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I have just sat down to watch Doomwatch for the first time. My first ever episode, and indeed, the first ever episode, The Plastic Eaters.
I had heard about this show from a programme on BBC4 a few years which looked at cult BBC programmes. Doomwatch was one of the shows they covered. From that I was already aware that the first episode was about a virus which ate plastic.

The programme gave me the impression that this was going to be a show asking fundamental questions about science and our society. In this case, it was to be how much do we rely on plastic. I was very surprised to find that the episode never really made use of the idea of how reliant we are on plastic. Plastic items started to get eaten away, or more accurately they seemed to lose their solidity and become semi-liquid. The idea that the virus could spread was mentioned but no mention of how society would stop without plastics.

I was very surprised to learn that they did not make more of this potential catastrophe. Instead the emphasis seemed to be with the scientists who have created this deadly virus. (and it is a biological virus, not just a chemical which means that it is able to spread, a nice detail to keep the science right at a time when Jon Pertwee’s Doctor was solving everything by shouting “Reverse the polarity.”)

Doomwatch is of it’s time. There are many reviewers who will say that Doomwatch is just as relevant today, perhaps even more so. I disagree. Currently I am only able to judge the show from one episode, but from what I have seen so far I would say that the show doesn’t seem to make that next step. That next step being to look at the major question about how much we depend upon science and technology and don’t even realise it. “What if plastic suddenly started to dissolve? Would it be the end of civilisation” is clearly a more modern approach to such a show.

Doomwatch seems to have been about the fact that science and technology are starting to play an even bigger role in the world we live in and how frightening a prospect that is.

Doomwatch was made at a time when science was starting to play a more dominant and inescapable role in the world we live in. People were frightened of the unknown beast that was emerging. The most obvious example of this from the time was the atomic bomb, as shown in the episode.

Science fiction from the time was showing computers as magical things which could try to take over the world. Loom at the 1966 Doctor who story “The War Machines” which is about exactly that. A giant computer (bigger and therefore more powerful was the thinking at the time, ironic in hindsight) is about to be linked up to take control of many of the world’s systems. Reporters are giving “What if….” doomsday scenarios which turn out to be justified.

Fighting against the fear of these magical all powerful thinking machines we see writers who insist that they are overrated tools which will never be as worthy as human beings. Professor Quatermass sits down to his meeting with the Ministry Of Defence to profess “After all we are men, not mindless machines!” Doctor Who was regularly having The Doctor refer to computers as stupid and “Useless Gadegets“. In particular The 1967 Doctor Who story The Ice warriors told a story of how the “Prescious computer” has questionable judgment because it is a slave to logic, unlike a human being.

Only a few years before Doomwatch Patrick McGoohan was making statements of how humanity was progressing too fast, and again, at that time, Doctor Who was showing us beings who tried to use technology to improve their bodies only to ultimately lose their humanity as a result of taking this process too far.

All of this shows a public who are afraid of the massive rate of scientific and technological progress which was starting to show itself. This is where I think Doomwatch falls down for today’s audience. It is a show about the people behind the science and how much power they have with their new toys.

I was not even alive when Doomwatch first aired. As I write this in 2010 I am 30 years old. I have lived in a time when science and technology have built the world I live in. Yes I am dependant on it, but that’s just one of those things I need to accept because the world I live in, which I love so much, would not exist without it.

I live in a world where information is freely available. I have up to date information from friends and relatives through the use of mobile text messages. If I want to know anything I can look it up on Wikipedia and other sources and get almost instant results. Many old programmes and films are easily available for me to watch at any time. I have a very reliable car which will even shut itself down if a fault occurs, preventing me from causing more damage, all thanks to computerised engine management systems.

A few months ago I came down with Pneumonia which was a trivial illness compared to what it could have potentially been. I give thanks to antibiotics. I can take it for granted that I will never come down with diseases like Polio thanks to vaccination.

I could go on and on talking about how great my life is because to science and technology. But what of the cost of this technology? I know from a clip I have seen that there is an episode of Doomwatch which looks at the dangers of lead in petrol. That has been absent from petrol for almost two decades. Also, a lot of the pollutants which were commonplace by-products of industry now undergo further processes which cause them to form carbon dioxide, which is harmless. True this is causing global warming, which is an additional problem, but one which does seem manageable if countries can finally settle the many years of talks. Certainly the “We’re poisoning the planet!” statements which environmentalists in the 70s would have proclaimed no longer holds.

Doomwatch shows a mindset, common at the time, in which a lot of people were afraid of the advancements in science and technology. This is no longer true. Most people now accept science and technology as a necessary part of life which is not a problem and which for the most part only brings benefits.

Doomwatch is of it’s time. Would a remake be as successful today? I don’t think such a show could ever raise awareness of potential issues today. We already live in a time in which scaremongering, usually based upon very little, usually highly discredited evidence, has given us scares like “Mobile phones cause brain tumours!” and “Vaccines are poisoning your body and can cause autism!” so you have to question if a well made programme could find any real scientific issues which could grab attention to match the unsubstantiated claims. I have probably given the impression that I hold negative feelings towards Doomwatch. I don’t. I Enjoyed the first episode and am keen to watch more. However, I think it must be watched in it’s time, like a lot of drama made in the past.

With thanks to Andrew Curry 24/8/2010