Sunday, 8 September 2013

The Seeds of Doom written by Robert Banks Stewart and directed by Douglas Camfield


This story in a nutshell: A pod found in Antarctica almost spells the end of the world…


Teeth and Curls: Brooding and menacing, the Doctor has never been more alien or mesmerising. It does seem odd that the Doctor can be called in to help with this problem since he seemed to have abandoned his Earthly obligations for more exciting pursuits but since all the other Doctors step into help when it is needed I don’t see why the fourth should be an exception. He seems even more grumpy about it here than in Terror of the Zygons so his complaint about the Brigadier using him in Pyramids of Mars does suggest a little character arc that from this point sees him refuse to be dragged back again. He’s only 749 and he used to be even younger and he hasn’t come 10,000 miles to discuss the weather! He’s marvellously rude to practically everybody he meets, even those on his side and the only person he shows genuine affection for is Sarah. The Doctor’s unsettling narration that plays over scenes of the Krynoid hunting in the snow gave me the shivers – Tom Baker really is a masterful storyteller. He still has some time for some playful moments, I love it when he does a 360 degree turn when asked to turn around! He sounds almost at a loss at human stupidity when Scorby wants to take the pod and enjoys winding up Keeler who is clearly unused to holding a gun on hostages. You will never see such anger from the fourth Doctor again when Sarah is taken away by Scorby – he’s violently frenzied at the thought of his friend in the hands of such an abusive thug. If you ever need to show somebody a scene to show why the Doctor is such a wonderful character then play the scene in Sir Colin’s office when he reports back after the Antarctic disaster! He walks around with a chair on his head, puts it down, goes to sit on it, doesn’t bother, criticises the nature of greed, loses his temper, Sarah steps in, she loses her temper, he steps in, accuses them of having a security leak whilst staring the guilty party right in the face, insults Sir Colin and orders a car! As written it is a functional, if nicely scripted scene but with Tom in the room it becomes a madcap moment and utterly delightful to watch. You’ve got to lose the Doctor’s solution to Sarah’s Krynoid predicament – jump through the skylight and punch Scorby! My he is violent in this story, isn’t he? I love it personally – when dealing with thugs sometimes you have to be thuggish back but I could understand the objections if you didn’t like this sort of thing (yeah Paul Cornell I can see you tutting and shaking your head in the corner!). Actually with the Doctor waving a pistol about I can imagine Cornell having kittens watching this! As I have said before though, this is Doctor Who not Doctrine Who and if you want to watch a Mary Whitehouse spectacular with no tension whatsoever then be my guess. And don’t give all that flim flam about ‘he should be able to find a more intelligent way than having to wave his fist or use a gun’ because sometimes that just doesn’t cut it. Sometimes you have to be nasty back. Try burying your head in the said and pretending that that isn’t the case but it is. And the Doctor diving through a garden with a pistol is an awesome image, says me. Okay, rant over. The Doctor is vicious with Scorby when he starts thinking up ridiculous plans to turn him over to the Krynoid (‘It would make no difference!’). Jon Pertwee’s Doctor may have found the limited intelligence of the military mind tiresome but he never lost it like the Doctor does here (‘Waffle! Waffle! Waffle!'). Rather wonderfully when Scorby starts ranting that he is a mercenary and a survivor the Doctor is completely disinterested and when asked to participate in the conversation he sounds is if he has broken his thoughts away from something far more interesting!

Investigative Journalist: Oh Sarah Jane could you be any more wonderful if you tried in this story? Whenever people question why Sarah is so popular I desperately want to point them in the direction of The Seeds of Doom (the trouble is like me once you have made up your mind about something you are happy to give your opinion but you don’t want it to be changed!) which sees the character at her height. And considering (for me) she is the greatest of companions it is pretty much as good as it gets. There’s everything here I associate with Sarah – she is resourceful, witty, moral, brave and extremely active! Philip Hinchcliffe made the right decision in keeping Elisabeth Sladen on as long as he did because by the end of their time together the chemistry between Baker and Sladen is astonishing. With touches, glances and some wonderful exchanges you don’t need the Doctor to tell you that she is his best friend because it is screaming from every frame. Just seeing Elisabeth Sladen on the screen makes me beam my most dazzling smile…and shoehorning her into an Emma Pell type role (if anybody could do that, it's Sarah) is simply delightful.

The way she sucks on her fingers as she comes in from the Antarctic cold completely sells the idea of how chilly it is. For all the Doctor saying that for the Krynoid the vegetation eats the animal matter it is Sarah’s reaction (‘that’s terrifying’) that makes the statement really hit home. While the Doctor is being all mysterious and broody (‘you must help yourselves…’) Sarah hits Moberly with the cold hard facts that he is the only one qualified to operate on his friend. I remember when I was watching this story with Simon and he was agonised at the thought of Sarah strapped to a bomb that was about to explode – it's one of the most exciting set pieces in Doctor Who’s run. She has no thought for herself after the explosion, she just desperately wants to find the Doctor and make sure he is alright. I cannot tell you how much I love the Doctor and Sarah (looking gorgeous in a long brown jacket) going undercover in Chase’s estate and being greeted by a hail of bullets – surely Doctor Who was never better than this? With all this running about, being savaged, having to rely on wits I just can’t imagine any of the 80s companions working in this story – certainly nobody pre-Ace. The end of episode three always makes me tense (bottom clenches ahoy!) as Sarah is strapped down and left to the mercy of the cracking, oozing Krynoid pod whilst the Doctor watches on helplessly. Proving she hasn’t completely shaken off the idiocy of the companions of the past Sarah accidentally makes the Grinder work faster with the Doctor inside rather than turning it off until she finds the right button! Sarah really gives Scorby the sharp edge of her tongue when he suggests the Doctor sacrificing himself for them (‘Not to save your life! Not after what you did to us!’). Am I the only person who cheers when Sarah turns on Scorby and says that the Doctor has principles and that he (Scorby) is impotent if he isn’t carrying a gun? We’ve come so far since Jo Grant. There isn’t the need to make statements about women’s lib anymore, Sarah proves her worth by heading out into danger when Scorby wants to wimp out and stay behind. The way Sarah attempts to humour Chase as he traps her in the Grinder room is unnerving – she really is brave in the face such a terrifying man and only breaks her composure when he lunges for her. So close to the end of her tenure (sniff sniff…) what if Sarah’s end would have been to be ground up in that repulsive machine? What a way to go! It's lovely to see a season that has seen them face such horrors end with the Doctor and Sarah laughing together. Love you guys!

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I understand policemen are few and far between in the Antarctic.’
‘Hired thieves and murderers don’t usually work for love!’
‘What do you do for an encore, Doctor?’ ‘I win!’
‘You’re turning into a plant, Keeler! Think of it…a marvellous new species of plant…’
‘750 Guineas ‘Guineas?’ ‘Plus inflation. Shall we say a round thousand?’ ‘Pounds?’ ‘Done!’
‘Your death will be agonising, Doctor but mercifully quick. Blood and bone contain the most valuable nitrogen elements. Just think…after shredding your remains will pass automatically through my compost acceleration chamber and within 25 minutes you will be pumped into the garden.’
‘Besides I have some wartime experience, you know? Oh yes! I was a sergeant in the ATS! Manned an Ak-Ak gun at Folkestone!’ and ‘Invent a codeword…they love that! What about Operation Nuthouse?’ and of course ‘After all our taxes pay for these wretched civil servants and you can never get hold of them when you need them!’ ‘I am a civil servant, Miss Ducat’ ‘Then you will know exactly what I mean of course!’

The Good:
· I was surprised at how much tension Banks and Camfield managed to wring out of the unopened pod. It is literally like a ticking bomb waiting to explode and the reverence that everybody treats it with gives it real presence. By the time it burst open and claimed its first victim I was watching through my fingers! The fully mutated humanoid Krynoid is very frightening and in no way resembles a repainted Axon. The sucking, rasping noises they make adds to their effect and the fat vines that sprout from their neck and arms drives home that this is a planet. It’s the lumpy, disfigured face that gets me…the fact that Winlet/Keeler’s features bulge out so grotesquely. It is brilliant the way the story runs for four episodes with a very clear division between the Doctor and Sarah and Chase and his henchmen but when the Krynoid gets out of hand they have to join forces in an uneasy alliance to try and bring it down. For the time the shots of the giant Krynoid atop the house look amazing – its certainly the best ever ‘giant creature’ they attempted at the time! Dodgy dinos, the Skarasen and the Giant Rat don’t hold a candle to the Krynoid! Slow motion Krynoid bashing in the ceiling is very dramatic.
· Not enough can be said about Douglas Camfield’s direction of this story and I will mention him many times in other sections too. It reminds me of Peter Davison’s whining about the directors in his era (probably not without reason) and suggesting a lot of them had an ‘that’ll do’ approach. With Dougie Camfield you never get a sense of ‘that’ll do’ and more a shock of ‘this is how far we can stretch things to make it look and feel as damn well good as possible!’ As far back as The Crusade he was making Doctor Who look as though it had 100 times the budget it did (and is another reason why I don’t buy Richard Martin’s assertion that it was time and money that made his stories look shit – Camfield managed to make both historicals and outer space stories look professional and slick) and with his two Tom Baker stories there are times when his work approaches the cinematic. Just watch the sequence where the Doctor and Sarah are menaced by the chauffeur through the quarry – it’s a masterpiece of razor sharp editing, imaginative camera angles (the silhouette shots of them running are gorgeous) and energetic action (you can really feel that punch the Doctor delivers). Why Camfield can bring a story to life so much more vividly than others is anybody’s guess (his regimented schedule perhaps so he didn’t lose a second of his time?) but with this being his last Doctor Who story the show truly lost something when he waved goodbye for health reasons.
· The Seeds of Doom is infamous for its edgy storytelling and high violence count but I don’t see how this can be levelled as a criticism considering this is one of the most popular stories from one of the most popular eras with some of the best ever ratings. I love violence in Doctor Who and I genuinely think they pushed the boundaries on the odd occasion of just how far you can go in family television (Condo being shot in the gut in The Brain of Morbius and Lytton’s hands being crushed in Attack of the Cybermen are particularly graphic examples) and as Eric Saward pointed out (one of the more succinct things he has said in the last decade taking a pause between slaggings off of JNT) if you are going to have an adventure show you need violence and if you are going to show violence, you have to show that it hurts. The sadistic edge to The Seeds of Doom is one of the best things about it – let the kids wet the bed because Doctor Who has never been more exciting! For starters you have the pod bursting open and its spores infecting Winlett and eating through his body until he has mutated into a half man/half plant hybrid, there is talk of amputating his arm, strangulation, Scorby’s casual destruction of valuable equipment, the way he enjoys shoving a gun in Sarah’s face, strapping her to a bomb, the fight with chaffeur ending with him in hospital with a right hook from the Doctor, showers of bullets in the grounds to the mansion, a nasty neck twist for Scorby, Keeler’s physical and psychological transformation as he shivers as though he has caught the flu and his skin turns a scabby green, the Doctor being shoved into the garbage bins over and over, the horrible blood dripping pattern on the Grinder as if it has been well used and they have failed to scrub it clean – ick!, Keeler begging for help but instead being tempted with scraps of raw meat (ugh!), the psychological horror of Chase communing with the plant world, the plants coming alive and swamping over Sarah, Scorby and Hargreaves and strangling the latter, Scorby’s death amongst the screaming plants that eventually drag him down into a lake and drown him, Sarah attacked and shoved in the Grinder and finally Chase’s horrendous fate bring eaten by his own filthy machine! And of course a bally big explosion as the Krynoid goes up in flames! That’s enough violence to keep me satisfied for at least…ooh a day?
· Oh my word they knew how to cast Doctor Who in the seventies, didn’t they? With a stellar guest cast like this it is hard to know where to begin. I guess from the top and Tony Beckley’s chilling, slightly camp but utterly hypnotic turn as Harrison Chase had me on tenterhooks. He’s a quiet villain for the most part and moves slowly, almost seductively around his house and has a violent solution to every problem in the shape of his henchman Scorby. The way he flatters and fauns to his plants makes him a truly memorable nasty and the very idea of wanting to turn his victims into manure and pump them into the garden is quite the most revolting thing a bad guy has ever sought on this show. A rich, lonely egomaniac who is used to getting his own way, this is the kid who was picked on at school for having an awkward feeling about him. He also has the ability to be blackly funny (‘Why are you shouting Hargreaves?’). Then there is the sublime John Challis as Scorby who is such a world away from Boycie in Only Fools and Horses that it shows just how versatile an actor he is. He’s so convincing as the villainous bully who loves nothing better than shoving people around and threatening to kill them and his sadistic edge gives the story an adult touch of violence which is most welcome. With Scorby people are genuinely disposable and that makes him one of the most dangerous and unpredictable thugs in Doctor Who. Mark Jones’ turn as Keeler is one that seems to be forgotten with the wealth of other standout performances in this story but for me he is one of the best. I love his twitchy, nervousness when trying to play the tough man and the way he apologetically ties people up. His conscience gets the better of him on more than one occasion but with Scorby there waving his gun he manages to (just about) keep it in check. Then once he is transformed into the Krynoid it is one of the most startling and brutal portrayals of a man giving himself up to his instincts and hunger and the scene where he struggles against his bonds and settles, satisfied and breathing heavily at the plate of raw meat on his chest is genuinely disturbing. However the real scene stealer is Sylvia Coleridge who somehow manages to (like Beatrix Leahman after this) out-eccentric Tom Baker! Amelia Ducat (‘Duckett!’) is a delightfully scatty character with most of the shows best lines (‘God Lord! He never paid me!’) and when she goes undercover in Chase’s house it provides some much needed levity to this otherwise dark tale. Seymour Green is a background player but his straight man performance as Hargreaves is actually very funny because he tries to keep up appearances despite the constant dangers!
· You wouldn’t want to provoke an argument but it was for the good of this story and Terror of the Zygons that Douglas Camfield and Dudley Simpson had a falling out because the soundtracks courtesy of Geoffrey Burgeon for these two stories are extraordinary. Zygons is probably my favourite Doctor Who score ever but Seeds is just a heartbeat away with its spine tingling atmospherics, haunting melodies and exciting stings. The excitement he manages to generate as we approach the end of part two is fantastic. He manages to inject some fun and bounce into the chase scenes around the Chase estate. I always laugh my head off in episode three when Chase plays his dreadful ‘Floriana Requiem’ music which is an assault on the ears and reminds me strongly of Malcolm Clarke’s music from The Sea Devils. It only serves to highlight how good Burgeon’s score is. I love the haunting whistles when Sarah explores the cottage and discovers Keeler.
· I adore The Thing from Another World and The X-Files episode Ice and all the other shows that have had a pop at emulating it. There is something extremely sinister about something nasty coming out of the ground in an isolated location and working its way through a small group of people. Doctor Who manages to pull off this claustrophobic environment whilst also having a damn good attempt at pulling off the snowy wastes of Antarctica with a fraction of the budget of the feature film. It’s a true testament to Douglas Camfield’s direction that you don’t for one second not believe that the production team didn’t fly out to the north pole to film this story. You see ice floating on freezing water, icy rock faces, pods buried in snow, a cluster of research buildings glowing in the dark Antarctic weather, a mixture of live action snow and effects to give the effect of a real blizzard and dynamic shots of the airplane in the snowstorm. But that is just one of this shows locations and the other is another of my favourites – a menacing country manor house concealing dangerous goings on! Great autumnal location work around the gardens leads to some sumptuous looking chase scenes. The set design is fantastic too with lots of dark menacing shadows in the Antarctic base, leafy open spaces in Chase’s mansion and a set that has jumped right out of The Avengers for Amelia Ducat’s house! Plus the decision to shoot the location work on film and make it look this good means that The Seeds of Doom has hardly aged at all.

The Bad: The one element that doesn’t quite work is the fully grown Krynoid that looks like a rubbery costume rather than an extension of the fabulous make up job in the earlier stages. That and the wobbly tentacle. Some people moan that ending with the house exploding and the Krynoid dying in flames is a disappointment – how exactly? This has been action adventure throughout (of the most superior kind I might point out) and it remains so until the climax. Had the solution been an ingenious one it would betrayed the rest of the story.

The Shallow Bit: Make sure you have a good look at the Doctor’s shoes on Dunbar’s desk in episode one – they are hideous. Sarah’s orange woolly hat is so cute! I think Sarah has more changes of clothes in this story that Tegan did in her entire tenure!

Result: As close to a perfect Doctor Who adventure as you will ever find with a sparkling script, plenty of action and excitement, scary bits, gorgeous performances and avant garde direction that lifts the whole piece somewhere above the very high standards already set by season thirteen. The Seeds of Doom blew me away the first time I saw it and it still has that effect on me now; every scene is a gem, all the characters are beautifully defined and played and the story moves at a frantic pace but still leaves time to scare the shit out of you. Some of the horror is quite explicit and on that count alone this has to be one of the most effective adventures – Keeler’s transformation and the revulsion of the grinder is enough to turn even my usually unflappable stomach! You’ll never find a more perfect representation of a Doctor and companion either, Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen are both at the top of their game and dazzle their way through all six episode without a single misstep. Add to that a wealth of glorious location work, a chilling adversary in Chase and several era defining moments (the Doctor loses his temper with real fireworks here) and you have something for everybody. It doesn’t surprise me that this story is held in such high esteem – it deserves all the praise heaped upon it and then some. I adore it: 10/10


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4 comments:

Peakius Baragonius said...

I need to rewatch this one but I remember being very impressed with it on first viewing.

I do have one point of contention: *why*, exactly, do you feel that an ingenious ending would have "betrayed the rest of the story"? I have no problem with the ending though it is a pretty ironic one considering all the trouble they gave Scorby about dealing with problems in the exact same way...

Joe Ford said...

Okay so the wording might be a little too melodramatic (From me? Go figure!) but my point is that this is an exciting action adventure tale and it deserves and exciting action adventure ending. It was a reaction to the criticisms I have read in past about the ending being a damp quib when I think it is entirely suitable for the story that has just played out.

Peakius Baragonius said...

Haha no worries about the wording, you're not the only one. Like with Battlefield, you know...that has to be the best Doctor Who story ever!!!!!!!! ( ;) ) and you make a good point!

Tim Pollock said...

This review is just beautiful!! Agree with every single word xx