In the most recent Doctor Who review I posted, I wrote that I wasn’t a fan of ‘double-dip’ releases. And so the very next Doctor Who DVD I purchase is yet another example of buying a special edition reissue of a title that I already have in my collection: nothing if not inconsistent, me.
In my defence, I have good cause. “The Green Death” might not have the unique selling point of “Spearhead from Space” of being the only classic-era serial that’s possible to release on genuine high-resolution Blu-ray, but it does have a more personal USP as far as I’m concerned as this is the first Doctor Who story that I actually clearly remember watching as a kid. I also vividly recall “The Sea Devils”, but I suspect that’s from a subsequent repeat airing rather than its original 1972 broadcast. I’m sure I had watched episodes before but they’re just now jumbled fragments in my brain. Not so “The Green Death” however, with its vivid imagery (the eponymous emerald-hued fatalities and of course the infamous giant maggots) searing itself into my young mind in a way that proved unforgettable for a lifetime. It’s probably a large part of the reason why Jon Pertwee will always be “my” Doctor regardless of any factual merits of the case. In many ways, the clarity and general fondness I have for this story almost made me fearful to re-watch it again in case it didn’t live up to my expectations and golden memories.
Happily it truly doesn’t disappoint even 40 years later. It’s a fantastically well-paced story that doesn’t flag for a moment and only briefly relies on time-filling runarounds and Venusian Akido fight scenes. It’s a strangely, surreal and inimitable Doctor Who mix of monsters, existential horror, conspiracies, ecology, love and friendship – and even some laugh out loud broad comedy such as the sight of Jon Pertwee in drag successfully (!) passing himself off in disguise as a char lady, or Sgt Benton (John Levene) passing out deadly poison to the giant maggots with an ad-libbed “Here, kitty kitty kitty.” Many of the classic serials – even the six-parters like this – would struggle to fill out a modern hyperkinetic 40-minute episode, but “The Green Death” is an exception that feels as though compressing it into any shorter a running time would be a criminal offence.
You’d expect the appearance of the giant maggots to be rather lame and surely the weak point of the story given the FX budget of the show at the time, but actually they’re generally very impressive and convincing, even – indeed especially – in close-up shots. There are some scenes where real maggots are used (either using colour separation overlay a.k.a. CSO – what would now be green screen – or on miniature model sets) which while failing to convince with their authenticity nonetheless manage to be even more stomach-turning revolting simply because they are, well, real maggots squirming around in green slime. Only at the very end (when the maggots take the next step in their life cycle) does the FX budget finally snap and things become somewhat embarrassing, but fortunately it’s a short sequence with a good director (Michael Briant) doing some solid work to hide the worst of it.
A story about some mutant maggots down a Welsh mine would be atmospheric but rather narratively thin and certainly wouldn’t extend for six whole episodes, so there’s a second strand involving corporate pollution by the nearby Global Chemicals. Although the story establishes a strong cause-and-effect relation between Global Chemicals and the maggots, the two stories nonetheless do seem to jog along largely in parallel rather than properly intertwined, and this is particularly apparent at the end where the rousing end to the maggots has to be set aside for the Doctor to then spend half of the final episode dealing with the other problem. This doesn’t prove to be much of a flaw in practice: while the maggots and green death might supply the horror and memorable visuals, in many ways Global Chemicals provides the more sophisticated and thought-provoking adult ideas that are as remarkably relevant today as they were four decades ago. You could even argue that Doctor Who “invented’ vegetarian meat substitute Quorn in this serial!
And overlaying the drama and action is another layer – the poignantly underplayed exit of the Doctor’s long-time companion Jo Grant (Katy Manning). Although she was a somewhat annoyingly ‘kookie’ and accident-prone figure, she was and indeed still is much-loved and nowhere in her time in the series is she better than “The Green Death” which sees her finally standing on her own two feet and striking out, finding herself a man to love as a grown-up (Professor Clifford Jones, played by Manning’s then-real life partner Stewart Bevan) rather than one to worship as a child (Pertwee’s Doctor). The final scenes where the Doctor realises she is leaving him for her new love are genuinely affecting and touchingly played by Pertwee and Manning, and given more time to play out on screen than many comparable departures of companions.
In the ‘making-of’ new to this special edition DVD, Manning recalls that she travelled to Wales with Pertwee driving them both in his car as was usual when Doctor Who was shooting on location; but that afterwards she travelled home on the train with Bevan instead. It was a genuine case of life mirroring events on screen, and just one of the lovely anecdotes contained on the disc which is what makes this re-release actually worth the ‘double-dip’. Just seeing the warmth between Manning and Bevan 40 years on (unusually, they’re interviewed together rather than separately for the making-of featurette and still have evident chemistry) is worth the price of admission.
The producers of this special edition have done an excellent job in digitally remastering the filmer material, showing the leaps and bounds that the process has advanced in the nine years since the original DVD release. The clarity and quality of the serial is excellent, and there’s also been some subtle but effective retouching work on the ‘fringing’ that plagued CSO in the 70s. You can still see the yellow outline around the matted figures as the Doctor and Jo punt their way across an underground lake full of squirming maggots, but it’s far less prominent and distracting in this release. Enough to be ‘authentic’ to the original source material to appease die hard fans who hate tampering, while sufficiently upgraded to stop it being too much of an issue for new viewers.
Selling a ‘special edition’ to the general pubic based purely on upgraded picture quality is always a tough ask, however, and there have to be more striking reasons to buy if you’re going to get people to ‘double-dip’. Fortunately this two-disc release supplies those reasons, starting with the aforementioned ‘making-of’ that was the notable omission from the single-disc 2004 release. In addition, as well as retaining the original DVD’s audio commentary the special edition adds a partial second commentary on three episodes, overhauls the indispensable and always fascinating production subtitles and includes a featurette on the visual effects work of Colin Mapson for “The Green Death” which includes a demonstration of how to make a brand new giant maggot from scratch. Because you know you really, really want to.
But the two big appeals of the special edition both involve a figure from later on in the story of Doctor Who, specifically one Russell T Davies. The second disc contains the final part “Dr Forever!”, an ongoing series commissioned by DVD distributors 2|entertain looking at how the series survived through 16 years of being off-air. Being the last part, this instalment appropriately focuses on how the series emerged from the wilderness with its 2005 revival by the BBC – a decision which appears a no-brainer now, seeing Doctor Who as one of the Corporation’s most internationally successful flagship shows, but which as this featurette explains was very much resisted by the powers that be at BBC at the time and which only happened thanks to the determination and perseverance of Davies and senior BBC executive Jane Trantor, a fellow fan of the original show. Their stories of how the show overcame the sceptics who insisted there was “no market” for Doctor Who in the 21st century to make it happen is a fascinating and rather uplifting take of making dreams come true with spectacular success.
Also included on the two-disc set is the “Death of the Doctor” story from spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures. Its the only time Davies has written for the character of the Doctor while not being the show’s producer – he needed to be sent pre-air copies of Matt Smith’s early performances to know how the role was now being played – and he returns for a truly wonderful audio commentary with Katy Manning who also guest-stars in the episode as Jo Grant Jones for the first time since 1973. It’s a wonderful commentary track that manages to be funny and informative while also not sidestepping the sad loss of Elisabeth Sladen. It’s quite an arresting moment when Manning reveals that she was one of the very few people in whom Sladen had confided about her illness; somehow you don’t expect two stars from a show to be so close in real life (indeed, Davies says that he’d had to check with Sladen that she and Manning weren’t “mortal enemies” before writing the story in the first place, since such feuds are far from unknown in the TV world!) and to learn of this unexpected closeness requires the viewer (or this viewer, at least) to hit the pause button and have a quiet sniffle before carrying on.
Manning and Davies also team up for a half hour of the alternate commentary on the main feature, and the special edition also contains a five-minute “What Katy Did Next” mini-feature and interviews with Stewart Bevan and story writer Robert Sloman. Also present and correct from the 2004 release is the spoof documentary “Global Conspiracy?” penned by none other than Mark Gatiss and featuring several of the actors from “The Green Death” reprising their roles, with it being especially nice to have Tony Adams involved – the original serial had been one of his first bits of TV work before he went on to become ubiquitous on the small screen in General Hospital and Crossroads. Adams missed out on his character’s pay-off in 1973 when he was hospitalised for peritonitis before the final block of recording, and it’s commendable how the production staff at the time managed to write around this crisis almost seamlessly.
An impressive and indeed exemplary offering. All in all, despite being a ‘double-dip’ this wasn’t a special edition that I could long hope to resist even if the frequency of similar ‘must-have’ special editions has spiked in recent months as 2|entertain rush out the upgraded titled before the DVD series (which had been ongoing since 1999) comes to a natural finish toward the end of the year with the release of the final classic stories including the long-awaited “Terror of the Zygons” and the partially-animated reconstructed stories “The Tenth Planet”, “The Ice Warriors” and “The Moonbase”.
It’s been a long road for the DVD series. It seems strange to think we’re almost at the end of that journey, and it’s commendable that even at this late stage they’re still looking at ways of going back and improving the overall range. Yes, this might be a ‘double-dip’ but after watching it, it certainly didn’t disappoint: if only all cult TV shows could be presented in this way, we’d all be very happy nostalgic fans indeed.