Well that’s the annual Winterval over as far as I’m concerned. I’m slightly disorientated because nearly everyone in my apartment building has gone away for Christmas, leaving the place eerily quiet and dark. Additionally I had underestimated how warm a small modern flat could be, with the strange result that I’m sitting here in an unheated flat on the 27th December wearing a vest (undershirt to US readers) and feeling distinctly warm. These two things are putting me in mind of the end of the word and so my attention has naturally turned to the legendary series Doomwatch, which I see is due to be released in its remaining entirety in the spring. This post is solely based on the DVD of two episodes – about a plastic-eating virus and mutant rats – and reading around other people’s writing on the show.
In this show the 1960s’ ambivalence towards scientific progress reaches its peak, as does suspicion (I don’t really want to use the words conspiracy or paranoia) towards the establishment. The frequently simplistic Cold War-era dialectic of goodies and baddies, with the Establishment firmly set as the goodies, although open to infiltration, is turned on its head and made more realistic. I feel that probably this is one of the reasons old TV is so comforting, even TV dealing with such apparently live issues as megalomaniac evil genii, that the end is always going to be a return to a settled status quo, and peace for Blighty. Doomwatch is not slow to deal with the other side of this coin, that the government could set up a toothless agency to be seen to be ensuring the safety of scientific investigation, with the sequel that the personnel selected for the agency turn it into a real investigative body, and that the reality of scientific investigation could well lead to actual disasters.
As usual the key for me is to try to watch the show from the perspective of the time and my feeling is that this show would have been genuinely chilling. As has been commented repeatedly here before, the 1970s was an age of real fear, people were actually prepared for nuclear war starting at any moment. My own mother had a hoard of tinned food and a plan written on the back of an old envelope. In Doomwatch, just as in real life, the optimism of the post war years turns bitter and the technology which made so much of life easier than it had been, was easily turned against us. That this pressed buttons in the psyche of the time, was indicated by the huge popularity and prominence of the show at the time.
Given the contemporary popularity of the show and its legendary status among cult TV fans, I would have to comment that it is very difficult for what was intended to be a shown-once show to live up to its inflated reputation. It is also mooted as a predecessor of The X-Files, obliging it to carry a very heavy mantle indeed. That said, Doomwatch doesn’t do a bad job at all. It is perhaps necessary to make a few allowances before judging it. Its production values are in my opinion slightly old-fashioned for the time, although once again trying to see it through contemporary eyes I’m guessing it was intended to use the pace and ethos of a serious drama, if not of documentary footage at the time. One of its episodes, which was never broadcast, did use actual footage of an execution, for example. The overall impression is firmly of a serious contender in TV drama terms, intending to give an impression of being based on actual facts: Doomwatch’s success is that required by all TV fantasy, that it makes the viewer believe that the events in the show could happen. The second episode on this DVD is actually the classic example of this, and is probably more effective now than forty years ago, since rats are now actually beginning to take over urban areas and the authorities are having increasing difficulties keeping on top of them.
Visually, it uses an interesting mixture of the visual languages used by the various shows I have blogged about before. Classic British interiors are used to indicate either the Establishment or solid, authoritative knowledge. Visually, we know we can rely on the Doomwatch staff because their offices are conservative, panelled, with books. The Doomwatch personnel are interstingly seen in opposition to Establishment figures who disbelieve their information about a plastic-eating virus, and who are seen in exactly the same environment. Modern, laboratory-type environments are used to indicate the rarified atmosphere of the research which ironically leads to danger for humanity. This is again a slight inversion of the visual language used in both The Avengers and Doctor Who.
In addition to an increased complexity of visual language, the characterisation of Doomwatch is more developed than in some ‘sci-fi’ series. No character is the cardboard cutout that you could expect, but each character has a full share of ambivalence and complexity. This is an adult show, and is dealing with complexities of adult emotions and life. In terms of pace the show moves slower than modern TV, as is to be expected. I suppose what I’m feeling towards here is that Doomwatch copes well with its inflated reputation, given the production of the time, and the fact that it was intended to be viewed once and then wiped.
My one criticism is a criticism of effect. The plastic-eating virus is very well shown as creating a strange black sludge. In the episode about the rats a very effective scene shows rat traps being set, before they are found propped open with cutlery and the bait taken, by rats who are heard from outside the room but not seen. The fact that they are unseen makes this scene effective and that is how they should have been left. The effect is completely spoiled by the next scene, in which some very obviously unreal rats are seen attacking the investigators. Even in the early 1970s surely the effect could have been better than that.
So my overall impression of Doomwatch is that it is a sophisticated, overall effective show, well capable to carrying the heavy mantle of its reputation, with just some reservations about shortcomings in special effects. I’m looking forward to the remaining shows being released this year.