DOCTOR WHO - THE GREEN DEATH

Region 2 (UK) and Region 4

Director:  Michael Briant

StarringJon Pertwee, Katy Manning, Nicholas Courtney, Jerome Willis

THE SERIES

This six-episode Doctor Who story, originally broadcast in May 1973, seems to have lodged itself firmly in the public consciousness, even though most people probably only remember it as "the one with the giant maggots".

There's actually much more to it than that. The story, about a company that creates a mutant strain of lethal maggots by pumping toxic industrial sludge into a disused mine, is remarkably prescient, bringing concerns about the environment to the fore. The story was made in an era of industrial unrest, particularly in the coal mining industry, which forms the backdrop to this story. Britain was only months away from the three-day week, and questions about the ever-increasing influence of international companies were beginning to be asked.

In Doctor Who terms, too, The Green Death is regarded as a landmark story. It closed the show's tenth-anniversary season with an event that marked the end of an era.

The story is unusual in that it doesn't feature alien creatures bent on conquering the Earth. Instead the villain of the piece is Global Chemicals, run by the mysterious Boss (the wonderful John Dearth). The maggots - deadly though they are - are merely the by-product of the company's greater plan. The story is often accused of being preachy, but in many ways it's concerns are even more valid today than they were in 1973, when the effects of flower power were all the rage.

The story features plenty of James Bond movie-style action (if not James Bond movie-scale action!) The Doctor is separated from his assistant (Jo Grant, played by Katy Manning) for much of the story, leaving him to operate as a free agent, albeit one who's ably assisted by the members of para-military organisation UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce), headed by series regulars Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), Captain Mike Yates (Richard Franklin) and Sergeant Benton (John Levene).

A criticism that's often made of the Pertwee era is that stories were often longer than they needed to be (long stories meant that the costs of creating new sets and monsters could be spread over more episodes). This would often manifest itself in episodes with thinly-spread plots padded by a lot of ultimately pointless running around. Happily, The Green Death largely avoids this, although there's one episode where the Doctor gets to infiltrate a building disguised as a milkman, and later as a cleaning lady, giving Pertwee (whose background was in radio comedy) a chance to flex his comedic muscles, by employing a couple of silly voices.

Production values for the story are generally very high. There are some effects sequences that aren't entirely convincing, (the CSO or Chromakey process - now widely known as "green-screen" - was still in its infancy), but generally the programme was benefiting from an adequate budget, and taking advantage of the talented staff that the BBC had nurtured for decades.

The first victim of the Green Death - Highes, the miner (118-118 advert star John Scott Martin)

Jo happy (Katy Manning)

The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) uses the sonic screwdriver

THE DVD

DVDs from the BBC are often lamentable. Too often they seem like they've been thrown together with precious little care or thought. That's not an accusation you could level against BBC Worldwide's Doctor Who releases, though, which even have their own team of dedicated boffins, the Doctor Who Restoration Team, toiling away behind the scenes to give the programmes (which, let us not forget, in this case represent TV shows made more than thirty years ago) a wash and brush-up, with all the state-of-the-art improvement techniques at the BBC's disposal. A comprehensive article about how these particular episodes were restored is available here.

The results are generally very impressive. Much of the story was shot on 16mm film (with studio material shot on videotape, as was usual for the BBC during most of the 70s and 80s). Handled badly, 16mm source material can look terrible on DVD, but the material here has been transferred expertly. There's no doubt that the story looks better now on DVD than it ever has before. The colour balance of the programme is more consistent (a very difficult thing to achieve when you're mixing film and videotape), and is more naturalistic than it's ever been before. The film still looks rather grainy, and even the videotaped sequences exhibit low-levels of video noise, but this is well within tolerance, and infinitely preferable to the alternative, which would have been to sandblast the detail out of the image with excessive noise reduction processing. Slight but noticeable improvements have also been made to the CSO sequences, to reduce the tell-tale colour fringing problems that almost inevitably occurred when the process was used.

The Restoration Team's efforts are slightly undermined by the BBC's insistence that the six-part story (and the supporting bonus materials) are all squeezed onto a single DVD-9 disc. The six-part stories that Worldwide released during 2003, the show's fortieth anniversary year, were presented on two-discs, allowing for increased bitrate on the episodes, and much more room for the wonderful bonus features. It seems absurd that the BBC can release three-disc sets for peanuts when they want to (Boys From The Blackstuff, and The Singing Detective, for example), but feel they have to hamstring what is a prestigious showcase for their DVD range by restricting the longer Doctor Who stories to one disc. Furthermore, the BBC has a policy of keeping a percentage of the disc free in case tweaking is needed when a title is re-authored for another territory. In some cases this has meant that ten percent of the disc space has been completely wasted, although here, mercifully, it's more like five percent.

Here these policies manifests itself in an image that's perhaps never quite as sharp and detailed as it could have been, and there are even fleeting instances where excessive compression has caused MPEG blocking on rare occasions of rapid movement. It's a compromise that walks a fine line, and, in this instance, it only just maintains its balance. The average bitrate is a distinctly average 4.97Mb/s, rarely venturing above 6Mb/s.

There are more subtle improvements to the story's sound, which is presented in its original mono format, in dual mono 2.0, at 192kbps. Dialogue is always distinct (although there are a few dodgy Welsh accents to contend with), and well integrated into the mix.

Corporate evil: James (played by Roy Skelton, who also provides the voice of "Rainbow"'s Zippy), and Stevens (Jerome Willis).

Maggots (not actual size)

The next Director General of the BBC?  (Jerome Willis as Stevens)

BONUS FEATURES

The bonus features on a Doctor Who disc are another feature that puts them streets ahead of the competition, and those on The Green Death are excellent, catering for casual fans of the show, and the series' more devoted hardcore fanatics.

The episodes are supported by a full-length commentary track, by Producer Barry Letts, Script Editor Terence Dicks (who probably knows more about Doctor Who than anyone else who's ever worked on the show), and actress Katy Manning. This track was recorded some time ago, to take advantage of Katy Manning's presence in the UK (she now lives overseas), and was created before the Restoration team adopted a revolving-door approach to the commentaries, shuffling combinations of contributors to avoid people running out of steam, or, conversely, anyone swamping the contributions of someone else. In this case, though, the balance is a good one. There's a mutually-respectful dynamic between them that works to the commentary's favour. Katy Manning slightly dominates the track, as luvvies are wont to do, and some might find her a little wearing after a couple of hours, but, taken in smaller doses, the track is certainly worth listening to. The track features plenty of timeworn anecdotes (none of them as salacious as they probably could have been), and plenty of occasions when the participants somewhat reluctantly acknowledge the show's shortcomings. Their love for the series, and, in particular, for the late Jon Pertwee, shines through.

The commentary track is light on specific detail and hard facts. but this is more than compensated for by Richard Molesworth's outstanding Production Commentary, which is presented as a subtitle option. Here you'll discover the nitty-gritty trivia of the production: facts and figures, details about changes made to the script, about the locations used, and general background information on the cast and crew members. Although primarily of interest to fans of the show, it's just as likely that it will add considerably to the enjoyment of more casual viewers, who might be watching the episodes a second or third time with the Production Commentary on. In terms of the value for money the Production Commentary offers the consumer, it must be one of the most cost-effective bonus features on the DVD. In reviews and discussions about the Doctor Who DVDs this feature is often overshadowed by the more elaborately-mounted bonus features, but it forms an essential backbone to every Doctor Who disc.

There's always a danger that the contributors for commentary tracks are chosen as much for their "marquee value" as much as for what they might be able to bring to the microphone. Often a key contributor - the writer or the director, for example - is overlooked in favour of a more marketable name. Here, though, we do get to hear from the writer, Robert Sloman, in a tight seven-minute video interview, in which he discusses the ideas behind the story. The disc also features a seven-minute video interview with guest star Stewart Bevan, who plays environmentalist Professor Clifford Jones, in which he discusses how he got the role (he was dating Katy Manning at the time), and places his appearance in Doctor Who into the context of his lengthy career.

In another featurette, Visual Effects (11m), Colin Mapson explains how some of the story's effects were created, and shows, Blue Peter-style, how the giant maggot props were created. You'd probably need some real skill to make one as convincing as the ones in the story, but at least you'll get a good idea of the techniques used to create them.

The highlight of the bonus materials is Global Conspiracy?, a spoof documentary about the mysterious goings on in the village of Llanfairfach (twinned with Mortverte, France and Grundertod, Germany), fronted by campaigning investigative journalist Terry Scanlon (wonderfully played by The League of Gentlemen's Mark Gatiss). This ten-minute short features interviews with several of The Green Death's cast members, playing the same characters as they did in 1973! We discover what happened to the men who ran Global Chemicals (one of them is now Director General of the BBC), and catch up with hippie-turned-tycoon Professor Jones. Fabulous stuff, with plenty of tiny gags for those who go looking for them! (See if you can spot the mistakes on the front page of the Newport Echo!)

The disc also features a comprehensive Photo Gallery (9m), which features photo's from various sources, including those taken for reference by the set department, along with Frank Bellamy's thumbnail illustrations, which accompanied the show's listings in the Radio Times. These are animated with dissolves and morphs, and accompanied by a suite of sound effects from the story.

Finally there's an Easter Egg, but this time it's one that will only be of interest to the real anoraks: it's a collection of continuity announcements from the story's various airings on the BBC. [Click and highlight to reveal].

The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney)

What do giant maggots turn into...?

The Doctor (Jon Pertwee)

SUMMARY

BBC Worldwide have once again excelled themselves with a terrific Doctor Who DVD. It would, however, have been better if they'd given the episodes more room to breathe, by moving the bonus features to a second disc.

There's obviously been a great deal of care put into authoring the disc, to achieve an optimum balance between the story and the bonus material. Given the disc capacity limitations imposed on the producers, it's impossible to fault the disc.

The story itself is robust, and although the trappings are now a little dated, the ideas behind it are are pertinent as ever.

The bonus materials have enough depth to be of great interest to the fans, but they're not so nerdy that they won't alienate the casual viewer: a tricky equation to get right. The Global Conspiracy? mockumentary proves that Doctor Who fans are more than capable of poking fun at the series they love, and at their own obsessions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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