Picture the scene: It’s the 1990s. You’re watching the biggest TV show on the planet – namely The X-Files – and something weird happens, followed by a bunch more weird stuff (as is the form of The X-Files). Mulder and Scully, looking young, fit and not-remotely wrinkly in their pre-revival incarnations, investigate. Yet more weird stuff happens, and eventually, the episode ends with sceptic Scully turning to mad-theory Mulder: “What was that all about then, Mulder?” she asks. Her partner replies in his drawling voice, looking bored stupid as always, “I’ll say ‘aliens’, as I always do. But I honestly have absolutely no idea. It’s another unsolved case, Scully”. Roll credits and spooky music…
Somehow in the 1990s, this lack of explanation had become totally acceptable – but in the 1970s, it wasn’t. Perhaps it was because back then, television was more ‘theatre with cameras’ rather than ‘movies on the small screen’, but the TV shows of 40 years ago were required to have a proper beginning, middle and end – and no show properly explored science-based mysteries better than the gripping, fast-moving and intelligent weekly sci-fi drama series DOOMWATCH. With each episode aiming to educate the viewer about the potential dangers in new scientific progress, nothing was left unexplained. It also discussed “Green” issues long before they became popular, effectively introducing them to the masses.
Originally broadcast on BBC One between 1970 and 1972, Doomwatch was created by genuine scientist Dr Kit Pedler and script writer Gerry Davies, who together had created the still-popular cybermen for Doctor Who four years earlier. The series focussed on the activities of a British government agency created to prevent scientific advances from hurting mankind or the environment. The group investigate the horrors of technology going wrong; what happens when science ends up on the in the hands of the immoral; or the consequences of cutting corners due to corrupt political pressures or corporations putting profits first above safety.
The show’s storylines included a range of real-life subject matters, including embryo research, subliminal messages, wonder drugs, dumping of toxic waste, noise pollution, nuclear weaponry, animal exploitation, and more. This strong emphasis on science – particularly in the first series – meant that there was very little “dumbing down”. While each self-contained episode told a thrilling story, the shows often contain a lot of real scientific content, and although occasionally the dialogue can creak with the weight of explanation, it does expect viewers to pay attention and keep up!
From a dramatic perspective, it’s got everything: taught believable storylines featuring a great set of leading characters and razor-sharp dialogue. The Doomwatch team themselves are anti-authority, rebellious, argumentative, emotional and unorthodox – but above all professional scientists. The agency is led by grumpy, committed, tortured Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul). On his team are all-action, fast-talking womaniser Dr. John Ridge (Simon Oates), young keen and eager Tobias Wren (Robert Powell) and straight-talking ‘one-of-us’ Northerner Colin Bradley (Joby Blanshard); later to be joined by Barbara Mason (Vivien Sherrard), Geoff Hardcastle (John Nolan), Dr. Fay Chantry (Jean Trend), and Dr. Anne Tarrant (Elizabeth Weaver).
If you can look through the of-the-age fashions, contemporary sexism, the lack of mobile phones and personal computers, and the relatively low budget (although perfectly acceptable in the 1970s, the show can sometimes look a little basic when viewed from the 21st century), you’ll find a thrilling drama series, with great acting and a strong moral message that is more relevant than ever.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Doomwatch is a long-forgotten classic, a genuine gem from the archives. And if this reviewer had his way, the BBC would commission a contemporary remake – no explanation necessary.
Doomwatch: Series 1-3 The Remaining Episodes, featuring 24 episodes of the show, along with documentary “The Cult of Doomwatch”, is available now from Simply Media.