It’s got just about all the elements of a typical third Doctor adventure–set on Earth, the UNIT cast and a story that deals with a threat of humanity’s own creation rather than just an alien invasion. One of the consistent themes from the Pertwee era is that while we do face horrific threats from outer space, it’s often times humanity’s own short-sightedness that presents the biggest threat. That’s especially true of “The Green Death,” one of the few stories in the history of the classic run that sprang forth from an agenda rather than the agenda springing forth from the story.
Concerned by stories about the destruction of the environment, producer Barry Letts decided to use Doctor Who as a platform to make a statement about conservation and the need for alternative fuels. To the end, he contacted his writing partner for “The Daemons,” Robert Sloman and the two hatched this plotline involving the Doctor and UNIT doing battle against an evil corporate body that used a new process to get more energy from oil but was hiding the toxic by-product from the government and the world by sending the green goo down the local mineshaft. The goo is deadly, transforming and destroying cells of the humans who come into contact with it and mutating a bunch of maggots into giant, deadly maggots who can spread the disease by contact.
The story takes places in Wales (ironic that the new Who is filmed there now) and features a lot of stereotypical Welsh characters. Also on site is the new conversation group, led by Professor Clifford Jones. His group wants to revolutionize the world, finding new sources of food and energy that don’t involve animals or oil. Jo is inspired by news coverage of Jones to head up to Wales and join the fight while the Brigadier is called in to look into the mysterious deaths taking place and to protect the interests of Global Chemicals.
Both encourage the Doctor to join them, but he’s got to pop off to Metabilis III first, something he’s been trying to do all season. He hardwires the coordinates into the TARDIS and finally arrives, picking up a blue crystal from the planet and barely escaping a variety of hostile flora and animal life. (It’s interesting that the Doctor is so obsessed with visiting the planet during the season since his two trips there lead us to believe this is not exactly a tourist spot….the planet must have some great marketing people). The crystal is important because it will be used as a plot device later.
Once he gets back to Earth, the Doctor heads up to Wales and things start to pick up a bit. Global Chemicals and its head man Stephens consistently stand in the way of UNIT and the Doctor’s investigations and attempts to delve into the truth. The company is run by the BOSS, which for the first couple of episodes only appears as a mysterious voice on a monitor screen. At times, the voice sounds enough like Roger Delgado as the Master that if we didn’t know he had tragically passed away earlier, you could see the Master being behind the plot. Instead, BOSS is a giant computer, bent on world domination. One thing in the story’s favor is that the script at least gives us an explanation for the computer’s megalomania–it was programmed by linking to Stephen’s mind and has enhanced his own aspirations for profit and domination in the corporate world into something more. The computer can also brainwash people by use of headphones, thus ensuring that most of the Global Chemicals people all become good little minions.
Of course, the way to counteract the brainwashing–the blue crystal. Looking into its center reboots the brain and gets rid of BOSS’s influence.
But all of that isn’t what this one is remembered most for. That would be the giant green maggots, which are pretty well realized on the budget of the time. One of the DVD extras delves into how the maggots were made and it’s fairly interesting to see how it doesn’t quite add up with the popular myth that the maggots were made using inflated prophylactics.
The story is also the final one for Jo Grant, who falls in love with Cliff and decides to marry him at story’s end. The story spends a lot of time setting up Cliff as a younger version of the Doctor and seeing Jo slowly fall in love with him. At least the story spends a few days in Wales so it’s not quite as abrupt as Leela’s departure in “The Invasion of Time.” It also shows that a romantic attraction between the Doctor and a companion wasn’t just a new idea of Russel T. Davies since the story and era strongly implies that the Doctor is half in love with Jo and she half in love with him. The story also highlights the “aloneness” the Doctor feels and the final scene of the Doctor leaving Jo’s engagement party and driving off into the sunset is an effective one. “The Green Death” is a nice coda for Jo and it actually allows for some character development and an arc for her. She’s moved beyond the girl whose uncle pulled strings for her to get a job as a spy with UNIT in “Terror of the Autons” and grown up during her three years on-screen. There’s a reason certain companions farewells are held up as the most effective and least “out of left field” ones of the original run. Jo’s feels like that and it feels like the production team actually planned for it and then executed that plan to near perfection.
Alas, I can’t say “The Green Death” is one of my favorite stories from the original run or even the Pertwee era a whole. It comes from the second half of the Pertwee years, where the stories were beginning to lose their edge and we were getting more duds than winners. “The Green Death” isn’t a dud, per se, but memorable visuals aside, the story itself if a bit lacking. It feels like a collection of greatest hits moments at times and there are times when it feels a bit padded (most Pertwee six parters do). It’s also about as subtle as a two by four in its agenda. It too clearly makes Cliff and his crew the good guys and Global Chemicals the bad guys. It may be a necessity for the script, but it also makes the story work too hard to make Global Chemicals and Stephens appear melodramatically evil. The late addition of BOSS’s desire to take over computers around the world feels like it’s thrown in just to show how evil the computer really is and to lend some tension to episode six.
It’s not necessarily a bad story. It’s just not quite equal to the sum of its parts.