REVIEW: DOOMWATCH: Re-entry Forbidden

Season 1, Episode 6
Reviewed by Bob Furnell

Space travel.  Something that likely fascinates many of us.  But, what of the astronauts involved.  What types of strain and stress really are placed on the human mind and body in space travel?  Do we really know?  I’m sure there’s many side affects that scientist are aware of, and likely many that they aren’t.  “Re-entry Forbidden” tries to answer this question.

NASA’s Sunfire One, the first nuclear powered rocket begins to enter orbit.  The craft contains 3 crewmembers, one of which is Dick Larch, the first British astronaut.  Larch accidentally feeds in an incorrect course alteration and fails to see the error indicator.  As a result, the craft splashes down off the coast of England.  When it’s suspected that the error could be human, the space programs psychiatrist, Dr. Goldsworthy, asks Dr. Quist to check on Larch’s suitability for future missions, as one mistake could turn the craft into a nuclear bomb.

“Re-Entry Forbidden” centers on Dick Larch, who is the first British astronaut in NASA’s Sunfire space program.  During re-entry he accidentally enters in the wrong re-entry code.  Not caught by the crew on board, or by NASA flight control, the craft manages to safely splash down off the coast of England in the Atlantic Ocean.  As a result, NASA launches an internal probe to discover what went wrong before future missions can proceed.

While the probe is in full swing, his wife Carol, decides to visit her husband while he’s in quarantine.  The two end up having an argument during the visit.  Though it doesn’t register with Carol initially, Larch is acting odd.  He is temperamental, argumentative and unreasonable.  Its almost as if he’s paranoid.

When the internal investigation concludes that the fault was as a result of a faulty indicator light, the Sunfire programs psychiatrist Dr. Goldsworthy visits Dr. Quist and asks him to assess Larch off the record. Goldsworthy thinks Larch is showing signs of mental strain. Quist is reluctant to assess Larch, but agrees to do so.

Larch apparently is a former student of Dr. Quist’s, and Quist arranges for the two to meet on the pretence of conducting some breathing tests.  Quist eventually clears Larch.

When the team from Sunfire 2 are taken sick, the team from the Sunfire 1 mission, which includes Larch, take over and they are launched into space.  In the meantime, Carol Larch drops by the Doomwatch offices, eventually having a casual discussion with Toby Wren about her husband.  Carol lets it slip that Dick was acting very strange when she visited him, and Toby quickly twigs that her husband is suffering from paranoia and informs Quist.

Quist, John Ridge, Toby and Carol rush to the British space tracking station to inform the commander of the Sunfire 2 mission that Larch is ill.  Trying to verbally feed the information to the commander only fails when over the space crafts speaker system the entire Sunfire team hears Quist state that Larch is a paranoiac.  Larch freaks out and as a result the Commander misses inputting an important re-entry code causing the craft to fly out into deep space, unable to return home.

I was somewhat disappointed in this script by Don Shaw mainly for the reason that I don’t think it was one of the series better episodes.  I don’t feel it properly addressed the premise of the stress of space travel.  I’m not knocking the episode as a whole.  Overall it was a fairly decent episode even if the first half-hour or so was rather routine.  And, despite the tense and gripping last 15 minutes the episode was slow and uninvolving.

I don’t feel Shaw really addressed the issues at hand.  Instead I felt he penned a somewhat jumbled storyline that seem to waver between one theme and another.  Personally I felt if Shaw had concentrated on the theme of how space travel mentally affects astronauts, it would have provided a more gripping story.  The whole sub-plot of trying to ascertain whether the fault was mechanical or human was rather unnecessary.  I mean, why bother with this whole plot point when in the first five minutes of the episode we see where the fault was.  The viewer plainly sees Larch punch in the wrong re-entry code, when he has been verbally given the correct code.  Instead of punching a second zero into the computer console, he punches in an eight.  But what I didn’t understand, and felt wasn’t made clear was when Larch realized the error he’d made, Larch then punched the reset button.  Next we see the Sunfire 1 craft entering the Earth’s orbit and we’re told that the craft is off the correct glide path, but they’ll make it down okay.  It’ll just be a bumpy ride.  So what was all the big fuss about?  Or did I miss something.

Another point I didn’t understand was when the NASA investigation couldn’t find out what the exact cause of the fault was.  Was it human – Larch’s incorrect code key entry, or was it mechanical – the warning light failed to go off?  The probe investigators eventually issue a statement that they felt it was a mechanical error.  Yet, the psychiatrist Dr Goldsworthy feels it’s a human error.  Okay fine.  But if Goldsworthy felt the fault was as a result of Larch’s error, and he felt that Larch’s mental state wasn’t exactly 100%, then as the program’s psychiatrist, why didn’t he ground him.  This whole plot point was never clearly explained if you ask me.

Overall I felt this was a rather routine episode that seemed to be going through the motions.  I think what saved it for me was the last 15 minutes, which proved to be gripping television.  The Doomwatch team, and Larch’s wife Carol, watch as the team of the Sunfire 2 leave the Earth’s orbit, never to return home.  The futileness of the Quist’s rescue attempt goes all wrong and there is no way of saving the astronauts and bringing them home safely.  It was gut wrenching, especially when Mrs. Larch screams, “Please, stop it!”  The anguish and despair that each character is feeling at that exact moment hits you right in the heart.

Episode Rating:  5/10