Thursday, October 13, 2005

'The Green Death'

6 episodes

Yes, it's 'the one with the maggots'... Perhaps more than any other individual Doctor Who adventure, 'The Green Death' is branded on the British collective consciousness - thanks to its memorably grotesque transformation of the humble maggot into a giant crawling eco-menace. That the maggots themselves do not glow green as many might remember (it's just the poisonous sludge that spawned them), and are in some ways only an adjunct to the main plot, seems to be irrelevant: for good or for bad they've gone down in history. The realisation of said beasties is pretty impressive, the use of rats' skulls in the models to provide their teeth being a particularly nice touch - although why one leaps for the throat of its unfortunate victim while the others are content to merely wriggle menacingly remains a mystery. Better still is the 'green death' itself, the virulent glowing patches that spread over the skin of those unlucky enough to catch it, which provides an eye-catchingly horrible demise for several minor characters and a scare for Professor Clifford Jones. Stewart Bevan's portrayal of the idealistic young academic is excellent, with his then real-life relationship with Katy Manning perhaps contributing to the obvious onscreen chemistry between Cliff and Jo Grant that builds convincingly through the six episodes to its inevitable conclusion, the pair both so wide-eyed and heart-on-their-sleeve-wearing they were obviously meant for each other...

In many ways this is Jo's story - we've seen her grow up so much over the three years she's been with the Doctor, and from the moment she accidentally destroys the professor's experiment on their first meeting, just like she did on her first encounter with the Doctor, a new relationship is clearly beginning to take shape in her life. The Doctor's initial distress when this becomes clear to him is obvious, and his clumsy attempts at near-sabotage understandable, before he eventually reconciles himself to losing another steadfast companion once he has come to trust Cliff to take care of Jo in his place - and again the warmth of the real-life fondness between Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning shines through. This is never clearer than in the tender and moving closing scenes, some of the finest in Who history, where the Doctor presents her with an engagement gift of the blue crystal from Metebelis 3 and in effect 'gives her away'; the quiet, resigned manner in which he then downs his drink and slips away alone from the impromptu party starting up sticks long in the memory, and the closing shot of Bessie disappearing across a starlit horizon is a perfect, elegiac finale.

That I've got this far through the review without covering the actual plot as such is indicative of the unusual stremgth of this subplot, if you can call it that. The main theme, inspired by producer and co-writer Barry Letts' real ecological worries, is atypically overt for Doctor Who, and testament to the amount of political issues it was possible to slip in under the cover of being a 'children's show'. Global Chemicals, the progenitors of the toxic waste that causes the contagious green death and mutates the maggots into outsized monstrosities, are a none-too-subtle allegory for the perils of globalisation and unchecked big business coupled with environmental thoughtlessness. The ultimate villain, BOSS, is another 'mad computer', but scores many points higher than WOTAN, say, thanks to being extremely charismatic, rather funny (humming Wagner and eulogising instead of getting on with its plan) and ultimately not without pathos. Its 'slave' Stevens also gets some sympathy, as he is shown to experience something like remorse or compassion on more than one occasion, and his final sacrifice to stay with the expiring computer while the plant blows up around them is amazingly affecting. The supporting cast chop and change a little too often to empathise with properly (partly through necessity thanks to illness), with the exception of the luckless Bert, but play their parts well enough - and although this story is oft-criticised for stereotyping the Welsh, I don't think it's over the top and the Welsh actors fit their roles appropriately. UNIT get a great showing for the first time in a while thanks to the welcome return of the Brigadier - who is shown to be intelligent, authoratitive yet sympathetic to the aims of the 'Nut Hutch' group and dignified even when being batted down by the Prime Minister - plus the ever-reliable Sgt. Benton, and a cracking undercover turn from Captain Yates. Incidentally, Mike Yates' reluctant yet genuine congratulations at the end to Jo and Cliff are one of the great aspects about those closing scenes - after all, it was hinted many times that he might be the one to get together with Jo yet this never transpired.

The effects are one area where this story loses points, although not through lack of trying - while the explosions are as reliable as ever, and the detonations of the mines and the factory are absolutely first-rate and very realistic, in contrast the heavy use of CSO lets down the scenes where the Doctor and Jo 'punt' through a maggot-infested tunnel and infamously where the Doctor drives Bessie through the maggot-covered slagheaps to rescue Cliff and Jo and later with Benton throwing fungus from the back to kill off the maggots. Despite this, they are still enjoyably cheesy, and the majority of the 'underground' scenes are very well done and convincingly atmospheric, while the large amount of location footage shot in Wales gives a sheen of realism to much of the goings-on... even if they had to stage some 'outdoor' shots of the Brigadier and UNIT men in the studio afterwards to fill in a gap or three! Jon Pertwee excels, again, with his legendary comic turns as first a milkman (to get into the chemical works) and then a cleaning lady (to help get out again) showing what a talented character actor he was; his 'Venusian aikido' - as opposed to the frequently-demonstrated 'Venusian karate' - scene is also terrific and forms a centrepiece to an excellent action sequence with Stevens' goons. His scenes with Stevens and BOSS are also very effective, and then of course there's that ending sequence. Plus, we also get to see the Doctor reach Metebelis 3, the famed 'blue planet' he was trying to land on in 'Carnival of Monsters'; apart from being a significant moment in his relationship with Jo, as she insists on following her heart to Wales rather than seeking adventure with him, and from being rather different to what he expected - the Doctor receives a hilariously hostile reception, with weapons and detritus bouncing off the TARDIS as it dematerialises - this is also a foreshadowing of the events that will wrap up the Third Doctor's tenure in one series' time...

Excellent use of the whole six episodes, relatively unusual for this format, with great location work, a deeper than average subtext and one of the most emotional finishes of any serial lift this into the realms of top-drawer Who.


Episodes watched: 247
Episodes still to watch: 475

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