THE TEAM WHO BROUGHT CYNICISM INTO TELEFANTASY
ANTHONY BROWN REMEMBERS THE TEAM OF SCIENTISTS WHO INVESTIGATED UNEXPECTED THREATS TO HUMANITY AND THE ENVIRONMENT, DESPITE THEIR GOVERNMENT’S ATTEMPTS TO KEEP A LID ON THINGS.
To viewers growing up with the rose-tinted future visions of Star Trek and its ilk, Doomwatch came as a bit of a shock when it burst onto TV screens in the early ’70's. Set in the then present day, it followed the activities of an environmental watchdog at odds with both the government that set it up and the businesses, scientists and military who look to suffer most from its investigations. Needless to say, the government, in the guise of the Minister, wants to remove Doomwatch’s Nobel Prize-winning chief and replace him with someone more compliant at the ﬁrst excuse. He almost gets his chance too as, in the pilot episode, Doomwatch bend the rules to investigate a suspected germ warfare research station which is actually developing bacteria to recycle plastic. Unfortunately, the bacteria proves to be uncontrollable, and the carelessness of the Minister’s own secretary leads to the contamination of an airliner which crashes after the system’s plastic insulation dissolves.
Worse was to come over the next few weeks... A kidnapped toddler turns out to have a transplanted monkey heart; a researcher grows mindless human “body farms” in incubators for future transplants; the guests on a pop star’s luxury yacht die after being exposed to nerve gas canisters they recover from a sunken wreck... In one particularly controversial episode, “Tomorrow, the Rat,” genetically engineered rats that are meant to prey on their rodent brethren (thus eradicating the need for rat poison) turn on man instead.
WAS IT ANY GOOD?
Absolutely. The transplant episode “Friday’s Child” sported a superbly chilling script and “Tomorrow, the Rat” managed to turn people’s stomachs despite the rubber rodents. Sometimes real-life caught up with events before the episodes were even shown — when Apollo 13’s real-life misfortunes pre-empted the disastrous spaceshot of “Re-Entry Forbidden,” for instance. Other episodes proved equally prescient. “The Islanders” carried eerie echoes of the Falklands War, and Doomwatchls attacks on lead in petrol and the fertility problems caused by hormones polluting water sources still ring true 20 years later. But there were duffers — notably the occasional panic about the “horrific” effects of jet-lag and the “crime-inducing” XYY chromosome (a trendy theory in the early ’70s). Still, who could have foreseen Doomwatch's most shocking moment at the close of the first series, as heart-throb Robert Powell found himself defusing an atomic bomb at the end of a South Coast pier... The explosive conclusion to the episode wasn’t quite what anyone had expected...
Sadly, things went downhill rather quickly after that. By the second season, the magic had gone, the show’s creators were in conflict with its producer, and the most popular characters were ready to move on — or already dead.
Heading the team was the brilliant, dedicated but guilt-ridden (he’d won the Nobel Prize for his work on the atomic bomb, and found the booby prize was his wife’s death from radiation- induced cancer) Spencer Quist, played by Probation Officer's star John Paul. His right- hand man was John Ridge, an ex-spy whose cynicism hid a complex nature. Sometimes, he was openly rebellious, frustrated by Quist’s caution and keen to take control of Doomwatch himself, at other times over-awed by Quist’s brilliance and well aware that it was the Quist’s reputation which kept Doomwatch aﬂoat.
Simon Oates came to the role after playing a similar character in the espionage thriller series The Mask of Janus, and had also been a stand-up comedian and a guest villain in several episodes of The Avengers. Completing the team was idealistic young Toby Wren, played by a not-yet-that-famous Robert Powell.
John Barron played the Minister, though only once or twice a season, with No Bananas’ Michael Elwyn as Richard Duncan, a junior minister who was unusually sympathetic towards Doomwatch — perhaps because Ridge saved his life during his first appearance. Filling out the cast were ]oby Blanshard as blunt-speaking Yorkshire boffin “Brad” Bradley, and Wendy Hall as the Doomwatch secretary Pat Hunnisett, who left the series to recover from a broken heart after Toby’s death. Vivien Sherrard replaced her in season two, alongside John Nolan as lacklustre Toby-substitute Geoff Hardcastle, and ]ean Trend as Dr Fay Chantry. Behind the scenes the series was the brainchild of doctor-turned-science fiction writer Kit Pedler and his partner Gerry Davis. Five years earlier, they’d created the Cybermen for Doctor Who, and Doomwatch merely took their concern over the abuse of technology to its logical conclusion.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
John Paul went on to a well-received role in I, Claudius, and continued acting through the ’80s with appearances in Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom prior to his death last year. Simon Oates played Steed in a stage version of The Avengers before spending several years in America, where he is now in semi-retirement. Recent roles have included parts in Remington Steel, Bergerac and The 10%ers, but one role which would tempt him out of his 13th century cottage is John Ridge, in an updated Doomwatch currently in the planning stages.
Robert Powell, of course, went on to become an international star, thanks to his performance in Jesus of Nazereth, and now plays a variety of roles, including Jasper Carrott’s partner in The Detectives. Joby Blanshard died in 1992, having made his final appearance in Jeffrey Archer’s First Among Equals before retiring six years earlier, while John Barron got to be where he is today by playing Reggie Perrin’s boss C].
On the production side, Kit Pedler died suddenly in 1981, having established himself as an environmental guru with his manifesto The Quest for Gaia and the TV series Mind over Matter He and Gerry Davis collaborated on three spin-off novels from the series, one of which almost became a film before Davis moved to America, where he contributed to such series as Vega$ and Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. He died in 1991. Producer Terence Dudley went on to produce the post- holocaust drama Survivors (Whose creator Terry Nation also left after falling out with the producer), and contributed to Doctor Who as a writer and director in the early ’80s. He died on Christmas Day 1989.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
To put it bluntly, producer Terence Dudley fell out with Pedler and Davis. Right from the start, they’d been pulling in different directions, with Wendy Hall remembering how one side saw her character as an Emma Peel-esque action girl, and the other as the perfect secretary. Late in the first season, a writer took his name off an episode after complaining that Dudley, Davis and the episode’s director were all asking him for contradictory rewrites. Though Pedler outlined 15 striking concepts before the series began, Doomwatch was never the easiest show to write for, with one idea going through the hands of three different writers before finally reaching the screen in the second season. While Dudley wanted to emphasise the political drama, Pedler and Davis were determined to keep the series on the cutting edge, and matters came to a head over the second season opener, “You Killed Toby Wren.” Shot late in the season, it concentrates on Quist’s guilt and Ridge’s rage over Toby’s death, though there’s also a horrific subplot about the production of human-animal hybrids. Pedler and Davis walked off, and, feeling the series had lost its edge without them, Simon Oates decided to leave as well. Pedler and Davis’ last connection to the series came with the film, which features most of the second season cast — though not without a battle. This Hammer- esque production (which pads out a passable plot with “We don’t like strangers ’ere”-style yokels) focuses on “star name” Ian Bannen as new team member Dr Shaw, and the established Doomwatch team only feature in a few scenes back at HQ. Fay and Brad only put in an appearance because Pedler and Davis insisted they be involved, though the producers were more determined to sign up Quist and Ridge. As Simon Oates puts it, “I turned them down, but they kept on offering so much money that eventually I gave in.” It’s not that bad, but it’s certainly not Doomwatch.
THE THIRD SEASON
With Pedler and Davis gone, Terence Dudley took the third season off in new directions — “more like Z-Cars than Doomwatch,” according to Kit Pedler. The second season newcomers were dropped in favour of Dr Anne Tarrant — the psychiatrist who’d treated Quist in a second season episode — and Commander Neil Stafford, a security specialist added to Doomwatch’s staff as the Minister’s in-house spy who rapidly joins the cause. John Barron’s appearances as the Minister became a regular feature, while Ridge was written out after beginning a terrorist campaign, only to reappear as a freelance activist and general irritant once he was found to have acted under diminished responsibility caused by inhaling the lead in petrol! Topics covered include the flooding of London, pesticide-resistant insects, euthanasia and the ease with which a terrorist group could steal a nuclear bomb. The greatest controversy surrounded an episode the BBC never broadcast - “Sex and Violence” — which was banned for including footage of a military execution. Ironically, the footage has since been seen many times in documentary programmes about capital punishment. To this day, the episode has not been aired...
A few things you probably didn't know about... DOOMWATCH
Doomwatch was actually entitled the Ministry of National Security's Department of Measurement of Scientitic Work.
Simon Oates received hate mail from viewers who accused him of letting Toby die. “lt’s not as if I wrote the bloody episode!" he commented.
A real-life Army unit provided the vehicles for the final scenes of “invasion” (in which a germ warfare-contaminated village is sealed off by the authorities) and made a real-life mess of the village used for filming.
Robert Powell insistedToby Wren be killed off after a year when he agreed to join the series.
Although John Barron made guest appearances as the Minister in the first two seasons before becoming a regular in the third, two other actors appeared in the role - Hamilton Dyce and John Savident.
Duncan only became a semi-regular character by accident.The script for his first episode originally featured a reappearance by one of the Minister's earlier henchmen.
Doomwatch didn't spawn many tie-ins: two videos of episodes, a young learners’ novelisation and three novels — none of which feature any of the Doomwatch team!
Dr Spencer Quist: John Paul
Dr John Ridge: Simon Oates
Dr Toby Wren: Robert Powell
Colin Bradley: Joby Blanshard
Pat Hunnisett: Wendy Hail
The Minister: John Barron
Richard Duncan: Michael Elwyn
Geoff Hardcastle: John Nolan
Barbara Mason:Vivien Sherrard
Dr Fay Chantry: JeanT rend
Dr Anne Tarrant: Elizabeth Weaver
Commander Neil Stafford: John Bown
Susan: Maria O’Brien
Created by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis
Producer: Terence Dudley
Theme music: Max Harris
Number of episodes: 38 50-minute episodes (including "Sex and Violence")
First season: 9 January to 11 March 1970
Second season: 14 December 1970 -22 March 1971
Third season: 5 June -14 August 1972
TV precedents: R3
TV descendants: The lethal virus episode of every TV cop show, Edge of Darkness, The X-Files
Guest stars: PatrickTroughton, Nigel Stock, Maurice Roeves, Paul Eddington, Richard Hurndall, Ray Brooks, Stephanie Turner, Nicholas Courtney, Geoffrey Palmer, Anthony Ainley, John Wood, Bernard Hepton, Sally Thomsett, Barry Foster, Desmond Llewel|yn,Trevor Bannister, Elisabeth Sladen, Frederick Jaeger, Brian Wilde, Michael Keating.