“What’s best for Global Chemicals is best for the world, is best for you!” – Stevens
Goodbye Jo! You’re leaving in one of the top episodes of the Pertwee era. Yes, it has a ton of obvious CSO (early ‘green screen’) but there is so much good writing and characterization and acting and true scares in this story that it overcomes those. Of course, the biggest and most memorable aspects of the show are the giant maggots—amazingly well realized in design and movement. There are many a time where your skin crawls at the thought of them. The heavy themes of environment, pollution, and corporate greed make the story feel very grown up as well.
The show uses some stereotyped characters but to good effect. The rural miners are endearing (poor Bert!) and by their contrast serve to highlight just how soulless the company is. Professor Jones and the rest of the “Nuthatch” are seventies kitsch to the hilt, yet they’re never played up as silly. Indeed, the whole point of them is that they are just as brilliant and educated as any academic but don’t have to be stuffy and afraid to embrace new ideas; in fact, it enhances their ability to benefit the world. (She’s under used, but I love how Cher-lookalike Nancy is played so straight as earth mother and mum and yet turns around to be a world class biochemist.)
UNIT comes blazing back in a way—the suddenly super-casually dressed Brigadier seems to be again the thick headed military “dunderhead” (even sitting down for drinks with Stevens as though totally under his thumb) until we have the great surprise of Mike Yates turning up in the guise of a government official and we realize that the Brigadier was actually playing him all along. Yet again we get to see Yates as quite the brave action hero, and I love the comedic interplay between Yates and the Doctor as he sneaks into the facility.
I used to not like the idea of BOSS—yet another supercomputer that somehow becomes sentient and takes over. Stories set in the future or with alien technology can get away with this, but how can circuits and keyboards put together by contemporary people become a thinking entity? On this viewing, however, I realized that the story frames it as a computer that was experimentally connected to a human brain–thus altering its abilities and programming–which then fed back and ‘rewired’ the human to in turn adapt the computer towards even more sentience. This kind of feedback loop between mechanical and organic and the uncharted territory it represents make it a much more plausible story point for me. It’s also interesting that they chose to have the voice of the computer be so natural (rather than the usual stilted mechanized type) and its personality so breezy (as opposed to rigid and logical). It enhances the idea that it has taken on a bit of human psychosis in the process.
Speaking of thoughtfulness in the writing, I never realized until now that they purposefully signal Jo’s move from the assistant of the Doctor to future wife of Professor Jones by having her first encounter with him virtually mirror her first encounter with the Doctor. Just like with the Doctor in Terror of the Autons, Jo stumbles into Jones’ lab where her overeager attempts to please on first meeting are rebuffed as he is rudely wrapped up in work until she accidently ruins an experiment leading to an angry first encounter. They also give Jones several Doctorish lines (like his comforting words to Jo about the uniqueness of every person in the universe including the miner Bert) to emphasize the parallel. We’ve seen Jo go on this huge arc over time from a rather silly girl to a capable agent anticipating the Doctor’s moves, so it’s fitting that as she transitions to a new hero figure in her life that she reverts back a bit. The emphasis on the Doctor having to deal with his own emotions in letting go as “the fledgling flies the coop” is unique to this point of the program.
Beyond the story line and characters, there is also a lot of nice direction in the show. Just the way they shoot the large pulley wheels of the mine in the first episode is nicely done for instance. Putting Jo in a flowing gown in the fire-lit library of the community brilliantly evokes the feelings of a vampire horror film as the cliffhanger follows the maggot coming up behind her. The close-up on the vacant face of Stevens as a tear rolls down his cheek after the agony of effectively killing his best friend is quite affecting. The closing shot of the lonely Doctor driving off in silhouette after saying goodbye is an iconic part of this episode. The dialogue is even quite clever at times too—like how Yates conveys secret meaning in his monitored words on the phone or the Doctor’s verbal parries with the supercomputer and Stevens (“Freedom from fear, freedom from pain!” “Freedom from freedom?”). There’s a lot to like in this story.
Best (or worst) unsettling moments:
Maggots, obviously. But before we even get to that point, the glowing green death of the first miner is quite alarming as we can see the bones and veins of his hand at the start and it really does look horrific once his whole body is engulfed.
- Visit to Wales
- Heavy environmental themes
People will get hung up on some of the dodgy effects and especially the woeful flying insect. That whole scene feels a bit tacked on anyway so it would have been nicer for it to have been handled differently.