The Green Death [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  But recently I decided to spend some of my 50th birthday spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters.

(Daily Doctor Who #17)

The Green Death

Starring Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor.
Companion:  Katy Manning as Jo Grant.
Recurring Characters: Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Richard Franklin as Captain Mike Yates and John Levene as Sgt. Benton.
Written by Robert Sloman.  Directed by Michael Briant.

Format:  6 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  May-June 1973  (Episodes 23-26 of Season 10)

The Green Death closed off Season Ten of the show, which was back in the day when the Doctor was no longer trapped on earth but still hung out there a fair bit with his UNIT friends. It was Katy Manning’s last story as companion Jo Grant, who had been with the Doctor for three full seasons–so her departure is keenly felt. In some ways, the story is the beginning of the end of the Third Doctor’s era.

Spoilers Ahead!

The Green Death is a story typical of the Third Doctor’s era–earth-bound, quite long, and heavily involving UNIT (the Doctor’s military allies). The (nearly) modern-day setting provides the fun opportunity to integrate the sort of crazy threats that the show offers into something approaching the “real world.” The format means that the time normally spent on the Doctor arriving and ingratiating himself with whoever is in charge can be spent instead on developing the situation happening in the mines in Wales. Indeed, the story has to contrive a means to keep the Doctor out of the story for a little while (via some amusing scenes of the Doctor having a pretty bad time on Metebelis 3) so that it can properly set up Global Chemicals, the nut hutch, and everything going on with Jo Grant.

The story makes good use of the semi-regulars. The Brigadier gets to be both efficient and tough, as well as a appropriately arrogant and out of his depth. Sgt. Benton is functional but still highly active in the action. And Captain Yates doesn’t show up until halfway through the story but gets some very good scenes as an undercover agent investigating Global Chemicals. The guest cast is also quite good, especially Jerome Willis as Stevens. He plays the right mixture of “menacing” and “hapless victim.”

I also quite liked John Dearth as the voice of BOSS–he gives the computer a lot of personality, especially toward the end when it seems to be losing its mind.

Of course, Katy Manning’s Jo Grant is in many ways the heart of the story, which is fitting given that it’s her final appearance.

Some of her development into an eco-activist is a bit clumsy (and the politics a bit simplistic) but it’s a nice idea. Her relationship with Clifford Jones (Stewart Bevan) is an enjoyable turn of events–he really is like a young version of the Doctor, and so Jo’s romance with him is a little bit like seeing an alternate take on of our lead characters’ relationship. Perhaps, however, some of the drama surrounding them would have worked better if one hadn’t felt is it was so blatantly Jo’s fault that the two of them get into so much trouble in the latter episodes of the story.

Overall, the production is quite good, and even the maggots are usually passable (as well as hideous). The big dragonfly-thing that one of the maggots mutates into is a bit less acceptable, but it’s not around for very long. Otherwise things look pretty good until they start employing CSO (Colour Separation Overlay, also known as chroma key). Generally, this comes into play when the characters are in the lift descending the mine, or traveling in the mine cart alongside a bunch of maggots, or driving furiously in Bessie (the Doctor’s car) near the mines. These sequences are never convincing and definitely break the suspension of disbelief (a precious commodity with this series).

I’ve also heard it said that the story treats the Welsh characters quite stereotypically, but I have to say that not being familiar with those stereotypes, I didn’t notice.

A clearer weak spot is the way the Doctor befuddles BOSS with simple logic problems–it was definitely a sign of “early” science fiction that computers could be taken down this way. We see the same thing in a bunch of early Star Trek episodes. It dates the story badly.

Still, on the positive side the story gives us one of the very best departures of a companion.

Jo’s engagement with Cliff is touching, and the celebration at the end is directed in a lovely manner. Jon Pertwee’s silent departure is highly evocative without being over-the-top. It all helps The Green Death to go out on a warm and melancholy note and make it a highlight of the Third Doctor’s era.

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