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Saturday, 21 February 2015

Green Sci Fi : The Classic Series "Doomwatch"

The 1970s saw the rise of the green movement, and with it came the BBC drama series Doomwatch, created by Dr Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis. A few years earlier this same writing duo had created the Cybermen in the classic Doctor Who story The Tenth Planet. Doomwatch ran between 1970 and 1972. In my view Doomwatch is one of the finest drama series ever made and a DVD release of the surviving episodes is long overdue.
The key figures behind the series were script writers Pedler, Davis and the producer Terence Dudley who later went on to produce another classic green movement related series Survivors. Pedler was a radical ecological thinker whose non-fiction book The Quest for Gaia gave practical advice on creating an ecologically sustainable lifestyle. He had previously collaborated with Davis on scripts for Doctor Who, a programme on which Davis had been the story editor and Pedler the unofficial scientific adviser during the 1960s. Their interest in the problems of science changing and endangering human life had led them to create the Cybermen and it was similar interests that led them to create Doomwatch. Doomwatch ran for three series and by the time of the third one in 1972 there had been behind the scenes rows between Dudley, who felt the scripts should be grounded in realism, and Pedler and Davis who were more prone to veer off into Doctor Who territory.
The basic premise of the series is the idea that mankind's greatest technological discoveries could well have increasingly negative consequences and therefore the time will come when a measure of governmental control will have to be devised to keep a watch on the effects of the various discoveries. Hence the creation of Doomwatch (actual name"Department for the Observation and Measurement of Scientific Work") , a semi-secret scientific government agency led by Dr Spencer Quist (played by John Paul). The job of the Doomwatch team was to investigate and combat ecological and technological dangers.
There are a number of particularly memorable episodes of the series which stick in the mind once seen. The Plastic Eaters features planes falling from the sky due to a man made plastic eating virus, while Tomorrow the Rat is a gruesome episode involving scientifically modified cannibal rats on the loose. At the end of the first series in Survival Code one of the Doomwatch team, Toby Wren played by a young Robert Powell, dies in an explosion while defusing a nuclear device. One of the best episodes Public Enemy involves waste products from a metallurgical factory poisoning local residents.

Doomwatch : the film

In 1972 an excellent feature film was made which added a new character to the team Dr Del Shaw played by Ian Bannen. The story, also by Pedler & Davis, involved a series of mysterious deaths on a remote Scottish island. Shaw is sent by Doomwatch to investigate the effects of a recent oil spill near to the island. The islanders are more than a little unwelcoming and Shaw eventually discovers that they are concealing a horrifying secret which involves toxic waste drums that have been dumped in the sea.

Here is the trailer:

There is an excellent book about Doomwatch entitled Prophets of Doom by Michael Seely which is packed with info on the series and contains a complete synopsis of every episode.

Doomwatch : the future

If ever there was a series that is crying out for a revival it is Doomwatch. Much has changed since the 1970s and the scriptwriters could have a field day with the ecological and technological threats of today; GM foods, global warming, fracking......   Think Torchwood but grounded in reality and dealing with real issues and concerns.
Otherwise at least the BBC could get their act together and release a box set of the original series on DVD.
In the absence of either of these, Doomwatch lives on in the form of the excellent website and in the form of my own fan fiction stories featuring a whole new Doomwatch team for the 21st century:

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