Doctor Who Project: The Green Death

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In a funny way, he reminds me of a sort of younger you.

Sometimes in Doctor Who, the monsters and their villanous plans represent the main event, no matter how assiduously the actors pursue their craft. In Robert Sloman’s “The Green Death” (Story Production Code TTT), the malevolent miscreants (giant maggots and a crazed computer, in this case) and their associated hijinks are very much put to shame by the power of the actual story, that of the Doctor realizing he is losing a companion, and the strength with which Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning carry off the six episode farewell.

In happier times

And it’s just as well the Doctor’s impending heartbreak sustains “The Green Death,” since the ostensible story itself makes no sense at all. In quick summation: a corporation secretly run by a megalomaniacal, self-aware computer has discovered a process to extract more gasoline from petroleum, but the byproduct, which is being pumped into an abandoned Welsh coal mine, causes ordinary maggots to turn into giant versions whose bite causes all human cells to decay (and turn a bioluminescent green), to say nothing of the giant flying creatures into which they eventually metamorphose.

Maggots of the giant variety

Yet the maggots, it turns out, have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the computer’s plan; they’re simply an unforeseen side-effect of a refining process so powerful (and profitable) that the U.K. Prime Minister orders UNIT to help the corporation, Global Chemicals, hide evidence of the creepy-crawlies by destroying the mine entrances. Perhaps years of Yeti and other invasions have made giant insect infestations sufficiently run-of-the-mill that no one notices or much cares anymore.

Time for Top of the Pops?

The crazed computer’s real goal is to turn all humans on the planet into efficient robotized creatures using a form of mind control inflicted via souped-up stereo headphones, a revelation that comes pretty much out of nowhere after several episodes being devoted almost entirely to the mine and its unwelcome inhabitants. It’s another story altogether shoehorned into what could have been a strong, tightly-focused commentary on the lengths humanity is willing to go for cheap, abundant energy—throw another gallon in the tank, and never mind the maggots.

Luckily, we get to see Jo fall in love over several episodes, and in truth, that makes all the parlous plotting and half-baked stories worthwhile.


I see you've met.

Companion departures have seldom before (or since) been handled with as much care as Robert Sloman provides Jo’s departure. We’ve seen companions leave for love before, but the setups were abrupt and the payoffs, non-existent. Susan found herself locked out of the TARDIS to force her to stay with David, and Vicki just sort of announced her fondness for Troilus, becoming an impromptu Cressida. One could possibly make the case that Ian and Barbara also left for love, but even there, they just happen to find a working Dalek time machine at the end of a story and use it to zap off to exactly where (and when) they left.

No, only here do we have a companion exit clearly telegraphed at the beginning of the story and then allowed to develop more-or-less organically throughout a full six episodes. The prospect, indeed, even had a teaser in the prior story, where Jo considered becoming an honorary Thal and living on Skaro with Latep. The Doctor doesn’t take this potential separation well, it must be said, and his inner turmoil at the thought of losing yet another companion, albeit in a positive manner, speaks of some essential loneliness in him. Jon Pertwee plays it with a slow burn, at turns benign and petty.

Did I just knock over your life's work?

Neatly, Jo’s infatuation with (and subsequent respect for and from) Professor Cliff Jones, a counter-cultural leader with serious scientific chops—and dreamy hair—matches her initial encounters with the Doctor. She seeks desperately to help him, since she believes in his ecological work, and winds up getting in the way, knocking over important beakers and generally making herself as much of a nuisance as she did when the Doctor begged the Brigadier to get rid of her. But her earnestness, her willingness to learn, her capacity for self-sacrifice, and her general Jo-ness win over Jones as readily as they did the Doctor.

Jo’s impending departure helps hide a seemingly throw-away plot aside at the beginning of the story, where the Doctor ventures, finally, to Metebelis 3 (the intended destination for the journey that resulted in “Carnival of Monsters“). This trip winds up playing a major role in resolving the story, almost to the extent that it functions as a deus ex machina. The Doctor there retrieves a huge blue sapphire from the planet, but he’s gone alone; Jo has instead decided to travel to Wales to protest Global Chemicals alongside Jones, whose exploits she’s read about in the paper. So the Doctor storms off in a huff to Metebelis 3, even after being informed by the Brigadier that there’s lots of exciting Doctor-stuff happening in the mining town of Llanfairfach with Global Chemicals. Hell hath no fury like a Doctor scorned…

Yet another tentacle.

The trip to the blue planet turns out not to be one of the Doctor’s finer touristic decisions, attacked as he is by tentacles, flying monsters, and spear-chucking somethings, leading to an overall impression that Jo made the correct decision to skip another trip with the Time Lord. And when, later, the Doctor shows off the fist-sized sapphire to Jo, she’s completely nonplussed, absorbed as she is in a book on Amazonian fungi proffered to her by Jones. And the Doctor’s response? He whisks away Jones on some scientific errand rather than allowing the two of them time to bond.

The sapphire turns out to have the ability to undo the mental conditioning that The BOSS (Bimorphic Organizational Systems Supervisor) inflicts on people who have suffered the terrible treble of the stereo headphones of hypnotism. It’s almost as easy of a solution as Jones’ mushroom hybrids being able to kill any giant maggots that eat them. Though in fairness, Sloman goes to great lengths to innocuously introduce the sapphire and mushrooms into the story at an early stage. But neither The BOSS nor the maggots themselves get that kind of careful, well-planned build-up.

The Metebelian Sapphire at work.

So, in the event, the maggots are dispatched by Sergeant Benton throwing mushroom meal to them from the back of Bessie, and the Doctor uses the blue sapphire to unhook The BOSS from its human interface, Stevens, who initially programmed it to be inefficient—that trait being the core of human creativity that allowed the computer to gain sentience. And what does The BOSS want to enslave humanity for? Greater efficiency, thus leading to greater profits. For indeed, if anyone missed Sloman’s message that corporations are enslaving humanity (and destroying it ecologically), Stevens proclaims, “What’s best for Global Chemicals is best for the world,” a clear reference to the apocryphal quotation, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” About as subtle as a giant maggot, that.

Stevens, overcome with guilt after being freed from control, sacrifices himself to destroy The BOSS mere moments before it activates mind control circuits across the planet. One obligatory explosion (and one empty sack of mushroom meal) later, and the threats are finished.

Boom.

Thus, the plot itself plods along on predictable enough rails; the undeniable joy in the episode comes from the series regulars reuniting after several off-Earth adventures (well, off contemporary Earth, at least). The UNIT lads get well in on the act, with Mike Yates (Richard Franklin) actually having a role besides passing on the Brig’s orders to Benton (John Levene), and Nicholas Courtney’s put-upon Brigadier receives more than his usual share of humorous lines. Both Pertwee and Manning getting a chance to act across a wide range of emotions and situations, and one cannot imagine that the chance to dress up as both an elderly milkman and a charwoman didn’t please the veteran ham.

Yoo hoo!

Interestingly, the one go-to for humor in the Third Doctor’s era has been the “ooh-arr” of the provincial, accented yokel, from the gamekeeper swept up by Omega in “The Three Doctors” back to the farmer who kept an Auton egg in his barn. Locals either get made fun of, die horribly (and uselessly), or both.

Here, the Welsh miners look destined for the same treatment, but as it turns out, they serve as brave figures, willing to help when anyone is in danger—even if they are, to a man, prone to touching the deadly green goo they’ve previously seen kill their colleagues. One in particular, Bert, risks (and loses) his life to save and comfort Jo when they are trapped in the mine. Their deaths provide an emotional core that balances out the happiness Jo experiences with Jones.

The Green Death

Indeed, though the story requires a threat (but no more than one!) to move events along and to fulfill the show’s remit as an action show aimed mostly at children, one wishes to have had even more build-up of the relationship between Jo and Jones, and the Doctor’s reaction to the same. The mushy stuff wasn’t the filler this time; the monsters were.

A bittersweet ending.

Katy Manning’s final story brings the tale of the most unlikely companion this side of Dodo to a well-deserved conclusion. Though the writers did not often give her strong scripts to play in the early going, by her third season in the role of Jo Grant, she proved as derring-do as any of the “action” companions and as resourceful as any of the “clever” ones, giving as good as she got by the end, as essential to the Doctor as any companion to date. Jon Pertwee and she seemed to have significant chemistry, and one can only imagine that he didn’t need to act very hard to convey the Third Doctor’s dismay at her parting.

A lonely drive.

In the end, this Doctor with the silver tongue isn’t able to muster many words. He presents Jo with the Metebilian sapphire as a wedding present and nods mutely as Jones promises that he will look after her. He drains his champagne and slips out into the night, alone.

(Previous Story: Planet of the Daleks)

(Next Story: The Time Warrior)

Post 71 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project

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