The Green Death
by Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 324
"The Green Death" is frequently touted as Doctor Who’s most pointed take on environmentalism and the anti-globalisation movement. A close inspection of the story, however, suggests that it does not go as far as it might have done in these areas, and that its main attractions are to do with its appearance and writing rather than its politics.
In and of itself, the premise of "The Green Death" is fine. Stories with an anti-corporate message, in the 1970s as much as today, are admirable, and the scenes of out-of-work miners protesting an oil refinery, whose owners deride the mining industry as old-fashioned and passé, are eerily prescient for 1973. The problem is, firstly, that although the story draws on some quite well-known antecedents (such as Quatermass II, "The Invasion" and "The War Machines"), it fails to rise above them, or to make use of their ideas in an innovative way: in particular, the BOSS subplot reads almost like a slavish retread of "The War Machines" (amusingly-acronymed computer mentally controlling human slaves through the telephone/headphones, intending to link up with other computers and to take over the world). The second problem, unfortunately, is that the story is more simplistically done than the subject requires, leading to a number of inconsistencies.
The sections of the story dealing with Global Chemicals, in particular, are somewhat morally suspect. The unstated premise appears to be that all the bad and exploitative parts of the company are being controlled by BOSS; Stevens, James and Fell are all being controlled by the computer, and Elgin, who isn’t, is concerned about the abuses the company is perpetrating. We even see scenes of James and Stevens trying to fight their conditioning and do the right thing, implying that they’re really decent sorts under it all. The truly sinister aspect of multinational corporations-- that people can carry out such abuses as the infamous Bhopal tragedy without needing any sort of external coaching or conditioning-- is left unexplored in favour of a simplistic blame-the-machines explanation. Although the idea apparently came out of Barry Letts becoming depressed over an article called "Blueprint for Survival" in The Ecologist, neither he nor Robert Sloman (with whom Letts co-wrote the serial, although ultimately only Sloman was credited) appear to have taken the idea much further than "environmental destruction is bad." The question in such circumstances should be less whether environmental destruction is bad or good, and more why people can carry on destroying the environment knowing full well what the ultimate effects will be.
To be fair, however, the writing team seem to have been very concerned about exciting controversy. Not only did they go through the names of real-life companies to ensure that they didn’t steer too close to an existing name (and even then the name of the company was changed in the Target novelisation after a real-life Global Chemicals was found to exist), but they were concerned about calling the villain "Stevens" on the grounds that there were several Stevenses in the oil industry at the time (which, since it’s not that uncommon a surname, is taking it a little too far) and changed one character’s name from Charles Bell to Ralph Fell, on the grounds that the CEO of ICI was named Douglas Bell. It’s worth noting that the politicians in the story, a far easier target than captains of industry, are in fact shown to be ruthless and corrupt enough to give Global Chemicals their full support despite not being mentally conditioned (and the fact that the PM is called "Jeremy" implies that this is a Liberal government under Jeremy Thorpe, with the unstated implication that the Liberals are no better than Labour or Conservatives). However, corrupt politicians are not an uncommon theme of the Letts era, and in the case of the corporation, the writing team seem to be trying to have their cake and eat it too: to make a story attacking environmental degradation and multinational expansion without actually saying anything controversial.
Even more worrying from a modern viewpoint is the implications of class prejudice in the setup at Global Chemicals. While the conditioned employees and Elgin-- all of them, as noted, decent sorts when not under external influence-- are middle-class, the guards (who, for the most part, appear to be working for Global Chemicals without evidence of conditioning) are all working-class, and Hinks-- who not only knows about Global Chemicals’ dodgy dealings, but also knows that BOSS is the real head of the company-- has a London accent, and is played by an actor with a good line in East End thugs. The Welsh characters, for their part, consist almost entirely of genially sexist but charming little men who say "boyo" and "Blodwyn," and talk constantly about visiting the chapel; it’s probably just as well that Sloman’s original idea of having a recording of Sospan Fach playing over the opening shots never came to fruition. The implication that middle-class people are basically decent, and working-class people are either corrupt thugs or charming but stupid Welshmen very nearly wound up extending further into the story; the production team originally did not intend for Professor Jones to have a Welsh accent (Stewart Bevin says that the idea came out of his audition) which suggests that they were thinking in terms of Wholeweal being led, if not populated, by expatriate middle-class Southerners (perhaps remaining in Jo’s somewhat patronising description of Bert as "a sweet little man"), which is also worrying.
The environmentalists in the story are still fairly inconsistent in terms of their anti-globalisaiton ethos. Professor Jones is upset about Global Chemicals’ impact on the local community, but at the same time ignores the fact that coal, as a fossil fuel, is considerably more polluting than oil (and the Nuthatch has a fire, which has to be either coal or wood, both of which involve rather more pollution than you’d think Jones would be happy with). Also, Jones namechecks the idea of using water to power generators as a better idea than oil, without reference to the fact that this involves damming, redirecting and interfering with the flow of rivers, to the detriment of the local environment, which was well-known in the 1970s. The choice of maggots as the monster of the day is also rather dubious; in an interview on the DVD, writer Robert Sloman says that he chose maggots due to having an intense phobia of the same, but in fact, maggots are an important part of the natural recycling process, eating decayed matter. It might have been more environmentally correct-- as well as more interesting-- to have the maggots being not sinister and vile products of pollution, but part of the solution to the problem (eating the chemical waste, perhaps) for a clever way of bringing it home to viewers that even the less attractive bits of nature form part of the cycle of life. Not only is Global Chemicals rather dubious as an organisation, then, the opposition is little better.
There are other problems with the story which are unrelated to its basic premise. The most obvious is the sheer amount of deus ex machina going on, particularly in the final two episodes: the fungus that stops the maggots "just happens" to be the same fungus that the ersatz beef roast is made of, and the escaped maggot "just happens" to eat it. It’s also a massive coincidence that Jo decides to mention her accident with the dried fungus and the slides at that moment, and that the Doctor decides to treat it as significant rather than simply saying "that’s nice, dear," and going off to fix another course of antibiotics (it also makes the Doctor look rather stupid, as it suggests that he was incapable of making the mental leap from killing the maggots with fungus to using the fungus to combat the maggot-related infection). Elsewhere in the story, the Brigadier turns up with cutting equipment just at the very moment that the people down the mine can’t string the story out any further, and BOSS, despite making much of adopting human irrationality, is stymied by a Star Trekesque paradox puzzle (rather than, as a truly irrational being would, simply saying "it’s a paradox; sod off").
Global Chemicals’ behaviour with regard to the expedition down the mine is also inconsistent. As well as begging the question of why they actually allow anyone to go down the mine at all (as their subsequent activities seem rather to involve shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted), their refusal to lend the miners cutting equipment is also fairly unintelligent. If they do not lend them the equipment, after all, the Brigadier will simply have to look further afield for it, drawing undue attention to Global Chemicals’ activities and raising suspicions as to why they don’t want the rescuers to go down the mine (particularly as sooner or later they would have managed it, meaning that all Stevens has achieved is to delay the inevitable). When one considers that (admittedly, somewhat improbably) the news of the Doctor finding a giant maggot egg down the mine has made it round the village in hours, it seems surprising that Global Chemicals would want to draw attention to themselves by refusing to help rather than simply denying any association with what the rescuers find.
There are other problems with the story. We never learn, for instance, precisely what BOSS hopes to achieve with his army of slave units (some of which seem to be just hypnotised and others of which have physical implants) or what he is hoping to gain from linking up to other computers; if Global Chemicals becomes a threat to world security, a few guards aren’t going to hold off the army. According to the DVD, the full text of the article Jo reads in her first scene has Stevens, at one point, deriding the concerns of "Professor Jones and his crackpots"; it’s lucky that Jo didn’t read the relevant passage out loud, as one scene earlier Stevens had apparently not known that Jones was opposing the project and gaining a lot of press coverage for it. The scene where the Doctor stops the pit head wheel using only a crowbar is physically impossible. As with most other stories of this length, six episodes proves to be about two episodes too long; although "The Green Death" is interesting in that the padding comes in the earlier episodes, rather than the later ones as is traditional (whether or not this sustains interest better is debatable, as episode 2 seems to consist entirely of people running around looking for cutting equipment, and a massive amount of drama is packed into episodes 5 and 6.
The plot inconsistencies aside, however, "The Green Death" does have a lot going for it. The story is nicely directed, extremely so in parts. The performances are all very good, with little hamminess outside of Pertwee’s comedy turns. The mentally controlled employees all do an excellent job in portraying their split personalities, and Richard Franklin is reminiscent of Malcolm McDowell when playing the mind-controlled Yates. The maggot puppets are quite creepy (even with the mammalian teeth), and the noises the maggots make are also rather stomach-churning. The lighting is excellent, especially the scenes set down the mines. The sets are very good, and are mostly only let down by some bits of dodgy CSO. Charmingly, Stevens’ secretary Stella appears to communicate with him by buzzes, suggesting that she is in fact a computer of some sort herself-- Secretarial Technological Electronic Learning and Lexicographic Apparatus?-- and thus that BOSS may well be the one choosing the secretaries at Global Chemicals. The script is good for the most part, with few clunky lines and some rather good ones (a favourite: "It’s exactly your cup of tea. This fellow’s bright green, apparently. And dead"). Whatever some commentators may think, there is nothing wrong with the Brigadier going down to Llanfairfach in civvies-- particularly if he was trying to convey the message that he was just on an informal visit to check up on the reports, and determine if further action was needed, and not spook the Global Chemicals employees. Hinks being a chauffeur could be a sly reference to Get Carter, which also features a villain in a chauffeur’s uniform who proves to be more than just a chauffeur.
Finally, Jo’s leaving scenes are particularly worthy of praise. Jo’s departure is flagged up significantly but not ostentatiously in episode 1, and develops naturally throughout in terms of her attraction to Prof. Jones and increasing interest in her own world instead of alien planets. The scene in which she meets Prof. Jones is a deliberate echo of her meeting with the Doctor in "Terror of the Autons." The way in which the Doctor seems mildly jealous of Jones, ostentatiously hauling him out of the living room rather than leaving him alone with Jo, is also not unexpected, lending a bit of poignant humour to the situation-- particularly as Jones does rather resemble Jo’s perception of the Doctor. Few companions have had as good a sendoff as Jo Grant, and this alone makes "The Green Death" worth watching.
In short, "The Green Death" pulls its punches when it comes to the controversial issues, and suffers to some extent from bad plotting and inconsistencies. Nonetheless, it is a very visually and verbally attractive story, and not unwatchable by any means.
Effects courtesy of Maureen Marrs and Fiona Moore