Meeting My Doom
Well, I intended this to be a place for random blogs as well as news items, yet I’ve done nothing about it. So let’s change that.
Over the last few weeks, I have become so completely obsessed with Doomwatch (1970-2) that I thought it might be cathartic to actually write about it. Here are a few ramblings…
I honestly don’t know why I didn’t know much about this series before. Having spent a childhood reading about almost any programme that came under the heading ‘telefantasy’, I can only conclude that I must have missed the issues of TV Zone etc. in which it featured. I probably knew more about utter obscurities such as Misfits of Science than this groundbreaking show, and I just never sought it out. What a waste of all those years!
I bought my husband Miwk’s biography of Kit Pedler for his birthday, and added their volume of lost Doomwatch scripts as a ‘why not?’ for good measure. As the latter is out of print now, I’m very glad I did! So it was not unsurprising that he decided to get the recent DVD release of the show, and I said I’d watch it with him.
Doomwatch was made around the same time as Jon Pertwee was playing Doctor Who, and there is a slightly similar vibe. John Paul (Quist) even shares several vocal mannerisms with Pertwee, which was initially disconcerting. But what’s obvious straightaway is that this show is a lot more adult. I don’t mean just that there’s a hell of a lot of smoking and sex references (although that certainly telegraphs it – both Wren and Ridge have a ‘come on, let’s just have sex for scientific purposes, scratch the itch’ speech to women very early on), but that it has a horror sensibility and a seriousness that makes it so much more grown-up. Clips of a fake rat stuck to Robert Powell’s trousers were a common sight on ‘let’s laugh at the past’ programmes once upon a time, but bloody hell, that episode is *good*. It’s well known that Doctor Who’s Cybermen were born due to Pedler’s extrapolating on spare part surgery, this is an entire programme devoted to real science and what might happen if it were pushed just that bit further, and it’s both eye-opening and extremely dramatic.
For the first season, the mainly excellent plots and scripts are matched by an excellent team. Knowing where his career goes from here, it’s hardly surprising that Robert Powell is stunningly good as Toby Wren. John Paul was an actor I wasn’t particularly aware of before this, but he’s perfect as the central force of Doomwatch. I also hadn’t been particularly aware of Simon Oates who plays Dr John Ridge, and it would be fair to say I fell for him with quite a clatter – not just because he’s stupendously attractive, but because in Ridge he creates such a passionate blend of humour, steel, bravery and intelligence but in such human, fallible form. I’ve heard others moan about Ridge’s sexism, which I suppose as I feminist I ought to condemn, but I love the character too much to care. It was the blend of these three extremely charismatic individuals – with good support from Joby Blanshard and Wendy Hall – plus the fierce intelligence, humour and horror of the scripts, that made this first season such a tour de force. If only more episodes survived!
Ending the first season with the death of Toby Wren was dramatic and heartbreaking. Unfortunately they seem to have half-killed Doomwatch at the same time. There are a lot of behind the scenes reasons for this – the aforementioned biography of Kit Pedler, The Quest for Pedler by Michael Seely (a very good read), will tell you all you need to know about the difference in vision between Pedler/Davis and producer Terence Dudley – but let’s just look at the onscreen effects. The first episode, You Killed Toby Wren, is very good, a look at the politics and the feelings the fatal event inspired, and the portrayals of Quist and Ridge’s differing reactions and their confrontations are electrifying. The ‘Doomwatch’ element is an unresolved look at human/animal hybrids that just acts as a catalyst for Ridge’s self-discovery. The characters we care about are front and centre, and it also introduces Geoff Hardcastle (played by John Nolan, now grey-haired in Person of Interest), a likeable young man who seems to be being groomed to be the new Toby Wren. But from here on, we’re taken further and further away from what made the show so distinctive. Doomwatch now has more members. There’s a new secretary, who’s barely seen for some time, and a new female scientist, Dr Fay Chantry, apparently brought in due to criticism of the sexist nature of the first season. If these characters were treated well it would be OK, but they’re not. They need more development, more distinctiveness, and particularly more screen time. They’re not even in every episode (shades of early Avengers, but not handled so well). Worst of all, though, is that all the regulars are treated as optional extras in the episodes they do appear in (not 100 per cent – there’s some great Ridge/Quist stuff in In the Dark, for example – but enough for it to be very noticeable). There’s less hands-on science – who’d even know that Ridge was a chemist, based on this season? What must have been a conscious decision, as it’s on show in nearly all the episodes, is foregrounding the guest stars of the week, giving us long scenes in which two previously unknown characters talk to each other about this week’s plot in a kitchen-sink-drama kind of way. Most of the time, unless the writing or characterisation is particularly good – eg Mr and Mrs Griffiths in The Web of Fear – I couldn’t care less. I want Quist! I want Hardcastle! I very especially want Ridge! (Simon Oates’s departure as a regular at the end of this season was due to his not getting to do much but lean against a filing cabinet in a shirt – which really was a criminal waste.) While I’m still loving the series, there’s a bit of – actually quite a large bit of – despair that those in charge didn’t realise what a special thing they had going that first year.
Season Three is harder to judge as only two broadcast episodes survive, plus one that never made the screen. Thankfully one of the episodes that survive is a Ridge episode. Do I like Ridge having crossed the line from action man to activist – read extremist – in Season Three? I’m not sure. At least it means he’s given things to do! Do I buy the character development? Sort of. I don’t think there is a straight line between Season One Ridge and Season Three Ridge, but I can believe he could be exceptionally ruthless given the right stimulus, and that he can be ruled by emotion and instinct unless he keeps a tight rein on himself. I imagine, however, that Simon Oates’s performances would have sold the idea better than it appears on paper. It seems, from what I know of the plots, that this season doesn’t learn any lessons from Season Two, in fact it disintegrates even more. But I’m judging from incomplete sources.
Yes, it does seem that I’ve just slagged off two-thirds of a show that I began by saying I was obsessed with. But they’re not mutually exclusive. It’s because I fell in love so quickly with Doomwatch that I feel strongly about its missed opportunities. Another two seasons of Quist/Ridge/Wren exploring ‘what ifs’ would have been heaven (I’d also accept Quist/Ridge/Hardcastle). I’m also incredibly surprised that Simon Oates and John Paul didn’t have the stratospheric careers that Robert Powell has had. To hear that Oates was this close to being James Bond – oh my god, how wonderful that would have been. Oh, they both had good careers, from all I’ve read and seen (I may just possibly be in the process of watching everything they’ve ever done that I can lay my hands on), but they were just so *good*, they should have been so much bigger. (Incidentally, my Dad lent me David Jason’s autobiography as he thought I’d find it interesting. It sat on the shelf unread for ages. And then blow me down if it doesn’t have a section about how Simon Oates was the one who ‘discovered’ Jason and gave him his start! Things turn up in the oddest places!) I would at this point like to wave to my husband who has been incredibly patient and understanding at my sudden hopeless devotion to Mr Oates. It felt bizarre, strange and wrong to discover that he’d died before I even knew he existed – exactly seven years ago tomorrow (today being 19 May 2016), and yet is so vibrant and full of life on screen. That’s one of the sorrows of being an archive TV fan, I guess.
I have devoted quite a lot of time and energy to thoughts on the missing episodes of Doctor Who, as anyone who’s seen my ‘Delegate Detective’ blog will know. Yet no Doctor Who episode is truly lost. There are scripts, there are audio recordings of every single soundtrack, there are photos and for many stories there are telesnaps. The missing Doomwatch episodes, however… Seven of the missing scripts have seen print, Spectre at the Feast (Season One) and five from Season Three in the Miwk scriptbook, and Survival Code (Season One) in the Pedler biography. There are detailed synopses of the others, so I am assuming that other scripts exist, or there are people out there with amazing memories (remember, I am still feeling my way with all this stuff, I don’t know the ins and outs fully yet). But there are no soundtracks and very few photos, as far as I can judge. The only ‘missing scene’ I know of is the reprise of the end of Survival Code at the beginning of You Killed Toby Wren. It may show you how much I have come to adore this programme that I would actually place any missing Season One episode of Doomwatch (in particular Friday’s Child), and any missing Season Three Ridge episode, higher in my ‘wants’ list than any episode of Doctor Who – yes, including those featuring Dalek Delegates! (People who know me well may faint at this revelation.) Season Three began transmission the month I was born. If only I’d been born three weeks earlier and blessed with sufficient powers of cognition, memory and a baby television of my own, I could have watched Ridge hold the world to ransom. Gah! Well, Doctor Who’s missing episodes have been appearing in fits and starts over the last few years. Doomwatch was not so widely distributed, but let’s not give up hope that something may reappear one day.
I wish I’d discovered Doomwatch sooner. And yet I’m glad I’ve discovered it at last. And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and monitor the eBay bidding on a copy of the Radio Times with the Fire and Brimstone Ridge cover – a magazine that’s practically the same age as me. I have put on a ridiculously high maximum bid, because I am a woman with an obsession. Wish me luck!