Doctor Who: The Green Death Review

The Green Death was the last story of the tenth season of Doctor Who. It now becomes the third of the season’s five stories to be released on DVD, after Carnival of Monsters and The Three Doctors. By this time, Jon Pertwee’s tenure in the title role had lasted four years. Jo Grant (Katy Manning) had been his assistant and The Master (Roger Delgado) his recurring adversary for three of those years. Behind the scenes, Barry Letts had been producer since Pertwee’s second story and Terrance Dicks had become script editor on Patrick Troughton’s final season. A long period of stability then, but one soon to come to an end. Firstly, Roger Delgado was tragically killed in a car accident. And this story was Katy Manning’s last as Jo Grant as her character falls for Stewart Bevan’s long-haired hippie scientist Clifford Jones.

The Green Death is an archetypal Letts story, using the series’ SF/fantasy framework to deal with a topical theme or issue. In this case, the story (by Robert Sloman with uncredited input from Letts) tackles the way humanity is despoiling the Earth, a theme as relevant now as it was then. It takes place against a background of mine closures in the Welsh town of Llanfairfach…and mysterious deaths caused by deadly green slime. And mineshafts infested with huge and deadly maggots…

Doctor Who has always been about story arcs. The earliest stories (with episodes separately named instead of the later convention of Story Title, Episode N) join together, with cliffhangers at the end of each story leading into the next. The Doctor’s exile to Earth at the end of the Troughton era had been lifted by the Time Lords as a result of the events of The Three Doctors. The Doctor was free to travel in time and space again, which loosened his ties with near-future Earth and UNIT, ties which would be severed entirely with Tom Baker’s Doctor. Hence the trip in Episode One to the blue planet Metebelis 3, somewhere the Doctor has been trying to get to since Carnival of Monsters. This seems like an unnecessary digression for the sake of continuity, though the blue crystal the Doctor brings back does play a part in the plot…and also sets up Pertwee’s final story, Planet of the Spiders, in which the eight-legged natives of Metebelis 3 want their blue crystal back.

Doctor Who’s has come to be associated with dodgy special effects, so much so that they’ve become part of the programme’s charm for some viewers. That’s a little unfair: for every poorly realised shot there are several miracles achieved on what was always a tiny budget. (In their different ways, Doctor Who and The Goodies were the two programmes at the time that pushed the BBC’s Visual Effects Unit to its limits.) There’s plenty that has to be excused here, especially some poor Colour Separation Overlay (CSO) work in the mines (spot those telltale fringes), and especially an awful giant fly that one maggot metamorphoses into. Less excusable by budget are some scripting lapses: the supporting cast aren’t much more than Welsh and/or hippie stereotypes, and the ultimate villain, a talking supercomputer called BOSS much given to humming Wagner, is not the most terrifying foe the Doctor has ever encountered. On the other hand the maggots, unmistakably phallic, are well realised and tap into quite a few very basic fears. Whatever else The Green Death may be, for most people it’s as “the one with the maggots” that it’s remembered.

On to Jo Grant. At the time, and even more so in retrospect, she seemed a throwback to the screaming-girlie companions of the 60s. (Polly and Victoria, take a bow.) Compared to the companions who preceded and followed her, Liz Shaw and Sarah Jane Smith, she seems very retrograde, an example of the often uneasy way the media tried to absorb the impact of feminism. Those who find Pertwee’s Doctor patronising and patriarchal would have been handed plenty of ammunition in the previous three years. But there is a growing warmth there too… It’s a fatherly relationship (compare it with the First Doctor’s relationship with his granddaughter Susan) which ends as the “child” grows up and falls in love. The fledgling flies the coop, indeed. The final scenes, with the Doctor saying goodbye to Jo, are all the more moving for their understatement. With Delgado gone and Manning left, it wouldn’t be long before Pertwee, Letts and Dicks departed themselves. It was an era that took a while to end, but with The Green Death you can see it begin that process.

There’s rather a lot of 16mm location footage in this story, and it looks faded and more than a little grainy, especially the opening aerial shot. The interior footage, shot on video, looks much better, though it’s always a little soft and the limitations of the source material do show. It should be said that The Green Death was designed to be watched on lower-spec equipment – in 1973, many viewers still had black and white TV sets – than is available today, so we do have to make allowances that we wouldn’t make for a brand-new feature film, say. As usual with the BBC’s Who DVDs, it’s certainly acceptable. It’s in the correct aspect ratio of 4:3.

The soundtrack is the original mono, so no complaints from me. Dialogue, sound effects and the music score from Who stalwart Dudley Simpson, are clear and well balanced. There are the usual six chapter stops per episode. The DVD is encoded for both Regions 2 and 4. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available for the feature and all the extras. Also included are the ever-useful informational subtitles, provided this time by Richard Molesworth.

The Green Death is a six-part story, but unlike previous six-parters on DVD, it’s contained on one disc instead of two. This does reduce the space available for extras, and there are fewer on this disc than on previous releases. One item, “What Katy Did Next”, is listed amongst the classified extras on the BBFC website, but does not appear on the DVD itself.

The audio commentary this time is provided by Terrance Dicks, Barry Letts and Katy Manning. This was one of several recorded in quick succession, to take advantage of the Australian-resident Manning being available in London. It’s clear that a considerable rapport exists between the three of them. Letts spends a lot of time apologising for the special effects, especially the giant fly. Manning’s little-girlisms aren’t as irritating as they are on the Three Doctors commentary – maybe that was recorded later? It’s an entertaining listen, which becomes poignant in its later stages, when dealing with Jo’s departure from the series, and Manning’s working relationship with Jon Pertwee.

There are three featurettes on this disc, the first two being interviews. Writer Robert Sloman talks about how the story came about. Sloman’s two great phobias are maggots and spiders, so on the catharsis principle these creatures appear in his two stories for Doctor Who: this one and Planet of the Spiders. It’s an interesting listen which at 6:49 doesn’t outstay its welcome. Next up is Stewart Bevan, who played Clifford Jones. He was Katy Manning’s boyfriend at the time. Because they didn’t wish to play on their personal connection, Manning was hesitant at recommending Bevan for the role which had been hard to fill. The idea always was that Jones would be a younger Doctor – the makers being very clear of the dynamics of the Doctor/Jo relationship. This interview runs 7:41. Both featurettes are full-screen.

“Global Conspiracy” is the second spoof item to appear on a Doctor Who DVD, after “Oh Mummy” on Pyramids of Mars. News reporter Terry Scanlon reports on Llanfairfach now. It’s an amusing piece of investigative journalism, with plenty of references that fans will catch. Written and produced by Mark Gatiss who also plays Scanlon, it’s technically very well done, particularly in the creation of “archive” news footage. The featurette is 16:9 anamorphic, with the “archive” footage windowboxed into 4:3. It runs 10:51 and is divided into two chapters.

Next up, is a visual effects featurette hosted by Colin Mapson, who describes the making of the maggots, the model shots and explosions and the CSO problems. Finally he shows you how to make your very own maggot! This featurette is full-frame, is divided into three chapters and runs 11:38.

The extras are completed by a stills gallery, a self-navigating affair that runs 8:12 and which is divided into two chapters. To access the Easter Egg, click left at “Play All” on the main menu, and you will see 4:07 of continuity announcements from the original broadcasts in 1973 and later repeat showings. It’s certainly nostalgic, for those of us old enough, to see the old BBC1 (no, get it right, it was BBC1 Colour in those days, just to rub it in for those who were still watching on black and white sets) globe logo. And not for the first time with this sort of feature, I have to wonder why The Fugitive always on the other side? I think we should be told.

The Green Death is an important story in Doctor Who history and one that has stuck in many people’s memories, if only for those maggots. Despite some longueurs and some effects which were less than special in 1973, let alone now, it still stands up pretty well. The DVD is up to the BBC and the Restoration Team’s usual standards, though there are fewer extras than on some other recent releases

7 out of 10
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out of 10

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