Wednesday, January 31, 2024

GUEST POST Jon Pertwee's Doctor tackled many of the problems we face today

A Doctor Who serial from 1973 has a surprising degree of relevance to the world of 2024, argues Peter Chambers.

The Green Death is a serial in series 10 of the classic Doctor Who era, broadcast in 1973. The Doctor was played by Jon Pertwee, and the companion Jo Grant was played by Katy Manning. The serial is often remembered for the generous send-off for Jo is given  and is available on iPlayer.

Pertwee was the third Doctor, taking over the role in Spearhead from Space. He was exiled to Earth by the writers to save the show money during the transition to colour TV, yet this period led to some of the most interesting stories in the history of the programme as they had to emphasise plot and drama rather than settings and space technology.

This serial features several issues that Barry Letts and Terence Dicks were interested in, primarily ecology. The others, which recur in classic Who, are brainwashing, women's equality, and the fate of the powerless. Letts wrote the script with Robert Sloman, Dicks was the script editor.

The action starts with Pertwee's Doctor bumbling in the lab in his endless quest to make the TARDIS do what he wants. In this case travel to Metebelis III to obtain a giant blue crystal.

Jo and the Brigadier separately decide that they want to travel to Wales to visit an ecologist group and Global Chemicals, who are in the news. The latter is a fairly obvious device to inform us who is running the Evil Plot. As is common, the Brigadier has orders to drop everything and assist some friends of the Establishment.

Jo accepts a lift from him and is dropped off at The Nuthatch which turns out to be a farm full of ecologists, musicians, mycologists and mathematicians. Their informal leader is Clifford Jones, who is using his Nobel Prize money to research alternatives to meat to alleviate world hunger. 

When Jo blunders in, Jones explains their work, including a water-source heat-pump powered by electricity from a windmill. Today we would say wind turbine. Today you can buy Quorn in a supermarket, and I write this in a building that has a solar PV array.

The Brigadier arrives at Global Chemicals and is misinformed about their operation. The company aims to get good PR by hiring local workers just laid off by the National Coal Board. The local pit is closing but "the government has given a green light for oil".

A picket line disperses when Global's MD, Stevens, promises energy with minimal waste pollution and jobs for all. The Brigadier politely nods, knowing he is ignorant of the science.

At The Nuthatch, Professor Jones dismisses this. He asserts that the Global process would produce a great deal of toxic waste. They must logically have a plan to quietly dispose of it. There is a big disused hole in the ground - the mine - and Global are insistent that it be sealed up.

The consequences of the closure are mainly borne by the few working-class miners maintaining the mine for the National Coal Board. Someone must take a look, and it is Jo and some miners. Lacking plot-armour, the miners are attacked by giant green maggots ('The Green Death'), while Jo escapes with last-minute help from the Doctor.

In the middle of the serial there is the expected action. The Brigadier drives around organising things, Jo discovers frightening things, Mike Yates is beaten up (again) by thugs, Sergeant Benton deploys the troops whose weapons are useless (again), the Doctor uses Venusian Aikido on some guards at Global.

Taking the initiative, the Doctor slips into Global and sees the tubes that discharge toxic waste into the mine. He proceeds to the top floor to confront the management. He finds the 'boss' is a computer system called BOSS, part of a global computer network designed to brainwash humans and obtain control, reducing humans to serfs under algorithmic command. This is an issue today, with the FANG - Facebook (Meta), Amazon, Netflix, and Google (Alphabet) - playing the role of BOSS.

In the final episode of The Green Death, the Doctor demonstrates that a brainwashing unit designed for humans does not work on a Time Lord. He de-programmes Stevens, who conducts a cyber-attack on BOSS as he dies. BOSS is destroyed.

Jo gets engaged to Clifford Jones and leaves UNIT. The UNIT survivors all cheer at a party at the Nuthatch. The Doctor quietly slips away.

Peter Chambers is a Liberal Democrat member from Hampshire.


nigel hunter said...

So many times Sci Fi sets the course and reality/truth of what it says appears.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. The overlap between Dr Who fandom and Lib Dems is very curious (I say this as a long-standing Lib Dem who likes Dr Who, but isn't a fan). Has anything been written on this more generally?

Jonathan Calder said...

There's an article by Alex Wilcock you may enjoy. Google "How Doctor Who Made Me A Liberal".