Original DOOMWATCH on DVD

Monday, 11 April 2016 23:00

The original DOOMWATCH - out now on DVDI was one of those children of the 1960s old enough to just about recall watching Doomwatch in one of its late-night (around 10.00pm) slots, when originally aired on BBC1 from 1970 to 1972. Something of a ‘treat’ given the lateness of the hour for a pre-teen, it was billed as Science Fiction extrapolated from Science Fact, the exploits of the Department of Measurement of Scientific Work, working to the Ministry for National Security, took on the facet of being a ‘forbidden fruit’ – you MUST be mature, as you wanted to watch this series!

My younger self recalled a lot of talking, with one or two action set-pieces each episode, on a good week that is. Now, revisiting what remains of the series (just 24 of 38 made are still in the archives), its premonitions are as jaw-dropping today as they must have been some 45 years ago. The politics in the background is spookily spot-on for a modern audience, and the attitude of authority to being questioned as dismissive as it still remains. The characterisations are strong, the scripts and direction crisp and enthralling. And you had a chance to win a copy of this Doomwatch DVD box set in our prize competition.

Much is made of the fact that, at its peek, Doomwatch attracted in excess of 13.6 million viewers. Having never previously been available on DVD, one barrier was that not all of the episodes still exist – not an easy ‘sell’ for those who want to be totally immersed, in this era of complete series bingeing that the likes of Netflix have made acceptable. However, what is still in the vaults is enough to create a seven-disc box set.

The series was the creation of Kid Pedler and Gerry Davis, who were responsible for Doctor Who’s uber-villains, the Cybermen, as well as the military elite UNIT. Amongst the happenings to investigate were hyper-intelligent rats, toxic waste, plastic-eating bacteria, psychosurgery, mind-destroying sound waves, air pollution, surveillance by the state and corporations, battery farming, and genetic mutations.

In the background, making their tasks as difficult as possible, were confrontations with volatile corporations, unsupportive government superiors, all heightened by the ever-changing dynamics within the team. It was a time when science, technology, and bureaucrats were being distrusted by the public in equal measure, and even today the storylines pack one hell of a punch.

The Doomwatch membership was helmed by Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul), initially alongside John Ridge (Simon Oates), Colin Bradley (Joby Blanshard) and, for one season only, Toby Wren (Robert Powell – who went on to take the lead role in 1977’s Jesus of Nazareth). Pat Hunnisett (Wendy Hall) was their ‘Girl Friday’ for the first run of episodes.

Quist was the gruff seen-everything go-to guy who regrets his role in the development of the A-bomb, something he carries with him via pictures on his office walls in the first two seasons. Ridge sees himself as somewhere between Jason King and James Burke, whereas Bradley has the Doomwatch computer as his best friend, and is thus its most passionate defender. Wren comes in as the ‘new boy’, full of flower-power hipness, whereas poor old Hunnisett is given very little to do.

Season two would see Geoff Hardcastle (John Nolan) and Dr Fay Chantry (Jean Trend) join the organisation, again for one season only, and new secretary Barbara Mason (Vivien Sherrard) who would feature in throughout the rest of the run. Hardcastle was very much a ‘lite’ version of Wren, without the brooding, whereas Chantry was easily the strongest female character to feature on the show, initially not enamoured of working for Doomwatch. Mason was functional and accepting of her role.

Commander Neil Stafford (John Bown) would join the cast for the third and final season. Not convinced by the Doomwatch methods and ethos, his loyalties always seemed to be divided, certainly in the episodes which still exist. Quist even gets a love interest in the shape of Dr Anne Tarrant (Elizabeth Weaver) who also finds herself in some of the Doomwatch action.

Peppered across 15 episodes of the three seasons is John Barron as The Minister, although we do meet other Ministers along the way. Barron is well known for playing bombastic boss CJ in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, and it doesn’t do anyone any disservice in pointing out his Doomwatch role is very much the prototype for the part he would play opposite Leonard Rossiter.

Well-known guest stars come thick and fast throughout the episodes. Look out for the likes of Patrick Troughton, John Savident, Talfryn Thomas, Geoffrey Palmer, Paul Eddington, George Baker, Ray Brooks, Maurice Roëves, Nigel Stock, George A Cooper, Colin Jeavons, Desmond Llewelyn, Trevor Bannister, Arthur Brough, Hildegard Neil, Michael Ripper, Kevin Stoney, Anthony Ainley, Glyn Houston, Ronald Hines, Frederick Jaeger, June Brown, Brian Cox, Robert Gillespie, Grant Taylor, Michael Culver, Sally Thomsett, Nicholas Courtney, Eric Chitty, Peter Miles, Bernard Horsfall, Stephanie Turner, Robin Davies, Sheila Grant, Michael Keating, Peter Hawkins, Harold Bennett, Noel Dyson, Peter Duncan, Brian Wilde, Chris Chittell, Queenie Watts, Bernard Hepton, Barry Foster, Richard Hurndall, William Lucas, George Pravda, Anthony Andrews, and even James Burke and Michael Aspel as themselves (although this was frowned upon and was not allowed to happen in fiction again)!

The series had quite an effect on the real-life world around it. A Parliamentary enquiry was established at Westminster to determine if such a group should be set up, for real. There are suggestions that the creation of the Department of the Environment was influenced by Doomwatch, the case for this all depends on whether you believe a Government can move quickly. The first episode of Doomwatch made its debut on Monday 9 February 1970 at 9.40pm; the Department of the Environment came into being on 15 October 1970 – combining the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Public Building and Works.

The other major selling point of this release is the unscreened episode from the third season – “Sex and Violence”. Originally planned as the fifth episode in the run, there is a variance in opinion as to why it was pulled from transmission. The official reason is that it includes actual footage of a Nigerian firing squad in action, with no pulling away from the actual moments of death. However, as the episode states categorically via the words the characters speak, this same footage had previously been screened on a television documentary, so the episode was consequently reflecting real life, rather than being sensationalist for the sake of it.

More likely is that there are characters present that, without too much of a stretch of the imagination, are lampoons of morality crusader Mary Whitehouse, as well as a committee chaired by Lord Longford. The episode is tied up with looking at the ‘media effect hypothesis’ which supposes that watching TV and film violence causes a greater proliferation of actual violence, much in a copycat style. A lot of time is spent with the cast debating both sides of this argument, which in the end leads to a very static segment of the series.

In terms of the sparseness of archive holdings this release has had to contend with, only ten of the episodes are originally ‘as recorded’ PAL 625-line masters. The balance of the survivors, 14, is what’s called ‘reverse standard conversions’ from NTSC 525-line duplicates returned to the BBC vaults over the years. The 12 of these which are from season two also exist as black and white film recordings – now, those who know some of the ‘VidFire’ restoration work done with Jon Pertwee Doctor Who episodes with similar NTSC and film recordings will know that, given enough time and money, episodes can be restored to an as-originally-broadcast quality – however, with Doomwatch now on the cusp of memory and sales not anticipated to be as good as Pertwee Who, you can understand why this has yet to be done.

This therefore gives us a stock for this release of eight out of 13 from season one, all 13 from season two, and just three out of 12 from season three – interestingly, by the final run, creators Kit Peddler and Gerry Davies had distanced themselves from the show due to its more hysterical direction, shall we say, and instead worked on a 1972 film adaption of the series, which featured a lot of the Doomwatch cast in small cameos, with Ian Bannen leading the line as a new team member, Del Shaw. The movie will be released on Blu-ray this Summer.

Given the rise of the Green movement over the years, it was probably not that surprising that in 1999 Channel 5 tried to revive Doomwatch for a new generation. Subtitled “Winter Angel”, Trevor Eve played the new driving force of the story, university lecturer Neil Tannahill, with Philip Stone cast in a brief cameo as Spencer Quist, who sends a note to him. It all points towards not only a nuclear conspiracy but something far more alarming, a plot which has just a few shades of the Hadron Collider mixed in to it!  Unfortunately, Channel 5 chickened out of going to a series – it would have been interesting to see how in would have developed. A shame this one wasn’t included in this DVD set, but is still widely available from its most recent release in 2011.

The lonesome special feature on this DVD set is the half-hour BBC documentary “The Cult of Doomwatch”, part of “The Cult Of…” series, from a decade ago (2006), narrated by Robert Llewellyn. Plenty of ‘talking heads’ interviews from cast and crew, and well done considering its fairly short running time. It’s a decent little programme which is chiefly of interest due to the interviews with Robert Powell, Jean Trend, and the late Simon Oates.

In the 21st Century, Doomwatch continues as an alternative current affairs format, where it has proven that truth really is stranger than fiction. Its strapline “DETECTION - OBSERVATION - OFFICIALDOM - MEDIA - WORLDWIDE - ANALYSIS - TECHNOLOGY - CORRUPTION – HEALTH” spells out the series name as an acronym, in a world of today where the job of a similar modern Whitehall department would be to cover up what is really going on, in particular how corporations and governments are polluting everything in the name of profits and backhanders. It will now be media outlets not connected to the military-industrial complex who will expose what’s really going on, and where the villains can be found, and that probably outlines the only aspect where the plots of the original Doomwatch have dated - except where, for instance lead in petrol, the series was spot-on with its predictions.

Doomwatch is out now from Simply Media. It has a ‘15’ certificate, a running time of 1,030 mins approx, and a RRP of £39.99 – or get it for less at www.culttvstore.com

We gave you an opportunity to win a copy of this Doomwatch DVD release to put on to your mantelpiece, in our competition, courtesy of Simply Media.

All you had to do was tell us the answer to the following question: Which Doomwatch actor went on to play Jesus of Nazareth? The answer was ROBERT POWELL, and the winner of the prize was Brad Start of Chelmsford.  Thanks to everyone who entered.

 

Last modified on Tuesday, 12 April 2016 02:43

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