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New Scientist 4 February 1971

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Inside Doomwatch

The production team of the BBC series Doomwatch are rather tickled to discover that their efforts are included among those nominated for the Mullard Award which goes to the programme doing the most to promote public understanding of science. All the other entries are solid down-to-earth documentaries. Perhaps victory in this field will ensure a third incarnation of Dr Quist and his team. The last programme of the present series is about to be recorded and there is some doubt in the upper echelons of the Television Centre about the continued flow of doomladen situations. Those involved see no prospect of a drying up, however, and can rattle off a list of so far untapped subjects-treatment of laboratory animals by students, transportation of nerve gas, nuclear engineering, massive river pollution (of the Rhine), sewage disposal at Lake Constance, booming anti-pollution business in the United States, the use of dolphins to aid navies, race and IQ, the production of quick results to satisfy fund-providers, mining the continental shelf, etc.
Terence Dudley the producer, conscious of the cardboard characterisation of which some critics have complained, wants to emphasise human reactions to catastrophe a bit more and develop conflict among his characters. He is grateful to Dr Kit Pedler, who had the idea for the programme (he also founded Dr Who), for many things, one of which is the assurance gained from a visit to Pedler’s lab at the Institute of Ophthalmology that scientists are not the white-coated stereotypes of traditional fiction. But the huge following the series has built up among the young is not put down to the trendiness of Dr Ridge’s gear. Letters, while they include many from girls obviously hooked on one or the other of the characters (the late Toby Wren led the field), do show that the concern demonstrated by the stories is shared and welcomed. This concern is also to be found in an older group of people uninvolved in science.
The rest of the mail is made up of requests for source material and the occasional GP worried lest his patients get the wrong idea. Complaints of inaccuracy, says Dudley, usually spring from mishearing or misunderstanding the dialogue.
Several of the programmes have had real-life near-counterparts following closely enough to evoke comment in the press but the producers are not out for Whitehall reaction. They did notice, however, that when Tony Crosland wore an environmental hat he referred to “Doomwatch situations” during an interview. Last Monday the Quist team faced the problem of the effects of time zone changes on jetting travellers. For this one advice was sought from Dr George Christie of Syntex Pharmaceuticals who produced a study of effects under the title, Project Pegasus. Pilots (there were two of them involved) suffered least and extrovert go-getters more than solid company men. It’s also better not to travel alone but with a colleague of roughly approximate status to give you psychological support.

With thanks to Scott Burditt