Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Contemporary Time Lord


THE GREEN DEATH is primarily recalled as 'the one with the maggots.' In certain scenes, these phallic creatures were actually condoms.

CLASSIC-era DOCTOR WHO was successful combining tales of adventure with a subtle critique of contemporary issues. In THE DALEK INVASION OF EARTH, Terry Nation capitalised on wartime memories by depicting the Time Lord's most famous foes as space Nazis. The Doctor's other chief nemesis, the Cybermen, arrived in THE TENTH PLANET reflecting anxieties about organ replacement, cosmetic surgery and medical technology. And in THE CURSE OF PELADON, a backward planet's attempt to join a Galactic Federation would have been easy to decode for the pros and cons of Britain's membership of the EEC. It is, however, THE GREEN DEATH which lodges most in the memory with its ecological awareness, as The Doctor (John Pertwee) and assistant Jo Grant (Katy Manning) battle mutated insects and giant, man-eating maggots created by toxic waste in the Welsh mining village of Llanfairfach. The villains are Global Chemicals - whose director has been taken over by BOSS, a computer with a will of its own - and the heroes are environmentalists.

As well as the memorable monsters and political undertones, THE GREEN DEATH is also remembered as Jo's farewell show, after she falls in love with Professor Jones (Stewart Bevan) and decides to leave UNIT to accompany him up the Amazon. Welsh viewers may not be too impressed by their portrayal (who say “Boyo” and “Blodwyn” and indulge in clich├ęd banter about rugby) but the parting between the Doctor and Jo is genuinely sad, and like watching a break-up unfold on national television (“So the fledgling flies the coop”). Pertwee and Manning are at their best here - speaking in hushed, barely audible voices – and you can tell that both actors were emotionally moved when shooting this scene. The final few images of The Doctor downing his drink and leaving the party before driving off in Bessie packs more raw sentiment than anything in the blitzkrieg tradition of the modern-era show.

The Doctor and Bellal (Arnold Yarrow) explore the corridors of the Exxilon city in DEATH TO THE DALEKS. The duo have to pass a series of deadly tests, including using 'Venusian hopscotch' on one particular obstacle.

1970s Britain was a decade of strikes - postal workers, miners, dustmen - and mirroring this backdrop of institutional collapse was the first episode of Nation's DEATH TO THE DALEKS. Broadcast five days before the General Election defeat of Edward Health, amid the power cuts of the three-day week, there is something particularly resonant about a tale of the Time Lord being set on a planet drained of all power. The TARDIS arrives on Exxilon, where all electrical energy has been interrupted by an unknown force. The Doctor (Pertwee) meets an Earth Marine expedition, who tell him that the planet is rich in Parrinium, the antidote for a plague that is sweeping the galaxy. The Doctor's assistant Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) has seen a white beacon, and is captured by a group of savage Exxilons, who take her to their cave to be sacrificed for defiling their city. A group of Daleks land on the planet, also eager for the Parrinium, but their weapons are rendered useless by the drain. The Doctor and the expedition enter an uneasy alliance with the Daleks against the Exxilons, but the Daleks develop mechanical firepower and plan to take all of the Parrinium for themselves.

This four part serial is one of the quirkiest of all Dalek tales - in one scene the Dalek's use a model TARDIS as target practice - and a vast improvement on Nation's tendency to regurgitate the same old plot devices. The central concept of a city as a living, maintaining organism is fascinating; with the once-advanced Exxilon race giving the sentient structure a brain, it had no need of those who had created it. Subsequently, the Exxilons have reverted to the level of a Stone Age tribe, worshipping the city as their governing deity. Unfortunately, the model work when this piece of alien architecture disintegrates is excruciating, as is the incidental music which accompanies sequences of Dalek movement. Additionally, two of DEATH TO THE DALEKS' three cliffhanger endings are not cliffhangers at all: at the finale of the first episode, the proposed punchline of the Dalek's inoperative weapons is evident before the credits roll, and the third episode ends inexplicably on a red and white patterned floor.

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