Was ever there a TV show so prescient as Doomwatch? Made in the early 1970s, it told of a group of government boffins charged with investigating science-gone-wrong. James Oliver revisits the drama series, available on DVD for the first time, and uncovers some dark truths.

Doomwatch warned us it would happen...

The writers devised their storylines by extrapolating potential disasters from genuine scientific research. But all too often, their fictional speculations were mirrored by real-life developments. As this landmark show makes its long-overdue arrival on DVD, we are now able to take a lookback, and we see just how far-sighted it was.  

 

When genetic editing goes wrong

Hybrid being

Doomwatch is over forty years old and science has leapt ahead in the years since it was made, not always in the direction that the producers imagined. When the show addressed genetic editing, the results were much more dramatic—and indeed visible—than we might understand them to be.

But if they got the details wrong, the broader picture is spot on. The episode 'You Killed Toby Wren' depicts gene modification and the creation of animal/human hybrids. Such things have indeed come to pass, albeit with more benign intentions than depicted here.

 

Sick building syndrome

Gratified building
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In later series, Doomwatch strayed from pure science to take a look at broader social issues, and one of those was housing. 'The Human Time Bomb' depicted how bad architecture can impact on the lives of the people obliged to live there; in homes that have become prisons.

These days we understand more about the relationship between physical environment and wellbeing—we even have a name for what happens when it gets out of whack: sick building syndrome. Doomwatch diagnosed it first.

 

Antibiotics in the food chain

Gross food

Doomwatch was quite possibly the first TV programme—and surely the first drama—to start ringing alarm bells about factory farming and the gunk shovelled into animals to improve yields and make 'em tastier.

Such gunk includes antibiotics, whose ubiquity and overuse, we now realise, have emboldened bacteria to toughen up so it's harder to get rid of them.

If only we'd listened to Doomwatch! They said it was a bad idea!

 

Hormone horrors!

Worried fish face

The Doomwatch production team were apparently uncertain about 'The Battery People'. Maybe this episode about male factory workers emasculated by hormones found in the water they work with was a bit far-fetched. But they went ahead and wouldn't you know it? A few weeks after transmission, it was revealed that men working at the factory manufacturing the contraceptive pill had suffered the same fate.

Because of those and other chemical products, there are a lot more female hormones in water these days. Scientists have noticed that it's making some fish change sex; let's hope that water for domestic consumption is filtered as stringently as the experts assure us it is.

 

Surveillance state

CCTV Camera

There's much talk about surveillance states; about the government databases that monitor our activities and associations. And it's another case of Doomwatch saying, “told you so!”; the episode 'Project Sahara' featured data-gathering and computerised indexing (all in the name of national security, of course) long before Whitehall had the bright idea of doing it for real.

 

Computer control

Japanese Humanoid

Doomwatch was always a bit sniffy about computers. Not that the show was Luddite—oh no—but creators Gerry Davis and Dr. Kit Pedler (an actual scientist) were terrified of the dehumanisation that technology could bring (a theme that's only become more important over time).

This is most clearly seen in the episode 'The Iron Doctor' in which a medical computer designed to obviate human error is revealed to have a less than ideal bedside manner.

 

Pest control contagion

Pest control

The essence of Doomwatch was unintended consequences—how scientists attempting to resolve one problem end up causing a whole lot more.

This is probably best illustrated in the episode 'The Web of Fear' (not to be confused with the Doctor Who story of the same name), in which a pest control programme inadvertently leads to an outbreak of yellow fever.

Nothing so drastic has happened in real life (yet) but the episode anticipates one of the great fears of modern science: how alien organisms can adapt and overwhelm new environments. Something to chew over when you hear about new trials of genetically modified crops.

 

Plastic eating viruses

Plastic eating worms

Plastic is a most useful substance but an ecological nightmare—damn stuff clogs up ecosystems and takes centuries to decay. Recently, though, some scientists have been exploring an innovative way of getting rid of it: the discovered a worm that can actually harmlessly digest the material and transform it into organic matter.

'The Plastic Eaters', the first episode of Doomwatch which was first broadcast in 1970, a virus is discovered that does exactly the same thing. Only the virus gets loose on a transatlantic aeroplane causing disaster.

 

Oh rats!

Giant rat

Doomwatch was carefully grounded in hard science but that didn't mean the creators weren't above the occasional cheap shot. The episode 'Tomorrow the Rat' was the best of the cheap shots: it unleashed a pack of huge, intelligent rats with a liking for the gamey taste of human flesh.

Soon after the episode aired, a colony of not dissimilar 'super rats' was discovered for real, immune to the standard rat poisons. They were disposed of but it will happen again: as we've seen throughout this list, things have a habit of adjusting to the drastic changes in their environment that are a consequence our modern human lifestyles.

 

Lead in petrol

Rage of the hulk

Let's end with a rare instance of Doomwatch being behind the times: 'Waiting for the Knighthood' raises the spectre of lead in petrol and how it sends folk doolally. Happily, politicians eventually pulled their finger out and banned the stuff, but not after much campaigning.

Doomwatch was an early, and important, part of that campaign, drawing attention to one of the great public health risks of its time more effectively than any news report or dry scientific briefing. Indeed, it's not going too far to say Doomwatch helped bring environmental issues from the margins into the mainstream—and that might be its most important legacy of all.

You can buy Doomwatch on DVD from our online Entertainment Shop

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