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Doomwatch - New Scientist review (1970)


BBC-TV's new scientific soap-opera, Doomwatch, has been fortunate in its first selection of topics to warn us about. The episode about leaking nerve-gas at the bottom of the sea stirred up uneasy memories of the unexplained deaths of those sea-birds; the report about a new generation of intelligent, poison-resistant rats in Wales does not help us to forget the story of the rats which discovered the law of the lever; and rebellious university students do not have to be convinced that future governments may depend for their existence on computerized dossiers on private and political lives. But the prognostications are not all melodramatic; the programme on the sinister plan to boost cigarette sales was also a salutary reminder of common dangers associated with the misuse of psychology and the casual use of certain drugs. The series, of course has been devised by Kit Pedler (with advice of one Dr. C. M. H. Pedler), which guarantees a considerable degree of scientific authenticity.
Why, then is this series so incredible? The reason is certainly no that it is mere science fiction; the best fictional material can create as deep and as genuine a chill as any fact-filled documentary. But to accept fiction of any sort one has to begin to believe in the humanity of its characters, and the scientists in Doomwatch have as much humanity as you would find in a month of Sunday supplements. They inhabit a two-dimensional world (the other dimension, more often than not, being sex) in which it is impossible to imagine personal relationships that are not constantly charged with high emotional voltage or a domesticity that has no insistent melodramatic overtones. If you ever caught Quist boiling an egg, it would probably blow up in his face.
The intentions of the series are admirable. Alistair Cooke (also predicting doom and gloom) pointed out recently that casting directors know exactly what scientists look like-and that they are usually wrong. Doomwatch studiously avoids the stereotype of omniscience and austerity which is the delight of devotees of old movies, yet replaces it with another stereotype which is certainly trendier but just as incredible. This is all the more regrettable because of the great opportunity to break down a few barriers between science and the lay public. In its programme on Sir Bernard Spilsbury, Horizon-doubtless preaching to a converted few-explored the danger that the public may accept uncritically the findings of a scientist which it concerns or even slightly fears. The danger with Doomwatch is that the serious scientific content may be assessed on the same critical level as its cardboard characters and dismissed as enjoyable nonsense. The ironic remedy is that the series can best do service to science by improving its dramatic qualities.

Review from Issue 695 Page 3 2 April 1970


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