I’ve waited years for this. Doomwatch (or Doom Watch, or Watch Doom, if the titles are to be believed) has been a quiet obsession of mine for a very long time. The saga of Spencer Quist, John Ridge, Toby Wren et al has held an iron grip on my imagination in a way that very few series have ever done. I’ve long held it to be one of the BBC’s shining high points. At least, what I’ve been able to see of it. Much of it has gone the way of so many BBC programmes – almost half of series 1 is missing and only two episodes of series 3 (plus the unbroadcast final episode, surprisingly) remain.
Frustratingly one of the episodes that fascinated me most – the series 3 opener, “Fire and Brimstone” – is one of those missing. One of the show’s central characters goes bonkers, and holds the world to ransom with a vial of Anthrax? On a BBC budget? Really? I always wondered how they’d manage it. Recently, the essential doomwatch.org blog (you are heartily recommended to pay a visit – it’s a wonderful site that really does the series credit) printed a detailed synopsis and analysis of the episode which shone considerably more light on things.
Now comes Deadly Dangerous Tomorrow, merely the first of two Doomwatch books produced by Miwk Publishing this year (there’s a detailed series history coming soon, which promises to be fascinating), It reproduces six original scripts, all for episodes now missing: “Spectre at the Feast” from season 1, and five from series 3 – “High Mountain”, “Say Knife Fat Man”, “Deadly Dangerous Tomorrow”, “Flood” and… “Fire and Brimstone”. At long last I can find out what really happened.
So I’ve finally read it. After all these years wondering just how Ridge does go doolally, and how he holds the world to ransom… was it worth it?
Yes and no. It’s been a long time since I was so glued to a book, so absorbed that I actually can’t leave the damn thing alone. It’s not necessarily for the right reasons, though. It’s hard to judge the finished product by the script alone – who knows what magic John Paul, Simon Oates, John Barron et al (even a very young Jonathan Pryce as “Policeman”) could have achieved? Perhaps Terence Dudley pulled off the directing job of his life, pulling several environmentally dangerous rabbits out of a genetically modified hat. He’d have needed to. Not to put too fine a point on it, this script is terrible.
It’s fascinating – and slightly unnerving – to witness a series you love going suddenly and spectacularly off the rails. We know from later on in the season that Ridge goes bonkers because of a chemical reaction in a can of paint that’s set off when he’s doing a spot of welding in his garage, but that’s merely the start of it. There’s a character called John Ridge in this but it’s nothing to do with the one we’ve watched becomng increasingly marginalised in the previous two series. Quist is utterly ineffectual, flapping helplessly until Anne Tarrant tells him to shut up and calm down. Commander Stafford is introduced – basically a thug with a security clearance. Geoff Hardcastle – a walking leather jacket with a cigarette attached who was a series 2 regular – is quietly forgotten about. The Minister turns up and suddenly becomes the star of the show, acquiring a Christian name change along the way. There aren’t any menaces for Doomwatch to warn against. It’s a police procedural, plain and simple. Davis and Pedler were utterly, astonishingly right after all.
At one point two bystanders watch a raid on a local school where one of the vials of Anthrax is supposed to end up. One turns to the other and says, “looks like Doctor Who if you ask me”. Well, yes. But only if you’re watching a really, really bad one.
Ridge walks straight into Porton Down and says, “if I was to hold the world to ransom, what virus would be the best to use?” A friendly scientist tells him, then leaves the room. Ridge nicks his vials of Anthrax then buggers off to the nearest post office, mailing one each to several major cities around the world. If his manifesto isn’t published in major international newspapers immediately, millions will die.
Ridge and Stafford suddenly start tearing verbal lumps out of each other in a scene that’s reminiscent of nothing so much as “Callan”, with Ridge suddenly playing Callan to Stafford’s Toby Meres. There was a hugely sensitive political case. They both loved the same girl. She died. Ridge never forgave Stafford. Later on, Stafford threatens Ridge – start co-operating sharpish or he’ll “be thrown to the perverts – the ones who really enjoy it”.
Meanwhile Anne Tarrant offers her considered (and highly picturesque) diagnosis – ‘This is classic paranoia with, as yet, no personality disorganisation. But it wouldn’t take much to push it to the schizophrenic pole. If that happens and there’s withdrawal… you might as well put a thumb screw on a turnip.’ What???!!!
Things reach a ludicrous pitch when Ridge refuses to believe that the newspaper he’s been given in prison hasn’t been faked and is let out to go to the newsagent of his choice. Nearly 200 newsagents within a mile of the prison have agreed to stock the fake papers, on the off chance that Ridge wanders in (how many? That’s more newsagents than houses!). The plan works for a time. At least, until Ridge loses his copy of The Times and bribes someone inside to nick the Governor’s undoctored copy. Good grief.
Barbara Mason (suddenly revealed to have the final vial of Anthrax – the others are all recovered off-camera and between scenes) is involved in a tedious race-against-time which ends in a comedy scene in a chemist’s yard as a policeman is confronted with a gigantic pile of disused cannisters, and raises his eyes to heaven in a moment which must surely have been accompanied by a “wah-wah-waaaaaaah” musical sting from Max Harris. Ridge suddenly seems to abandon all hope and tries to commit suicide. That he does it by gnawing through his own radial artery is shocking, horrible and staggeringly out of character. If this is the best they could come up with in order to try and keep Simon Oates on board, no wonder he tendered his resignation sharpish.
The episode ends with The Minister making dark threats to restructure Doomwatch and Ridge fading away to nothing in a hospital bed while muttering “goodbye… goodbye… goodbye…”. In a way, it’s a fitting epitaph for the original concept of the series as this script renders it utterly unrecognisable. The two surviving broadcast episodes from series 3 are quiet, mundane little things which seem to take place entirely in offices and chintzy living rooms. Presumably after this there was nowhere left for them to go. With Quist present-but-absent-in-spirit and no Ridge to goad him into action, the series obviously begins to drift and we end up with the department investigating that well known environmental threat of television naughtiness at series end in the unbroadcast “Sex and Violence”.
I’ve still got several more scripts to go in this fascinating book. It comes utterly recommended, not just because it offers the only way to experience six full episodes of Doomwatch which no longer exist. It’s also essential because suddenly I can see exactly why Pedler and Davis were so aggravated with Terence Dudley. Series one and two may have painted the villains-of-the-week in broad-brush strokes, but at least there was a something resembling a unified direction. Fake rats velcroed to Robert Powell’s legs notwithstanding, Doomwatch in series one (and to a lesser extent, series two) could be downright frightening. I actually laughed out loud in disbelief several times while reading “Fire and Brimstone”.
If you have an interest in television history you owe it to yourself to grab this. If you love Doomwatch, you owe it to yourself to see exactly what went wrong after years of hearsay and dark mutterings. If the other scripts are anything like “Fire and Brimstone” I’d say that Doomwatch went farther off the rails – faster – than any other series I’ve ever known. Even Survivors (Dudley putting himself in precisely the same situation as he did here – you’d think he’d have learned) doesn’t fall apart quite so badly in series 3. At least there everyone just about behaves like they did in previous seasons and there’s a vague echo of the original series concept. Here… no. Nothing. Personality clashes and behind the scenes machinations have rarely manifested themselves so baldly as they do in one single television script. Buy this essential book and see for yourself.
Deadly Dangerous Tomorrow is edited by Michael Seely and is available now from Miwk Publishing.