at its height one of the most watched programmes on prime-time telly.
This box set is the 1030 minutes which remain – 7 discs including episodes 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11 from Series 1, the whole of Series 2 and episodes 4, 6, 12 from series 3 (including one which was never broadcast). The DVD also includes the excellent, if a little short, documentary The Cult of Doomwatch where the original participants look back on their time on the show.
Conceived by writers Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis (the creators of the Cybermen on Doctor Who) Doomwatch was an adult and serious take on sci-fi. With a bit of politics and sociology thrown in for good measure. Doomwatch itself was the nickname of a Government department tasked with making sure science or things with a scientific remit being done in the UK weren’t going to kill us all. As such the range of story-lines was broad, and all based on real scientific findings, ideas or predictions. The very first episode sets out the stall for the thriller aspect of the show by introducing us to a plastic eating virus developed to help recycling, which could get loose into the wider world as it has infected and is slowly consuming a dramatically melting aeroplane on which our hero is travelling.
But hang on? A Government department? Like the Department for Work and Pensions?
The Department of Measurement of Scientific Work reports to the Department for National Security and is the complete opposite to something like the X-Files. They aren’t secret, although their findings vary. They have a Minister who is in charge of them, and are well known appearing in the press a great deal, like any other government department. They are literally at the heart of all things scientific in the UK. As a result the episodes vary with regards to action – quite a few of them are more about arguing with politicians than the science, and are quite talky – a sort of scientific Yes Minister without the laughs. On the flipside other episodes feature things as extreme as genetic experiments where human heads have ended up on chickens, malevolent computers, human consciousness being transferred to machines and hyper intelligent rats.
This is science fiction based on science fact, but the sort of science fiction that people who hate science fiction can get behind. It’s absolutely no surprise that back in the day the show was so popular. Robert Powell, who played the pin-up Toby Wren in the first series, was our fresh-faced hero and way in to the show. His fan base was huge, and it kick-started his career.
Watching it now is a fascinating experience as a lot of the issues raised in the show have either actually come to pass or have impacted on public policy in the real world. One of the stories dealt with how potentially bad the lead added to petrol was. At the time this was generally thought of as the kind of thing which only concerned niche crackpot environmental campaigners. Come the year 2000, after nearly twenty years of the promotion of unleaded fuel and eight years after the last car to require leaded petrol being manufactured, leaded fuel was withdrawn from sale in the UK. Doomwatch was the first mainstream programme to mention the issue, and public pressure after its broadcast was thought to have impacted the amount of lead added to fuel. The programme was even referred to in Parliament on the matter. In fact the programme was often referred to in Parliament.
Consequently, combined with the very real horror of the issues being raised on primetime telly, the show had headline grabbing impact.
It is however very much a product of its time (1970-1972), the first series in particular where women are secretaries only and don’t appear to be allowed to do science. One of our heroes is Doctor John Ridge (Simon Oates) who by any standard of today would be considered an office sex pest. Attitudes improve in the two further series with the introduction of Doctor Fay Chantry (Jean Trend) but even Doctor Spencer Quist (John Paul) the head of the department is as guilty of mansplaining the issues (for the viewing public at home) as anyone else.
Quist is put upon but driven by his past as a Nobel winning physicist. He worked on the Manhattan project and the creation of the atomic bomb weighs heavy on his shoulders – his office features a large photographic tryptic of a mushroom cloud blooming which is directly opposite his desk and he can’t escape seeing. He is a good man who knows how huge the impact of science can be. His department was set up to assuage environmental voters and was never intended to actually have any power but he has made it his aim to cause trouble where necessary and make sure that Doomwatch actually has teeth.
Being of its time Doomwatch is perhaps more slowly paced than audiences today might expect – certainly more talking in the limited number of sets takes place than the usual “with a single bound they were free” thriller action – even though this does happen on occasion.
In The Cult of Doomwatch documentary we learn that when the writers of the revival, which appeared briefly on Channel 5 in the 1990s, tried to come up with ideas for new scientific stories, they discovered they’d all already been covered in the original series. The prescience on lots of issues is remarkable.
Doomwatch is an incredibly fascinating and very entertaining watch. It is television which makes you think – stuff which is in short supply these days. The ideas are presented with human consequences, and if you can forgive the more dated aspects of production (the intelligent killer rats in particular have not aged well) you will find much to enjoy.
Doomwatch – Series 1-3 The Remaining Episodes box set is out on DVD now and is worth a look. It is a must have for cult TV fans.