Doomwatch Project Sahara

What starts out as a slightly dull experiment into a soil virus turns into an interesting and perceptive examination of loyalty and truth. Using the language of the spy thriller, Kit Pedlar and Gerry Davis’ wordy but absorbing script centres around a computer that predicts potential criminal behaviour being tested by MI6 like a sort of employee tribunal. If the machine decides someone is a security risk they are suspended and this is what happens to both Toby Wren and temporary Doomwatch biologist Stella Robson. An incensed Dr Quist goes on the trail of the information but the episode really revolves around Commander Keeping, an insignificant looking civil servant complete with moustache and big coat who is far more than he seems.

Dr Quist had his own You Tube channel

Played with a straight bat by Nigel Stock, Keeping sniffs around both Wren and Robson cleverly ferreting out their personalities to try and ascertain whether the computer is right. You never get to find out what he believes in and like the best espionage characters he remains elliptical and evasive while managing to acquire just what he needs. Stock suits the role to a tee and there is much enjoyment to be had watching him turn the screw, in particular as he winds up Quist or tries to get Wren to spill secrets during a drinking session.
Thus Project Sahara becomes part of a bigger story, one that draws in Middle East conflicts thanks to Stella Robson’s Arab background. As it turns out this soil project involves a virus that can make fertile land into a desert overnight, its potential as a weapon is clear enough and the episode loves to lead us from one side of the argument to the other.  At times it could have bene written yesterday with references to racial differences that still exist now. Throw in the fact that the married man Stella is sleeping with turns out to be being blackmailed over the affair then you have quite a can of worms. Hidergard Neill is poise personified as Stella at least outwardly but sometimes her eyes betray the character’s inner panic as she lies to Keeping and suspects her lover is spying on her. It’s a great episode for John Paul too as Quist threatens to close down the whole Doomwatch operation unless he is told the source of the information that caused his staff to be suspended. When he does it makes him even more incandescent yet later when Stella’s complicity is unveiled he is equally willing to accept she cannot continue to work for him.
The episode’s message proves to be that machines cannot be allowed to make important decisions unless there is a human element involved and that is something which resonates just as strongly today as it ever did. Writing that in 1969 may seem like – and indeed might well have been driven by -paranoia about new technology but the script is wilier than that, I’d say it is a warning about balance as Quist himself admits he cannot stop the development of computers. It’s what we do with them that counts. While the visual representation of this super machine is obviously a few steps behind what was probably already possible (and thank goodness talking computer never became the norm) then the concerns raised by Quist are believable enough. In fact the only untenable aspect of the episode is seeing lovely old Erick Chitty as a blackmailing heavy- that I don’t think anyone would believe!
"I'm sorry, your picture seems to have stuck to the side of my face"

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