Doctor Who complete reviews: The Green Death
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One of Doctor Who's most bittersweet partings is upon us...
I’m not quite sure who it was that said that Classic Doctor Who doesn’t do emotion. A common school of thought was that pre-2005 Doctor Who concentrated on scaring kids instead of tugging at the heartstrings.
Whether that theory holds water or not is another matter. It’s true that most Classic Who characters don’t break out the crying towel every few minutes, but if you look close enough, there are more emotional scenes than you’d think. The regeneration scenes of the third and fourth Doctors are emotionally charged (in different ways). The companion leaving scenes are also designed to put a lump in the throat, and the king of all these is of course, Jo Grant’s departure.
The Green Death always gets remembered as “That one with the maggots”. Or “The one in Wales”. And of course, people cite it as “The one where Jo leaves”. Coming together, The Green Death, while telling a good old-fashioned monster story on the surface is just as much a tale about human fallibility and choices.
On the surface, kids have plenty to be scared of. The maggots are memorably icky, especially when they first trickle along on a trail of slime at the end of the second episode. Ask people to name a yucky creepy crawly and it’s fair to bet that a sizeable proportion would say maggots. The Who team would save the spiders for last, but the maggots are still a close second, and they’re generally well realised on screen with the aid of – ahem! – contraceptives. Not only do they work well in great clusters, the maggots also work well on their own. The best example of this is the cliffhanger to episode three when a maggot breaks out of its egg and slithers its way to an unassuming Jo Grant who’s reading about Tales From The Amazon in Clifford’s living room. It’s very well shot, with the camera looking at Jo’s back from the maggot’s POV for the final shot, and even if some of the CSO looks a bit ropey, the scene still works very well.
"If you want to pick an example of ropey effects in Doctor Who, then The Green Death is an 'All You Can Laugh At' bar "
BTW, what’s with all the CSO in The Green Death? It’s a Chromakey Dream. Or Nightmare, whichever way you look at it. The Green Death, visually, does suffer from some of the worst CSO seen in Doctor Who. Barry Letts winces on the commentary at the floating cart when The Doctor and Jo do a little bit of gondola work through a river of maggots. Aside from that, we also get outside locations as CSO, and these happen all too often in the last couple of episodes.
If you want to pick an example of ropey effects in Doctor Who, then The Green Death’s an 'All You Can Laugh At' bar. Apart from the CSO, we have the wobbly toy Doctor and toy Bessie being pulled across a cat litter tray full of soil. And then there’s the giant fly, which again causes Barry Letts to squirm in embarrassment on the commentary. Looking like a Blue Peter creature made out of carrier bags, coathangers and brake lights, the giant fly hovers about like a ropey old string puppet at a Punch ‘n’ Judy show. The Doctor calls it a creature of beauty, but he clearly wasn’t paying attention that day.
The effects aren’t the only dubious element of The Green Death. Welsh viewers may have thrown their tellies out of the windows when this came on, since the portrayal of the natives is sketchy at best. According to The Green Death, the Welsh say “Boyo” and “Blodwyn” a lot, and indulge in clichéd banter about rugby clubs and scandalous gossip. Hmmm, very gritty and realistic. Put it this way, even Fireman Sam offers a more convincing take on everyday Welsh life.
If you can just about put up with the Welsh clichés and the poor effects, then there’s a lot to reward the viewer. The Green Death is one of the last great anti-capitalist stories. It’s very much the same. A big, global corporation is promising huge amounts of money and material benefit, but at the cost of the human lives. In this case, it’s the dreaded Global Chemicals, a company that thinks it’s OK to flush vile green sludge into the mines – hey, it’ll mean greater profits for all, right kids? Before you know it, The Doctor’s called in to investigate after a green man is found dead in one of the Welsh mines. Incidentally, the Front Axial Projection effects are very very good, and overall, the visual results of the eponymous Green Death stand up well today.
In typical 70s style though, despite there being a high proportion of do-badders, they’re still sympathetic in their own ways. Elgin is the goodie of the piece, being the only sympathetic voice of reason when The Doctor and co call on Global Chemicals for help. But before you know it, he’s been hypnotised by the dreaded Headphones Of Doom (which presumably play Mouldy Old Dough by Lieutenant Pigeon on a loop to bore victims into submission). Not only that, but practically all of the Global lot suffer this fate – The outside guards, James and Fell are all seen to succumb to this dreaded fate. And poor old Fell ends up hurling himself off of an outside ledge after he somehow overcomes the brainwashing.
The main cause of all this is Stevens (or Steeeeeevuuuhhhns as BOSS calls him). Steeeeeevuuuhhhns is a typical Pertwee-era politician. All smarmy charm and fake politics on the surface, and a considerable ruthless streak underneath it. And yet at the end, we also find that somehow Stevens has been hypnotised himself. Quite what the deal is with BOSS is a good question. Who built BOSS? Stevens? Or did he move into the office and find that there was a great big talking jukebox on the top floor? Whatever the cause, Steeeeeevuuuhhhns and BOSS are big buddies. They probably have clandestine candlelit dinners together. Because by the end, Steeeeeevuuuhhhns is in silent tears after deactivating his buddy in a blaze of TOTP video effects. Up until now, we’ve just seen a ruthless businessman who’s been driven by greed – but in that last rather touching close-up of Stevens’ tear-stained face, we learn that he’s instead driven by duty to his metal friend. Jerome Willis is actually very good as Stevens, alternating well between the politician and the detached servant of BOSS.
BOSS as a concept is a bit old hat by now. We’ve already had WOTAN in The War Machines, and we all know that computers are bad from The Ice Warriors. And John Dearth’s rather hammy voiceover gets a bit grating from time to time. But at least the megalomaniac machine gives the third Doctor a target to shout at, which the Time Lord does in the fifth episode.
"The Green Death is as much about Jo’s leaving as it is capitalist attack and monster story"
And god knows there’s a lot of pent-up rage there, since The Doctor’s feeling the effects of Jo deciding to up sticks and shack up with Professor Jones. Right from the first episode, The Green Death is as much about Jo’s leaving as it is capitalist attack and monster story. And it really is genuinely sad to witness – it’s like watching a break-up unfold before your very eyes. There aren’t many Doctor-Companion teams as close as the third Doctor and Jo, but as soon as Jo sets her heart on travelling down to Wales, she’s all distant and aloof and refusing to go on a wacky trip to Metebelis Three (which she would have done without a second thought a season ago). “So the fledgling flies the coop,” says The Doctor sadly as he realises that his beloved Jo is growing apart from him.
I guess the seeds have been sown throughout the last couple of stories. Not only is Jo more confident and headstrong, she’s also had to rebuff another potential suitor’s advances. Does Jo love The Doctor? Fan Fiction. Can Of Worms. Who knows? You could argue that it’s possible, although it’s not the sort of love that she’s used to. But with Cliff, she gets a chance of a real relationship – even if it does take place with worrying speed.
They get off on the wrong foot as Jo barges in like a furry tornado into Professor Hippy’s lab, knocking over test tubes and threatening to “contaminate his spores”. It’s all a neat set-up of Jo’s first meeting with The Doctor, which was similarly chaotic. And like The Doctor, Hippy has a short temper and is prone to bouts of patronising people for the fun of it. But by episode two, Hippy finds that he has feelings for Jo after she gets stuck down the mine. After this, the two start to get closer, especially during the dinner at The Nuthutch. There’s that awkward scene in which The Doctor barges in on Jo and Hippy in Just-About-To-Snog mode, during which he hilariously carts off Jones to another room to discuss some random scientific theory – just to stop the two indulging in any sort of hanky panky. Please. There are children watching.
And it looks like in only two or three days, Hippy decides to propose to Jo. His “proposal” actually reads as “Oh, you will of course?” which must be the worst proposal line ever. No wonder fans have speculated that the marriage doesn’t last. But there’s a real charm in Stewart Bevan’s performance. That great, joyous laugh and dance around the room as Jo accepts and The Nuthutch gets a grant is very real (“Yee-haa! Life’s good, isn’t it?” he roars), and caps off a fine performance from Bevan throughout the story.
At least UNIT are a bit better here too. The Brigadier’s got his brain back after the fiasco of The Three Doctors. He’s hard as nails when he wants to be (ringing the PM) but there’s also a more relaxed side to him. It’s one of the very few stories when The Brig lets his (growing) hair down, whether he’s puffing on cigars and drinking wine or comforting a crestfallen Mike at the party.
"We’ve never seen The Doctor this wounded before and it’s very rare that he’ll be as hurt again"
Mike also gets a good story, in which the seeds are sown for his later betrayal in Invasion Of The Dinosaurs. No sooner has he been hypnotised by both BOSS and the Metebelis crystal, his head’s starting to get in a spin. From now on, we’ll see a much more different Mike than the confident chap of the eighth season. And he’s evidently gutted at losing Jo too. Just look at his face at the party when each bit of “good” news is delivered. He tries to put on a brave face, but he’s fooling no one. The Brig evidently senses this and kindly invites Mike to join him for a drink. Not only are Nicholas Courtney and Richard Franklin at their best, it just shows how much care and thought went into the characters of the UNIT family.
And so it’s the last story for Katy Manning (until the forthcoming Sarah Jane Adventures ep at least), and she delivers a cracking performance, all feistiness one minute, kooky charm the next and then genuine sorrow not only when it looks like Hippy’s about to die but when she’s forced to say goodbye to The Doctor.
I’ve already mentioned this scene in an article I wrote on the defining characteristics of The Doctor, and for good reason. We’ve never seen The Doctor this wounded before and it’s very rare that he’ll be as hurt again. Michael E Briant has directed the story brilliantly, full of pacy action, moody interludes and innovative video effects. But in this last scene, he really brings out the raw emotion. Pertwee and Manning are at their best, both speaking in hushed, barely audible voices – you can tell that both were genuinely upset when shooting this scene (as confirmed on the DVD commentary), and the final few shots of The Doctor sadly downing his drink and leaving the party before driving off in Bessie are real tear-jerkers. Aaaah. Katy’s evidently moved by the whole sequence on the accompanying commentary, and to be honest, who wouldn’t be? The Green Death could, on its own, have been a good story full of action, but the real human drama of Jo’s departure propels it into one of the all-time greats of Doctor Who.
Damn it, where are those tissues?
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.