Monday, June 22, 2015

"The Green Death"


Aired May 19 - June 23, 1973

6 Episodes

Story 69

Written by: Robert Sloman

Directed by: Michael E Briant

Synopsis

Something sinister is happening in the Welsh village of Llanfairfach. One of the miners employed by Global Chemicals has been found dead, his skin glowing bright green. While UNIT is called in to investigate, Jo was already planning a visit after reading about a local environmental research group, led by Professor Clifford Jones, who are protesting the actions of Global Chemicals.

Jo, Cliff and the Doctor discover that the mine is infested with a green slime-like substance and giant ferocious maggots, both of which have been created by the toxic waste manufactured by the company's latest activities. However, the Brigadier's hands are tied as Global's director, Stevens, has convinced the British government that their work will provide cheap renewable energy.

However, Stevens is not truly in charge. Instead, he is working at the direction of the Biomorphic Organizational Systems Supervisor, or BOSS, a sentient super-computer that has integrated human emotions into itself and desires to run the world more efficiently than humanity.

As the maggots begin pupating into giant flying insects, the Doctor discovers that a hybrid fungus of Prof. Jones' invention is capable of destroying them. Still, BOSS plans to seize power by linking itself to every other major computer system across the globe, a plan the Doctor is only able to thwart by using an alien crystal from Metebelis 3 which fully frees Stevens from BOSS' hypnotic control at last. Finally, as BOSS begs his friend for his life, Stevens programs the computer to self-destruct, killing them both. 

In the end, Prof. Jones and Jo have fallen in love, and decide to marry. They tell the Doctor they are going to leave England on an Amazonian expedition. The Doctor gives Jo the Metebelis 3 crystal as a wedding present, then slips quietly away from her engagement party, driving off in to the setting sun alone.

Analysis

Even though I consider the Seventh Season to be one of the most brilliant seasons the classic series ever had, containing the best stories of Pertwee Era, when people ask me what is the most representative story of the Third Doctor's Era, I have no reservations in naming The Green Death. If anyone wants to know what made the UNIT family such an endearing and enduring favourite, this is the story that best gets it across. And it does so with a well-structured and compelling adventure, the best written by Robert Sloman and his uncredited writing-partner Barry Letts.

The story is built around a strongly pro-environmental, anti-corporate message, and it might be one of the few stories of its time that shows commune-dwelling hippies team up with the military to fight greedy corporate fat-cats. That right there is a hallmark of the Letts/Dicks era. It has a strong role for UNIT, with the Brigadier depicted as both pompous and slightly silly, but still a competent commander and fiercely moral ally. Mike Yates is given a strong role to play, and even Benton gets a couple of nice moments.

The maggots are a well-done monster, even after they transform into the less effective flying insects. They're even more interesting when you consider that they're not the result of alien interference or an invasion plan by the Master, but plain old human greed and recklessness. 

The true villains of the piece are BOSS and Stevens, and what a fantastic pair they make. BOSS in particular is a great creation, succeeding as a villainous computer in all the ways that WOTAN from The War Machines fails. BOSS has personality, with flaws and quirks and a definite point of view. It's refreshing to see a computer that recognizes that humanity's emotional flaws are what have made them so successful, and has modified itself to become as human as possible. As a result, we get an enjoyable character, one that taunts Stevens' Nietzschean leanings by causing him "My little Superman", and who tries to decide which triumphant piece of music will best suit his plan for world domination. In contrast Stevens is an objectivist capitalist whose partnership with BOSS is whittling away his own humanity. As played by Jerome Willis, Stevens is on a journey to recover that humanity, and the writing is strong enough to pepper little doubts here and there as the story goes on, so that his eventual decision doesn't come out of the blue.

The rest of the supporting cast is similarly excellent. Stewart Bevan as Cliff Jones is believable both as a scientist and as a hippie agitator. His earnestness is a little cloying, but it feels genuine, and he is believable as a kind of version of a Doctor, one that Jo could fall in love with. Their love story is well-structured and sweet and though their marriage seems precipitous, it does feel in character with both of these crazy kids. All of the rest of the cast are good, though there's a few too many Welsh cliches, but it's harmless for the most part.

At the end of the day, the story belongs to Katy Manning and Jon Pertwee. You can't underestimate the impact of their pairing on the rest of the series. Their chemistry was so palpable, so immediate and winning, that the archetype of the Doctor and his pretty young assistant became the ideal version for the series moving forward. That kind of duo had never been a focus during his predecessor's eras. There are times when it would stray from this model but for the most part, this dynamic has been dominant. Manning and Pertwee play this as their final story from the beginning. Jo spends the adventure drawing away from the Doctor, yearning to establish her own identity and put down roots. And when she says that Cliff reminds her of a young Doctor, it signals to the Doctor that his time with her is drawing to a close. He spends the rest of the serial coming to accept this, and both his journey and Jo's culminate in that final, beautiful scene. Both of them are astonishingly good, giving sad, understated, deeply felt performances. It's maybe the best single scene of the Pertwee era, and his lonely drive into the fading sun is one of the  best, most powerful and poignant scenes in all of the classic series. 

The Green Death remains one of the best stories of the Third Doctor's era, and even if there are flaws (terrible CSO, some padding, resolutions relying on coincidence or "serendipity"), it's still the best example of the UNIT family era and one of those great stories you can put on anytime and fall right into.

2 comments:

  1. The Doctor driving away at the end is the justifiably famous scene. However, five minutes earlier, the close-up of Stevens' tear sums up this story for me. He redeemed himself and reclaimed his humanity before his destruction. A beautiful moment.

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    1. Agreed. I love every moment between Stevens and BOSS.

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