Doomwatch Tomorrow the Rat

You have to worry about scientists during the 1970s. For the second week in a row something nasty escapes into the public domain. This time a plague of genetically engineered super rats rampages around London in Terence Dudley’s lively if a tad schlocky story that splices genetics and the art of seduction into one melodramatic package. After a series of rat attacks (rattacks?) is reported the Doomwatch team investigations uncover vermin that have been genetically altered to be thinking and responsive to the point where they can open cages and use basic tools. If this all seems a little silly then wait till you see the scenes where the production unwisely chooses to show them actually attacking. It’s a shame they do as otherwise the use of rather chilling sound effects and cleverly edited montages of our furry feinds is more than adequate to demonstrate the danger. Sticking a toy rat to someone’s knee and asking them to pretend to be in pain is probably not.
Robert liked to dance and sing in his kitchen when everyone was out.

You can tell the urgency of the danger simply by the offhand brusque manner in which Quist behaves throughout though this affords actor John Paul some great lines that help undercut some of the pretentiousness of the character. “Is this your first time in a sewer” a journalist asks to which Quist replies breezily, “Except for Fleet Street”. Earlier he takes apart ministerial pomposity and process without drawing breath. As with the first episode the dialogue sparkles and this time there is more of a personal angle to it.
Sent to find out more about the genetic rat project’s head Dr Mary Bryant, John Ridge is all devilish charm and one liners but she responds so well that a sort of intellectual tennis match ensues. Played by Penelope Lee, the Doctor is at once feminine yet also capable of playing with the men, exactly the sort of liberated role that reduces Sixties blokes like Ridge to a lower peg. She is great throughout even if the script’s reasoning for her work sometimes seems less than sound.
The episode is about how far genetic engineering can go and it’s interesting how the arguments have barely changed over forty five years, some of the debate featured in the episode could come from contemporary concerns. In this case the so called “reasoning carnivorous animal” overwhelms its creator and the Frankenstein connection- mentioned in passing- is clearly what Dudley is driving at. He does offer both sides of the argument, suggesting that the work will lead to abnormalities in birth being eliminated but amusingly any religious objections are couched as witticisms as Ridge and Bryant spar.
Having built up the threat and the issues, the ending seems perfunctory as some chemicals flushed down the sewers sort out the rats but there’s a sting in this tale when a bereaved mother, whose son is one of the rat’s fatal victims attacks Mary with a knife. Having previously established it is blood that attracts the attacks you can see what’s coming but it means the episode ends on a highly visceral moment somewhat at odds with what leads up to it but satisfying all the same.

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