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Doctor Who: The Seeds of Doom

November 8, 2010

Fresh out on DVD, 1976’s ‘The Seeds of Doom’ closed Doctor Who‘s thirteenth series, the first of two successive seasons which best demonstrate the reasons for the programme’s mass appeal in the 70s. A mercurial, fascinating Doctor (Tom Baker), aided by a resourceful, likeable companion (first Sarah Jane Smith, played by the inestimable Elisabeth Sladen, then space-savage Leela, played by Louise Jameson), in a bunch of clever witty adventures which riff on classic horror and sci-fi plotlines and see our heroes confronting bodysnatchers, shape-changers, killer robots, demonic possession, scientists (mad) and super-computers (also mad).

The story: two alien seed pods are discovered in Antarctica. One of these swiftly germinates, latching onto one of the unlucky scientists who discovered it and gradually turning him into a huge carnivorous (and murderous) plant creature, a Krynoid. The Doctor and Sarah arrive to tackle the creature — but so too do two goons, Scorby and Keeler, sent by the fanatical botanist Harrison Chase, determined to seize the second pod. The Krynoid is destroyed before it can devour the Doctor and Sarah, but the second pod is already on its way to England and Chase’s clutches.

Needless to say, Chase is one of Who‘s maniacally unhinged professionals (surgeons, astronauts, religious leaders and, er, magicians don’t come off well in these two seasons), consumed with the idea of cultivating the now unique Krynoid, the prize of his unrivalled plant collection — and he doesn’t care who has to die to make it happen…

‘Seeds’ has always been one of my favourite Doctor Who stories and it’s great to revisit it on DVD. It’s often noted that while the body-horror and mad-scientist stuff is quintessential Who, the trappings of this story are sometimes rather less so. The Doctor so rarely resorts to violence that it’s genuinely shocking to see him muster a bunch of fives — charmingly appearing to have read what ‘making a fist’ is but never to have tried it — to punch out a murderous chauffeur, or deliver an extremely painful neck-twist to Scorby (John Challis, later to star as a somewhat less violent character, Boycie in Only Fools and Horses — actually, never having been able to sit through an episode of OFaH I’ve no idea: he might actually be every bit as violent in that). Of course writer Robert Banks Stewart knows how far he can push this, highlighting it by having the Doctor brandish a gun at one point before going in to confront his enemies: ‘You’ll never use that,’ Sarah tells him, astonished. ‘They don’t know that,’ he retorts. (To see what happens when wit is removed from this sort of scene, see the comparable but altogether more hamfisted scene in 2008’s ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’ where David Tennant’s Doctor actually holds a gun to the villain’s head before the morality tale kicks in.)

Frequently, too, ‘Seeds’ is described as ‘Avengers-esque’: certainly, Tony Beckley as suave, not to say camp, Harrison Chase — who starts off campaigning with religious fervour for a world in which plants reclaim the planet from ‘parasitic’ animals and ends up deluded into thinking he’s a plant himself — could have stepped out of one of the technicolour Diana Rigg episodes, while the giant cannibal plant from outer space plot itself is heavily reminiscent of the 1965 Avengers episode ‘Man-Eater of Surrey Green’ which features a giant cannibal plant etc etc. And ‘Seeds’s most delightful (and only female) guest character, plant artist and sometime spy Amelia Ducat, deliciously played by Sylvia Coleridge, is an Avengers eccentric par excellence. (Coleridge also appears in one my favourite Avengers episodes, ‘The Girl from Auntie’, in which she plays one of the few elderly ladies in that story who isn’t suspected of being a knitting-needle-wielding psychopath.)

Comparisons aside, this is knockout Doctor Who: the Antarctic base which is the setting for the first two episodes looks as good as the real-life Dorset pile in which the remaining four take place. There’s a great cast (even the butler, Hargreaves, gets a lovely thumbnail character sketch), and the regulars are on fine form. The Doctor is a brave, worldly hero with a short temper for obstructive people (Scorby and turncoat Dunbar both getting bawled out by him in the course of the story), while Sarah plays frightened, plucky and funny brilliantly. That’s why Doctor Who gripped the nation in this period: no-one sends it up. When even the Doctor bellows or threatens violence, you believe the stakes are high. And the Krynoid monster — one of a succession of highly memorable creatures Who produced at this time, from barnacled, grisly Zygons to a homicidal ventriloquist’s doll — is beautifully realised, first as an elaborate make-up job on the ‘infected’ actors, then as a combination of a shambling formless green costume, a ten foot-tall tendrilled mass, and climactically a stop-motion model which thrashes its now innumerable tentacles over a scale model of Chase’s mansion

Rare for a Who six-parter, there isn’t a surfeit of padding here. It feels slightly like there’s one capture-escape-recapture too many (though it does permit the Doctor a wondrous rescue scene where he sneaks into the house, crashes through a window, knocks out two of Chase’s stooges and, asked dryly by Chase what he does for an encore, retorts: ‘I win!’, one of Who‘s best ‘postmodern’ gags) and the first two episodes are a sort of elongated prologue in some ways, but a highly effective and atmospheric one, serving to show us the twin threats posed by Chase and Scorby and by the Krynoid itself. Perhaps what was most in need of rethinking, however, is the ending, which sees the now skyscraper-high Krynoid simply blown to bits by UNIT missiles. It’s an ending that again is more reminiscent of other genre shows than Doctor Who, which customarily tries to find more cerebral solutions to the problem than simply blowing it up (cf ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’ where blowing up the monsters is in itself the story’s great tragedy). Of course the scale of the threat is such that simply, say, mixing up an instant virulent pesticide wouldn’t have cut it, although (if we can cut and paste between different Who eras) the Sixth Doctor’s defeat of some similarly rapacious vegetation in ‘Terror of the Vervoids’ by exposing them to fierce light and accelerating their lifecycle would perhaps have fitted quite nicely here — though of course then the Krynoid might have germinated even faster…

It’d been a good few years since I last enjoyed ‘Seeds’ and I was pleased to have forgotten some terrific moments: Scorby’s death, dragged into a lake by ravenous water weeds, is suitably harrowing; it follows Sarah’s spirited rant at his cowardice, one of her character highpoints. Treacherous Dunbar’s death, too, swamped by the massive Krynoid, is spectacular, its atmosphere aided by a brief bit of location night-work. Then there’s the moment when the mutant Krynoid, almost strong enough to crush the cottage where our heroes are hiding out, accesses the last vestiges of its once-human part — the hapless Keeler — and starts to speak

And of course there’s Amelia Ducat, smuggled into the story via an outrageously camp device involving one of her paintings. ‘It was found in a car boot,’ the Doctor tells her merrily. ‘A car boot?’ she repeats, Bracknellish, and isn’t placated by being told it was a Daimler: ‘The car,’ she gasps, ‘is immaterial!’ and the rest of her scenes are similarly daft and deft. It’s a great joy when she reappears beyond her set-piece first scene. How wonderful if, rather than her amiable boss Sir Colin, Amelia had been offered that quick trip in the TARDIS — and accepted!

‘Doctor Who: The Seeds of Doom’, written by Robert Banks Stewart, directed by Douglas Camfield and produced by Philip Hinchcliffe, is available now on DVD from BBC/2entertain.

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