In an era focused on political storytelling, we look back to the classic Doctor Who serial The Green Death – one of the best and most definitive examples of a story with a strong political message.
The most recent Doctor Who episode, Orphan 55, has been divisive, to say the least. There are some that loved the episode and others who hated it. A key criticism is its message on climate change, and how humanity needs to make a difference now, before it’s too late. There’s nothing wrong with the message itself. But there is a problem in how it was handled.
It wasn’t the fact that it wasn’t subtle. Doctor Who has dealt with serious issues before without having any subtlety, and yet it still told a good story. But it was rather crudely handled, especially towards the end. The Doctor gave a speech that felt less like a natural part of the episode and more forced.
Stories like this me remind me why The Green Death is so fantastic. Almost forty-seven years after its original broadcast, and Robert Sloman’s and Barry Letts’s classic story is still a brilliant example of how to handle political storytelling in Doctor Who.
A strong but effective message
First of all, as previously mentioned, it’s doesn’t worry about subtlety. In just the first episode of the six-part serial, Professor Clifford Jones is protesting against the dangers of pollution and chemical waste. And that’s a key aspect of his character – along with several other scientists, he’s trying to find ways of saving the Earth and finding alternative sources of both food and energy.
This isn’t addressed in a single moment, either. Throughout the entire serial, discussion on the dangers of pollution and waste are constantly brought up. In fact, the very monster of the story – the giant maggots that many fans of the Classic Series remember – were created by chemical waste.
So The Green Death‘s message isn’t exactly a subtle one. But it works because it’s a key part of the story that naturally develops. A great deal about the dangers of pollution and waste is discussed over the course of the serial, but in a very grounded and believable way. All while telling an extremely enjoyable story involving giant maggots and sentient computers.
Heroes and villains
On top of that, the characters are brilliantly fleshed out, as well. One problem of Orphan 55 was how it included so many characters without fleshing them out. We had the old unmarried couple; the mechanic and his smarter son; the ambitious hotel manager; her daughter who wants to destroy the hotel. These are far too many characters to include in a story that’s just under an hour, at least if you want to make them likable and sympathetic.
By contrast, The Green Death not only features great characters but also has time to flesh them out, too. Professor Clifford Jones definitely stands out. He cares a lot about saving the world in his own way, but he also clearly cares a lot about Jo, too. We watch that relationship develop admittedly quickly, but it still feels real.
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We also have the fantastic villain BOSS. BOSS is a memorable and refreshingly different take on a computer with sentience. Rather than speaking like a typical robot (i.e. cold and emotionless), BOSS speaks with a rather light tone, coming across as a charming yet practical businessman. Of course, one thing it does overlook is moral values, which makes him a dangerous enemy for the Doctor. He’s brilliantly voiced by John Dearth, who provides the computer with a lot of personality.
With strong characters and an excellent story that unfolds at a decent pace, it’s no wonder that The Green Death is still greatly loved almost five decades later. The political message could have detracted from the story, but instead it arguably improves the serial by being naturally written in. A perfect example of political storytelling done right, not just in Doctor Who, but in television overall.
What are your thoughts on The Green Death? Does it still hold up? Do you think the writers of the current era should take notes from it? Let us know in the comments below.