Wait, haven’t we seen this before?
No, we’re not talking about The Green Death, which is a fine Jon Pertwee serial that had an ecology-themed message and features the last regular appearance of the lovely assistant, Jo Grant (Katy Manning), before she runs off to marry the activist Dr. Jones (Stewart Bevan, who was Manning’s real-life squeeze at the time). If you haven’t seen it, there’s very good reason to, as it’s a solid ‘70s Who outing.
The reason why we’re wondering if you’ve seen this before is because, well, The Green Death has already been released on DVD. That was back in 2004 on both sides of the Pond. So why does this “Special Edition” of The Green Death exist? It’s hard to say (aside from being the episode’s 40th anniversary, although that’s never addressed outright in any of the material), although BBC seems more than happy to, as with virtually all of their Who DVD releases, go above and beyond with their bonus content. Here, the BBC is issuing a new disc of bonus materials, which includes a short documentary about the making of the episode, numerous interviews and commentaries, and a rather meaty surprise by the inclusion of the entire two-part Sarah Jane Adventures episode “Death of the Doctor”. The latter includes appearances from both new Doctor Matt Smith and, that’s right, Katy Manning reprising her role as Jo Grant.
To start with, The Green Death is probably most affectionately known as “the one with the maggots” (which that new mini-documentary cheekily uses as its title), as hissing, seemingly-indestructible super-maggots are emerging from the waste of multi-national corporation Global Chemicals. Jo’s activist side emerges when meeting Doctor Clifford Jones, as he spends a great deal of time protesting the re-opening of Global Chemical’s mineshaft when not working on protein-infused mushrooms. Jo falls for Clifford, a mysterious green plague is effecting the minors in deadly ways, and even the ever-reliable Brigadier (the ever-reliable Nicholas Courtney) finds himself powerless in the face of Global Chemical’s powerful parliamentary friends. All of this, of course, leads to a showdown rife with explosions, close-scrapes, and pretty terrible-looking giant evil fly, and, yes, the Doctor in drag.
The six-episode serial is one of the brighter spots during the Pertwee years, and while it does feature the occasional bit of out-of-character strangeness (the Doctor being a karate master to dispose of guards, for example), its eco-minded script and big villain reveal (a sentient computer!) give it just the right amount of issue-driven depth for the whole thing to still be “grounded.” As is typical of the time, all the outside shots are in a roughly cinematic quality, the interiors have the frame-rate and feel of a standard ‘70s kitchen sink drama, and the green screened parts are, as always, quite terrible. Still, the plot ambles along nicely, the scenes between the Brigadier and the conniving heads of Global Chemicals proving to be surprisingly satisfying on the drama front.
Of course, the end, in which Jo decides to stay with Dr. Jones as she goes on her very own Earth-bound adventures, features a time where she never really gets in a proper goodbye with the Doctor, and Pertwee, by far the most professorial of any of the Doctors both before and after, drives off into the not-quite-sunset with the cool detachment that became his calling card. As is always the case with Pertwee, his acting is subtle and simple: there’s always a hint of pain behind his cold stares, but he never truly lets onto it.
While there are now two commentary tracks to accompany this edition (including a rather inexplicable and pointless cameo from Russell T. Davies in the sixth and final episode), much technical and script-related matters are tossed about, but Manning, in particular, seems most keen to talk about her memories working on the show, and her interview segments are just a joy to watch: few Who actors radiate with this much enthusiasm when revisiting memories.
“The One With the Maggots” documentary is fascinating, because—as has been the case with all of the BBC Who DVDs—some of those interviewed are unafraid to say whether what they were working on was absolute muck. The giant fly (the final stage of evolution for the maggots) at the end is properly derided for what it is, yet director Michael Brandt seems to have the most fun, talking about why certain shots didn’t work, proud of the ones that did, and radiating a genuine warmth for the material.
Some bonus features are fun (the 11-minute “news expose” on Global Chemicals, “Global Conspiracy?”, is way more fun than it has any right to be), and some are quite unnecessary (“What Katy Did Next”, featuring Manning on a crafts show called Serendipity is rather pointless, but funny given how the word “serendipity” plays into the plot of this very serial).
A curious inclusion is a 20+ minute documentary called “Doctor Forever! The Unquiet Dead” which details the behind-the-scenes wranglings that Russell T. Davies had to go through in order to revive the Doctor and his big blue box for a modern audience in 2005. It’s more for Who completists and those with a love of TV history/backroom deals, but its inclusion on a Pertwee DVD (not McCoy or even McGann’s?) is a bit odd. It does, however, service as a nice introduction to the Davies-penned Sarah Jane Adventures two-parter “Death of the Doctor”, which features a rather lively cameo by Manning as Jo Grant, who spends an inordinate amount of time hugging Elisabeth Sladen during the course of the episode. The thing, as is typical of all of Davies’ work, is melodramatic to a fault, but just for the chance to see Sarah Jane and Jo Grant meet each other for the first time in history is worth it by itself (shame that Matt Smith seems to be on autopilot for a majority of his time here).
All in all, while The Green Death is still highly revered in some corners of the Whoniverse, it’s still fairly standard fare for the era, but standard fare in an era such as this is still a big cut above most of the post-Davidson material, and the story still works even now. Casual fans can be happy getting the single-DVD version of this released in 2004, but true Who collectors ma as well splurge for this “Special Edition” as the abundance of worthwhile goodies may very well make the purchase worthwhile. There may have been better serials in the Pertwee years, but few transcended the times quite like “The Green Death” did.