If some strangely specific catastrophe destroyed copies of all Jon Pertwee Doctor Who stories bar one, The Green Death would be the ideal story to save. It’s hard to think of another adventure that so definitely captures his era’s strength’s and foibles. It’s got the Doctor at his most patrician yet caring, all the UNIT regulars, an issue driven story, a memorable monster, Venusian akido, lots of location filming, action by HAVOC, and some very Seventies fashion sense. The original DVD had been disappointing. In putting six colour episodes and several features on one disc, the picture quality was noticeably pixelated at times. So this is the probably one of the most justified of all the recent Special Editions. Not only that but it allows for an impressive second disc of new and old extras.
Controversy surrounds the Global Chemicals plant at Llanfairfach. Chief executive Stevens promises a new highly efficient way of refining crude oil into petrol, bring new wealth to the region. Environmentalist Professor Clifford Jones and his team warn that the plant is destroying the local environment. When a miner is discovered dead from a mysterious glowing slime, UNIT are called in to investigate. Meanwhile Jo Grant has sided with Jones’ protestors, whilst the Doctor is more interested in visiting the paradise planet of Metebelis 3. Soon all of them are drawn into an ecological nightmare as mutated giant maggots fill the old coalmine, humans are put under mind control and the mysterious BOSS plans to make profits at the cost of the very Earth.
As revealed in the Making Of extras, The Green Death came about after Barry Letts came into the Doctor Who production office one Monday morning feeling particularly gloomy. He had just read a Sunday Times special pull-out entitled “Blueprint for Survival”, which laid out the terrible environmental damage happening across the world. Letts wanted to make a documentary about it, but couldn’t. Terrance Dicks, script editor and associate producer, reminded him that he was the producer of a high-rating BBC drama show, so why not get his feelings across in a Doctor Who story? Letts brought in his regular writing partner Robert Sloman, who took sole credit for BBC policy reasons, but nevertheless this story was written by both men.
In the seventies, fear of pollution replaced atomic energy as the main driver of many science fiction and horror films. Perhaps we should be thankful that the programme resisted the urge to create a new mutant monster, which might have seemed too silly even to children (see Godzilla vs the Smog Monster) but instead went for the far more frightening and unsettling threat of swarms of giant maggots erupting from the ground. The maggots are realised with varying levels of effectiveness. The individual large puppet ones are disgustingly effective, but their en masse appearances are too obviously real piles of maggots filmed on model sets. But these creatures are just a symptom of the real villainy, represented by smooth, ruthless Stevens, played effectively by Jerome Willis, and his BOSS who’s the sinisterly jovial tones are provided by John Dearth.
What raises this story above being merely an obvious, even crude, allegory for the evils of the industrial age, is the emotional sub-plots for the regulars. This is Jo Grant’s final story and her growing maturity and romance with handsome Professor Clifford Jones, who even she admits is kind of a younger surrogate Doctor, gives this story a bit more depth than normal. Meanwhile the Doctor has to fight with unexpected feelings of jealousy as he loses her. As ever when Barry Letts gets behind the typewriter, he tries hard to give all the regulars at least moment in the spotlight. We see the Brigadier in civvies and later relaxing at the dinner table. Captain Yates gets to go undercover as a spy, and Sergeant Benton gets at least a good comedy moment when he rides with the Doctor into battle with the maggots. More than ever, this a story about how much UNIT has become a family and it feels quite appropriate that it ends at a jovial party. The actual final moments of the story are often cited as one of all-time fan favourite scenes. I shall not spoil it for people who haven’t seen the story, but I will say that well known fans Mark Gatiss and Steve Moffatt paid tribute to it in the recent wedding episode of Sherlock.
There are some well-staged action scenes, particularly a fight between the Doctor and a group of security guards. Jon Pertwee had stated more than once that this was one of his favourite stories and he is clearly enjoying himself. Possibly a bit too much in fact, since one episode sees him disguising himself as comedy Welsh milkman and later dragging up as a cleaning lady, encouraging his co-stars to go for the comedy in their performances. Welsh viewers too might well grimace at the portrayal of the locals. It’s all sing-song accents , liberally sprinkled with “boyos” and “Blodwyns”, and proud but poor mining folk, aside from a couple of environmentalists.
The original DVD’s extras have been carried over to this release. There are excellent interviews with writer Robert Sloman and actors Stuart Bevan and Jerome Willis, plus one of the few genuinely funny comedy sketches in the whole range, a spoof World in Action exposé written by actor/writer Mark Gatiss, who would go on to write several stories in the revived series. In fact the glossy 21st century version of Doctor Who is very present on this re-release DVD.
Dr Forever – the five part series about the so-called wilderness years between the two eras of the programme which has been serialised across these recent DVD Special Editions, comes to an end with a look at how the show was brought back. Russell T Davis has been rightly lauded, but this documentary relates how important BBC execs Jane Tranter and Lorraine Heggessy were to getting the programme re-commissioned and how stubborn they had to be in the face of many fellow execs who believed that family television drama of any kind would be a ratings flop on a Saturday. Russell meanwhile reveals that many of his friends in the TV business thought he was committing career suicide trying to bring back such a seemingly toxic franchise.
A real highlight for me on the second disc is the complete Sarah Jane Smith Adventures – Death of the Doctor, which saw Katy Manning returning as a sprightly pensioner Jo. She and Sarah Jane are summoned to the private funeral of the Doctor at a UNIT base, only to discover that the vulture-like alien Shansheeth have faked his death as part of their sinister plan. Matt Smith also makes a brilliant guest appearance and his scenes with Jo and Sarah Jane are amongst my favourite bits of his era. It’s a funny, energetic and rather sweet story. Not only that but this version also has a gleeful optional commentary by Russell T Davis and Katy Manning.
The One with the Maggots is an in-depth making of documentary, covering the story from Barry Letts’ initial desire to comment on environmental issues, the unconscious casting of Katy Manning’s then real life boyfriend Stuart Bevan as her on-screen romance, the cold locations and the creation of the giant maggots. Although critical of some of the effects and the Welsh stereotyping, generally the contributors are proud of the finished product.
There are two excerpts from local BBC local news programme Wales Today. A mute 1973 film insert from the filming of The Green Death, and a 1994 item with Jon Pertwee opening the new country park that was built on the site of the colliery used in the story. Katy Manning’s immediate post-Who career is revealed by clips from her BBC daytime television show Serendipity, a look at different arts and crafts. Set in small studio, Katy enthuses over the work of a succession of polite middle-aged craftsmen. It’s seems another world away from today, where ex-companions go to Los Angeles to make new glamorous TV series.
I confess I thought the original DVD commentary featuring Barry Letts, Terrance Dicks and Katy Manning was one of poorer examples, mostly due to Ms Manning being in full on performance mode that day, using comedy voices and generally being a bit too hyper. But you now have the option of a brand new commentary with actors Richard Franklin and Mitzi McKenzie, hosted by Toby Hadoke, which is pretty interesting since Mitzi in particular has rarely been interviewed. As if that’s not enough, the double act of Russell T Davis and Katy Manning return with an amusing commentary on episode six. The standard extras of photo gallery, information subtitles and Radio Times clippings in PDF format are all as good as I’ve come to expect from the DVD team.
The Green Death is a marvellous example of Doctor Who. It’s got thrills, warmth and enough cleverness to entertain the whole family. Bringing it back with an improved picture and so many good bonus features makes it probably the best of the five special edition DVD’s released last year.