I was unreasonably excited at the prospect of a DVD release for legendary BBC series Doomwatch, which I’d never seen beyond a few clips, the Tigon movie spin off and the 1999 Channel 5 reboot. Of course, it’s never good to build up expectations, lest you be crushingly disappointed, And so it was with Doomwatch, which has its moments, but which is more frequently let down by forces outside its control.
Created by Kit Pedler – a real life scientist and early environmental campaigner – and Gerry Davis (the pair having met while working on Doctor Who, for which they created the Cybermen), Doomwatch is the story of the titular government division the Department for the Observation and Measurement of Scientific Work, set up to monitor threats to humanity caused by dodgy or simply over-ambitious scientific work (the series is a classic example of anti-science paranoia, where every new development is bound to cause death and destruction). While Doomwatch was intended by politicians (usually represented by John Barron, as inadvertently hilarious here as he was in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin) as a sop to public green concerns and not designed to have real power, under the control of Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul), it takes its duties very seriously indeed, and throughout the three series, tackles assorted threats – from the small scale to the apocalyptic – while often battling with government bureaucrats who are often keen to cover up wrongdoing, placate voters and support their big business chums.
Working for Quist are serious minded new recruit Toby Wren (Robert Powell) – who is dramatically killed off at the end of series one – and loud-shirted ladies man Dr John Ridge (Simon Oates), while in the second series (in response to viewer complaints that the women in the show were little more than bimbo secretaries) the team were joined by a couple of female scientists, Dr Anne Tarrant (Elizabeth Weaver) and Dr Fay Chantry (Jean Trend).
There are two problems with Doomwatch when seen today, and to be fair to the show, neither are really its fault. Firstly, much of the show has been wiped, as per BBC policy on anything that wasn’t sport. Five episodes of series one and nine out of twelve episodes of series three remain lost – and we only have series two because tapes were found in Canada. Most annoyingly, the pivotal episode in which Wren is killed off is missing, though the important scene luckily survives as the introduction to series two. The loss of these episodes makes it hard to judge how the series developed in the third series and fails to explain the sudden absence of some characters.
The other problem with Doomwatch is more damaging, however. This is a show that was very much of its time in terms of production style, and as such it has dated very badly. We are used, of course, to the idea that 1970s BBC shows would be shot in a disconcerting mix of film (for exteriors) and videotape (for studio sets), the latter giving everything a horribly cheap feel and the jumping from one to the other an aesthetic annoyance. It seems especially irritating in this series though, for some reason. What’s more, the style at the time was to shoot ‘as live’, meaning that if anyone fumbled their lines, they just kept going. And it happens a lot here. John Paul is especially bad, but he can be forgiven when you consider the sheer levels of gobbledegook he had to remember in dialogue scenes that go on forever. And that’s the most irritating aspect of the show now, more than the fumbling dialogue of the mismatched shooting formats – it’s very, very slow. I’m not one for demanding everything movies at lightning speed – in fact, it’s one of the things that irks me about modern cinema. But here, a large chunk of the running time of each episode seems to consist of Quist in his office ranting interminably (Paul seemed determined to get through his dialogue as quickly as possible, maybe before he started to forget more of it). Quist is probably one of the most unappealing characters ever to head a TV show – and this doesn’t seem especially deliberate. But when you start feeling sympathy for the government lackeys that he is barking at, you know the character needs more work.
It’s a shame, because the series is full of interesting ideas that remain relevant today – you almost want these to be remade with better production values and acting, because most would still work now. Sure, the much-shown scene of actors hopping around with stuffed rats attached to their legs in Tomorrow, The Rat are hilarious – but the story itself is suitably chilling. And that’s often the case here – the stories deserve better than the show can provide.
Interestingly, one of the few episodes from series three to survive is the unbroadcast Sex and Violence, where Doomwatch is brought in to oversee an investigation into ‘the permissive society’. As relevant now as it was in 1972 (politicians still trot out the same cynical anti-porn arguments as those mocked here), it’s conversely very much of its time – you can’t imagine a modern TV show mocking clean up campaigners like Mary Whitehouse or Cliff Richard (here rechristened “Dick Burns”) – modern producers and writers would be more likely to sympathise with the anti-porn argument – or showing genuine Nigerian execution footage (fans of Faces of Death 2 will recognise this as the imagery that closed the film).
I very much wanted to like Doomwatch, but in the end, it felt very hard going. Clearly, there is a lot of love for the show still, but how much of this is rose-tinted childhood memory is open to question. I can’t see many people under 40 getting very much from this series, to be honest – the technical and production deficiencies will be just too much to move beyond, I suspect. But even as someone used to the BBC style of the era, I found this something of a struggle, and my disappointment was increased because unlike many shows, it felt as though Doomwatch deserved to be better than it ultimately turns out to be.