The Green Death: DVD Special

Written by:
Robert Sloman
Directed by: Michael Briant
Starring: Jon Pertwee
Year: 1973
Video Availability: Try

The Green Death is a story I've particularly looked forward to reviewing in this format. Containing some of the very best of Who and also some of the worst, it's a tempered collision of quality that somehow works despite itself. I seem to remember some episodes don't actually forward the narrative and are constructed entirely of padding, while others are first-rate: it should make for an interesting watch in pure episodic form.

One reason why people praise this story is that it's "one of the ones everyone remembers", which always struck me as an odd justification. I mean, I remember a kick up the arse, but that doesn't mean I want to critically acclaim it. Yet opening with a superb aerial shot, this is the last time in the Pertwee era that any kind of realism, no matter how tenuous, was attempted. It's all "lavs", "mucus" and manure, a story so urban and real you can practically smell it. There's even - whisper it - s - e -x, helped enormously by Katy Manning and Stewart Bevan's real-life chemistry. In many ways, following three plastic stories and the return to UNIT HQ, this feels like "real" Who again. Not only that, but Jo grows back her new found brain once more. On reflection, the presence of Jo having an IQ isn't as all encompassing throughout season ten as I previously remembered. Other than this and Carnival of Monsters she's as thick as she ever was.

Most interestingly with this story is the Jo/Doctor relationship. She practically leaves him in the first ten minutes ("The fledging has flown the coop") while after a man who reminds me of a "younger you". In many ways this is presented as a father-daughter relationship, but there's some unsettling undercurrent in the way it's played that hints at more than platonic attraction.

Yet there's also flaws, of course. The awful CSO for the lift shaft. The sitcom style businessmen. And the subtext of the story - what subtext? There's a man with a glowing green hand, for flip's sake! And the opening exposition from Jo is curiously misplaced, seemingly filling in anyone who hasn't seen the show all season. Then of course there's the Metabelis Three gurning and the Welsh stereotypes, is it?

But flaws in this first episode are virtually redundant. Despite the presence of caricatures in many secondary roles, there's a depth of characterisation and dialogue that is even more marked when watching directly after the prior Pertwee outing. This isn't just people standing around shouting plot points at one another, this is relatively colourful dialogue from the pen of Robert Sloman. And special praise must again be singled out for Bevan, who makes the old "it's crawling up your leg" routine alive and charming, despite the best efforts of the script to resist such a reaction. Whatever the shortcomings of his role, he imbues it with a genuine enthusiasm.

Yes, The Green Death is naive in the way it presents its politics, but you know what? For some inexplicable reason I think the way Jon comes out of the Tardis to answer the telephone is pure cool.
* * * *

A nice bit of plot contrivance early into the episode, as the only place where they can get cable cutting equipment isn't in the mine but in Global Chemicals. Yet The Green Death has stood up remarkably well, and there seems to be an energy and enthusiasm missing from all the other stories in the season, even Carnival. Maybe it's just the knowledge that Tom Baker is only a season away.

Of course, the only thing that does date it - at this point at least - is the appalling patronage of the Welsh. Did the makers think it was a realistic representation, or was it intended as a joke? Either way, it stands out hugely thirty years later. When Jo claims a miner "might die" Bert answers back "He already is Dai, isn't it, Boyo?" Well, maybe not, but he almost did. I can overlook it as an historical document, though, and there's also a lot more care gone into the sets than usual. Okay, it's all lit too brightly, particularly the stuff on video tape, but it looks a step above the usual bit of red cardboard we've been subjected to of late.

This is where the strain of the six-part format already begins to show, however. A completely superfluous fight sequence follows Pertwee running like a girl. His stunt double with a dark grey rug on his head then flips three men around using his Venusian Karate. (Now toned down to "Akido"). "I do hope I haven't hurt you" says Jon. Well that makes it alright then.

Yet despite little indulgences like that (and The Green Death as a whole is full of them) I still enjoyed this episode hugely. And when it ends with giant maggots and gnashing, hissing teeth, you know you're onto a winner.
* * * *

Wow. Talk about your game of two halves. Not only do I have to break down The Green Death into episodes, but I also have to split those episodes into chunks too, it seems!

I was all ready to make a begrudging dismissal of this "coasting" episode, with its padded tunnels and dodgy CSO, plus secretaries that bleep in a 70s sitcom "Pleeeeeeeeease, Mr. Spencer!" style way. And, of course, you'd never wear Stevens's headphones for your Sony MP3 player. Yet something weird happened. I got to the last five minutes.

The first three quarters or so of this episode just about scrape an average, three star rating. The final five easily get four and a half. Here we have the Doctor, Jo, Cliff and the Brigadier having a meal for no real other reason than the fact that they are. Characterisation - not something you should count as a bonus, but in the Pertwee era you can never take this for granted. Then there's the fact that this is the only Doctor Who episode to mention a toilet - I don't know whether this is a good thing or not, but there you go. Then we even have Jo and Cliff going to kiss, and realistically set up, too. Before and after this we'd had companions chastely holding hands, but here Jo wants a full tongue sarnie. And just when you think it can't get any better, The Doctor actually starts to get jealous! You're taken to the throes of ecstacy when along comes a scary giant maggot, creeping up behind a helpless, low-cut dressed Jo. Superb.
* * * *

"Will he die?" "Well the others did." There's a bitter, almost callous disregard to Jon's Doctor this episode, and it's a nice change. Is he just angry cos Cliff's the one getting the shag off Jo? Certainly, the whole relationship triangle adds an interesting and unusual subtext to proceedings.

The Brigadier gets outwitted by a milkman, but it's far from the imbecile he'd become over the last few seasons. Sadly, while this is all positive so far, (and I didn't even mention Stevens's touch of conscience in the last episode), Jon's "righteous anger" at Yates amounts to little more than him standing on the spot bellowing. And while Dudley Simpson's music has been quite decent up to this point, all of a sudden it emerges to drive home every touch of drama, and sell every moment of humour. Dire.

One of the problems I have with The Green Death is the structure. There is humour in the story, but placed in the last three episodes, whereas by that stage we require drama. So that while we're coming up to the climatic thrust of the story, Jon takes turns to dress up as a "comedy" Welsh milkman and a washerwoman. Laugh? Someone probably did. And when the last episode should be a rattleneck pace of high drama, instead we get BOSS transforming into an all-singing, all-wisecraking abacus. The tone of the story is subverted, and it becomes less than it should have been.

Here things still keep on roughly the right track, and I won't repeat the trivia fact that the maggots on long shot here were inflated condoms, because it's so infamous everybody knows it. (Right?) Yet Jon's comedy turns, while perhaps charming, break the fourth wall, because they're very much Jon Pertwee the actor and not the rather humourless third Doctor. As this was what was expected of him when he was initially hired, then it gives a worrying sign of what might have been. It's also quite obvious by the end of this one that the narrative only has one episode left to go... which is odd, as there's still two more episodes.
* * *

Oh dear. I knew there was a reason why I remember The Green Death wasn't quite the classic it should be, and it seems that 90% of that feeling must be laid at the door of episode five.

At the end of the last episode review I'd remarked that the storyline was coming to a natural end and had little where else to go other than a 25 minute denouement. And so it is that nothing happens at all here to push the story forward. Jon stands around debating semantics with a jovial computer. Jo pretends a studio is an exterior with some very cuddly maggots on obvious tracks. The UNIT team don't even have this luxury, with their background being dubbed in by CSO.

It really is a very poor episode, almost absolute filler. What's worse is that for the last two episodes Cliff has been totally sidelined, spending much of this one in a coma. For such a strongly played character, it's all a waste. I haven't even begun to mention the timefilling explosions.

Good bits? Well, a milk float makes for an interesting take on the usual chase sequence, and I got a cheap thrill out of Jo saying she was on top of the slag heap. But Pertwee's Crystal Cackorama is pure plot contrivance, with the Brigadier getting hypnotised - again at a time when we need drama, note - is pure under-5s tosh.
* * ½

And so, the whole concept of an episode-by-episode review almost comes apart, with an episode that is good and bad in almost equal measure. Sometimes, it's just the little things, like a jarring bit of "See this swan, er, switch my child?" style exposition. The Doctor mentions serendipity, to which the Brigadier echoes "Serendipity?" "Yes, it means making a marvellous discovery by mistake" (Also performing this story's only example of PMS). You seriously expect the Brig to put on a "comedy" pained expression, and say "Yes, Doctor, I am quite aware…" but it never happens. Not only that, but Jo asks the same question seven minutes later just in case we're so thick we haven't got it already. Add to this the contrived plot resolution of a maggot-killing fungus (contrivance is a high flaw with Sloman's script) and BOSS singing and it corrodes the goodwill built up around this one in the first half. Yes, The Green Death is a good story, but Benton throwing fungus at maggots with a "Kitty, kitty, kitty, come and get your lovely din-dins" in front of a CSO backdrop is very nearly the Letts production nadir. I haven't even begun to mention the Brigadier proclaiming "They're dying like… well, like maggots. We've licked 'em!" or the appalling usage of a toy car for an overhead shot of "Bessie". Then, of course, there's the very, very, very, VERY silly giant fly. To be honest though, in this last regard at least, it doesn't seem as bad once you've got used to it. The initial shock when I first saw this story about 10 years ago was great, but now… I'm immune. Yet when the Doctor, the background view, the foreground view, the floor and the fly are all in completely different dimensions, then where's the danger? And asking Jon to say "chrysalis", followed by "metamorphosis" the following sentence is just pure cruelty. All of which, of course, would plummet this particular episode relentlessly towards a single star rating.

Thankfully, there are two things this episode that, in isolation, are pure genius. The first is the tear in Stevens's eye as he dies - superb. The second is, of course, the best Pertwee ending this side of The Silurians. The Doctor, wearing his heart(s) on his Edwardian sleeves, gets hurt ambiguously as Jo leaves him. Not only does she look forlorn as the time approaches, but Jon drives off, pained and alone, into the sunset. Even when Jo kisses her new husband-to-be, she's still thinking of the Doctor. A five-star moment in, sadly, a two-star episode. Even taking this first-rate moment of Doctor Who into consideration, I can award no more than:
* * * ½

Given a good pair of scissors, you could assemble a special alternate DVD edit of this story to make The Green Death the classic it could easily - and should easily - have been.

There are some first-rate moments in this story, with the climax entering anyone's ten or twenty greatest "moments" in Who, surely? Yet the vastly weaker and unfocussed second half, not to mention the failing production, means this isn't quite the solid gold story it had the potential to be. Having said all this, The Green Death is still well above average... but it could have been so much more.
* * * *


Interestingly, the BBFC's ratings description on the back of the DVD lists the Theme as "very mild horror", but regards it as registering "none" in the Violence category. It seems Pertwee granny scraps don't count as violence these days. Also of note is that the bit rate compression on this release isn't supposed to be as good as prior releases (a flaw with the authoring, not the restoration). Personally, while I may be a layman at this sort of thing, I couldn't really tell at all, and thought it looked great in the most part. What may look a little below-par for the range are some of the location sequences, the original negatives of which are no longer available, so treating the stock wasn't always possible. However, it's really nothing I'm sure you'll worry about, and it's preferable to a VHS copy.

Commentary/Info Text: The info text points out many things that I for one didn't know, such as the crew member's arm in shot during episode one, or the eggs being balloons sprayed silver. Nicholas Courtney's ad-lib about Aldgate is also vastly superior to the one about Croma.
Yet while the info text is good, the commentary is pretty much as you'd expect. In a list of no surprises, only Tewwance Dicks engages, though it's interesting to hear Barry Letts's schoolmastery persona take no interest whatsoever in Tewwance's new novel, and stop just short of telling Katy to shut up in episode two. Speaking of Katy, if you're a big devotee of the Pertwee years you'll delight in her enthusiastic yelps and oft repeated "baby voice" that she does at least twice an episode. Or alternately, you'll be like me and want to grab her by the hair and smash her head repeatedly against the edge of a sink.

Like all of the Pertwee discs to date, there's not really enough available material to make a lot of bonus material, and in fact other than the (spoiler space!) Easter Egg (4'10m), which is continuity announcements, there's no archive material at all. This is no complaint though, just observation, and in fact it's probably for the best on a disc that has to contend with six episodes. Just under fifty minutes of extras in all - and look out for the clips montage that accompanies the extras menu: it begins with a classic example of PMS.
There's an Interview with Robert Sloman (6'50m) that deals more with the themes rather than the mechanics of writing, though is no less interesting for it, as is the Interview with Stewart Bevan (7'41m). Both short but engaging. Equally brief is Visual Effects (11'39m), an interview with Colin Mapson's overactive eyebrows, where he details "what we call the money shot". Pardon? Also includes a feature on "Making A Maggot", which has a dubbed voice-over as the original sound was rendered unusable by external noise.
Of interest is the Picture Gallery (8'11m), which contains 84 images, many behind-the-scenes, and none accompanied by annoying sound effects. Lastly, there's Global Conspiracy? (10'52m), which might have generated more interest in the disc from casual buyers had it been identified as a spoof written by and starring Mark Gatiss on the packaging, rather than a genuine documentary. Anyway, I've had many problems with "comedy" extras on the Who discs over the last couple of years, such as those on The Dalek Invasion of Earth and Earthshock. This particular theme reached its highest confrontation point with the Oh Mummy! feature on the DVD for Pyramids of Mars, a feature I found myself debating with both the creators and the Restoration Team's Steve Roberts. In a bout of mutual teddy throwing Steve gave a heated "I am responsible for commissioning the special features and I will continue to try to provide a healthy mix of information and entertainment. That's what I'm being paid to do. It's really nobody's business but mine who I commission." I tested his chin with "These discs are being paid for by consumers. Surely it's every consumer's business who you commission? The DVDs answer to those who buy them, not the other way round." But away from such squabbling, this Green Death skit is exactly what I'm talking about. Personally I didn't find it laugh-out-loud funny (It's a little overlong, self-conscious and it really only has one joke, albeit a pretty good one) but it's produced to professional standards with a largely professional cast. It's not a pair of fans making a Sutekh skit for £600 of their own money and getting it put onto disc, it's something that has decent standards of both production and writing, chaired by a known and experienced comic performer. Whether it subjectively tickles my funny bone is not the issue - the fact that this can take pride of place as a DVD extra is. Well done… at last.

Despite the relative sparsity of extras (and remember how little you get on many Hollywood films) this is arguably the best Pertwee disc yet, almost worth an extra star…

* * *