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The Green Death

Review by Alistair Hughes

'And the angels, all pallid and wan
uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy "Man"
And it's hero the Conqueror Worm'

- Edgar Allan Poe

'Oh yeah, the one with the giant maggots...'

The above line isn't a quote from this story, but guaranteed to be heard whenever The Green Death is discussed. The rather gaudy and visceral attraction/repulsion of the maggots is so strong that it tends to eclipse, in most people's minds, everything else that this story has to offer. And this is a shame, because The Green Death does offer a great deal; Ecology and social comment, a fascinating symbiotic villain, a credible romance, solid performances and a truly moving farewell scene, all bound up with a poignant sense of finality.

'It's time the world awoke to the alarm bell of pollution, instead of sliding down the slippery slope of ...whatever it is!'

It would appear that not only can pollution turn you bright green and kill you, but it also turns maggots into poisonous, bullet-proof fanged horrors, two feet long. These most remembered images from The Green Death are also the least subtle of the script's observations on ecology. Leaving the 'monster of the week' to symbolise the penalties for abusing our environment, we are then introduced to the positive aspects of conservation via Professor Clifford Jones and the 'Nut Hutch'. Populated by such people as a supersonic aircraft designer who now sculpts and designs windmills, a musician with 'one of the finest mathematical minds in the country' and the Nobel Prize-winning Professor himself, they appear to dedicate themselves to discovering environmentally-friendly solutions to the world's problems, long before the expression 'environmentally-friendly' was even coined. They represent a diametrically-opposite philosophy to that of Global Chemicals: 'Efficiency, productivity, profit.'

The setting also allows some social insight into the relationship between Wales and England. Many of the scripts Welsh characters are rather caricatured, while the scenes between the Milkman and the Brigadier say a lot about the attitudes of the Welsh towards the English.

'...death, disease, destruction!'
'Teething problems...'

A question sometimes asked about this story is 'was the BOSS subplot necessary?' Admittedly, the concepts of a megalomaniac computer and mind control had been done to death; even by the mid-seventies and the Doctor's disappointment in discovering that BOSS is merely a machine echoes this. However, as BOSS is quick to point out, he is not merely a machine, but '...the only computer ever to have been linked to a human being'. The fact that the computer's relationship with the man in question, Stevens, evolves and changes throughout the story (BOSS seeming to be the more human, at times) and that Stevens himself is no mere puppet but a very strong personality in his own right, lends originality to the idea. BOSS also provides a more immediate global menace than the 'dratted caterpillars', via his international link to seven other power-crazed computers (Whose fate is never explained. Were the eight computers connected like Christmas tree lights so that when BOSS went off-line they all did? Or could there be potential New/Missing Adventures fodder here?).

True, the mind-control scenes are clichéd and a little embarrassing, but perhaps the image of 'zombies in suits' mindlessly carrying out the will of the big Corporation is more relevant today than ever. The final, and possibly best, justification for BOSS is the marvelous character of Stevens. The maggots may be entertaining, but it's Stevens who is the truly worthy adversary for the Doctor, unlike BOSS whom the Time Lord effectively defeats on their first meeting. An urbane and powerful character, Stevens has many of the story's best lines (when BOSS isn't speaking them) and is even able to bring personal pressure on the Brigadier from the Prime Minister himself. In many ways he fulfills some of the functions of the Master, but has a wonderful final scene, which the Master could never have had. Naturally enough BOSS shares the limelight in this scene, doing an impression of HAL from 2001: a Space Odyssey, in the process.

'Is no-one capable of acting on their own around here?'

Why this story should have been released as a sort of 'Pertwee tribute' (on VHS) originally mystified me. Another viewing makes this seem quite appropriate, however, as we see him give one of his most understated, and therefore effective, performances. When Stevens issues a very chilling threat after the destruction of the mine in episode four, a simple level gaze and brief nod from the Doctor is enough to acknowledge and counter it. Pertwee allows himself to fade into the background during an exchange between Jo and the Brigadier in the establishing scene (a very rare event indeed), and manages to convey a great deal of sorrow in the closing scenes, with the most minimal of reactions. This is very apparent when the Doctor quietly leaves the party, his sombre figure in sharp contrast to the sheep dog happily gamboling around his legs as he walks away. Of course, there is precious little underplaying apparent in the Doctor's outrageous guises as the Milkman and cleaning lady, but they are certainly entertaining, offering a glimpse of Pertwee's well-known comic talents.

We are even given one of the programme's very few credible romances, which is a credit to the performances of Katy Manning and Stuart Bevan, but could also reflect their real-life relationship at the time of filming. Their character's courtship is certainly not helped by the Doctor, who deliberately ruins Jo's plans to 'stay up for a bit' by hijacking Cliff for a lengthy scientific discussion. The Doctor's exact motivation for doing this is something that fans could speculate over for a very long time...

The Brigadier gets to play two roles, a bureaucrat for the first part of the story and a soldier for the second. Needless to say, he really only seems at home in his uniform, but it is good to see Courtney equally authoritative in two different aspects of his character. Mike Yates is also seen in a different role, which adds dimension to the character and probably gave Richard Franklin a great deal of enjoyment. Whether or not it gives us similar enjoyment would depend upon your opinion of the character.

The direction is also worthy of note, particularly the interesting intercutting between Earth and Metebelis Three in the first episode. Later, the technique is used again to great effect in the moments leading to the explosion of the pithead. The effects are very variable, ranging from very good miniature shots to quite cringe-worthy CSO. When the maggots work, they truly are the stuff nightmares are made of, and when they don't work...well, personally I found them very amusing, in an affectionate sort of way. I've heard it said, and agree, that the humour in the less-successful effects actually adds to the enjoyment of the serial.

'So, the fledgling flies the coop.'

Rounding off the tenth anniversary season, The Green Death is imbued with a great sense of finality. Like the Doctor, we are given some signals at the beginning of the story. When Jo still refuses to accompany him for a trip in the TARDIS despite his plea: 'Jo, you've got all the time in the world, and all the space, I'm offering them to you!', we know that their days together are drawing to a close. Interestingly, this scene opens with Jo asking the Doctor if he's working on the dematerialisation circuit, exactly what he was doing on their very first meeting. And when she later encounters her 'younger version of the Doctor', Clifford Jones, she promptly destroys his experiment, again harkening back to Terror of the Autons. The Doctor's success in finally reaching Metebelis Three, his destination since the beginning of the season, concludes another plot thread while simultaneously beginning another. His taking of the 'Metebelis sapphire' will eventually bring about events leading to his own demise. We also see the resolution of the programme's least-developed subplot ever, the 'romance' between Jo and Mike Yates, while Yates makes his final appearance as a loyal UNIT Captain (despite his brief possession by BOSS). This in turn could qualify this story as the last true appearance of the UNIT family. It should also be noted that 'The Green Death' also presents us with the final use of the original Pertwee title sequence, a move that really did herald the end of an era.

'Devilish creatures spawned by the filthy by-products of your technology...
Wholesale destruction of the countryside...
Men walking around like brainless vegetables...'

The Green Death not only delivers more than a memorable 'monster', it also delivers with considerable style. It definitely has its failings (sexism and dodgy effects to name but two), but there is far more in this serial to commend it. It is a well-told story, and also has a certain significance in the programme's history; featuring the departure of Jo Grant, the Doctor's closest human friend up to that point. 'This Professor Jones is fighting for everything that's important,' Jo tells the Doctor, 'Everything you've fought for. In a funny way, he reminds me of a sort of younger you...'

And as for the farewell scene itself, just try watching it without getting at least a small lump in your throat, and maybe thinking of friends of your own that you might never see again. As the Doctor says when the situation starts to become emotional: 'Would you excuse me, I think I'm about to be needed on the telephone...'

This item appeared in TSV 51 (June 1997).

Index nodes: The Green Death