Saturday, January 12, 2008

How Green Was My Childhood

It’s true that the word ‘classic’ is too often bandied around with no regard for its meaning, and it’s also true you hear a lot of that sort of thing in the world of Doctor Who fandom. But if there are any stories that deserve that ‘acolade’, then The Green Death has to be on the list. I’d seen a bit of this one relatively recently when they repeated it on BBC3 or some such, but didn’t manage to catch it in its entirety at the time. There was no need for panic though: it was a story I knew I was going to have on DVD at some point. It was one of those must haves – but in truth, I’d forgotten quite how essential it was. Brilliant stuff.

In contrast with The Claws Of Axos, this is a story that knows exactly what it’s about and, after declaring its environmental, economic and horror manifesto right up front in the first few minutes, stays firmly on-message through six episodes. And, within the limitations of contemporary visual effects and shoestring budgets, its great potential is properly realized. Its nicely constructed to fill out its lengthy runtime, ensuring a satisfactory serving of action adventure, jeopardy, fun and scares in each of its six courses. But I’m not going to get too mealy with my metaphors, because this is The One With The Maggots.

They’re disgusting. Horrible. Ugh. They’re also a perfect monster for the job, squirming and crawling forth from the mines to feast on the rotting corpse of a world in state of commerce-and-industry-driven decay. And they play an important role in making this adventure a classic, because they’re very much a part of what helped the tale endure in a few million imaginations. Frankly, I pity the people who were sitting down to tea the first time they saw it. They’re by no means the be-all and end-all of it – you only have to look at Planet Of The Spiders for comparison: with its equally memorable arachnids, the last time I saw that one it was badly let down by a number of other factors. The Green Death, without the aid of nearly so many legs, stands up remarkably, remarkably well.

Again in contrast with The Claws Of Axos, its production shortcomings are much easier to forgive in light of its narrative strengths. Basically those shortcomings amount to some ragged-edged CSO shots – including some weird switching between studio-bound CSO and perfectly fine location filming up on the maggot-riddled slag heaps – and the fly. The fly is, it must be said, one of those examples of Doctor Who’s ambition far exceeding its allowance and is unfortunately a bug too far. Unfortunately, it’s also a worthwhile element, in terms of stepping up the scale of the crisis, illustrating the ease with which these local environmental incidents might blossom into global disasters if not ‘nipped in the bud’. So I can fully appreciate why the production team chose to go ahead and include the fly, even though it was never really going to look any good.

But that, as far as I’m concerned, is pretty much it. Flaws easily remedied by 40 years and several hundred thousand quid to play with.

The rest, far from being green, is evidence of an experienced team at work, with something to say and doing a grand job. Yes, modern demands would necessitate a lot of trimming and fast edits, but honestly there’s not a great deal I would change. Even the Doctor's antics on Metebelis III which, on first impressions, might seem like an unnecessary side-step, both serve a role in the story (that blue crystal proves very handy) and, coupled with the brainwashing of poor old Captain Yates, offers some nifty foreshadowing of the end of the era. (Although it's a shame Planet Of The Spiders dispenses with the good work done here in painting a wonderful impression of the 'famous blue planet' and, from what I recall, depicts it as a world of brightly lit sets and bad acting.) It's fitting because, of course, The Green Death is about endings too - and not only the end of the world. It has flair, panache, charm – all the qualities of Pertwee’s Doctor and like the best-conveyed serious messages, it's related with a sense of humour and fun.

The script is heavily populated with colourful characters, from hippies to corporate execs, brought to life by solid performances all round. A minor exception, perhaps, is Hinks, the Global Chemicals ‘heavy’ who lacks a certain weight and I did groan a little at our first encounter with the milkman, who seems determined to cram every bit of clichéd Welsh into his dialogue, but once that’s out of the way things seem to settle down and we’re treated to plenty of local colour without the use of the heavy handed marker pen. Special mention must go to Talfryn Thomas as Dave the Miner and Roy Evans as Bert (Rest In Green Peace).

Yes, it’s passingly amusing to see BOSS attempting his pre-WiFi takeover of the world, but I take that as an indicator of just one more Doctor Who story ahead of its time and, brilliantly invested with a booming Zen-like (if Zen was played by Brian Blessed) voice by John Dearth the stock sci-fi trope of the mad computer rates as a fully paid-up character, up to and including when he 'does a HAL'.

Top marks as well to the leads, with Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning enjoying plenty of engaging banter and, of course, with Jo sharing a nice chemistry with Stewart Bevan as Professor Jones. (They were an off-screen item, and she suggested him for the role.) Now, it must be said I'm not Jo Grant's greatest fan - I guess I must have liked her well enough as a young nipper, but heck, she's no Sarah Jane Smith. But here she's at her best and her farewell, beautifully understated, is charged with genuine emotion and at least as potent in the tear-jerking department as Rose's (now apparently temporary) permanent separation from the Doctor in Doomsday. Although not quite as moving for me, personally, as Sarah Jane's departure, natch.

Thank goodness there are a few fun extras on the DVD, including an entertaining 'documentary' from Mark Gatiss and a lesson in How To Make Your Own Maggot from the man who originally created them. Like a lot of Blue Peter projects, I don't think I'll actually be trying that myself as, frankly, I'd rather not see one of those lying around the place. Even after all these years, those things give me the creeps.

But I shouldn't be worried. There's a chance, I suppose, our cats would quite happily deal with such a creature. Well, I'd hope so. And if not, as vegetarians, we should have plenty of fungal protein around the place. If any giant maggots show up here, Quorn will be our main line of defence.


Stuart Douglas said...

As usual (with the exception of Keeping Up Appearances) I couldn't agree more. It's one the best Pertwee stories and therefore one of the best stories full-stop. Plus it has Pertwee in full-on dressing up mode, which is always good for a laugh!

SAF said...

The milkman and the cleaning woman are great - that kind of stuff is so Pertwee, but so un-Third Doctor, which just adds to the fun. :)

Stuart Douglas said...

SAF: "The milkman and the cleaning woman are great - that kind of stuff is so Pertwee"

Yeah - it's like the Navy Lark meets Doctor Who, and none the worse for that!

SAF said...

Stuart: "Yeah - it's like the Navy Lark meets Doctor Who, and none the worse for that!"

Which reminds me, can't wait to get The Sea Devils - Leslie Phillips should have had a guest role in that one :)