It wasn’t just coal that came out of the ground. It was death. A death coloured green. A Green Death.
For the third year in a row we have our big Season finale by the Robert Sloman and Barry Letts team, but this time it’s different. They have something to say. They have a message, and that’s going to continue to the end of the Pertwee era. The message here happens to be that industry is bad and hippies are good. The point is driven home so unflinchingly that it never actually gets explained what Global Chemicals does exactly. They are just the embodiment of a big polluting factory, so the writers aren’t interested in anything other than that. Like a villain in a Doctor Who script who is evil for the sake of being evil, Global Chemicals is a polluter of the landscape for the sake of being a polluter of the landscape. We get some vague stuff about working with oil rather than petrol, but that actually brings us to something more interesting, because Global Chemicals is responsible for some kind of innovation in energy generation, mirroring what is happening at the Nuthatch. Stevens and Cliff are interesting in parallel because they broadly share the same beliefs. Here’s a couple of quotes to illustrate that:
STEVENS: Oil is our future now and the government agrees with me. They have not only given us the go-ahead for our plans, they have promised us money for future expansion! I have it here in black and white!
CLIFF: You see, Jo, we haven’t set up this community just to drop out. I mean, let’s face it, who does like the petrol stinking, plastic rat-trap life we all live? No, no. If we’re going to make a success here at Wholeweal, we’ve got to do something that’s going to help the entire world.
So both of them see a need to change the world. The difference is that Stevens is modelled on one of those base-under-siege Hobsons or Robsons or Nobsons who has a grand plan and won’t be swayed despite any consequences, whereas Cliff is the opposite, driven by a desire to protect the environment. In both cases they are cardboard cutouts of those polar opposites. It’s an interesting comparison. And Stevens isn’t the one who is his own Boss.
What happened here is that Letts read an article in The Ecologist about pollution and saw an opportunity to get a message across using Doctor Who. This is a good thing, but Doctor Who is not a scientific documentary or a party political broadcast. So placing issues at the centre of a story is a great basis, but then you have to develop the drama logically from it. This is where the Letts/Sloman team struggle slightly, because they have a point they want to get to with the story but don’t quite know how to get there. People need to get infected and the slime from Global Chemicals has to look nasty. So it’s flourescent green and smells rotten.
Exhibit A: Bert. A man who has already seen a victim’s skin glowing green, finds some glowing green slime, and touches it anyway.
The threat can’t just stay in the mines, it needs to be spread somehow to drive the point home about big industry polluting the landscape.
Exhibit B: the Brigadier. A man who seriously thinks that the way to deal with a mine full of maggots is to blow up the mine. “I don’t understand you lot. Seems to me the problem’s solved. We’ll see no more of those creepie-crawlies, you mark my words.”
The Doctor needs to get into Global Chemicals to get some cutting equipment, but in plot terms so he can get into a dangerous situation.
Exhibit C: the Doctor. He sneaks into Global Chemicals by jumping off that lifter-upper-thingy (a technical term) so how does he expect to make his getaway with the cutting equipment, having trapped himself inside the compound?
Apart from the Doctor just happening to have made a trip to get a crystal which is just what he will need to dehypnotise Mike, the writers also need a way to cure the pollution, and that resolution needs to come from the Nuthatch, to make Cliff and his gang really look like the good guys who have the solution to all the world’s problems.
Exhibit D: serendipity. Using a fancy word for a lucky coincidence doesn’t stop it from being a lucky coincidence. The fungus working on the infection is pure luck, and that’s bad writing.
Then we have another end target with a clumsily written path to it: the departure of Jo. And this one is a much bigger problem. I can see why people go all teary-eyed over this and to give the story its due this is one of the rare occasions during the classic series where there is some kind of a genuine attempt at an emotional storyline. But really what happens here is pretty revolting. Jo latches onto Cliff as “a sort of younger” version of the Doctor (nobody wants to be told that!), and this is sold to us as if it is somebody leaving their partner for a younger option. The Doctor’s reaction is clearly to be jealous of Cliff. When he catches Jo and Cliff together in Episode Three he has a face like thunder and he then deliberately keeps them apart (ultimately leaving Jo on her own to face the danger of a maggot).
But that’s not the problem with it. What is really nasty is the way in which Cliff being a younger version of the Doctor is shown. Their first scene together is a mirror of the first meeting of the Doctor and Jo in Terror of the Autons. That might bring back some memories. Yes, it was that scene where the Doctor was an absolute pig to Jo, talking to her like she was a brainless bimbo. And copying that gets the relationship between Jo and Cliff off to an abusive start. Here are some of the things Cliff says to Jo:
- Shut the blasted door! Of all the silly young goats.
- Still I suppose you can’t help being a bit cloth-headed. You’re only a kid, after all.
- (Cliff) My dear good child, I’ve got work to do. (Jo) You’re being patronising. (Cliff) Aye, so I am. But I’ve still got work to do.
- (Cliff) Keep me company? Make some coffee? (Jo) Like a dutiful tea girl? (Cliff) Right.
Then we get this oh-so-romantic proposal:
CLIFF: Well, very soon now. We’ll just stop off in Cardiff, pick up our supplies, get married and…
So Jo is treated by Cliff like an inferior. A girl. And here is where making him a younger version of the Doctor becomes a massive problem, because the Doctor and Jo’s relationship is not a partnership of equals, especially not in the early days (which of course this first meeting between Jo and Cliff has to be modelled on).
And here also we get to a problem with Cliff that goes beyond his relationship with Jo, and sadly undermines the message Sloman and Letts are trying to get across. Cliff cares about the environment, but his beliefs beyond that are thoroughly dodgy. He is clearly horrendously sexist, and also holds views about a utopian society (and they are always insidious) that excludes those who cannot work or choose not to. He has no more interest in individualism than Stevens, but just wants the world to conform to a better shape.
JO: Oh, I see. They’re all out in the fields.
CLIFF: Aye, that’s what I said. No work, no food. Logically, esthetically and morally right. Right?
Wrong. That’s Dalek logic.
And this, in a story that treats the Welsh as a big, racist joke, all boyo this and boyo that. So why is this story so popular? Like most of Season 10, and certainly the story that immediately precedes it, style over substance, a team of actors who know exactly what they are doing, and the big iconic monster of the Pertwee era, done so brilliantly in closeup that they lingered in the nightmares of children while the images of the dodgy CSO long shots faded in the memory. So in the end it’s a story that is very difficult not to love. But, like the abusive relationship between Jo and Cliff, it is a love that comes with a nagging doubt, built on rotten foundations.
I remember going to a convention where Katy Manning was asked about where Jo would be today (this was pre- Sarah Jane Adventures). Her response has stuck in my mind ever since: “I tell you what: she would have left him.” RP
The view from across the pond:
By the end of season 10 of the original series, Jo Grant had enough of traveling with the Doctor, so she fell in love with Dr. Cliff Jones after knowing him for a whopping six episodes. But those six episode stories were often very drawn out affairs so I’m certain it felt like she knew him for a very long time indeed, maybe years! The Green Death is another of those environmental disaster stories that became popular in the 70s, correctly anticipating the destruction that humans were causing to the planet (leading to the spring of 2018, where even the sun has taken its leave of us). This story also gives the Doctor a chance at playing Sherlock Holmes, as he dresses up in multiple costumes to solve what is causing the dead to glow and who’s the BOSS. (No, Alyssa Milano was not in this episode, but it might have improved it had she been!)
I don’t typically like my entertainment to feel preachy. I like allegory where an idea can be conveyed subtly allowing the audience the chance to think through the events and recognize the parallels to the real world. Star Trek was notoriously good for doing this as I previously commented with The Mutants. The Green Death hovers at the edge of a compelling story, brought down by preachiness and an overlong script. Dressing the Doctor up as a milkman or a maid adds a sense of humor, but fails to carry the story further. Having the Doctor perform his best James Bond act, knocking out guards as they take turns attacking him adds some excitement, but little else. The main plot focuses on BOSS being this omnipotent machine that takes over the likes of the sunken-eyed Stevens. It’s a fantastic casting strategy using a guy who looks like he might be possessed to begin with and that helps sell the believability of the plot. The only thing is I can’t say I have any clear idea of what BOSS’s motivations are short of taking over the human race. But how taking over humanity means poisoning the land to create glow-in-the-dark corpses is anyone’s guess. Why do it?
The obvious answer to the environmental parallel is to make money. The idea would be that to make money, companies don’t care about the land, as long as there’s a steady income stream. So when the company dumps its waste which creates mutant maggots and mosquitoes, yeah, you’ve got an allegory. But in typical Pertwee-era claptrap, it gets masked by a script that goes on too long and a fair share of technobabble. Even the parallel with Jones’s protests to help bring more jobs to the Welsh economy only makes sense if you’re not paying enough attention. BOSS clearly needs employees, even if they are security guards, milkmen and maids. So there was no need for an uprising. In fact, those jobs were safer than working in mines. (Well, except on days when the Doctor was in town!)
There are two things that happen in the episode that are tangential but far more important than giant mosquitoes. The Doctor makes it to his often talked about Metebelis III and steals a crystal. This begs the question: can you actually steal something that’s left in plain sight with no owner? If the police show up at my door because as a kid, I used to pick up colored rocks, I’ve got problems. The crystal is lovely and would look great on my mantle. It has hypnotic powers which is convenient, but then any shiny object is supposed to do that. And Metebelis III has another odd property: giant bugs. Odd because of the giant maggots and mosquitoes that the Doctor is about to go back to encounter!
More importantly, Jo will leave the Doctor since he doesn’t allow married couples to travel in the TARDIS. This allows two things to happen. The first is that amazing final shot from this story. It is beautiful and deeply moving as the Doctor drives into the darkening evening. But it also allows Jo to return during Matt Smith’s era to an emotional reunion in The Sarah Jane Adventures. It’s a magnificent moment! And all thanks to some dead green guys, giant maggots and even bigger mosquitoes. And BOSS. Mustn’t forget BOSS.
But I would have been more impressed if they were giant spiders because that would be scary. Mosquitoes never notice me anyway so they never feel like a threat but I bet my wife would be horrified by this story! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Time Warrior