REVIEW: Doomwatch Project Sahara

Season 1, Episode 5

Project Sahara proves to be a rather interesting episode. It asks the question, “should computers be allowed the right to have the final say in matters where human judgement should prevail?” Script author Gerry Davis addresses this question rather superbly in this episode by examining the then burgeoning gathering of personal information into computer databases. When this episode was aired in March 1970, the gathering of this type of information was in its early stages. However by today, some 34 years later, people would truly be amazed about what sort of personal information is being stored in governmental databases about themselves. It all makes you wonder. And obviously even back in 1970, it was a subject that was on the mind of Gerry Davis.

The episode begins in typical Doomwatch fashion. The story opens as the team are gathered round conducting an experiment into a new chemical insecticide spray called Sahara. Quist, Ridge, Wren, Toby and new team member, Dr. Stella Robson are gathered around a soil sample which has been treated by this new spray and are anxious to learn what results it will have on the plant life and soil. However, in the midst of the experiment, Dr. Quist is called away to deal with an urgent telephone call from the Minister. The experiment continues without Quist’s presence, and the team soon discover that the spray has extreme detrimental affects on the plants and soil – Sahara kills all plant life and poisons the soil.

Gerry Davis is a clever writer. As the episode begins, the viewer is lead into believing that this is going to be a rather routine episode. The viewer is lead into thinking the story will about how the team deal with the results of the tests. But, it’s at this point in the story that Davis changes track and launches us into a storyline that will prove to be the real story within the episode.

Quist returns from his call with the Minister. With a rather dour look on his face, he interrupts the experiment and demands that Dr. Robson and Toby Wren come in his office. Once inside, Quist must tell both members of the team that they have been suspended pending investigation. Apparently the Minister has insisted that both be relieved of their duties as both have proved to be major security risks. Robson and Wren are totally shocked because of this. They can’t believe what’s going on. Quist insists that he will fight for both of them – he doesn’t agree with any of this – but Toby is rather upset and storms out of the office and heads to the nearest pub to drown his sorrows. Dr. Robson soon joins Toby there and they discuss what has just happened.

Why have Dr. Robson and Toby been suspended? Quist wants to know, and so do we the viewer. Quist has Ridge investigate who’s behind the security suspensions, and Ridge discovers that Robson and Wren have been suspended on the recommendations of a Commander Keeping.

Again, Davis illustrates that he has crafted a story with plot twist after plot twist. It’s at this point that he throws in two interesting scenes that on the surface make the viewer wonder why we’ve been shown this. The first is a rather odd scene in which we see Toby make a very clumsy and sexist pass at Dr. Robson. The second comes a few minutes later and takes place back at the home of Dr. Robson. We learn that she is having an affair with Jack Foster, a married man. On the surface, the viewer is not quite sure why we’ve been shown these two scenes. At first I wondered too. It isn’t until much later in the story that the viewer realizes that these two scenes tell us vital information we need to know about the character of Dr. Robson.

Davis introduces us to the character of Commander Keeping who turns out to be the main protagonist in this story. Keeping is not your typical civil servant. He is somewhat an odious man who can also be rather underhanded and officious. And, he works for a new governmental agency, department XJ7, which is concerned with national security. Davis has created a character that the viewer immediately dislikes, especially with his underhanded interview of Toby in the pub. While Toby is drowning his sorrows, he is befriended by Keeping. Toby has no idea who he is talking too, but Keeping is extremely interested in whom Toby is and what he does for a living. This whole line of questioning is just so sneaky.

Gerry Davis gives us another scene to reinforce the viewers dislike of Commander Keeping when Keeping suddenly shows up at the home of Dr. Robson and questions her about her personal life. As the viewer, Keeping’s manner just irks us, even though later we learn that Keeping is merely doing his job – albeit not completely above board – but nonetheless, he’s performing his duties based on the information he’s received from the computer.

After much information and illustration we find out that Dr. Robson and Toby were suspended because it was felt they were both security risks. Toby because he drinks far too much, and Dr. Robson because of her Arab background and pro-Israeli sympathies.

But you see, again Gerry Davis illustrates to us what a clever scriptwriter he is by throwing in a completely unexpected plot surprise. While the viewer gets comfortable in believing it’s because of the reasons above that Wren and Robson are suspended. The script surprises us when it is eventually revealed that the married man that Dr. Robson was having an affair with has been selling national secrets to a crime syndicate. While Toby is eventually reinstated with a new security clearance, Dr. Robson is let go from Doomwatch based on the fact that she had lied about her affair with Jack Foster.

But what has all of that got to do with the question, “should computers be allowed the right to have the final say in matters where human judgement should prevail?” Well you see, Gerry Davis has woven all of the above into a storyline that deals with this question. Throughout the story, the evidence that is used against both Wren and Robson has been gathered from a computer. It is based upon the computers advice that Keeping conducts his investigations, and it is also based upon this advice that the two are suspended.

The scenes involving how the information against Wren and Robson is gathered and used illustrates just how unreliable that information can be, and how wrong it is for us as humans to base our decisions solely on the advice of a computer.

Gerry Davis uses this story to point out to us that this is wrong. He points out that while computers are powerful tools for mathematics or complex problem solving, they should not be used to make judgements on the character of fellow human beings. Davis is saying this is totally wrong, especially when we start to loose the capacity for making judgement decisions for ourselves. Davis is saying that no machine, no matter how sophisticated or powerful, should ever be allowed to make decisions for us. Humanity must always retain the prerogative of assessing human situations themselves. No machine can do it for us.

A prime example of this is in the scene where Quist is shown the new computerized security system by the Minister. Quist is completely outraged by this and demands that the machine, and department, be shut down immediately. It’s almost as if that in this instance Quist is actually acting as the voice of Gerry Davis. Quist is expressing Davis’ real fears through him.

It is interesting to note that this was obviously a concern Davis had with the then burgeoning gathering of personal information into computer databases. Davis feared that it could be used against us. Nothing is more telling than the exchange between Quist and John Ridge at the end of the episode:

Quist: In this instance human nature reasserted itself over machine. When it came to the crunch, Keeping used his own personal judgement.
Ridge: And it doesn’t alter the fact that computers are going to be used in that way.
Quist: You can’t prevent it. But so long as human intelligence, human judgement has the last word.
Ridge: And if it doesn’t?
Quist: God help us all.

Episode Rating: 8/10

Reviewed by Bob Furnell
Bob is the co-editor of Chromakey