There are loads of brilliant Doctor Who stories. There are also a few that are a bit rubbish. The Seeds of Doom is unusual in that it manages to be both of those things, simultaneously. If that sounds like a contradiction, it is because it all depends if you are able to enjoy it as six generic episodes of a non-specific television show, or if you actually want it to function on the level of being a Doctor Who story. Let’s start by looking at the ways in which is works very well, and some of the reasons for its popularity.
Six part stories often tend to drag in the middle, but The Seeds of Doom cleverly gets around this problem by basically putting together a two-part story, set in the Antarctic, and a four-part story, set in England. Both sections are entertaining and exciting, so this approach works well, and the fast paced first two episodes are particularly gripping. The make-up work to transform Winlett into a Krynoid is outstanding and John Challis does a great job as Scorby. At times he is not well-served by the script: for example, when Keeler asks him ‘You’re not going to shoot them in cold blood?’ he replies, ‘Why not… no, I’ve got a better idea’ and so the villain lets the hero off the hook, just like every other villain in thousands of other lazily-written adventures. A similar thing happens in Part Four, when Chase puts the grinder on ‘automatic control’, so it doesn’t start for two minutes, and then leaves… which of course gives the Doctor time to be rescued.
The effects work is impressive throughout, particularly the scenes with the Krynoid towering over Chase’s mansion, and the influence the Krynoid has on ordinary plants is a clever, creepy idea. It is always effective to make an everyday item the source of fear. There are some excellent cliffhangers, and the best of all is at the end of Part Three, with the second pod about to open next to Sarah’s arm; this is doubly effective because we have already seen exactly what happens ‘when the Krynoid touches human flesh.’
When the action shifts to England we are presented with a Pertwee-style UNIT story. Chase is the Master substitute, with a kind of calm insanity which Tony Beckley plays brilliantly. UNIT is present, but without the Brigadier or any other familiar faces it comes across as rather a faceless bunch of generic soldiers. They are really only there to blow the Krynoid up and provide a resolution, and it would have been better to have thought up a more clever solution to the problem and perhaps not included UNIT at all. The Doctor himself becomes a throwback to the UNIT era, not just in his James Bond-style approach to his enemies but also his contempt for authority: ‘it will be the end of everything – everything you understand, even your pension!’
The Doctor is unusually violent throughout this story. At times he comes across almost as a bully, particularly towards Sir Colin Thackeray. He is uncharacteristically grumpy towards Sarah in Part Two when she uses Winlett’s name instead of ‘the Krynoid’. Then in Part Five he completely loses his temper with both Scorby and then Major Beresford. Together with the fist-fighting and gun-wielding, this shows us a completely unfamiliar side to the Doctor, one that would be unsustainable in the long-term. But as a one-off, it enriches an inventive and exciting story.
So I’ve been as nice about this as I can because I know this is one of Mike’s favourites and will be interested to read his take on it all. If I am being honest I love watching it myself as well but, look, this isn’t Doctor Who. I have heard that this was an abandoned New Avengers script, adapted at the last minute when The Hand of Fear wasn’t ready to go. I haven’t been able to find evidence for that, but either way, Robert Banks Stewart was a writer for The Avengers in the 60s and if you look at his writing credits up to this point it was clearly his kind of speciality. At the risk of upsetting Avengers fans I would classify it as within the James Bond-esque genre, as per some of his other writing credits, most notably The Saint, but also Adam Adamant Lives!, Jason King and The Protectors. For his second Doctor Who script, he approaches writing for the series as if he was writing one of these 007-lite things. But while the Pertwee era flirted with the genre, this goes the whole hog. It’s The Avengers with the Doctor piloted in to the story, not behaving even remotely like the Doctor normally does.
We have unfortunately seen the Doctor as a bully before, most notably during the Pertwee era. What we haven’t seen from him is physical violence on this level, not incapacitating his enemies like his predecessor but doing some real damage. After he punches the chauffeur we learn that he is in hospital. Then there is the moment when the Doctor twists Scorby’s head and we hear a crack. This really is inexcusable because it could be imitated, and is potentially lethal. In fact, it is almost invariably shown to be lethal in other (adult only) dramas. At times the First Doctor could be a physically violent character, but this was his starting point, until his companions taught him how to be the Doctor. The Third Doctor’s relapse into bullying (not cracking heads) is explainable in terms of his exile on Earth – he was basically having a breakdown at that point, but where is the rationale for what happens here?
So if you love this story, and lots of people do, then I say great, I agree. I love it too. But I can only stomach it by switching off the part of my brain that is screaming out that everything about it is fundamentally wrong for Doctor Who.
Let’s cheer ourselves up with a list! Here’s some more random details about this story:
- ‘That chap you called in from UNIT – is he quite sane?’ This is the last instance that the Doctor would be ‘called in’ as UNIT’s scientific advisor during the classic series.
- Sarah says the Doctor is not a Doctor of medicine. This contrasts with what the Second Doctor says about his medical training in The Moonbase. However, the Doctor is happy not to correct her, refusing to perform the amputation himself on the grounds that ‘you must help yourself.’ Perhaps he’s squeamish!
- ‘Have you met Miss Smith? She’s my best friend.’ What a lovely, simple description of what the Doctor’s companion means to him.
- The Doctor’s attitude to acquiring new companions is a world away from what it would later become (only taking the best, etc). He asks Sir Colin to go with him, despite having treated him with total contempt up to that point.
- The snow effect overlaid on the picture works well but of course it means there is nothing landing on the actors, and the polystyrene snow is not very convincing!
- The door to the room where Keeler is being kept in Part Four is mysteriously creaky when Sarah opens it, but doesn’t creak for anyone else.
- Chase mistakenly hands Amelia Ducat two cheques, which she gladly accepts – maybe she’s planning to forge his signature on the second one!
- Dunbar does a very good job of falling over absolutely nothing so the Krynoid can catch him.
- The feeble jet of steam in Part Six doesn’t do much, and it is asking a lot of the viewer to believe that it does anything to help the Doctor’s cause.
- The missile launches are stock footage (filmed over totally empty terrain).
- The TARDIS lands at Antarctica at the end of Part Six, and Sarah remarks that ‘you forgot to cancel the coordinate programme.’ But the TARDIS was never there in the first place.
The view from across the pond:
Between 8-9 years of age, I discovered Doctor Who with Tom Baker’s Doctor. Quirky, fun, and outlandish, he utterly captivated me. If there was a character I wanted to be, it was the Doctor. And for any child at that age, everything is an adventure. Every time we visited a family member, yep… new adventure! Our grandparents had these two throne-like chairs in their living room with these deep, rich curtains behind them. CASTLE! The mural on their wall: IMAGE ON THE VIEWSCREEN! Their basement had “climbable” furniture all over the place; if we touched the rug while traversing that landscape… LAVA!! The summer home we rented had triangular monkey bars. VOLCANO! (Wait for it…) The underside of my sisters’ pull-out bed… TUNNELS! (Alright, look, once the bed was out, you had a hollow space to crawl, et voila!) It didn’t matter where we went, in my head, I was somewhere else entirely.
Sadly none of my friends watched Doctor Who – they would catch the end of an episode while waiting for wrestling to come on. At least, the people I associate with now have taste! But it meant I had no one to share my excitement with. However, by age 10, I had a 3-year-old sister; she was no longer a baby and not yet a twerp (that happened a short time later). And because she looked up to her big brother, she was willing to play in my made up worlds. She was my Sarah Jane! (Now you understand why no companion of the Doctor’s has ever been as awesome as Sarah Jane for me!) Our great-grandmother lived in a quiet, beautiful area of Staten Island but her backyard had a big problem – Krynoids! Luckily my sister and I were there to deal with them.
The Seeds of Doom is one of my all-time favorite episodes of classic Doctor Who. First of all, the amount of fun my sister and I had running from the shrubbery (that I reluctantly admit wasn’t very fast) is still a highlight of my youth. That backyard may not have been quite as lush as Harrison Chase’s but it was big, green and a marvelous playground for a recreation of Seeds! And goodness knows, it was wonderful to share my favorite thing with my baby sister! We had so much fun too! Best of all, she still remembers those Krynoids 35 years later! But The Seeds of Doom is classic on many levels, not just how it impacted me personally.
A 6 part adventure that plays like 2 separate stories; one takes place over two parts in Antarctica and the other over four parts in England. The pacing is consistent throughout! The music is eerie and atmospheric. From the moment the seed pods are found in the Styrofoam… I mean snow… the tension never lets up. When Moberly gets infected by the Krynoid, it is visually alarming. The story stars Tony Beckley as Harrison Chase, a deranged maniac who believes plants have a greater right to rule the earth than man. When he decides to see what happens when a Krynoid pod opens by using Sarah Jane as a guinea pig, the viewer is on the edge of the seat! And so is Tom Baker’s Doctor! He bursts into action, instantly usurping Jon Pertwee’s Doctor as the man of action! It’s a scene that I can see with crystal clarity in my mind! Scorby, Chase’s primary henchman, is played villainously by John Challis. He utterly deserved that crunching neck-twist the Doctor (somewhat brutally) gave him! There’s nothing about this episode that I can criticize – it’s fantastic. I joke about the snow, but I’ve said it before, these guys had a shoestring budget and still pulled off an incredible story without a fraction of the visual effects we have today!
The scenes on the frozen base are very claustrophobic. The sense that everyone is trapped in a small shelter is nerve shattering. It worked well with The Thing from Another World, later with The Thing, but it works best here in Doctor Who! Impressively, the large, lush grounds of England fail to offer any greater sense of safety which just illustrates how good the storytelling was. It let the viewer know that it didn’t matter if the threat was confined or not, it was still something to be feared!
And the amazing thing is that a good deal of the tension is created without the actual use of “monsters” but with plants! Imagine entire episodes where the threat was the very garden! Weeds, ivy, a conservatory… that’s brilliant! Not only does it work, but it works incredibly well. Turning the everyday into something scary, that’s special! When the very life-giving plants turn on us, that’s something to truly be frightened by! And Doctor Who just does it so well!
Some of the indelible images from this story:
- The Doctor being left in a meat grinder: troubling, to say the least.
- The transformation of Keeler into Krynoid: utterly shocking, as the butler walks in on a rather horrifying sight! (“A human being whose blood is being turned into vegetable soup…”)
- Seeing Scorby drowned alive by weeds: intensely frightening.
- The Doctor jumping through a skylight to save Sarah: awesome!
To this day, it still reigns supreme as one of my all-time favorite classic episodes, no questions asked!
I’m very glad the Doctor and Sarah Jane were there to save England and the rest of the world. That little bit that made it to Staten Island, I think my sister and I took care of. But then again, my great grandparents passed long ago and I haven’t been to that old house in decades! Maybe there’s still a pod or two up there, waiting to be discovered… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Masque of Mandragora