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DWB Issue 65 - May 1989

‘DOOMWATCH’ - 20 YEARS ON
Dedicated to the memory of Terence Dudley
WITH THE GOVERNMENT suddenly becoming aware that it has to do something about the escalating ecological crisis - the devastation of seal colonies, rogue ships with cargoes of dangerous chemical concoctions, the imminent overflow of land infill rubbish tips, not to mention the recent ozone scare - it seems an apt time to reflect on last decade’s environmental disaster series, ‘Doomwatch’.
It is rare enough for a television drama to consistently make the media headlines, but Doomwatch even managed to win itself an entry in the English dictionary. Made in the early seventies, Doomwatch was a spectacular and memorable series. It is time, now that environmental issues are back with such force in the news, combined with renewed public interest in old science fiction/fantasy series, to re-evaluate its impact.
In an era that was coming to terms with the flower power revolution, the time was ripe for Doomwatch. It wasn’t so much that the series made the headlines, it simply reflected the growing concern and preoccupation with man’s injustice to the environment. The horror book to read was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
The ‘seventies saw the rise of ecological groups like Friends Of The Earth and Greenpeace, so it really should have been no surprise that a writing partnership that consisted of a scientist and an ex-Doctor Who script editor should dream up Doomwatch. Eighteen years before Friends Of The Earth produced the documentary series Battle For The Planet, Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis had taken on the mantle of gloom-mongers.
Doomwatch was specifically designed to induce displeasure in its audience; it took on environmental issues and projected them into extremely discomforting and horrifying near future. It was the first in a growing line of futuristic science-fiction dramas set ‘20 minutes into the future’.
Doomwatch wasn’t set in the distant future,” claims its co-creator Davis, “It’s next Tuesday if you like.” To back this up, the programme’s storylines, powerfully produced by the late Terence Dudley, had a shocking preponderance to crop up in the newspapers a few weeks, or even days, later. Neither did the series apologise for its explicit and gratuitous effects in furthering its messages.
The style of the programme isn’t quite far enough away in time to yet be reclaimed (wide trousers may be making a comeback, but tank tops and kipper ties aren’t) but, although it looks rather embarrassingly dated on the surface, Doomwatch still impacts like it used to. Perhaps even more, now that we are seeing the same escalation in environmental disaster headlines that we saw in 1970.
In essence, Doomwatch was, as Gerry Davis describes it, “a mission impossible team who, when they saw something happening in the environment, took action to stop it before it got to disaster proportions.” The scientists in question — the idealistic Spencer Quist, the incorrigible rogue John Ridge and the naive Toby Wren - have also been described as a sort of ecological Ml5. It’s hard to imagine any recent British Government setting up such an organisation, but the scenarios themselves were never far from the truth. As such, they were even more chilling.
Pedler and Davis were no strangers to chilling futuristic drama having previously made their names as the writing team who scared a generation of children with their Doctor Who creations, the Cybermen. Now they were to chill that cohort again, along with their elders, with Doomwatch. Vicious, man—eating rodents; gratuitously realistic brain surgery; incredible melting aircraft; nerve gas cannisters washed up on Devon’s holiday beaches... The storylines were frightening, and yet compelling. They gripped the nation.
Audiences rose above the 12 million mark and the BBC was deluged with mail when Toby Wren was blown up on Brighton pier. It was such a success that it enabled Pedler and Davis to set up a freelance writing partnership. Gerry Davis has since worked in Hollywood for many years and Kit Pedler moved to documentary making Mind Over Matter for Thames Television before his death in 1981. Both are still remembered in the public consciousness, though, for that seminal series.
At the time, as Davis now describes, “Kit Pedler got the nickname ‘Doctor Doom’. He had a column in the Daily Mirror for a while because they thought he could see the future. He was the scientist, but I got called upon too...if they couldn’t get him. As a writer I know enough science to fudge scripts or pretend that I know more, but he really did know his stuff. When Three Mile Island happened he was the first one they called. He became really very famous as a result of our programme.”
That Kit Pedler took the concerns of Doomwatch to heart is borne out by Jonathan Porrit, director of Friends Of The Earth, who “always admired Pedler’s ability to link a profound understanding of global issues with an appreciation of the personal responsibility of each individual. He lived out his ecological principles in practice, even to the extent - if I remember rightly - of making his own disgusting soap.”
Such personal fervour was vindicated when, time and again. Doomwatch got its prophecies largely right. The headlines in the press screamed out its accuracy, and questions were even raised in Parliament on some of the ecological problems aired in the fictional series.
That Doomwatch was so predictive was not entirely coincidental. As Gerry Davis remembers it, he and Kit Pedler “spent a long time thinking out ideas, things that could happen. As luck would have it, they tended to happen just about the time that the programme went out. It was quite uncanny; out of the first thirteen, we had seven direct hits.”
The episode ‘The Battery People’, about male impotence brought on by working in a chicken factory farm feeding animal hormones to make them fat, was reflected in real life just a day after transmission. Davis describes how the Doomwatch version portrayed events: “These men were working in this hormone dust; it got into their bodies and they became impotent. We had a Welsh mining village full of Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins type characters who had switched from drinking beer to gin, where the divorce rate went up. In our story we focused on one couple who had been suffering from this and at the end they took the guy who had set up this farm and threw him into his own stuff and kill him.” The episode went out on a Monday night and a major story broke in the next day’s paper. Male workers at a contraceptive pill factory were having to be replaced by middle-aged women because of the effects of the hormones on their bodies.
One of the more famous Doomwatch episodes, ‘Tomorrow The Rat’, was, in Davis’ own words, “a very frightening story about some rats that mutated slightly and became a little more intelligent. They carried off their dead and triggered off traps. You’d put a trap out and they’d bring a spoon, drop it on the trap, then they’d get the cheese. They were in a modern building, not in an old haunted house.” In keeping with this horror story format the episode ended with a very horrific scene. “When our team got there,” described Davis, “they find the person who’s been responsible, the scientist who’d set up the experiment. They saw her skeleton on the floor picked clean by these rats. That got us more mail, it had a big effect.” As he recalls, a similar story arrived from Australia where “they had rats who’d been doing that sort of thing. They’d been carrying their dead and they’d been triggering traps, and we knew nothing about that when we wrote it.”
It wasn’t all luck, though, for Davis and Kit Pedler had started to build up an extensive collection of environmental, ecological and social problem reports when devising the series. “We began to keep scrapbooks about each new, devastating hazard - we had literally thousands of examples - and out of these scrapbooks, Doomwatch was born,” Davis recalls.
For Davis and Pedler, the most incredible coincidence from that first series was ‘Burial At Sea’. They had taken the Rolling Stones as inspiration for that story: “It started off with a pop group who were deliberately chosen to look like the Rolling Stones. At that point in time Mick Jagger had had a yacht and had been diving and there was a lot of publicity about his activities. So, the story began with a yacht and it was like the Marie Celeste. The coast guards take it in tow and aboard they find everybody zonked out from what appears to be drugs. The law was going to hit them very hard and they were going to charge them with manslaughter because one of their guests aboard, a girl, had died through what appeared to be a drug overdose. But our team investigated and it turned out that a nerve gas had been dumped on a site and another dumper had come along and dumped radioactive waste. The one had worked on the other and these nerve gas canisters (we had black canisters) floated up looking like depth charges. We worked out from the currents that if they were put in this particular deep in the ocean just off the English Channel, anything there that came up would wash ashore on a beach near Torquay in Devon called Paignton.”
Six months after the filming of that episode, and shortly after its transmission, a local photographer had a picture printed in the Daily Mirror next to a still from the programme. “We had one or two artistically arranged dead sea birds,” said Davis, “but both were of black canisters on the beach. When they were investigated they were found to be full of cyanide. Now you take your pick between nerve gas and cyanide.’
Not only were deadly canisters of cyanide found on Paignton beach in 1970, but toxic chemicals were found on that very same stretch of coastline last year.
The time may well be ripe for a re-screening of at least some episodes of the series, but they may not stand up to the test of time. Not only do they look exceedingly dated, but some of the morals of the series appear dubious. At odds with their real life environmental campaigner image, the members of the Doomwatch team had some very out of place habits. Toby Wren would light up a cigarette without a qualm (despite an anti-smoking stance in later episodes) and John Ridge would calmly seduce women in the line of duty (Pedler and Davis never dreamed of the scourge of AIDS).
Neither did they envisage that the same problems would be repeating themselves as we move into the final decade of the century. They did hope that a real Government agency would be set up in response to their creation: “We had always anticipated that an actual Doomwatch team would be established,” Davis recalls. “In 1970 we were invited to give briefings to both Peter Walker, then Environmental Secretary, and the shadow minister, John Silkin, to outline the composition of a Doomwatch unit, and what kind of scientific disciplines - chemistry, physics, psychology - would need to be represented.”   
Unusual, without a doubt, that the politicians would deem to take such note of a fictional creation and act upon it. Even more so, considering that the present government is doing all it can to wriggle out of the European Community’s programmes to control pollution and seems to think that organising conferences is the way to solve the problem of ozone depletion. Doomwatch, the television series, may have long finished, but the need for an environmental watchdog goes on. Today, Greenpeace fills that role.
By Susan Polan (with thanks to Gerry Davis)