Sunday, 3 April 2016

Doomwatch: boxed set

Today I have taken delivery of the newly-released boxed set of the remaining episodes of Doomwatch. I seem to remember a rather ambivalent attitude towards this show, based on the only two episodes I have seen before, which coincidentally form the first two remaining episodes of the first series. Suffice to say that I am glad I ordered this series, and I have paused in rewatching Paul Temple and in watching The Stone Tape for the first time, in order to post some second thoughts on Doomwatch.
For a start, I must congratulate Simply Media on a wonderful restoration and presentation job. There is the odd jump in the picture only, it has really been incredibly well restored. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my oft-expressed opinion that if you want modern-standard TV, you should watch modern TV. Archival footage of forty or fifty years ago cannot reasonably be expected to keep up with it, and there is just the odd jump in the picture now and then.
That said, watching back-to-back episodes is causing me to reach another conclusion as to how aged the show looks. Doomwatch is dominated by that palette of beiges, browns, and greys which I often remark on in 1970s TV. I am still at a loss to account for this. The 1960s TV shows I write about here, while being only the tip of the iceberg of what was produced, are frequently a riot of psychedelic colours (perhaps reflecting the mental state of the production team) and of course I remember the 1970s, and remember it as a happy time full of bright colours. Allowing for the influence of the additives in the processed food we were brought up on, I cannot account for the very muted colours which dominate so much of the TV of the time. The choice of colours marks this series out as very much of its time, and makes it look disproportionately dated.
Otherwise the production values are very much of the time. Slightly slower than, say, Jason King or The Professionals. The series is also disproportionately safe in comparison to many of the other 1970s shows I have on my shelf: I haven’t got to the episode about sex and violence included in this box set, which was considered too much to be broadcast at the time (although bizarrely in the 1970s there were always violent news stories and the fear was very real of a truer disaster), but so far have seen no sex or violence of any sort.
The Doomwatch team is what interests me particularly at the moment. I wonder whether it would be possible nowadays for a para-governmental agency to be constructed entirely around one person? A person who is then allowed to model this agency in his own image with the power of life or death over it, completely able to select his own staff, and so on? While not being privy to the higher secrets of government, I have a feeling that probably the day of the maverick hero is over and that probably characters such as Dr Qvist are sidelined and otherwise constrained nowadays. That said, even in the 1970s the work of his agency is hampered and sabotaged by the powers of government, who as always are concerned about the competing interests of government, economics, and so on.
Dr Qvist (at least in the episodes I have seen so far) wins out as the figure of scientific integrity, whose strength as well as weakness is his single-minded focus on his Science. I just feel Science must have a capital S in this series, since that is the sort of aura of respect with which it is endowed. I return over and again in this blog to the ambivalent attitude towards science, which grows throughout the 1960s (where science is a saviour for humanity yet has to be contained and definitely in the hands of the Right People) to the all-out fear of science’s dangers when it is in the hands of dangerous clowns or even fallible humans. I would place the Chernobyl disaster as the apogee of this fear, and I would place its roots probably in the Windscale fire of 1957, which was handled in a way much more calculated to avert fear by keeping the incident as quiet as possible. I am deliberately using neutral language to describe that way of handling a nuclear accident, because that was genuinely the standard way of handling incidents at the time.
Doomwatch comes right between those two incidents and so embodies the greatest fear of the dangers of science with the most complicated attitude towards what we would now call transparency and publicity. There is a very real sense in which every episode of Doomwatch addresses the nightmare question of weighing up how we can envisage with scientific future with the need for research to underpin the decisions and the supremely tricky question of what to do with this knowledge. There is a very real sense in which the subject of Doomwatch is therefore an ethical one, as well as the stark background of the 1970s fear of the impending disaster.
I cannot help placing this against the real background of the time. All of we 1970s babies have lived to see many of our childhood heroes convicted of paedophilia (if you want Rolf Harris to give oyu art classes, you just have to get yourself incarcerated in Stafford prison). There is therefore also another disaster unexamined by Doomwatch but which is now very much of Doomwatch’s time: the age of the hero is now pretty much over. The age of the person above suspicion is over. The age of the maverick allowed his own head over everyone else must be over, because those people have a habit of proving on examination to be paper tigers. This is the real doom completely unexamined by the show, and which may be seen as the end of an age of naivete and innocence. Personally I am glad that that age is over, because it was an age of unreasoning trust and unfairly inflated reputations. The cost of that will of course be that we will find ourselves in an age of safety where people are more reluctant to take risks and so we can miss out on discoveries, developments, experiments. Personally l find this preferable, and Doomwatch is a reminder that the age it portrays was actually mired in a real and present danger which was unexamined.
I have further good things to say about the show: you can always tell a TV programme is going to be good when you immediately recognise the name of the writer as a familiar friend, very much the case with this show. I haven’t watched all of the remaining episodes yet, but I would normally expect a series with multiple writers to be patchy in quality, however I haven’t really noticed that yet. There are points at which the show achieves certain qualities of The Avengers (I commented on its visual language in may previous post just after Christmas), including the references to The Minister. Nor are Avengers-esque eccentricities missing, hence the famous scene of the Minister dictating to his secretary in a sauna. If I have to place Doomwatch in a historical succession, I would consider it a parent of the X-Files, since its plots are believable and could conceivably happen. My one criticism is that the show uses a lot of familiar actors, who can tend to distract from the plot. Overall, however, if you like the sort of TV I do, I can highly recommend Doomwatch to you.

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