Few TV series can lay claim to actually having popularised a word in the English language. Doctor Who may have ingratiated ‘Dalek’ into the Oxford English but in the early 1970s the word ‘doomwatch’, to a British TV audience, at least, was irrevocably connected to this dramatic – sometimes wilfully melodramatic – series, created by Dr Kit Pedler and his co-writer Gerry Davis. The pair’s concerns about the potential dangers of unchecked and unmonitored scientific development had already created the iconic Cybermen for Doctor Who a few years earlier; initially, the Cybermen were humanoids, who replaced their body parts to avoid disease and ageing, ending up as cold, emotionless and ruthless machine-people. Doomwatch (based on the exploits of the fictional ‘Department of Observations and Measurement of Scientific Work’) was to be an altogether less fanciful affair. Across its 38 episodes (including one which was never transmitted) Doomwatch brought science into the audience’s sitting rooms, unnerving and occasionally terrifying the public with stories about killer rats, plastic-eating viruses, genetic mutation, the dumping of toxic waste and slightly less hysterical topics, such as the perils of jet lag and the difficult business of being slightly too tall.
Doomwatch’s head honcho is Nobel Prize winner Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul), a force of nature with his shock of grey hair and a nice line in comfy mustard-coloured cardigans. He’s a brusque, no-nonsense guy, riddled with guilt by the death of his wife, from radiation poison, and his own culpability from his work on the Manhattan Project. Quist is passionate, driven and single-minded but he’s no people person – he’s terse and officious, even to his closest colleagues - and he’s regularly butting heads with the pompous, blame-averse Minister (John Barron). Doomwatch’s man-of-action is Dr John Ridge (Simon Oates), a magnificent early 1970s male stereotype, a symphony of cravats, crazy shirts and prehistoric sexist attitudes. “She’s not talking to me because I pinched her bum just before lunch,” he offers, as an explanation for why a female colleague is giving him the cold shoulder in the first episode. The breakout star of the first season, though, was Robert Powell as fresh-faced new recruit Toby Wren, who joins Doomwatch in the classic first episode The Plastic Eaters. Willowy and animated, Toby Wren became a national heart-throb and his death at the end of the first series (in an episode no longer available, dammit) not only became a water cooler TV moment but also, inevitably, robbed the show of one of its greatest assets. Doomwatch made a number of attempts to replace Wren in subsequent seasons - Jean Trend’s Dr Fay Chantry turned up in episode four of season two and John Nolan as the inquisitive, spiky Geoff Hardcastle drifted in and out of the storylines – but the loss of Powell remained keenly felt throughout the rest of the series’ run.
Doomwatch is resolutely a product of its time. Most of it is shot on the now long-obsolete studio-based videotape system, primitive by today’s standards but offering an intimacy of performance not always available in modern filmed series; in You killed Toby Wren, the first episode of season two, the furious face-off between Quist and Ridge explodes out of the screen and the tension between the two is palpable. In many episodes, there’s clumsy use of stock footage, and special effects are often risibly unconvincing; the attack by ferocious killer rats in Tomorrow, The Rat involves actors, with stuffed rats sewn onto their clothes, hurling themselves around the set and pretending to try to wrench the animals free. But like the best British sci-fi (if Doomwatch can really be classified as such) it is about ideas and not effects and, at its finest – especially during the first two seasons – Doomwatch is extraordinarily gripping and remarkably prescient, often touching on subjects which continue to hit the headlines nearly fifty years later.
By the time the third season rolled around – only three of the twelve episodes exist following one of the BBC’s infamous 1970s videotape purges – the show’s impact had become diluted, thanks to the interference of producer Terence Dudley. Pedler and Davis walked away from their creation and the show quietly fizzled out – we may never know what delights episodes such as Safe Knife, Fat Man and The Killer Dolphins might have held (although we can make an educated guess on that second one) but this seven-disc DVD set does include the unscreened Sex and Violence, the show’s very last episode. This is a remarkable piece of television, largely consisting of a group of stolid British character actors playing thinly-disguised versions of polarising anti-smut campaigners like Long Longford and Mary Whitehouse, sitting around a table trying to decide whether the UK’s censorship laws should be tightened, as Quist sits in the background watching with interest. Despite its title, there’s no sex or violence, just a lot of talking.
If you can cope with Doomwatch’s creaky production values and its occasional high-handed moralising, there’s much to enjoy in these engrossing, studied dramas. The fact that the series is incomplete in the BBC Archives (only season two exists in its entirety) means we can never get a proper sense of the show’s scope and scale, or its real strengths and weaknesses, but what remains is a fascinating snapshot of a long-gone era of British television and a brave and forward-thinking series, which dared to put its head above the parapets during an era of rapidly evolving technology. The episodes presented here aren’t remastered or cleaned up – many are washed-out looking recordings returned from territories overseas – and the picture quality varies enormously. But the set is still a worthwhile investment for fans of genuine classic cult TV; Doomwatch is more than worth a rewatch.
Special features: The Cult of Doomwatch / 2006 TV documentary
DOOMWATCH – THE REMAINING EPISODES / CERT: 15 / DIRECTORS & SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: JOHN PAUL, SIMON OATES, ROBERT POWELL, JOBY BLANSHARD, JEAN TREND / RELEASE DATE: APRIL 4TH