Doctor Who: The Green Death (part six)

Getting the bad out of the way, this story features one of the all-time lousy special effects sequences, where Jon Pertwee and John Levene react to an allegedly menacing giant mosquito. But I think the big explosive climax at Global Chemicals, which is awesome, more than makes up for it, and besides, our son was completely thrilled by the big bug and didn’t see anything wrong with it.

Back in 1987 or whenever it was that WGTV started showing the Jon Pertwee serials, I surprised myself by getting a little tearful over Jo’s departure. Doctor Who wasn’t really known, then, for having emotional farewells. These days you can’t spend three episodes in the TARDIS without the universe ending over an overblown Murray Gold orchestral fanfare while somebody drops to their knees when it’s time to stop traveling. I guess since the same production team had just blown right pass Liz Shaw’s departure when the actress Caroline John left, they wanted to do right by Katy Manning.

Jo’s departure is really wonderful. She’s been falling head over heels for the scatterbrained Cliff Jones and happily accepts his fumbled marriage proposal and even though the Doctor knew in his hearts of hearts that she would be flying the coop before he went to Llanfairfach, he’s still devastated that she leaves him. The only time prior to this 1973 story where we saw the Doctor actually hurting that a companion has moved on was back in 1964, when he forced the issue and left his granddaughter Susan behind on future Earth to stay with David Campbell. Jo’s happiness is countered with a shot of the Doctor, sitting sadly by himself in his car. Quietly. Even when the end theme music starts, it does so at a very low volume, not wishing to intrude on the visuals. It’s really, really unlike any other departure in the whole of the series.

Incidentally, there’s a fantastic extra on the DVD called Global Conspiracy? in which Mark Gatiss, in the guise of BBC reporter Terry Scanlon, looks back at the strange goings-on in 1970s Llanfairfach. It’s incredibly funny and full of in-jokes. This “documentary” explains that Jo and Cliff divorced in the 1980s. Happily, this was retconned in a 2010 episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures which notes that the couple are still married and had lots of kids.

Katy Manning didn’t become the star that she should have become after Doctor Who, but she did have a few memorable roles, including the comedy film Eskimo Nell and the one episode of the BBC’s Target that anyone remembers. Before she moved to Australia, she did a celebrated pinup session with a prop Dalek that served much the same function for teen fans in the eighties that Karen Gillan’s appearance in the movie Not Another Happy Ending does these days, I think.

Uniquely, Manning also portrays a second ongoing character in the Doctor Who mythology. Iris Wildthyme is a character in spinoff novels and audio plays who might be a Time Lord and might be the Doctor’s old girlfriend, and, in a postmodern way, is used to suggest that many of the Doctor’s so-called adventures are actually just rewritten versions of her own exploits. Her TARDIS is smaller on the inside, which never fails to make me smile. Iris was created by Paul Magrs, who has written many of her adventures. Manning has played Iris off and on since 2002.

That’s all from Doctor Who for now, but stay tuned! We’ll start watching season eleven later this month!

Doctor Who: The Green Death (part five)

Our son is quite bemused by BOSS, the room-filling supercomputer. Can you blame him? I can remember that techno-phobia of the time all too well; it took my dad more than a decade to trust a top-loading VCR, so a computer wasn’t going to arrive in my family’s house for many, many years. So this seems really strange and silly to a kid who has been playing puzzle games on his tablet since he was really, really small. How can computers be evil? This isn’t one of the “great ones” for him because the maggots are gross and scary and now he’s worried about Cliff Jones, who’s been infected by a maggot, but at least it has explosions.

Captain Yates gets brainwashed by BOSS in this episode, and his mind freed by the Doctor, using the blue sapphire from Metebelis Three. Interestingly, this develops into important plot points in the next season. The Doctor doesn’t get brainwashed himself; he’s put up with far more advanced mind probes and the like than anything that even the top-of-the-line Earthlings can build. I think that the headset that he’s wearing also shows up in the next season along with the blue crystal and actor John Dearth, who is doing such a good job as the voice of BOSS.

Doctor Who: The Green Death (part four)

So Yates and Benton are finally back in action in this episode. Yates is undercover as a man from the ministry, and Benton is leading the UNIT troops shooting at the maggots with their thick, “chitinous” armor-plated shells. You’ll note that now that almost all of the guest actors playing villagers have either been killed or have otherwise left the story, there’s room in the budget for Richard Franklin and John Levene!

The big plot development this time is the surprise that the BOSS is a seventies evil supercomputer. This cliffhanger revelation kind of baffled our son. Prior to this, though, he was really enjoying this one. There are explosions and gunfire and monsters, and the Doctor gets to disguise himself as a milkman with a thick mustache and then as a cleaning lady. He didn’t actually recognize him as the milkman, so effective was his costume in the eyes of a six year-old, but he saw right through that second disguise and had a good laugh over it. So there’s two things from the seventies you never see on television these days: room-filling supercomputers with wall-to-wall reel-to-reel tape decks, and dressing as old ladies to get laughs. Well, there’s Monty Python’s last concert film, I suppose.

Doctor Who: The Green Death (parts two and three)

Getting to the halfway point of this favorite of mine, I picked these two episodes to watch in one evening because if almost all the six-part Doctor Who stories could be edited to five without much incident, a lot of part two of this one could certainly be culled. It’s one of the flaws of the story: the Doctor tries to break into Global Chemicals to steal some cutting equipment that they won’t give freely and fails, and that’s all about six minutes of story that doesn’t go anywhere.

I also think that the Brigadier goes about the confrontation with Stevens in part three entirely the wrong way, wasting more time. He should have warned Stevens that there is something in those mines that could be threatening Global Chemicals. Instead, he makes an enemy of him far too soon. The whole premise of “we might have to close your refinery until we get to the bottom of this” is absolutely guaranteed not to work. Of course, the Brigadier may have remembered how he once tried to convince Peter Miles that they needed to investigate threats to his power station in Wenley Moor and got nothing but grief for it, but Miles’ character was an unhinged nut, and Jerome Willis’s Stevens seems so very reasonable.

And we learn this time that Stevens has a boss, called BOSS, with the silky and sinister voice of John Dearth. Great little double-act, those two.

Last month, we watched a Six Million Dollar Man adventure that was made a couple of years after “The Green Death” and I noticed a fun little similarity. In “Fires of Hell,” there’s a similar situation where a big corporate pollution machine becomes the economic engine driving a remote town and there’s a small group of ecology-minded hippies opposing them. I think it’s interesting that in both stories, the corporation is the villain and our heroes ally themselves with the hippies. There are certainly differences in the two stories – a crooked cop is helping the corporation in Six while there are apparently no police within a hundred miles of Llanfairfach, and it’s not really the corporation in Six but one greedy dude – but it struck a chord of amusement.

I really enjoy the hippies of Wholeweal. I think the writers did a great job making a believable little community from two speaking parts and some busy extras. I love how the Brigadier mostly relaxes and enjoys a supper of toadstool steaks and local wine while the Doctor entertains the dinner party with anecdotes of Venusian shanghorns and perigosto sticks. And of course I love how Jo falls completely in love with Cliff Jones and makes it look so believable and real. Later Doctor Who romances would be far, far less believable than this. Of course, Katy Manning and Stewart Bevan were actually a couple at the time, which probably helped.

I’ve got this far without mentioning the maggots. Because a Christmastime repeat of this story, edited into a two-hour TV movie, got one of the highest ratings that Doctor Who ever received in the UK, something like one in every five people in the country spent the next few decades asking “Man, you remember that Doctor Who with the giant maggots?” They’re not quite as amazing as the somewhat similar Drashigs, because using yellow-screen chromakey to move the puppets across the floor of the Wholeweal studio set isn’t completely successful, but they’re terrific, gross monsters, and has our son, who has memorized every word in his book Everything You Need to Know About Bugs feverishly wondering what this maggots will develop into before the end of the story.

This is a long post, but one last thing to mention: the sets in this story are downright amazing. Many people have written about how great the coal mine tunnels are, and they’re certainly right, but that room on the surface with the elevators and the huge spinning wheel is really something. I was impressed when Jon Pertwee rams a crowbar into the spinning thing to slow it, releasing a shower of sparks and a cloud of smoke. When you remember the “taped as live” nature of BBC television in that decade, it’s even more remarkable. If Pertwee wasn’t holding on tight, that bar could have been thrown into Talfryn Thomas’s head! I can’t imagine the health and safety representatives allowing the star of a television series to do anything like that in the eighties.

Doctor Who: The Green Death (part one)

So it’s time for the end of another season of Doctor Who, and another big season finale written by Robert Sloman and Barry Letts. “The Green Death” was directed by Michael E. Briant and I think it’s thunderously entertaining. I really like this story a lot.

Watching the first part in isolation is a really fun experience. This is clearly a case – and a very rare case in the original run of Doctor Who – of a story built entirely around a companion’s departure. Jo Grant lets the Doctor know in the first episode that she does not want to gallivant off into space to have fun anymore when there’s a planet of her own to save. He knows, then, that their traveling days are over, but he thinks that she’ll still be with UNIT and they’ll work together when he comes back to Earth. And as befits a story built around the companion leaving, Katy Manning dominates this story. It’s all about her character and Katy is fantastic. It’s almost a shame that the very next Doctor Who companion would be so many people’s pick for the all-time best, because she overshadows Jo so much; at this point in the series, Jo is actually tied with Barbara as my favorite companion.

Anyway, this story is set in Llanfairfach, a town in south Wales that is suffering from the closure of its coal mine, and where an outfit called Global Chemicals has set up. Global’s director is a fellow named Stevens, played by the awesome Jerome Willis. He’d later play the disagreeably cautious Peele in The Sandbaggers. And it really, seriously looks like Stevens is under the control of the Cybermen. Honestly, this story looks and feels like a sequel to 1968’s “The Invasion.” It isn’t, but watch the scene where Stevens’ mind starts to wander and he loses track of what he was saying. It’s not quite as obvious an “I’m being controlled” performance as, say, Michael Sheard in part one of “Remembrance of the Daleks,” but something’s up. And then he puts on this futuristic-looking headphone set…!

But as much as I enjoy this story, it does have a couple of problems. One of these, which I may return to, is that the story’s heart is definitely in the right place, but its “pollution BAD alternative energy GOOD” tone is incredibly shrill and would be far less dated if it were a little less right-on. Another is a structural problem that leads me to employ the “unflattering cultural stereotypes” tag on this episode.

Since I’m almost totally unfamiliar with Welsh culture, I didn’t see anything as outlandish as, say, all the Scottish stereotyping in the Avengers episode “Castle De’ath,” but it isn’t really a case of employing cliche, it’s setting a story in Wales but telling a story about Englishmen. Tat Wood penned an essay in About Time entitled “Why Didn’t Plaid Cymru Lynch Barry Letts?,” and I don’t know that I would have noticed the problem until I read that. See, the Welsh characters in this story, even though they’re played by Welsh actors like Talfyrn Thomas, are not in control of their destiny. People from London are. Global Chemicals has moved to Llanfairfach to take advantage of the closed mine, and the hippie commune that opposes Global – about which more next time – is similarly made up of people who’ve dropped out and moved to the area because they share the young Professor Jones’s ideals and dreams.

Between these forces, the Welsh people here have no agency. They’re all unemployed, apart from the milkman and a few part-timers who inspect the mine for safety and, as we’ll see, green slime. And this story isn’t about them, even though they’re the ones who feel the immediate impact of what’s going on, as people start coming out of the mine bright green and dead. It’s about Jo first, and about Global Chemicals versus the Wholeweal Community second. That, along with the script making sure that the milkman says “boyo,” is what makes this a little unflattering.

Doctor Who: Planet of the Daleks (part six)

The Thals turn out to be pretty good guerrilla fighters against the Daleks once the Doctor shows up. Two Daleks get killed by the liquid ice explosion in their tunnel, two more are killed by the bomb, one falls all the way down the ventilator shaft, two get led into the ice pool on the surface, and two more are locked forever in the sealed germ lab with lethal bacteria. That seems to leave seven in this episode, so maybe sixteen on the planet in total. The Thals said that there were about a dozen Daleks here. They were off by four. Their hit and run tactics are better than their field intelligence, I guess.

In the best scene in this episode, the newly-arrived Dalek Supreme, represented by a refurbished prop from the two Dalek movies produced by Amicus in the 1960s, gets sick of one of the seven remaining Daleks’ failure and exterminates him. Our son, who really, really enjoyed all the last-minute escapes and explosions this time, had eyes like dinner plates. “Daleks killing other Daleks?!” he shouted, amazed. He was petrified by the bit where the Doctor has to drop down onto the floor of the Daleks’ refrigeration chamber and retrieve a bomb while groggy Daleks start emerging from hibernation and hid behind the sofa.

One other little moment of note: the show has told us that Jo has gone into space four times now: “Colony in Space,” “The Curse of Peladon,” “The Mutants,” and the arc of these last three stories. (Since she begins “Frontier” wearing the same outfit she wore in “Carnival,” and has Drashigs fresh on her mind, I suggest they didn’t go back to Earth between the two.) This is the second of her four trips away from our planet where she’s broken the heart of a space boyfriend. Fortunately, she looks pretty well done with space travel by the end of this one.

(Although, twelve years after this serial was made, a later TV adventure called “Timelash” would establish that this Doctor took Jo and an unnamed third traveling companion to the planet Karfel, the setting for that story. Ten years after “Timelash,” the author Paul Leonard wrote a pair of novels for Virgin Books that explained that little continuity blip, and showed that sometime after “Planet of the Daleks” but before the next adventure, the Doctor, Jo, and Captain Yates had some adventures together. I’ll only accept that as canon if Jo broke some other spaceman’s heart along the way.)

Doctor Who: Planet of the Daleks (part five)

I don’t know why it amuses me so much in this story when the whole of seventies and eighties Doctor Who is plagued by harsh lighting, reflective surfaces, giant cracks in the studio sets where two big pieces of wood fit together, and “make everything look fake” videotape, but I swear all the stagehands who worked on “Planet of the Daleks” shared the greasiest pizza ever baked in Britain before they set up the Daleks and the props in this story. There are handprints and fingerprints on every visible surface in the Dalek base.

And, as befits a show that looks for some kind of in-story explanation for why the second Doctor looks so much older and grayer in a story made in 1985 than his final adventure back in ’69, somebody once suggested that there are handprints all over the transparent cube that houses the killer bacteria because the humanoid Spiridons left their greasy mitts all over it. My point is that if somebody had wiped the dumb thing down with a cloth before they started taping, nobody would be distracted by the unreality of the visual in the first place, and besides, there are fingerprints all over one Dalek’s eyepiece in one of the closeups, and I don’t think you’re going to convince me that the Daleks are all that likely to let the Spiridons get that up close and personal with them.

In other news, Prentis Hancock’s annoying character gets killed this time, and our son is pretty much at the point where only the lack of explosions are keeping this off his list of favorite stories. He is having an absolute blast with this one. It’s the perfect Who adventure for six year-olds, but he really likes explosions.

Doctor Who: Planet of the Daleks (part four)

There are many reasons why I try to avoid being negative about an actor when I don’t like the performance. For one, I try to be a positive person these days. For another, I once said something dismissive on Usenet two decades ago about the actor Elijah Wood after he played a creep in an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street, and I think I closed that email account after three years of hate mail from offended Elijah Wood fans. But mainly it’s because I’m not quite as intemperate and opinionated a blowhard as I once was, and try to recognize the difference between an actor I may perceive as grating and their performance as a grating character. That’s why the less said about Michael Hawkins’ performance as the general in the previous story, the better.

But this time out, we’ve got Prentis Hancock, whom I have never liked in anything. Mind you, I’ve only actually seen him in four or five things, counting a dozen or so Space: 1999 episodes as “one thing,” but you know what I mean. It’s easy to leave a story like “Planet of the Daleks” wanting to punch him in the mouth, but that might be because no actor could rescue this moron of a character, acting impetuous and idiotic and getting all the heroes in trouble. Is it fair to blame Hancock for the one-dimensional dimwit that Terry Nation wrote? It’s not like he had the opportunity for subtlety, is there?

On the other hand, I like Bernard Horsfall a lot, but his character isn’t done any favors by the gender politics of Terry Nation’s script, either. This time, he successfully lays the guilt on his girlfriend for coming to Spiridon on the second mission, asking her how she could expect him to risk her life on this mission, and didn’t she realize that she’s now put them all in danger because he may be too worried about her to act? “No,” said my wife, seething, “she thought you could act like a professional. Jerk.” How does Horsfall come away from a similarly stupid character with my admiration for his performance while Hancock makes me want to throw things at the screen?

For what it’s worth, Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning remain magical in a production that sees Jo briefly dazed by a falling rock so big that it should have split her skull like a grapefruit, and the sinister eyes of jungle animals represented by colored light bulbs. And the Daleks – they’re the reason we’re here! – have our son absolutely enraptured. This time, two get blown “to kablooey” and another falls down a deep ventilator shaft to be smashed to pieces many hundreds of feet below. I kind of prefer these less indestructible Daleks to the modern kind, even if they do look like they’re made from wood with reflective paint.

Doctor Who: Planet of the Daleks (part three)

The first time I watched (most of) “Planet of the Daleks,” on PBS around 1987, I wasn’t impressed. I wasn’t impressed when I watched it again after getting a complete copy in 1994 either. But about nine years after that, I watched it with my older son, then about six, and got a new appreciation for it. This is definitely a story to watch with a kid, as we experienced again tonight. The thrill that a child has for Daleks, and the total conviction they have in their cruelty and their power, almost totally overshadows any production problems or scripting silliness.

You can be a curmudgeon on your own; watching this story with a kid is huge fun. Ours was excited, worried, frantic, and, when the ice-volcano erupts and two Daleks are splashed with gallons and gallons of “ice hot lava,” absolutely pleased. We briefly debated whether that shouldn’t be called “ice cold lava” before paying attention to the next bit of running down corridors. Upstairs, now, his nightly playtime before bed has been interrupted several times while Mommy has been threatened with extermination.

Note that I say “almost totally.” Kids can love Daleks all they want, but nothing can save the next Dalek serial that they made, the following year. That thing’s a complete turkey.

Anyway, the reason I’m less familiar with this story than almost all the others from the era that I’ve seen many times is that Lionheart, the company that syndicated Doctor Who in the 1980s, deliberately provided stations with a badly edited version. As I’ve mentioned previously, the BBC wiped many of Jon Pertwee’s color tapes, retaining only black and white film prints for export to countries who hadn’t switched to color yet instead. Lionheart’s package of the 24 Jon Pertwee stories, edited into TV movies, included five black and white movies and nineteen color ones.

However, both “Planet of the Daleks” and “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” from the following season, were idiotically offered as color TV movies with their missing color segments simply cut out. Since part three of this story was missing in color, the narrative of the movie version just jumps from the character telling Bernard Horsfall “Somewhere on this planet there are ten thousand Daleks!” to a scene a few minutes into part four, once everyone has escaped from the Dalek base. Twenty-five minutes just chopped out. I know I’ve said that these six-parters are all about one episode too long, but that’s insane. They should have syndicated it as a complete black and white movie. It was good enough for “The Daemons.”

(Even weirder, I’ve read that Lionheart also offered this in its mostly-original episodic format, only with the credits remade, so the American “part three” was the original “part four,” and so on. Since WGTV only bought the Pertwee adventures as TV movie compilations, we never saw it like that in Atlanta, but I wonder whether this version included the escape from the refrigeration room that was cut out of the TV movie.)

Anyway, the version of “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” that they offered was, while still obnoxious, not quite as incoherent since the missing color part was the opening episode, and so it looked like the movie began with the adventure already in progress. I hope we’ll be watching this story in about one month’s time, and I’ll talk more about that when we get there, but it was also one that I skipped copying off air.

There’s a terrific short documentary on the DVD about how they rebuilt this episode and restored the color. It took two separate projects: traditional colorizing done by a firm in Los Angeles, and a really neat project in London that extracted color information – chroma-dots – from a black and white telerecording. It’s absolutely wonderful to finally see this episode just about exactly as it was first taped.

Doctor Who: Planet of the Daleks (parts one and two)

“Invisible Daleks!” shouted our son. Yes, indeed.

“Planet of the Daleks” is another story that I’m not actually all that familiar with. I’ve maybe seen it in full only twice. I never recorded it off-air when WGTV played it – I’ll explain why in the next post – and didn’t get a VHS copy until early 1994, a few months after BBC-1 had shown the story in a very nice 30th anniversary surprise. On those rare occasions when Doctor Who had been repeated, it was on BBC-2, not the main channel, but they commissioned a new documentary about the show and gave it a prime time berth for six weeks of garish and very dated glam rock purple and green videotape, leading The Sunday Times to observe that the show didn’t seem to actually time travel very well.

It was a return for both director David Maloney, who hadn’t worked on Who in four years, and writer Terry Nation, who’d been busy with other things for seven. Among them: he’d been on the staff of The Baron, The Avengers, and The Persuaders! while contributing freelance scripts to several other ITC shows. He’d failed to sell a Dalek TV series to any of the American networks, and the BBC passed on a curious and entertaining pilot film with the unfortunate name of The Incredible Robert Baldick.

For what it’s worth, Maloney hired Bernard Horsfall, one of his regular go-to actors. Always nice to see Horsfall at work, even if he’s stuck under a ridiculous blond wig in this story. He also hired Prentis Hancock, and would again when he directed “Planet of Evil” three years later. I can’t claim to enjoy Hancock’s acting quite as much as I do Horsfall’s.

“Planet” is kind of Nation-by-the-numbers, only taped in a remarkable and eye-poppingly busy jungle set and dealing with invisible aliens who have been enslaved by the Daleks on the hostile planet of Spiridon. It’s not a story that aspires to very much more than wowing the under-tens in the audience.

As for our own under-ten, he seems to like this story much, much more than he did “Frontier in Space,” and spent the hour alternately wide-eyed and wondering out loud, or wide-eyed and transfixed. “Ten thousand invisible Daleks! That’s ten thousand times the original problem!”