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London: Of Man Rats

LONDON—On March 2, the switchboard of the British Broadcasting Corporation experienced a sudden surge of worried, indignant and just plain inquisitive telephone calls from TV viewers. They were jolted by an episode in a new drama series featuring a species of superintelligent rats, originally bred to destroy their fellows, which had developed a craving for human flesh. The series is called "Doomwatch."
‘Every Monday Night. it reports the latest campaign of a fictitious government agency, the ‘Department of Observation and Measurement of Scientific‘ Work, whose job is to monitor and check all technological research and step in whenever this may prove harmful to man.

The difference in public reaction was not just due to the more Powerful emotional impact of pictorial science-fiction over printed science-fact. “Doomwatch,” originally assumed by critics to be another fantasy thriller series after the fashion of “The Avengers," is now widely recognized among knowledgeable British telly-watchers as a semi documentary drama of ideas.

The superrat episode, based on actual experiments being carried out here, was dramatizing as usual the dangers of poisoning and distorting our environment for quick profits or easy satisfactions.

Only a week later, The London Sunday Telegraph reported that representatives of the British plastics industry had been protesting to the B.B.C. about another imaginary creature in "Doomwatch"—a strain of laboratory bug. designed to consume man - made materials, that proved unable to discriminate between old polyethylene garbage and essential parts of machines such as aircraft.
Not only did these spokesmen complain “you are ‘ruining our image” but the paper went on, they also had to admit that the real-life scientists were dabbling with just such a bug as the savior of our refuse problem."

THE authenticity of the ‘problems, ethical as well as technical, stems from the first-hand experience of 42-year-old Kit Pedler, co-inventor of the fictitious government agency and author of several of the scripts. In the academic world, he is known as Dr. D.M.H.‘Pedler, Doctor of Medicine as well as of Philosophy, head of the department of anatomy. in London University's Institute of Ophthalmology.
Wearing his medical hat, his major concern is investigating the possibilities of an electronic replacement for diseased or damaged eyes.

In his capacity as a plotspotter for “Doomwatch,” he combs the professional journals for clues to tomorrow’s world - “for developments which, if they aren’t happening now, they will be shortly. Fact is in, bug-eyed monsters are out.”
The runaway cult of the series does not spring just from its scientific plausibiity. Politically, too, it is exceptionally sophisticated for a ‘mass entertainment drama, with an audience of eight million, broadcast by a state-
subsidized corporation.

It is assumed that a new government has been elected on a platform of protest, against pollution, and the “Doomwatch" project has been dreamed up by the Cabinet as a sop to public opinion. But the team refuses to be a bureaucratic rubber stamp and insists on taking, action in the face of hostility from scientists, big local authorities, from business, the armed forces and the Ministry of National Security.
Nor are its members the usual innocent idealists, passing their spare time in mild flirtatious among the bubbling retorts. Dr. Quist, the head of the department, is a tough-minded skeptic who says: “I’m quite certain the concept of God is absurd, but if he did exist, he certainly wasn't a Christian.” His security report ends “We recommend that He be kept under detailed surveillance.”

Original article written by ALAN BRIEN. Newspaper story Copyright © The New York Times, Published 6th April 1970

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