Starring: John Paul, Simon Oates, Robert Powell
This mammoth box set brings together all the surviving episodes of one of the iconic series of the early ’70s and a key entry in British sci-fi. Created by Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler – who also dreamt up the Cybermen during their long stint on Doctor Who – it’s a typically brooding, downbeat show in the manner of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass stories, but whereas Quatermass usually had threats from other planets to deal with, this group are battling problems of humanity’s own devising.
The series resolves around a scientific research department supposed to have oversight of possibly dangerous research projects, led by Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul), a Nobel laureate haunted by memories of his work on the atomic bomb (a “professional busybody” and his “staff of gestapos”, as one disgruntled scientist calls them). Doomwatch is the name of the room-sized supercomputer which helps them identify possible threats (“We’ve got to have more data!” is the constant clarion call), but again and again they find themselves hampered by Whitehall secrecy and the spinelessness of government ministers.
The topics touched upon are often extremely prescient – for example, in the first episode a plane is brought down by a virus originally created to destroy plastic waste (an issue which came to the forefront of people’s minds again with the recent introduction of the plastic bag charge). But the stories can also segue neatly into horror (a strain of sapient rats bred to eat each other but instead feasting on children and pets). There’s usually a clever puzzle element to each of the tales, as well as a fascination with Whitehall manoeuvring expressed in rich, literate language (“What would you call this, blackmail or bribery?” “Politics. It’s the bastard of both.”). And all the while ethical issues are explored without any dumbing down.
Forty years on, Doomwatch isn’t a thing of beauty to look at, although it does its best to disguise its own limited production values and even comes up with some fun gloopy FX now and then. It was shot on videotape which looks quite soft and grainy on this transfer, and the audio can also be a little weak and reedy. But the quality of the scripts is so high, that even with these provisos it’s a must-have purchase for fans of vintage British science fiction. 8/10