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Doctor Who: The Seeds of Doom (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Seeds of Doom originally aired in 1976.

Very impressive. What do you do for an encore, Doctor?

I win.

– Chase and the Doctor

“The mixture of styles is charming,” Miss Ducat notes of Harrison Chase’s impression mansion, and it’s also true of the story itself. I think that part of the reason that The Seeds of Doom works so well is because it’s actually a rather wonderful blend of any number of pulp subgenres, mixing a spy adventure, a trashy sci-fi adventure, an end-of-the-world catastrophe story, a gothic horror tale and an alien invasion saga, all within one six-part story. The story’s meglomaniac, Harrison Chase, might believe hybrids are “a crime against nature” (which opens up all sorts of avenues of plant racism), but I think this works quite well.

Hamilton Chase goes green…

Like a lot of fans, I do harbour a deep affection for Philip Hinchcliffe’s tenure as producer on the series. It was the show at its most gothic, but also at its most restrained – though the show has a reputation for looking cheesy, Hinchcliffe seemed to know well enough to keep the series within its means, while never compromising on quality. While this era of the show produced any number of classics – The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Horror of Fang Rock, Robots of Death, Pyramids of Mars, The Deadly Assassin – I’d also argue that the general standard of the show was at an all-time high. While there are disappointing stories, it’s quite tough to find a truly terrible one (though Attack of the Cybermen and The Android Invasion come close).

The Seeds of Doom is one of several six-part series finalés that the Tom Baker era used to round out his seasons. Hinchcliffe would pioneer the approach with The Seeds of Doom and The Talons of Weng-Chiang, but the trend would continue with The Invasion of Time and The Armageddon Factor. While the latter two are fairly flawed, there’s no denying the ambition and scale that saving an epic story to the end gave the season. If the Jon Pertwee era pioneered the idea of opening a season with a “bang” (with the return of the Daleks in Day of the Daleks and The Three Doctors kicking off two of his seasons), Tom Baker demonstrated how best to close them. The Seeds of Doom is rather wonderful little six-part story that brings together all manner of clever and endearing influences.

Running out of time…

While I’m not a fan of six-part stories, Robert Banks Steward does well to adopt the tried and tested method of splitting is story into two smaller adventures – a two-part introduction with the Doctor and Sarah in the Arctic, followed by a standard four-parter set around Hamilton Chase’s estate. Hell, the estate itself is even large enough to provide some nice shifts in scenery.

In many ways, this feels like Doctor Who as affectionate homage. The entire plot has more than a slight resemblance to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with plant spores traveling through space before creating “a grotesque parody of the human form.” The two-part prologue, set in the Arctic tundra, calls to mind the classic science-fiction B-movie The Thing From Another World, with a polar research crew unearthing a potentially deadly alien entombed in ice. It works so well that it actually got me thinking of The Thing, John Carpenter’s celebrated remake, that was still quite a few years away at this point – and it’s quite an accomplishment for a low-budget British serial.

Seeds of destruction…

Speaking of the show’s British roots (heh), the whole thing gives off a sort of a Quatermass vibe, with the strange alien planet and the Doctor seemingly subcontracting himself out to UNIT. As an aside, it’s interesting how little the TARDIS gets used, with the Doctor and Sarah taking a helicopter to the Arctic. Given that time is of the essence, one would imagine that the pair would travel their direct – in fact, I actually thought that Dunbar’s promise to call ahead of their arrival would serve as the punchline to a joke, the Doctor stepping into the research compound as they received the call telling them to expect guests. Of course, the absence of the TARDIS makes the tension at the end of the second part more palpable, but it’s a pretty big plot hole in an otherwise fine tale.

The story also feels like it owes a fairly heavy debt to The Avengers, or even James Bond, thanks in no small part to a wonderful villainous performance from Tony Beckley. Beckley, a veteran character actor who specialised in bringing villains to screens, brings a subdued menace to Hamilton Chase’s rather obvious insanity. There’s relatively little scenery chewing in the performance, even as the character plays music his pet plants (“the hymn of the plants,” he boasts, “I composed it myself”), an occasion a lesser actor might have attacked with sheer gusto. Instead, Chase seems rather disinterested in the people around him (devoting his energy to the plants), and it makes the performance all the better.

Seeing green…

His obsessive fascination with plants recalls the insane Hugo Drax from Roger Moore’s Moonraker, and while the black gloves he wears to minimise human contact may be intended to bring to mind the reclusive Howard Hughes, they also serve as a distinctive (if understated) physical attribute – while remaining less gaudy than an eyepatch or a missing hand, for example. Hell, Chase even has his own makeshift death trap, in the compost-making machine – and one that he attempts to feed our poor heroes into (“your death will be agonising, Doctor, but mercifully quick”). In fact, like many a supervillain before him, he’s ultimately defeated by his own creation during a struggle with the protagonist, in what recalls an all-ages-appropriate version of Benecio Del Toro’s demise in Licence to Kill (the scream is pretty chilling, though).

The way that Chase acts plays into the feeling of that Robert Banks Steward is composing something of a loving homage to those sorts of thrillers. Like far too many Bond villains, he doesn’t kill his adversary the moment he has him captive. “Before you die,” he promises the Doctor, “you be granted a unique privilege. The last things you will ever see shall be my beautiful plants.” Of course, this affords the Doctor and Sarah Jane a chance to escape, but Beckley plays the role so well, and the script seems like such an affectionate homage, that it’s hard to be too critical of it.

Gripping…

Chase even has his own henchman (his “most efficient man”), Scorby, who seems like one of the more grounded Bond henchmen. He’s remarkably cold-blooded as characters on Doctor Who go, brandishing a firearm with impugnity and plotting mass-murder from the get-go. Coercing his colleague, Keeler, with the threat of violence, he’s fairly candid about how he plans to steal the alien pod. “No witnesses, nothing. Just another lost expedition.” Sarah Jane, who has handled her fair share of monsters, seems quite taken aback but Scorby’s brutal methods. “That’s murder,” she observes, aghast, “cold-blooded murder.” Scorby seems like the more brutal (and less showy) sort of henchman you’d find in a Timothy Dalton or early Sean Connery Bond film.

Chase and Scorby are by no means the only humans ever to antagonise the Doctor. The series has had the character face off against very human villains with some regularity over the years. However, Chase and Scorby stand out as perhaps the most effective human bad guys since the Patrick Troughton era, with Vaughn and Packer in The Invasion. They aren’t being coerced by an alien force, or serving as the knowing beach head of an alien invasion. Instead, their violence and destruction stems (heh) from “the most dangerous impulse in the universe”, avarice. Scorby remarks that Chase is an effective paymaster, and Chase initially wants to possess the pod because it is unique. Of course, once the situation develops, Chase quickly goes off the deep end.

I guess that’s a plant bed…

It’s interesting that the serial features the Doctor subcontracting to UNIT once again. This would represent the last appearance of the group in the series until a brief appearance in The Five Doctors (and one final return before the series ended in Battlefield), and one of the defining attributes of Baker’s Doctor was the way he seemed to literally flee the group. While Pertwee’s Doctor seemed to mock and begrudge them, you got the sense that he appreciated the company and enjoyed (in some form) working with them. Baker’s version of the character couldn’t seem to get away fast enough. So it’s strange to see him back, but I think that it works relatively well in the context of the script, which is a slightly gothic variation on one of those invasion stories that the show used to churn out during Pertwee’s tenure.

That said, I can’t help but stifle a bit of a laugh when the UNIT officer in charge orders his troops to aim at the “chest” of what’s effectively a giant round plant blob. It’s a shame that Nicholas Courtney wasn’t available, as the story ends up featuring an anonymous official (treated with little more than contempt by the Doctor for his “waffle! waffle! waffle!”). Was it just me, or did “hit it square in the chest!” sound like a rather forced attempt to come up with something as quintessentially UNIT as the Brigadier’s “five rounds rapid!”?

The house is really overgrown…

In fairness to the adventure, most of the special effects are pretty impressive. Yes, the wandering Krynoid in its early stages is very clearly just a guy in a silly suit, but the initial pod special effects look great, as do the initial stages of transformation (I especially like the fact that even Keeler’s bald spot goes green). While the tentacles are fairly standard issue for the series, and one can detect the CSO, there are some marvellous shots of the monster attacking the mansion, and the sequences with the attacking plant life outside (including Scorby’s ultimate fate) are a lot more effective than an attack of “aggressive rhubarb” should be. As I noted above, Hinchcliffe had a wonderful skill for keeping the series within its means, and mostly avoiding more awkward special effects failures.

Baker is on fine form here – doing that wonderful thing where he pitches a performance “just right.” He’s loud enough to fill the serial with a sense of urgency and energy, but never so over-powering that the adventure descends into self-parody. Baker had a commanding presence, and here he uses that to channel the character’s fear and uncertainty. Even when it’s just a guy in a silly green suit, Baker was able to convince the audience that there was something there scary enough to terrify the Doctor. One of my favourite moments has Scorby contemplating feeding the Doctor to the monster, only for Baker to insist, “It would make! no! difference!” Or the urgency when a scientist questions his authority, “Never mind how I know, Stevenson! Just take it from me!”

It ain’t easy being green…

I think that the reason that The Seeds of Doom works so very well is because it captures a lot of different aspects of the show – demonstrating that while gothic horror was a strong part of the Hinchcliffe era, there was also a lot more to it. More than that, though, it’s a serial executed with the greatest technical skill and care, showcasing the cast and crew working at their very finest. Everybody involved was usually “very good” on average, but here they are all at their best.

You might be interested in our reviews of the thirteenth season of the classic television show:

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