Tuesday, December 7, 1999 by

Channel 5 isn’t where you would expect to encounter challenging, quality TV. Doomwatch proved an unsuccessful attempt at subverting that assumption. It’s not that this programme was intrinsically bad, there was the essence of some fine aspirations faintly palpable somewhere within the thing, but ultimately it proved an ugly, uncomfortable spectacle. Let’s go back to the ’70s, again.

The original Doomwatch kicked off that decade with extraordinary imagination and passion. This was a series led by a sense of outrage with a mandate to both illuminate and explain. Topics such as chemical warfare, pollution, waste disposal, genetic engineering and overcrowded housing were explored in a discursive, yet pacey manner. Most importantly – albeit after some petty espionage action committed by John Ridge (that oh-so-’70s carouser, dragging on fags and getting “stoned” in the pub) – the arguments for and against every issue were explored thoroughly and clearly. It was this debate that was at the root of the series. Our ’90s version didn’t shy away from that, it just seemed incapable of stringing an argument together.

For a viewer, actually following tonight’s Doomwatch was an extraordinarily demanding task. Characters appeared with little introduction, as though they existed simply to serve the purpose of a scene, or a story thread. For too long, events seemed disparate and unrelated. TheDoomwatch group itself remained diffused as a concept and virtually unexplained. Problems were rationalized and addressed only via fast-taking scientific jargon, which in itself was meaningless. Technology could do everything (surveillance cameras can go anywhere; computers talk, apparently sentient; mobile ‘phones operate within high security power plants). And those preposterous angel characters that drove Hugo Cox’s oversized PC! For a programme that’s based on a credible extrapolation of the dark potential of technology, this sort of “magic” served to undermine Doomwatch‘s credibility and fatally so.

But it was not intrinsically bad. The characterization outstripped the quality of the plotting, and by a long chalk. In particular, the new, aged Quist was a credible and agreeable extension of the ’70s original. One could see the late John Paul still playing this maverick, slightly pious character and as a replacement Philip Stone was more than adequate. Similarly, Quist’s death was handled with apt portent and subtlety making this easily the most affecting moment of the whole piece. But, and we’re back to “buts” again I’m afraid, Doomwatch‘s depiction of government agencies was woefully silly – men in dark glasses driving around, killing in inventive, Bondian ways. The original series showed far more successfully, that governments subvert and even kill through far less bawdy tactics; by dragging their heels, by wielding the Official Secrets Act, by committing important decisions to paperwork and bureaucracy.

OK, so I didn’t like it much, that’s true. And yet … I’m still rooting for a proper series to spin-off from this mess. Why? As the episode climaxed in a rush of sci-fi babble and poorly realised computer graphics, and as Dr Neil Tannahil returned to his equations, we were left with Dr Toby Ross in governance over a dangerously unstable black-hole (our macguffin). Here I caught a glimpse of something I liked: “We remain on permanent critical alert” said Dr Ross, “and contact the military for standby evacuation procedures.” That’s proper Doomwatch, I thought, still not saving the world.


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