Saturday, October 25, 2008

Random Who Report: The Green Death (1973)

Buy THE GREEN DEATH from Amazon hereTHE GREEN DEATH is very much a story of its time, dealing with issues raised by the newly active environmentalist movement, the computer revolution, coal pits closing, etc. This is typical of stories from Jon Pertwee’s time, as writers began to engage with social issues a little more directly (perhaps reflecting the show appealing to a more mature audience.) However, it’s also very modern, developing characters and setting up arcs in a way that foreshadows how the new DOCTOR WHO does things. Though not the most coherent of stories, THE GREEN DEATH is consistently engaging even at its goofiest, and has some scary and touching moments too. It also marks the departure of Katy Manning as Jo Grant, and as companion send-offs go it’s pretty strong.

The bulk of the story takes place in Wales (see what I said about new series foreshadowing), in a remote town whose name I forget that’s having its coal mine shut down. The generically-named Global Chemicals promises that their new facility will produce plenty of jobs and money; they’ve got some way of refining oil that’s ultra-efficient and only produces a small amount of hideous green mutagen that kills people and makes maggots grow to giant size, honest. This upsets a local environmentalist hippie group under the leadership of Professor Clifford Jones (Stewart Bevan), and when one of the last miners out of the pit turns all green and dead, the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT) gets called in to investigate just what is going on. The Doctor is temporarily unavailable, having nipped off to the distant world of Metebelis III to steal a valuable gem just because he can, so Jo goes off to meet the handsome young Professor and starts investigating what’s in the mine. Turns out that yes, Global Chemicals is dumping a lot of green muck down the old mine shaft, and not only does it cause a toxic infection in humans, it’s also spawned a bunch of maggots the size of dauchsunds whose bite spreads the killer slime. On top of this, everyone at the evil generic chemical company is acting very weird, which has to do with the fact that their boss is a giant computer that was programmed to have human inefficency and creativity and as such has gone batshit plumb loco.

This story is most fondly remembered as “The one with the maggots”, which is also the title of the greatest FRIENDS episode never written. But the maggots evidently weren’t enough to sustain a six-part story, so they threw in an evil computer, poison sludge, and the Doctor running off to an alien world. This last bit is a particularly surreal sidetrek scattered at various points throughout the first episode; we see brief scenes of the Doctor wandering about a dark and smoky landscape, menaced by stock footage of snakes and the giant claws of some offscreen monster. All to get a nice shiny blue crystal which does end up serving some plot use later on, albeit mostly by happy chance. What’s interesting is that this also serves as foreshadowing for something that would come an entire season later; PLANET OF THE SPIDERS, the third Doctor’s final story, dealt with some unforseen repercussions of the jewel heist, leading to the Doctor sacrificing his life to stop a great evil in what is apparently a Buddhist allegory (I haven’t seen that one yet.) The series had tried some of this light foreshadowing in earlier years- the Pat Troughton story THE INVASION is basically a test run for the Jon Pertwee UNIT era- but it was still the exception for WHO rather than the rule.

Jo Grant gets a superb exit, especially after poor Liz Shaw was written out off-screen. Jo was introduced as, to put it politely, a less intellectual companion compared to super-smart Liz, in order for the Doctor to once again have someone to explain everything to. Jo wasn’t dumb, really, but she tended to act very silly and impulsive and to scream a lot. She gets to do more this time around, and her romance with Professor Jones is well played if still firmly in the realm of genre melodrama. (There’s even a scene where she lounges by the fireplace in a dress straight out of a romance novel cover. Not that I can complain.) On top of that, the first episode, with its elements of the Doctor going off to another world while Jo has to investigate trouble at home, foreshadows her parting ways and striking her own path. The final scenes of the story are very touching.

In its disjointed way, THE GREEN DEATH provides a lot of neat touches. The commune/laboratory where Professor Jones and his fellow hippies work isn’t exaggerated quite as much as these things often were in popular media; there’s not much psychedelia or reactionary fear of Those Damn Kids Today, just a bunch of quirky people in fairly dingy housing making do with what they’ve got. (Of course, by this point hippiedom itself was becoming a bit more subdued.) For all the serious issues this story deals with, there are quite a few funny moments, intentional and otherwise. The maggot effects are quite good, though their adult form is unconvincing even by WHO standards.

THE GREEN DEATH suffers from the curse of nearly all six-parters, in that it’s not really a big enough story to justify the length (there’s some particularly obvious padding when the Doctor and friends raid Global Chemicals just to get some wire-cutting tools.) But if it suffers from a lack of focus, the individual parts are never dull. Quite entertaining, and just the slightest bit ahead of its time.

Written by Robert Sloman (with uncredited assist by Barry Letts)
Produced by Barry Letts
Directed by Michael E. Briant

Grade: B+

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