IF YOU CAN GET PAST THE fashions (cravat city) and the out-of-date attitudes (Simon Oates’s womanising Ridge pinches the secretary’s bum in the first episode’s opening minutes), there is still much that is relevant to Doomwatch. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, this peak-time 1970 show was created by scientist Kit Pedler and writer Gerry Davis – the men whose imaginations also spawned Doctor Who’s Cybermen. By the end of the ’60s, after five adventures the Cybermen were on hiatus, freeing Pedler and Davis to develop Doomwatch. The show explored all manner of environmental catastrophes, capitalising on the early–’70s high profile of the nascent Green movement. The stories came from the headlines of the day, and in several cases even anticipated real-world events.
Unofficially dubbed “Doomwatch”, the series’ small team of scientists were officially working for the Department for the Observation and Measurement of Scientific Work. The team was led by Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul), who was haunted by his role in creating the atomic bomb and maybe causing his wife’s radiation-induced death. It also included former spy Dr John Ridge (Oates), the idealistic Toby Wren (Robert Powell, who quit after one season), and their technician Colin Bradley (Joby Blanshard). In the words of Quist, Doomwatch “were set up to investigate scientific research, public or private, which could be harmful to man”. According to co-creator Gerry Davis (speaking in 1988 – he died in 1991, aged 61): “Doomwatch wasn’t set in the distant future. It’s next Tuesday, if you like. [It’s] a Mission: Impossible team who, when they saw something happening in the environment, took action to stop it before it got to disaster proportions.”
Davis had the ideal collaborator in Kit Pedler, a maverick scientist who acted as a scientific adviser on Doctor Who, as well as collaborating with Davis on various Cyberman storylines. “Pedler got the nickname ‘Doctor Doom’,” recalled Davis. “He had a column in the Daily Mirror, because they thought he could see the future. He was the scientist, but I got called upon too… if they couldn’t get him! As a writer, I know enough science to fudge scripts or pretend that I know more, but he really did know his stuff. He became really very famous as a result of our programme.”
As Davis remembered it, he and Pedler “spent a long time thinking out ideas, things that could happen. We began to keep scrapbooks about each new devastating hazard – we had literally thousands of examples – and out of these scrapbooks, Doomwatch was born. As luck would have it, things tended to happen just about the time the programme went out. It was quite uncanny – out of the first 13 we had seven direct hits.”
The first season got off to a spectacular start with “The Plastic Eaters”, in which Variant 14 – a plastic-devouring enzyme designed to destroy waste – gets loose on a plane that Toby Wren is travelling on. The show was launched by a Radio Times front cover, an honour also extended to each of the following seasons.
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