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
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?
QUIST: Exactly, but not that way. You’re catching a ‘plane in… er… [to pat]
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
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
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
RIDGE: You won the Nobel Prize for your maths, Dr Quist?
RIDGE: I just wondered.
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
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
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
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
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?
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
MISS WILLS: What?
RIDGE: Well, if I’d been responsible for the deaths of some thirty-five
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
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
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
QUIST: You know what the Press are, Minister. To say nothing of Her
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
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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