The Green Death’ is a genuine Doctor Who classic. Aliens tend to invade Earth far too often to be believed in the Doctor Who universe (why would so many different races want to invade our one little planet?), but ‘The Green Death’ thankfully avoids this cliche by telling the story of the fairly mundane and earthbound problem of pollution, and then makes it interesting by adding the Doctor Who staple ingredient of monsters in the form of the giant maggots. The anti-capitalist sermonizing is heavy-handed, but the story manages to transcend that and remain a solid and entertaining chapter in the Doctor’s adventures.
The plot is sound, though I’m not sure we ever learn exactly who built BOSS (he does mention his creators without going into much detail). Global Chemicals, a presumably multinational corporation headquartered in Wales, has developed a new process for producing greater quantities of gasoline from crude oil. While more efficient, this process also creates a dangerous by-product in the form of a toxic green sludge which can’t be broken down or destroyed, so it must be stored. Global’s solution is to pump the sludge down into a recently disused coal mine, where it will supposedly remain buried. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s never that simple of course, and in true Doctor Who fashion, there are monstrous results. The sludge mutates maggots, causing them to grow to giant proportions and evidently grow fangs and learn to jump. The sludge also begins to kill people on contact, hence the “green death” of the title. All of this happens before the story proper begins, and then UNIT is drawn into events, initially to provide security for Global Chemicals but also to investigate the death of the miner. The bulk of the televised story is spent exploring the mystery of the mines, and then spent trying to deal with the threat from the maggots, and deal with Global Chemicals and BOSS. The story works well over six episodes, revealing first one layer of the mystery and then another. We get plenty of good material and character moments for the Doctor, the Brigadier, Benton and Yates. The trip to Metebelis 3 that has been attempted all season is finally taken by the Doctor, with both useful and funny results. Oh, and Jo Grant falls in love in a remarkably short amount of time and leaves to get married at the end of the story.
I often discuss the characters first when I’m reviewing, but in this case I’d like to address the philosophy behind the tale, since unlike most other Doctor Who stories, here the moral not only takes center stage, but is the reason behind the story’s creation. Like most sane people in the world I’m certainly pro-environment, but I get very tired of corporation-bashers who insist that large, international corporate entities do nothing but pollute the planet, use up resources and trample the little guy. It’s a blatant and lazy stereotype, and we are presented with just such an unbalanced picture in this story. The approach taken is a cowardly one though, since real issues are ducked by presenting us an evil polluting corporation run not by humans, but by a megalomaniac computer, the BOSS. The only employees we see are a few upper echelon executives and about a dozen security guards, and sooner or later they all come under the mental subjugation of BOSS, leaving little room to cast the moral blame for Global Chemical’s pollution at their feet. The good ones like Elgin and Fell are eventually brainwashed when they rebel against profit at all costs, and Stevens, who is the main antagonist for UNIT and the chief legman for BOSS, even he repents when his mind is cleared by the Doctor. The story seems to indict the corporate system and the capitalism that drives it as irredeemable, and sends the message that even good people like Elgin can’t help but be destroyed by it. Which is of course, utter nonsense.
One of the problems with that point of view is its one-sidedness. It’s not universally true by any stretch of the imagination. Now I had initially hoped that having both moral and immoral executives in Global Chemicals was an attempt at balance, but it doesn’t seem to be. We are presented with another myth: the ‘back to nature = golden age’ myth, embodied by our unbelievably well-educated and Nobel prize winning hippies at the Wholeweal community. The contrast between the well-groomed, well-spoken, affluent corporate executives who are nonetheless either immoral or caught up in the immoral system, and the educated but happy dropouts working for the betterment of mankind couldn’t be more pronounced. It’s also far removed from reality since the hippy movement was generally selfish, and based on abandoning society rather than bettering it. The reason I say that this group of hippies destroys any attempt at balance is that while there are moral and immoral characters at Global, there are no correspondingly equal immoral Wholewealers. They’re all idealistic and on the right track. While lovely characters, they’re just too good to be true.
So we have evil corporation vs. good societal dropouts. This is the story setup, and it comes from a philosophical point of view I profoundly disagree with, and yet I’ve given the story high praise at the beginning of this review. I’ve gone so far as to call it a classic, and I hold to that. Despite the philosophy behind much of the story, the idea that we must take care of our environment is as true today as it was in 1973. That alone isn’t enough to elevate The Green Death to the status of a classic, but add to that the fact that the story itself is solid, with plenty of scope for all the regulars, and a good amount of drama, and that goes a long way to making this story stand out from many of its peers. The plot is multi-layered. It sets up the mystery of what killed the miner, then solves that by showing us the pollutants in the mine and the maggots, which raises the question of where those came from. That question is answered, but then we are left with the question of who it is that has been talking to Stevens and compelling him to ‘process’ people. That question is then answered, and still we are left with the mystery of just what the computer plans and how it can be stopped. Add to that the subplot about Jo growing up and striking out on her own, and how the Doctor reacts to her imminent departure, and you have a story full of progression, questions, and twists, with some excellent character drama that fits well into the Doctor Who format. The Green Death is well-written and structured, and for that the author and production team deserve credit.
The story makes good use of all the characters, with the UNIT regulars all receiving good roles. The Brigadier is the most prominent, and he gets the usual mixed characterization that you find at this point in the series. He’s straightforward and sceptical when dealing with Stevens, yet seemingly unable to start his investigation of the mine without the Doctor. It may well be that experience has taught him that he won’t find the answers on his own, but the Brigadier of ‘The Invasion’ and ‘Spearhead from Space’ is proactive, and very much his own man. The way he often dithers while waiting on the Doctor weakens his character considerably. Still, in this story Lethbridge-Stewart stands up to Stevens and a cabinet minister with dignity and diplomacy, and takes his dressing-down from the Prime Minister without looking like an idiot. He also benefits from a chance to let his hair down so to speak and get out of uniform for much of the story. The dinner at Wholeweal where he’s enjoying his meal and cigar and laughing at the dinner table is a great character moment to be sure. We rarely get to see the Brigadier off-duty and enjoying himself, but it’s nice to see a different side to him. And despite being duty-bound to obey orders, he inserts Mike Yates into Global Chemicals for a little corporate espionage, which is an eminently sensible action to take. This is a reasonably good story for the Brigadier. The Time Monster and The Three Doctors are perhaps his low points, and here he’s on his way back up towards respectability.
Benton doesn’t play much of a role in events, but he’s his usual affable self here. From his always-polite approach to Jo, to his good humor while flinging fungus to the maggots, to his rather brave leap over the maggots to rescue Cliff and Jo, he’s always likeable. Captain Yates gets to remind us of UNITs occasional use of undercover surveillance by infiltrating Global Chemicals as an ersatz member of the ministry. He’s very animated and cheerful here, and shows himself to be fairly capable as well. He gathers enough information to direct the Doctor to the executive elevator, and has enough courage to go back into Global for more information even when his cover is blown.
This is of course Jo Grant’s final story, and her departure is handled well in the sense that it doesn’t come from nowhere during the last five minutes of the final episode. If you look back over Katy Manning’s three years on the show, her character certainly grew and changed over time to be far more capable, so Jo’s desire to strike out on her own is believable and well-handled. What isn’t as believable is the rapid attachment to and engagement to Cliff Jones. This story can hardly take more than a few days, and yet the two of them decide to get married in such a short time? I suppose it can happen, but still… probably got divorced about that fast too. Time issues aside, her pulling away from the Doctor is well handled by both Manning and Jon Pertwee, who put in great performances in all respects.
The Doctor is at his best here, and Pertwee seems to me to be at his most enthusiastic. He is so full of energy and life in this story, and is very enjoyable to watch. Whether gleefully organizing the diversion protest march while he breaks onto the grounds of Global Chemicals, to angrily demanding that the sealing of the mine be stopped, to his shocked expression as he realizes that he’s walked in on Cliff and Jo’s romantic encounter, Pertwee gets to show a wide range of acting skills here. Of particular note is his jovial and exuberant banter with BOSS and Stevens when the useless attempt is made to brainwash him. He claims to be having a ‘whale of a time’ and Pertwee’s acting conveys that well. His turn as both the milkman and the cleaning lady are fun as well. On the whole, this is one of his better performances.
As an aside, I note there are complaints about the depiction of the Welsh in this story. As an American, I don’t really know a lot about the apparent stereotypes that are being portrayed, so I can’t really address those. Perhaps the Welsh get similar treatment to Southerners in American entertainment, who are often portrayed in popular entertainment as simpletons with exaggerated accents. In any case, from my point of view the Welsh characters in this story seem to be solid, admirable people for the short time we get to see them. The miners all seem down to earth and concerned about their fellows, and none strike me as particularly exaggerated. From my point of view, the milkman is the only one who stands out from his fellows with his accent and speech patterns.
Special effects are pretty poor in some spots, but reasonably good everywhere else. It’s hard to find fault with most Doctor Who, a low-budget show that did so well with what they had. Generally a solid effort all around, even if the CSO isn’t always successful.
A note about the DVD: as always, the picture and sound are much improved over my old VHS copy. The commentary that I’ve listened to so far with Barry Letts, Terrance Dicks and Katy Manning is fun and lively. Mr. Letts is surely one of the most pleasant people who ever worked on the show, and Katy Manning is quite bubbly. It’s a pity Jon Pertwee isn’t still with us to participate (you know he would have). The extras are interesting, particularly the special effects feature. However, the standout extra has to be the ‘Global Conspiracy’ feature, with a hilarious ‘documentary’ about the effect of the Global Chemicals debacle on the town. It’s funny and it’s also a far more creative way to reassemble some of the cast members than an interview would have been.
To sum everything up: good solid story and plot, good character moments all around for the regular cast, but with a half-baked philosophy behind it. Not flawless, but yes, a classic Doctor Who adventure that has a little of everything. Well worth watching.