Doomwatch (1972)

When one looks at the giants of British Horror Cinema, one notes that Hammer Films turned out an impressive number of SF films, including their remakes of the legendary Quatermass serials and far too many Bikini Cavegirl movies.  Their closest competitor, Amicus, while they never made quite so many, did in fact contribute two Dr. Who movies, three (or four, depending on who’s counting) Edgar Rice Burroughs films, two Quatermass influenced children’s SF films, two films combining horror and SF (I, Monster and Scream and Scream Again), and the surprisingly serious The Mind of Mr. Soames.

But somehow, their number three competitor, Tigon Films, never seemed all that interested in SF.  They made the James Bond inspired alien invasion thriller, The Invasion of the Body Stealers, a topless alien women film, Zeta One, a mind-control thriller (and Boris Karloff’s last great film), The Sorcerers, a couple of horror films that almost border on SF, and this film.

It was an adaptation of the successful BBC TV series, Doomwatch.  However, while the series is clearly near-term SF, the movie version is far less science fictional.  Doomwatch, which was created by legendary Dr. Who scripters Kit Pedler (who created the Cybermen) and Gerry Davis, featured a government agency, The Department For The Observation & Measurement Of Scientific Work, better known (for obvious reasons) as Doomwatch .

Curiously, its full name is never mentioned in the spinoff movie.

The worldwide mission of its team of brilliant scientists — a highly topical one for the time it was made — was to discover the ecological damage caused by pollution and human carelessness and to try to correct the problems they found (during the series run, the screenwriters would check their script outlines with the Dr. Who writers, to make sure that they didn’t end up using the same ideas on both shows).

However, while Tigon did not chose to re-cast the major characters for this movie, and most of the original cast actually appears onscreen (although they aren’t given much to do), the film centers instead on a new character:  scientific investigator Dr. Dell Shaw, played by Ian Bannen.  His presence seems a touch odd:  while he was a very familiar face in British films of the era, he was hardly a major star.  Had this been a Hammer film, one might have expected a second-string American star instead, or perhaps a horror icon like Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee.

This one starts with Dr. Shaw sent off on a routine assignment, to study the aftereffects of a big oil spill, only to be greeted with suspicion, hostility and more than a little fear.  He knows there must be something seriously wrong on the tiny island of Balfe, but no one will speak to him or help him.

When we finally do learn what is going on, it does involve a fictional — if mostly plausible — source for the strange malady afflicting Balfe (and I have to give them credit for offering us an explanation for why this particular biological agent was developed in the first place).

This is, in fact, a remarkably well made scientific detective story, with a lot of atmosphere and a surprising amount of solid science backing it up.  While it was met with poor reviews, this probably had more to do with Tigon’s attempt to sell it as a horror film rather than a thriller or detective story.  It is reasonably entertaining, and while they didn’t have a lot of money for this production, it doesn’t look cheap for the most part.  The makeup effects are definitely so-so, but they only get used in the end (when, admittedly, we see far too much of them) and are definitely forgivable.

Admittedly, one misses the darker and more horrific edge Hammer would probably have given it, following the mold of their Quatermass films — and one wishes that they’d tackled a more SF mystery (as the show usually did).  But if you’re looking for a genial British SF thriller, this one should fill the bill.

Whether it is actually SF or not.

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