This continues to be Robert Holmes’ funniest script to date. Bloodaxe, on first impressions a Baldrick type figure, slyly mocks Irongron’s pretentions: ‘Tis a cunning plan, Captain… Yours is indeed a towering intelligence’. Holmes even dares to poke fun at Pertwee (‘A long-shanked rascal with a mighty nose’), and while some of the quips about the ‘fair sex’ are a bit cringey nowadays it’s notable that Sarah is both willing to admit when she’s wrong, however grudgingly, and continues to be a driving force behind the fight against Linx and Irongron, leading the raid on the castle to capture the Doctor, and convincing Sir Edward and Lady Eleanor to give him a fair hearing.
Apparently, the historical setting for The Time Warrior was suggested by Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, and Robert Holmes was less than enthusiastic about the idea. The only tell is how irreverent this is: Holmes has resurrected the comedy historicals last seen in The Gunfighters, where modern sensibilities and humour make the past seem a less distant and unknowable place, and even the sexism of the Middle Ages is played for laughs. In many ways this story is the model for the bulk of 21st Century history episodes, which focus heavily on the sci-fi elements and assume that, funny accents and clothes aside, not much separates us from our ancestors. Compared to The Time Meddler, which largely kept the Monk’s plot separate from the grim reality of Vikings vs Anglo-Saxons, this plays much faster and looser with the concept of the (grits teeth) pseudo-historical.
The striking new title sequence and logo emphasise that this is a new beginning of sorts for the series. With the UNIT Fam broken up, the Doctor free to roam time and space, and (behind the scenes) Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks looking to move on, the transition to the Tom Baker years is beginning. Which makes this something like The Invasion in Season Six: a story that features the current team, but anticipates many of the elements of the next era of the show. In this case, most notably the arrival of Sarah Jane Smith, a character that will go on to surpass Jo Grant both in tenure and popularity.
The logical climax of this story is much more convincing than Robert Sloman’s last two scripts, with the first half focusing on ending the threat posed by the giant maggots (and, oh dear, the giant fly) and the second switching to defeating BOSS’s plans for global domination. As a result, there’s an unflagging pace, helped by holding back the meaning of Professor Jones’s mysterious declaration of ‘serendipity’. The neatness of the script is reflected both in the method of defeating the maggots (the edible fungus that’s been a running joke for the last five weeks), and in the Doctor’s appeal to Stevens’ humanity which is vital in foiling BOSS (‘sentimental friend,’ the dying computer proclaims, having called him a ‘sentimentalist’ back in Episode Three). All this is wrapped up in Jo’s departure, which has been seeded since practically the first scene.
After the army were drafted in for The Mind of Evil and the Navy for The Sea Devils, this time it’s the turn of the RAF. It’s a bit of a half-bothered effort though, with one lo-tech helicopter lobbing some bombs out of the door. Where are the Harrier jump-jets with cruise missiles? It’s a good sequence, though, in a serial that’s already well above its quota of iconic images. It’s also a nice twist that UNIT and BOSS share the same goal: the elimination of the maggots. They aren’t part of a grand plan to take over the world, but an unintended consequence of Global Chemical’s pollution and ruthless efficiency/corner cutting.
If you squint, The Green Death belongs in an alternative universe where the Season Seven approach wasn’t so comprehensively binned by Terror of the Autons. The third Doctor is possibly closer to Derrick Sherwin’s concept than in any other Pertwee story: dressing up and doing funny voices. UNIT is more central than they have been in anything since Season Eight. There’s a clear, contemporary ecological message, and, no alien villains for the first time since Inferno (plus, obviously, green slime). After three series increasingly focused on getting the show back into outer space, and a tenth anniversary season that’s focused on bringing back Troughton and recreating a Hartnell epic, this is the one for viewers nostalgic for 1970.
One of the good things about The Green Death is the way it instantly rehabilitates the Brigadier. In his last couple of scripts, the Brig has been a fairly reduced, comic relief character, with little of the steel and smartness that Nick Courtney brought to his appearances between Seasons Five and Eight. In The Time Monster and (to a slightly lesser extent) The Three Doctors he’s written as a comedy buffoon, apparently unable accept exactly the kind of strangeness UNIT was set up to handle. By The Three Doctors, even the loyal Benton suggests that his CO is having a nervous breakdown. So it’s a relief to get a scene like the Brigadier’s face-off with Stevens, declaring this is a security matter, and will be investigated by the UN, and it takes no-one less than the Prime Minister to make him back off. Later, at the lovely domestic dinner scene at the Nuthutch (the Brigadier, delightfully, has turned up in full evening dress), his incredulity at Professor Jones’ plan to go searching for a fabled mushroom in the Amazon is played as healthy scepticism rather than utter closed-mindedness. I’m so pleased Nicholas Courtney is again getting worthy material, even if he’s suddenly looking very much the middle aged Brig of the Fourth Doctor stories.
So far this is possibly the most X-Filesy Doctor Who, with its dodgy government contracts, colourful locals and something nasty buried below the Earth infecting people. There’s a strand of thought that UNIT stories are all like this, but usually they’re providing security for something, or acting as official observers, rather than the Brigadier, in civvies, having a nosey. Courtney looks great in his flat cap (I’m less sold on Pertwee’s dog blanket), but no-one can hold a candle to the incredible cuteness of Katy Manning in her miner’s gear, hat askew.
The sinking feeling when Robert Sloman’s name appears in the opening credits is misplaced. There’s none of the archness and whimsy that disfigured his last script, The Time Monster. Instead, we’re presented with something that skirts dangerously close to polemic as Professor Jones and Jo Grant take a stand against the diesel pollution threatened by Global Chemicals’ new factory in South Wales. This has a sense of purpose and passion beyond pretty much anything the show has previously offered, and the result is one of the most instantly compelling episodes ever.
The Latep/Jo relationship sums up Planet of the Daleks. It’s oddly cursory, it comes out of nowhere, lasts just long enough to make a point, and is then over and done with (Latep takes the whirlwind, one-episode romance very stoically as he waves a cheery goodbye and heads back to Skaro). It’s almost like a pastiche of what Terry Nation remembers about the 1960s episodes and Susan and Vicki’s shotgun marriage departures.