Story Review
DOOMWATCH: THE PLASTIC EATERS

by Tim Munro © 1989

Nineteen years after it began, Doomwatch is more relevant than ever. Mankind sacrifices his environment to the new gods of profit, “progress,” and secrecy, heading down the roads which Doomwatch warned us against - and yet, as the dangers it predicted grow ever more acute, where is this television classic? While ITC series of that period enjoy frequent revivals, Doomwatch, like so much BBC drama, rots in the Archives.

There’s nothing like it today. Even First Born (which came close) lacked Doomwatch’s unashamed partisan spirit. Pedler and Davis’ series was never afraid to take sides - even unpopular ones (perhaps the real reason for the banning of Sex and Violence) - and more than one scientist accused it of scaremongering. Its sheer guts probably condemned it.

The series took a McGoohan-esque view of authority - Dr Spencer Quist’s team was established to monitor scientific work for potential dangers to humanity, and yet they are constantly hampered by Whitehall secrecy. Governments, ministers and civil servants are seen to be corrupt, paranoically secretive, devious, and - frequently - merely incompetent glory-hunters, Scientists are obsessive Frankenstein’s devoted to their work and blind to its dangers. Often Doomwatch are kept in deliberate ignorance of projects which they are expected to object to, frequently until it is too late.

Against this brick wall of suicidal stupidity, Dr Quist’s team of imperfect idealists bang their environmentalist heads, winning a battle here and there, but never the war; and sometimes they don’t even manage that, viz Invasion, Survival Code, etc.

Doomwatch says that even the people you elected get it wrong. Worse, it queries the “experts” who dominate modern life, pointing out that their expertise can blinker them to everything else. Today, Doomwatch would be denounced as liberal, subversive, hysterical, “unrealistic” (1980’s Tory-Speak for “idealistic”), and cited as proof that the BBC was being run from Moscow. Transmit The Iron Doctor next week and Thatcher would have the tanks outside Television Centre before you can say “William Rees-Mogg.”

There’s little chance of a video release, either - it’s not a cult and is too risky a proposition for poor pusillanimous BBC Video. Despite becoming a word in the English language, Doomwatch is a forgotten series, only recalled by Joe Public when fans remind him: “Hey, yeah! The one with the rats and the melting aeroplane… and Robert Powell got blown up!” (Josephine Public usually remembers crying at the latter point). It’s a tragedy that this series has been so neglected, while ghastly inferior shows are recalled even by the baboons allowed onto Telly Addicts.

Here, I’ll examine “the one with the melting aeroplane” - the first ever Doomwatch episode, The Plastic Eaters. It is also one of the best episodes, packed with tension, drama, morality, and even a few laughs - a prime example of the high standards which the BBC threw in the dustbin alongside the format of Star Cops.

One of Doomwatch’s most effective tricks was its use of a pre-credits sequence - a common practice at ITC, but near-heresy at the BBC. The Plastic Eaters begins with a perfectly normal aeroplane descending to “El Dorado Airport, San Pedro,” (no marks out of ten for the corny place names) and developing a fault. We see the flight engineer open a circuit panel, only to find the wiring dissolving into black goo, and the pilot quickly transmits a mayday. On the ground, some incongruously British emergency service rush to intercept it via stock footage. The tension builds - a horrified pilot finds the joystick melting in his grip, his fingers covered in black slime.

The ‘plane crashes by way of some obvious (and now famous) footage of an experimental DC-9 being deliberately crashed under remote control. This is inter-cut with footage from the camera within the same ‘plane of the seated testing mannequins being thrown about and incinerated, but these are such brief and quickly cut glimpses that they register to the first-time viewer as being real people. The last explosion merges into the billowing smoke cloud which opens the simple, but ominous, title sequence. The explosion dissolves to hissing interference patterns and a tinny tinkling, before the main theme booms in; a doom-laden strident mix of drums, trumpets and trombone. Static and aerial shots of a nuclear explosion jostle for the screen and the words “WATCH” and “DOOM” fly at us, coming together in purple flashing to white-on-black - DOOMWATCH.

Unlike many first episodes, The Plastic Eaters wisely avoids showing us how the format came together. After the title sequence we are dumped in the Doomwatch office and left to get on with it. The Department is already many month old, the central characters are in place, their relationships long-defined, and we must pick up what we can as the plot unfolds. Pedler and Davis’ only concession to the audience is that we arrive at the same moment as Toby Wren, played by a horrifyingly young Robert Powell, a new recruit as unfamiliar with Doomwatch as we are.

Wren is shown in by Pat Hunniset, Doomwatch’s dumb blond secretary - a sort of Jo Grant with a few more ‘O’-levels (but not many!). She leaves him with the Doomwatch Don Juan, Dr John Ridge, played with alternate MacNee- and McGoohan-esque sharpness by Simon Oates. Ridge is sketched out in moments, first waggling his eyebrows suggestively at her, and then telling Toby:

RIDGE: She would have introduced us… but I pinched her bum just before lunch.

Next door, we meet the rest of the team: the computer expert, Colin Bradley (hereafter known as Brad), played in ee-bah-gum style by Joby Blanshard, and the Doomwatch director, Dr Spencer Quist (the superb John Paul), who are examining photographs of the aircraft wiring from the San Pedro crash:

BRADLEY: There’s no sign of burning… but something’s affected the wires or the insulation.
QUIST: Exactly.
BRADLEY: Before the fire?
QUIST: Not sure. Looks more like solvent action.
BRADLEY: It’s not impossible.
QUIST: Well, you’d better find out, and quickly! What’s up with that overgrown adding machine of yours?

He’s referring to their “analogue-digital hybrid” computer, nicknamed ‘Doomwatch’, which Ridge is showing to Toby just as Quist orders him to investigate plastic solvents. As Quist consults Brad and Pat, Toby despairingly tries to attract his attention, before giving up in disgust:

TOBY: To hell with it!

He heads for the door.

QUIST: Mr Wren, where d’you think you’re going?
TOBY: Out!
QUIST: Exactly, but not that way. You’re catching a ‘plane in… er… [to pat] how long?
PAT: Three hours.

Despite protests that he’s not a crash expert, Toby is sent to San Pedro to check the wreckage. On the ‘plane, he studies the photographs of the crash while the man next to him gawps at them in horror!

In London, Ridge faces “the usual Departmental codswallop.” Officially, there are no solvents capable of causing the crash and - even if there were - why should Britain be responsible? Quist replies that Britain has a more acute problem with plastic waste than most:

RIDGE: And our revered Minister?
QUIST: Would like to be remembered as the one person with the foresight to tackle the problem.

Our first sight of John Barron’s smoothly duplicitous Minister, as he and Quist talk on the telephone, only substantiates this low opinion of him. We learn that the Beeston laboratories are closed even to Doomwatch, and after the call the Minister dictates a memo:

MINISTER: Reference Dr Quist and the Department of Measurement of Scientific Work, codenamed “Doomwatch.” Far too much licence has already been given to the Director. He and his Department must be made to conform to Ministry policy.

Quist knows he’s been lied to - we learn that the Government was re-elected on its promise to set up Doomwatch, which it now keeps busy with blatantly routine work while the more dangerous projects are concealed. We also discover Ridge’s MI5 background and Quist’s contribution to the atomic bomb.

Ridge points out that the information they need will be in the Minister’s office:

BRADLEY: Huh! The Minister won’t give it to us!
RIDGE: Then I’ll go in and get it for you - if you’ll let me.
BRADLEY: We’ve no wish to be involved with your former activities.
RIDGE: A bit of espionage training wouldn’t have done you any harm!

Quist refuses to agree to this:

QUIST: No, no, Doomwatch is not going to be forced into the status of a quasi-MI5 just to get basic information!

It isn’t the last blazing row between Ridge and Quist, but on this occasion Ridge really hits the director below the belt - he asks Quist why he took the job on:

RIDGE: Pew in the House of Lords? Or was it an attack of conscience?

John Paul’s performance here is absolutely stunning, conveying volumes of character with just expression and tone of voice. His faces becomes darkly thunderous and his voice menacingly cold… yet there is an edge of self-disgust there, too. It’s as if he wants to throttle Ridge, yet throw up at the same time:

RIDGE: You won the Nobel Prize for your maths, Dr Quist?
QUIST: Well….
RIDGE: I just wondered.
QUIST: Yes?
RIDGE: How much of your work helped to make that possible.

He gestures to three large monochrome photographs of a nuclear explosion on the wall of Quist’s office.

Quist’s burden of guilt is evident throughout the series, but never again has such moving intensity. Brad is horrified by Ridge’s deliberate faux pas - clearly it is the Great Unspeakable which everyone in Doomwatch knows, but no-one ever mentions. It has the desired effect, though, as Ridge turns to leave:

QUIST: Ridge! All right, do it!

So Ridge goes off to “do” the Minister’s office, bluffing his way in, photographing the documents, and even getting past the secretary, Miss Willis (Jennifer Wilson) by claiming to be a “Constable fanatic,” just having a look at the original painting on the Minister’s wall, with all the charming confidences of John Steed (a role Oates played on stage soon afterwards).

The Plastic Solvent, Variant 14, is a biological mechanism rather than a chemical agent, developed in the Beeston labs:

RIDGE: So why don’t you tell the Minister we know about this plastics project?
QUIST: Call him a liar to his face, you mean
BRAD: And explain where the information came from?
RIDGE: Not really my day, is it?

Ridge is reluctantly sent to pinch some Variant 14 from Beeston, where he meets one Jim Bennett (Michael Perkins) and tries to bluff his way through by claiming to be a Ministry envoy who knows him from university. Bennett gets suspicious, but - when he goes to check - Ridge pockets some Variant 14.

Quist and Brad find a link between Beeston and the crashed aircraft: one of the stewardesses was related to Miss Willis, the Minister’s secretary.

Faced with Beeston’s director, Simmonds (the early Kevin Stoney), Ridge claims to be a journo, and is promptly chucked out - but not before Simmonds has him photographed (but not searched!). Discovering Ridge’s true identity, Simmonds goes blubbing to the Minister - an appallingly smooth and self-confident man, he wants his solvent back because a leak would “jeopardise the Dungeness test.”

Quist deduces that variant 14 could “go through a city like a bush fire”:

QUIST: You’re a commuter. You get some of this stuff on your plastic handbag. You get into a Tube, you touch twenty people, they get out at ten different stations and go to fifteen different offices.
RIDGE: Each time they touch a plastic object….

The team work out the necessity of a field test, and Ridge supplies the location from conversation he heard at Beeston. The Minister ‘phones, but Quist evades him and a telegram tells them that Toby is on his way home with a piece of the crashed ‘plane:

QUIST: His briefcase is leather, isn’t it?
PAT: Yes.
QUIST: Then he’s all right… as long as he doesn’t try to open it on the flight.

But Toby already has! Quist and Ridge go off to see the Minister:

QUIST [to Ridge]: While I’m working on the Minister, I want you to work on Miss Wills.
PAT: Oh, he’ll do that all right!

Aboard Toby’s ‘plane, a plastic bag is dripping….

Quist meets Simmonds and the Minister to present, “evidence of a disaster that could easily have been averted had the proper care been exercised,” while Ridge “works” on Miss Wills:

RIDGE: I think if I were in your shoes, I would feel the slightest twinge of compunction.
MISS WILLS: What?
RIDGE: Well, if I’d been responsible for the deaths of some thirty-five people
MISS WILLS: You must be insane!
RIDGE: … including my own cousin.

Ridge’s questioning is shockingly cruel, but gets the results. Miss Wills’ cousin was on the ‘plane, and she had seen her off just before the flight, shortly after having visited Beeston. And her cousin wrote out a cheque wither her pen.

On Toby’s ‘plane, the plastic cups are melting and Quist’s warning reaches him too late.

When Simmonds rejects his evidence, Quist unveils his own test results. Miss Wills finds her pen… melting. Meanwhile, Toby tries to convince the aircraft captain (John “Alydon” Lee) to take the ‘plane down, and a plastic bag disintegrates on the flight deck.

Quist comes to a dead end, but right on cue Ridge produces the pen and Simmonds recognises the effects of Variant 14 at once:

SIMMONDS: I can’t understand it; the safety precautions are 100% effective.
QUIST: Quite so, but exceptions are apt to be lethal.

The Minister reluctantly takes action as a message from Toby confirms that the virus is loose on his ‘plane. The Minister squirms like a cornered crook, becoming noticeably hostile to Quist’s smooth taking-charge.

As the ‘plane heads for an isolated RAF station, the PA packs up as the electrical circuits start to go. Meanwhile, the Minister displays typical Whitehall gratitude by suspending Quist as Director of Doomwatch, pending a full inquiry! Worse, he intends to go ahead with the Dungeness test, and insists that Miss Wills is not the carrier of the Variant 14 virus - she did not enter the biological lab with him during the visit.

On the ‘plane, the tension grows as the crew try to land an aircraft which is rapidly dissolving around them. Liquid plastic oozes everywhere, black goo dribbles from the window seals, and the passengers panic.

Quist notices that the Minister dictates notes on a portable tape recorder - which accompanied him to Beeston. The Minister is instantly defensive, but Quist summons Miss Wills with the Beeston tape. It is a chilling monet as he lifts the jellified remains of the cassette from its box.

QUIST [staring levelly at the Minister]: You took this to Beeston. It was concealed… wasn’t it?

The ‘plane’s landing is marred by the clumsy stock footage, but redeemed by the convincing tension of the actors and a shot of Toby returning to the passenger compartment. The roof and doors are melting into sludge, and the passengers huddle together in a daze. Robert Powell closes his eyes and looks utterly sick.

With the ‘plane safely down, we witness the confrontation between Quist and the Minister. John Barron is marvellous here - he tries everything to wriggle out of his responsibility:

MINISTER: I should have been fully briefed.
QUIST: Weren’t you?
MINISTER: I cannot have been properly informed!
QUIST: I’ve checked and you were!

The Minister is reluctant to cancel the field test, which makes Quist justifiably angry:

QUIST: You know what the Press are, Minister. To say nothing of Her Majesty’s Opposition.
MINISTER: I don’t follow you.
QUIST: With respect, Minister, I think you do. They will hardly ignore the political ammunition afforded by basic fact.
MINISTER: I won’t be threatened by you.
QUIST: Not by me! The facts are there - they can be discovered. People have died, Minister! The mud will stick!

Quist insists that the test is deferred, and the Minister agrees - suddenly his smug arrogance creeps back as he saves his political neck:

QUIST: And Doomwatch?
MINISTER: If I could have your guarantee that there will be no more breaking and entering.
QUIST: Will I be properly informed in future?
MINISTER [smiles]: I’ll see what can be done.
QUIST: Then there’ll be no need for another Beeston, will there?

Quist departs with a curt, “Good day, Minister,” and - as the door closes behind him - an ominous drum-roll carries us into the closing Doomwatch theme. In the final minutes, the status quo has been restored - Quist is left with only vague promises which we sense will not be kept.

The Plastic Eaters has few equals as a first episode of a new series - it is tightly-written and functions well on almost all levels, establishing the characters in detail, but also telling a good story and making us think at the same time. It is well-paced and excellently made, marred only by the pretty naff CSO and stock footage (the former can be accused somewhat due to the relative inexperience with the technique on the production tam’s part). Paul Ciappesoni’s direction is sympathetic, and the melting plastic sequences are really frighteningly effective. Best of all, the main actors - Paul, Oates, Powell, Blanshard and Barron - play their parts with a smoothness which suggests they’ve been doing the series for years.

By the end, the team are like old friends. It is going to be a depressing - maybe even futile - series, but it compels us to stick with it. We feel for the characters; they can’t win, but by God they deserve to.

In these days of green politics, there’s a whole generation to whom Doomwatch would speak louder and with more relevance that it ever did to its 1970 audience. It is time - long overdue - for Doomwatch to meet its public anew.

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