Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Green Death

Jo Grant is one of the great empowered women in Doctor Who.

From The Time Monster

Seriously.  It's totally true.

Of course, Sarah Jane is a better one, but she's also a much more obvious one.  She's put way out there as the spunkiest companion ever from the moment she's on screen.  It's emphasized pretty strongly in her early episodes; less so in many later ones, but her strength and independence largely define her.

Jo, on the other hand, starts out in Terror of the Autons as clumsy and naive, easy fodder for the Master.  Still, even there, she saves the Doctor not once but twice.  But move on to Colony In Space, and she's clearly frightened and out of her depth all the way through.  It's also the first time the madman uses his magical box to tear her out of her own world and onto a new world in an entirely different century.

So when she goes with him again in Curse of Peladon, she's right on top of things.  By now, she's been with the Doctor for over a season, facing Autons, Axons, Daleks, and, above all, the Master on numerous occasions.  And she's been torn from her own time and place before.  In Curse, her quick thinking and bravery shine right from the beginning with the same charm Katy Manning brings to the ditzier side.  She doesn't scream when she sees the monster and keeps cool facing the Ice Warriors.

And it's not a one-time deal: her bravery and quick thinking hold true through the rest of her tenure.  She's still goofy, but working with the Doctor has brought out the best in her.  She has incredible reserves of strength beneath the blonde hair.

Her character arc completes itself when she faces the Master for the last time; he tries to hypnotize her, but since the first time, she went and found out how to defeat hypnotization.  The Master then turns it up to 11 with his fear device, which has plunged entire armies into intergalactic war... and she talks her way out of it.  She hasn't just gone out and figured out on her own how to beat the tricks of the Master's she's seen; she beats the device successfully creating his grand plan.  And so, the Master's final move against Ms. Grant is to set up a complex trap that depends on her bravery and ingenuity.

And that's why she's a brilliant feminist icon; she doesn't start out a quick-thinking heroine, most of the time.  But she becomes one.  And without losing any of her cheerfulness or goofiness that define her personality.    She's a silly, whimsical character beginning to end, but she grows into a strong, independent woman by facing adversity.

So why is she characterized as a simple-minded moron by so many fans?

The answer is The Green DeathThe Green Death is hugely popular -- ask any Whovian who prefers Pertwee's era above all and they'll list this as one of the best.  A lot of this is because of the monsters -- the giant maggots are among the most memorable of the early '70s, and their appearances have some kind of iconic power as the Daleks in London or the Cybermen on the moon.

Further, it's the first environmental story.  Regardless of how well it does it, The Green Death jumps on the bandwagon long before it's cool.

And finally, it's Jo's final story, and her farewell scene is quite touching.  So it's ultimately one of the most memorable stories she's in, and her last one to boot.  So how this one treats her is going to determine a lot of how she's remembered.

... and this story is the one time Terrance Dicks' half-joking description of the companion and just the pretty girl who needs to be rescued actually applies to her.  In the course of the story, she accomplishes nothing except by clumsy accident.  She bravely ventures into the mines, only to get completely clingy and helpless once she's down there.  After klutzily ruining Dr. Jones' experiments, she ventures out to capture one of the maggots live.  But once she gets there, she freezes, and has to be rescued by Jones, who gets out of his rescue with a bump on the head and the titular green disease, meaning she actually has to be rescued twice in one go.  And she doesn't even pick up a maggot on her way out.  Her destruction of the experiment and the Doctor's discoveries after rescuing her the first time are her only contributions to the plot.

She's not terribly independent, either, virtually gluing herself to Jones' side.  She only leaves UNIT and the Doctor when she finds a man - and a man the script goes out of its way to paint as Doctorish, though Cliff Jones is far more patronizing toward her than Three ever was.

So, for once, she actually is the screaming blonde moron she's made out to be.  Her final story, probably the best-remembered one she's in, does her a great disservice, marginalizing her and dragging her character arc not just back to the beginning, but beyond.

It doesn't help that said romance is completely unconvincing.  Katy Manning and Stewart Bevan have some chemistry - not surprising, given that they were dating at the time - but Jo and Jones barely even meet in the story.  Before Jones gets all green and unconscious, he has exactly three scenes with her: their meet-cute first bit, which falls flat and mostly involves his annoyance at her (and is trying way too hard to be cute to be anything of the sort); a short conversation later that night; and her destruction of his experiment the next day.  Charming as Jo is, it's hard to believe he would fall for her so quickly.  She ultimately won the Doctor over because she showed him how much bravery and cleverness she had hiding underneath.  She apparently wins Cliff over because she's adorable.  Which she is, but there should be a little more than that to get away with his sudden proposal at the end of the story.

Pictured: Love at first sight, apparently.

It's even harder to believe she goes for him, given that he's more demeaning to her than even the Master at his most manipulative, and with none of the adventurousness or charisma of the Doctor it tries so desperately to make him a parallel to.  She asks how she can help, and he asks her to get him coffee.  She says, "Like a dutiful teagirl?"  He responds: "Fine."

All the patronizing isn't even some contrived necessity to the story.  At all.  All he has to say when she asks is, "Yes, a maggot would make things much easier, but I'll try to make due."  And then she can show initiative and go off on her own to get it.

And making this whirwind romance rise go from obnoxious meet-cute to marriage proposal in about 24 hours is ludicrous.  And only three scenes, only one of which is terribly pleasant.  That wouldn't cut it for one of James Bond's flings, let alone a love story from first meeting to proposal.  Maybe if the story had been re-written to take place over the course of several weeks, it might have gotten away with it, but this is ridiculous.

And worse, we've seen more convincing Jo Grant romances before.  Her relationship with the King of Peladon likely wouldn't have worked out, but it was written with great care and complexity, and it worked as a romance, even if she was probably right to leave him at the end.  Heck, even the tacked-on love story between her and Thal #6 in Planet of the Daleks was more convincing.

Which is really too bad, because the few scenes about her closeness to the Doctor and her goodbyes to him are deeply moving.  There's a lovely scene near the beginning when the Doctor tries to convince her to join him in his TARDIS, but she's too distracted by wanting to join Dr. Jones.

DOCTOR: Metabelis 3, Jo?  Or where else would you like to go?
JO: But I've only got 10 minutes!
DOCTOR: Jo, you've got all the time in the world.  And all the space.  I'm offering them to you.
JO: But don't you understand?  This Professor Jones, he's fighting for everything that's important, everything that you're fighting for!  In a funny way, he reminds me of a sort of younger you.
DOCTOR: I don't know whether to feel flattered or insulted.  It's alright Jo, I understand.
JO: Oh, Doctor, thank you!
DOCTOR: Jo, tell the Brigadier I'll follow him down.
JO: Right.
DOCTOR: Later.
JO: [pause, more sadly] Right.  Bye.
DOCTOR: Good bye. [she leaves]  So, the fledgeling flies the coop.

And the Doctor runs off the Metabelis 3, where he's promptly attacked by monsters and spends hours, maybe even days or weeks desperately trying to find his way back to his TARDIS.  Which would have been so much easier with a companion around.  The Metabelis 3 scenes are beautifully done, ending with the Doctor stumbling out in UNIT headquarters and answer the Brigadier's call to him, saying "I'll speak to anyone!"

Their scene at the end of episode three is just as lovely; his slight look of jealousy, and his disappointment at her disinterest in distant planets for the Amazon hit quite effectively at the warmth of their relationship, and the Doctor's pain at her coming departure is very touching.

And finally, there's the closing scene.  The Doctor hears the proposal, and says, "If you'll excuse me, I think I'm going to be wanted on the telephone," which Pertwee delivers with the perfect mix of humor and deeply repressed emotion.  The Doctor says goodbye to Jo, then slinks off into the night.  It's a deeply moving farewell, perfectly understated.

Which, in a way, just makes the problem worse.  It's such a moving farewell that the episode burns even further in the brain its version of Jo.  Not the Jo who found her strength, her independence, herself with the Doctor.  The Jo who exchanges her co-dependency on one eccentric older guy for another, while the original slinks off into the night.

In the Discontinuity Guide, Paul Cornell, Martin Day, and Keith Topping say of The Green Death, "Jo Grant is at last given the ability to walk in a straight line and talk at the same time."  Those guys aren't ignorant about Who.  Cornell wrote Father's Day and Human Nature.  But they should all be ashamed of themselves for that.  That's an infuriating, impossible view of the story in the context of every other Jo Grant adventure.  But that's the power The Green Death holds.

So I have no fondness for this story.  The Green Death, whatever its qualities or flaws, is ultimately the story that ruins one of my favorite companions for so many.


So, what about the environmentalism, one of the other two things this is remembered for?

I guess the environmentalism gets points for doing it in '73, but no points for execution.  Jerome Wills' Stevens is played as such an obvious villain, complete with evil music over his dialogue (even when proclaiming that his process gets 25% more fuel from a given quantity of oil) and sinister mustache, that any actual points are largely nullified through one-dimensional treatment.

But it's not well thought through, anyway.  The opening scene has Jones and his people protesting an Oil operation because of the pollution oil causes, but this is an oil plant that replaced a coal mine, and oil is definitely an improvement.  Beyond which, there's never any real solution presented instead.  It's a problem that continues to today: petroleum makes for incredibly efficient fuel and is readily available.  And in the 70s, what do you replace it with?  The power plants could be replaced with Nuclear Power, but hippies aren't exactly happy with those for some reason.  Jones briefly suggests wind and water power, but those have the annoying necessity of requiring sustained wind and a large river, respectively, which aren't necessarily available.  But even if you solve the power plants, about 2/3 of petroleum usage comes from vehicles.  Even today, there are limits on the technology here.

It's not that I disagree that petroleum needs to be replaced.  But it's an issue deserving of more complexity and thoughtfulness than Green Death puts forward.

Yes, Green Death has environmental themes, and it has them in a family adventure in the early '70s, and deserves a hint of praise for that.  But just because it has them doesn't mean it does them well.


Okay, so two out of three memorable elements of this serial largely flop.  But the third element, the monsters, very nearly redeem it.

Green Death is s a Letts/Sloman script, they of The Daemons, The Time Monster, and Planet of the Spiders, so it's a very, very mixed bag, a frustrating mixture of great and awful.  It's not as good as Spiders, not as nutty as Time Monster, not as much of a waste of good ideas as Daemons.

Still, for about the first four episodes, it's pretty entertaining.  The scenes in the mines are deeply atmospheric, thanks to superb sets, lighting, and direction.  The green disease itself is nicely rendered.  And the appearance of the maggots is deeply creepy, even with the lousy CSO.  These monsters are terrific.

The giant maggots burn themselves into the memory.  Great monsters, if not as great as the Drashigs, but there's a crucial difference: the Drashigs were a weird monsters in a story and world where everything was weird.  The maggots are right here.  More than any story since Spearhead In Space, Green Death nails the sense that these monsters are invading right outside the door, and we might just see them if we look out the window.  And they'll kill us if we get too close...

And yes, their realization often depends on some of the fringiest CSO in the show's history, but they're still awesome.  Not as awesome as the Drashigs, but still pretty great.

There are some clever moments.  The Doctor getting Jones to do a particularly loud protest with his group as a distraction is particularly inspired.  There are also a couple scenes where he uses elaborate disguises to enter the plant.  Pertwee as a grizzled old milkman is great; Pertwee in drag as a cleaning lady is more terrifying than the maggots.  Mike Yates, for the first time, gets some good material, which I'll get to in a moment.  All in all, good fun for about 2/3 of the way.

But once BOSS shows up, it falls to pieces.  Early on, when he's silently giving Stevens orders and reprogramming people to do his bidding or even jump off building because their usefulness is ending, he's intensely creepy.  But at the end of episode three, he starts talking.

BOSS: "I programmed Stevens to program me to be inefficient."

The evil computer is a good (if cliche) idea, but the execution is totally flat.  Why does the computer want to take over the world?  How?  And how is this relevant to its programming to make Global Chemicals the most effecient company in the world?  Why does this make BOSS evil?  It's not a HAL-like incompatability of orders, or Skynet deciding it's better than humans.  It's just Pazuzu-level evil because.  And it's not the enjoyably over-the-top evil of The Master, just regular evil.  Yawn.

At one point, the Doctor does the old "feed the computer a contradiction to mess him up" trick, and BOSS actually falls for it worse than most fictitious computers.  "Your statements do not correlate.  They are incompatable.  It is not a valid querry.  Give me time, Doctor.  I shall work it out."  It figures out the answer.  Then it continues looking for the answer.  The stupidity of this computer is agonizing.

Stevens speaks for BOSS at one point, saying, "What's best for Global Chemicals is best for the world.  Is best for you!"  Is that really logical?  Or even sensical?

BOSS is such a poorly-written villain that his presence deflates the impact of the finale episodes.  Which would be less of a problem if the Doctor's solutions to the various crises weren't so anticlimactic.

The maggots, after all the buildup, do precisely nothing beyond sit around some muddy hills.  The Doctor ultimately defeats them with hippie mushrooms, which he accomplishes by driving Bessie through the hills and having Benton drop the fungus around in an action scene with all the intensity of a good yawn.  The maggots are good monsters, completely unused and easily defeated.

As for the reprogramming, the Doctor defeats it with a mysterious crystal from Metabelis 3.  Which would work better if he had said the line about the crystals having mysterious properties at any point before episode 5 when it's convenient.  As it is, he just pulls a shiny rock out of his pocket and solves everything.  He might as well have pulled a stick of celery out and solved it with that.

(actually, if it had been me writing it, I probably would have had him pull out his pocket-watch and use a series of counter-hypnoses to off-set it.  With clever dialogue, it might have made a very cool variation on the Whitaker notion of the Doctor as a Wizard that no one picked up on for twenty years.  So you can decide for yourself if my ideas are actually any better than the ones I'm criticizing.  On the other hand, the Crystal does play out a bit in Planet of the Spiders, though again, it's not really set up correctly here.)

Also, what are the Brigadier's soldiers for if he can't persuade one security guard to let him past?  Really, that's just not even trying.  I get that he's all orders and protocol, but in this sort of emergency, those things kind of go out the window.

And then, there's the giant insect.  The idea is great: the maggots are going to change into giant flying insects if they aren't killed fast, and the green disease will be unstoppable.  But then one of the insects actually appears and attacks the Doctor and Benton, and it's quite possibly the worst special effect in all of Doctor Who.  I'm pretty forgiving of the uneven effects of the old show, but there are exceptions that I just can't get past.  This is one of those.

What's worse is the ease with which the Doctor defeat it.  Seriously, he just throws his jacket over it, and the insect falls and dies.  It's like they're not even trying.

Other than the last few minutes of episode 6, the last two episodes are a total wash except for one redeeming element.  And that element, amazingly enough, is Mike Yates.

The Brigadier sends Yates undercover in Global Chemicals as a man from the Ministry.  Even in his early scenes, where he's supposed to be a stiff, Richard Franklin suddenly shows hints of personality.  And actually, the writing gives him something to work with.  How bizarre.  In the scene where he's on the phone with the Brig and the Doctor and Yates is actively trying not to show emotion, he shows infinitely more emotion and personality than he did the entirety of Season 8.

And then, near the end of episode four, it finally happens.  It took three seasons and numerous episodes of not-even-trying-hard-enough-to-be-false-starts, but suddenly, Mike Yates gels as a character.  I mean, not to the extreme of Ianto going from zero to complete, three-dimensional character who even retroactively makes sense in a single scene of Children of Earth, but Mike does rise to the level of Benton, at least.  Franklin is thoroughly engaging when given the chance, and seems much more comfortable and relaxed than he did in previous appearances.  It's really remarkable.

And, for once, he actually serves a purpose in the story, and one that Benton wouldn't fulfill as well.  After all, Mike is still much stiffer and more soldierly (likely because Franklin really was a soldier), so it makes sense that he would go undercover as a Ministry stiff.  But with the addition of a actual personality, and an appealing one at that, he suddenly works beautifully.

Which is good, because making him likable, even for a single story, makes the brilliant twists in his character arc in Season 11 work beautifully.  Without that, his fall and redemption would have fallen completely flat.

Mike's reprogramming is terrific -- he's clearly fighting much, much harder than the others, one of whom walked off a balcony to his death, but it still gets to him.  And his reaction to Jo's marriage is perfect.  Franklin seriously nails it.  About one second of deep disappointment, then a total recovery and congratulations. It's so good I'll even give them a pass for setting up the semi-romance between Mike and Jo so poorly in earlier stories.

Mike pretty much carries the last two episodes.  Which is astounding.  You could watch every moment he had before this, and never guess for a moment that he would end up being the sole redeeming factor of the last third of a story.  How endlessly bizarre.

So Yates is a real highlight of the later episodes.  But otherwise, Green Death concludes with two episodes of anticlimax.  Added to its noble but failed whack at environmentalism and its poor treatment of a wonderful companion, it's hard to see this as anything approaching a classic.  It has good elements and great (if underused) monsters, but it's a deeply flawed conclusion to an otherwise stellar season, and one of Pertwee's weakest adventures.

But that last scene, so beautifully acted and so beautifully crafted, moves so deeply it raises the entire story.

RATING:  * * ½


  • "This was deliberate sabotage!"  Very exacting detail, like "Deadly Assassin" or "Fatal Death."
  •  The Doctor gets Pi wrong.  It isn't 3.1416 if you're going past five digits.  It's 3.14159...
  • Okay, so Jo spilled the fungus on the samples, which cured the disease.  Serendipity.  That's the excuse for one of the Jo-killing scenes here.  It's the only reason the scene exists, honestly, and it does a lot of harm to the character (in her last story) for what is, admittedly, kind of a nice idea in theory.  But once the Doctor learned the fungus killed the maggots, why didn't he try that on the disease straight away?  It just seems so obviously like the next thing to try.  In and of itself, this isn't so worrying, but destroying a character to solve such an unecessary problem is infuriating.
  • The Crystal as the Doctor's wedding present would work better if it was set up more effectively, but it's a beautiful touch on the Doctor's side.  He spent an entire season trying to get her to Metabelis 3.  When he does make it, it's without her, but he gives her his one souvenier from the planet.  It says so much about the Doctor's complex character.


  1. Another super review. It's a rather different one from the norm for this ep, but insightfully so. Green Death is vexing to me for the same reasons you spelled out here!

    The thing that gripes me the most is the treatment of Jo. Sadly, this was a repeat. From the standpoint of the underlying (deplorable) production approach, Jo's sendoff is a direct lift from the sendoff of a prior young female companion character. Ironically, the thing I find most touching is the way Pertwee played the relevant scenes. A similar quality was also brought to the relevant performances in the same show the approach for Jo's sendoff was lifted from. Hint: it was another Who story that has also been routinely heralded as great and quite iconic...

    That last point, the crystal, is among my fav Pertwee Doctor moments. The way it was (or wasn't) set up, it's almost as if it was added sort of last minute (by Pertwee or the director?). I quite like the Pertwee years and Jo had a surprisingly good (underrated) go of it overall, I just wish they'd done better by her at the end. It wouldn't have cost a penny more.

  2. To be fair, the great and iconic story you're referencing actually really is great. :)

    To be honest, the married off companion that really bugs me is Leela.

    I can see Jo marrying another adventurer as an excuse to not travel with the Doctor any more. It may not be done well, but I can at least see that argument.

    The Doctor largely leaves Susan because he can't go to dangerous places and daring adventures if he has to protect his granddaughter. So, once she shows enough interest in a guy, it's a good enough excuse for the still young and immature Time Lord to leave her in relative safety.

    Vicki getting married off just a season later is a bit much and kinda contrived, but it did at least save her from being sucked horribly into the vacuum of space.

    Peri I can dismiss as the Master lying about what actually happened to screw with the Doctor's mind, given only the former claims she met anything but a tragic fate.

    But Leela leaving the Doctor to get married off? That one is just offensive. There are excuses to be made for the others, however thin. But that was awful. Louise Jameson was right: she should have died for the Doctor. It would have been a far more appropriate fate for the character.

    But Jo? I can see it. I wish it had been done better, and hadn't been done half as often as it was for companions, but it's not the worst of the list.


    Given how strongly the Crystal plays into Planet of the Spiders, both plotwise and thematically, and how much Metabelis 3 is set up throughout Season 10, I can't imagine it wasn't put in by Barry Letts. I think he and Sloman just did a poor job of writing it.