Monday, April 03, 2006


The Green Death

No, this post’s not about squeezing the Green vote – stick a ‘Green Action’ flash on every leaflet you ever put out for that – but BBC4 again for their ‘1973 Week’. Life On Mars was such a success that they're repeating it with an entire week’s schedule fashioned around it, with many goodies on show from that year. At 7 tonight, tomorrow and Wednesday they’re showing The Green Death, a Doctor Who story that’s famous as ‘the one with the maggots’, that’s got very 1973 flashes of brilliance and moments of rubbish, and that made me a green Liberal. Ironic, then, that it was broadcast in a year before I could watch it and I picked up a large chunk of my Liberal political philosophy from the book, which was written by fluffy old communist Malcolm Hulke. It may or may not be a coincidence that on novelising the story he took out the most ostentatiously Liberal scene (and my favourite in the whole thing), as the villains try to persuade the Doctor that
“In the end, we all want the same thing; an ordered society, with everyone happy, well-fed… What’s best for Global Chemicals is best for the world, is best for you!”
While evidently happy with the subtle underlying message of the story – hey, kids, big business makes pollution, and both of those are BAD – I wonder if Mr Hulke was slightly more uneasy with the Doctor objecting to a faux-utopian society claiming freedom from material want at the price of “Freedom from freedom”. Still, I loved the book anyway, and perhaps it was just a cut for space, because the story doesn’t exactly move at a gallop on TV (BBC4 are wise to show the episodes two at a time)…
“No, no, no!”

“But, Doctor, it’s exactly your cup of tea. This fellow’s bright green, apparently, and dead.”
Most people who saw this at the time remember it for the giant maggots, and they look fantastically horrid (if you get the DVD, there’s even a feature on how to make them and, yes, condoms are involved). You can see why they were memorable, and of course it’s the rapacious fruits of industry that mutate them, in the form of oil waste by-products. So, pretty much the model of a successful Doctor Who monster; they look convincing, scare the kiddies and have a moral behind them (though it’s a little strange that, like your standard alien menace, they’re immune to bullets in much the way that maggots, er, aren’t). So, if you want an example to prove to people that special effects in the old Doctor Who series were better than everyone makes out, you should watch this one, right? Um… Up to a point. Unfortunately the maggots share the screen with lots of people filmed on location in Wales. Which is fine. And lots of people shot in the studio while it purports to pretend to be Wales. Which you’ll be able to spot even if you’ve never seen a television before. The show’s depiction of Wales brings its own problems, too; so for Welsh viewers like Peter Black AM, if you've been impressed by the new series’ three-dimensional modern portrayal of the country, the best thing, boyo, to say about what the BBC did in 1973, Blodwen, is that it’s been much improved since, isn’t it.

I first saw this as an adult – somewhat surreally, I missed an episode of the early ’90s repeat because I was chairing a Lib Dem policy meeting where one of the actors from it was giving evidence, and a very strange man he was too – so, rather than the maggots making the biggest impression on me, it was the megalomaniac computer. Usually one of the biggest clichés in sci-fi, the BOSS computer here adds masses to this story through a very different characterisation to conventional ranting and a fantastic acting performance that gives the impression of constant ad-libbing. BOSS is irrational through being linked to a human brain, and the actor gives by far the most human and endearing mad computer I’ve ever come across, through voice alone. Florid and testy, he almost always wanders from the point, and spends most of one episode humming to himself. His symbiotic relationship with Stevens, his human ‘contact’, is fascinating; it’s difficult to escape the feeling it was sneaking a gay relationship into the 1973 schedules (with BOSS quoting Oscar Wilde, and in the book even humming the wedding march for the two of them). If it was done today, it'd be an allegory for sex over the Internet, but BOSS is much more interesting than any of that modern cliché I’ve seen on TV, too. When he meets his inevitable end, his painful ravings are very disturbing, and actually make me feel sorry for him despite his plan to enforce permanent happiness and equality on the human race through mind-controlled slavery.

Perhaps most people don’t spot the relationship between Stevens and BOSS because of a rather more high-profile relationship between the Doctor’s companion Jo Grant and new love interest Professor Jones, blatantly introduced as a ‘younger Doctor’ for her to leave with (amid surprising amounts of sexual innuendo all round). It’s a mixture of the most patronising way in which Doctor Who women left the series – give them another man to look after their pretty little heads – and consciously emulating the way Mrs Peel left The Avengers on the return of her lost husband, a glimpse of whom makes him obviously identical to Steed, just as here Jo leaves but is, of course, marrying the Doctor. Our hero displays an amusing level of jealousy at this throughout the story, right through to the touching ending as he leaves, alone. With Jon Pertwee’s Doctor probably the most haughtily paternal of the lot, I have to admit I wonder what Jo sees in Jones – he’s an arrogant git who patronises her so badly that he rather overdoes the ‘he’s really the Doctor’ characterisation.

Pertwee’s stories tended to have rather more in common with each other than most, and this has a lot of the familiar trappings of the period, with the Brigadier and his United Nations army chaps being frightfully serious or dim when the script requires the Doctor to put them down, the Doctor flouncing around in a big cloak and indulging in a space-filling ‘Venusian Aikido’ fight which would be much improved through the addition of Batman-style “Kerpow!”, “Boooof!” and “Splatt!” caption cards, and, of course, the moral.

Early ’70s Doctor Who did racism, colonialism, the EEC and so forth at one time or another, all on the Liberal side but with the Doctor’s homily given in a very patrician way (there’s an egregious example here where he describes bombing a mine as “the worst day’s work the world has seen for many, many years,” which rather overlooks not just his period’s alien invasions but some pretty grim wars we all know about), but never quite so blatantly as this story’s unsubtle ‘big business will drain your brain and poison you’. If I weren’t inclined to agree with the message, I’d probably have to complain about it. The probably unintended additional moral that ‘vegetarian food can KILL!’ slightly goes against the general tone of a story that’s Doctor Who at its most hippie, several years after everyone else was (there are even crystals with, like, groovy powers, man), and I hope it’s unintended that good people are in heterosexual relationships and villains are gay – though going by other work by the uncredited co-author, I wouldn’t put money on it. There’s also an unfortunate undercurrent that the Doctor’s travels in space and time are a silly, irresponsible waste of time rather than the point of the series, and that also comes across in the same writing team’s later Planet of the Spiders (guess which creepy-crawlies they did in that one). Just for fun, spot the scene where the Prime Minister is referred to as ‘Jeremy’; a programme showing Jeremy Thorpe as Prime Minister proves both that they were setting their stories a few years in the future, and that they were really bad at predicting it.

Still, it’s a fun story that I’ve always liked for all its failings, such a hugely endearing mad computer villain counts for a lot, and I might not have grown up a Lib Dem if I’d not read it as a boy. Tune in and enjoy it for ‘1973 Week’, along with the run of Life On Mars – it might just be the best Doctor Who story of that year, though rather strangely its rivals for that position, The Three Doctors and Carnival of Monsters, each have a lot more in common with this year’s time-swap cop show. Look them out on DVD and marvel at the way characters wonder if they’re dead, or what’s real, or if people ‘outside’ are watching them, or if it’s all a creation of their own mind, ticking off pretty much all the options of what’s happened to Sam Tyler…

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