Doctor Who: The Seeds of Death Review
Earth in the twenty-first century. Instant teleportation (known as T-Mat) has resolved famine and made all other forms of travel obsolete. The Ice Warriors, led by Slaar (Alan Bennion), overrun Moonbase and aim to use T-Mat to send deadly spores to Earth…
The Seeds of Death was written by Brian Hayles and first broadcast between January to March 1969, as part of Doctor Who’s sixth season. It’s an archetypal piece of 60s SF, dealing with such concepts as weather control and bases on the Moon. The latter was especially topical, what with Neil Armstrong making his one small step for a man later the same year. Technology has advanced with nothing but good for the human race…a Utopian scenario that Hayles disrupts for six episodes by means of the Ice Warriors. As I write this, we are in that twenty-first century and that future seems further away than ever. I’m writing this in the wake of the Columbia space shuttle tragedy, and the scenes where the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe simply climb on board a space rocket (one that’s lain disused for several years, no less) seems even more naïve. Some of the fashions are quite dated, especially the women’s. Wendy Padbury’s white leather jumpsuit might have fuelled a few late 60s male adolescent daydreams, though. (It was actually primrose yellow, as pure white would have glared badly: Padbury got to keep the suit after recording had finished.)
However, this doesn’t take away from the fact that The Seeds of Death is a strong story, well-paced with little of the padding that can hinder the Doctor’s longer stories. Michael Ferguson’s direction is frequently very stylish, with an eye for the striking shot. Bearing in mind a lot of TV direction is simply bland point-and-shoot stuff, partly due to programmes being recorded “as live” at the time, that’s quite an achievement. The acting is quite decent, with Terry Scully’s hapless Moonbase tech Fewsham a standout, and Alan Bennion, under heavy makeup, exuding menace with just his voice. The Ice Warriors are played by big men in monster suits and are suitably imposing. The three regulars being their usual engaging selves. The special effects are variable: some of the modelwork is very good (with the title, author and episode number appearing over shots of the Earth and Moon, just to show it off) but on the other hand the seedpod that features at the cliffhanger of episode three is very obviously an inflating party balloon.
The Seeds of Death
is the second Troughton-era story (of only six surviving complete in the BBC archive) and the third black-and-white story to be released on DVD, and the first six-parter from any era. It comes as a two-disc set, though the BBC are commendably maintaining the same RRP as their single-disc releases. Disc One (dual-layered) contains the feature, with a commentary and information subtitles. The remaining extras are on the single-layered second disc. Both discs are encoded for Regions 2 and 4.
The DVD transfer is, as you would expect, in the original 4:3 ratio, as it would have been broadcast in 1969. It was filmed on 625-line video for studio (location work was on 16mm film), but the tapes were wiped long ago: 16mm film copies were made for selling overseas, and these are what remain in the archive. A 35mm print of Episode 5 also exists. The material originated on video underwent the Dr Who Restoration Team’s VidFIRE process to give it a “video” look. (If you compare this, and The Aztecs to the un-vidFIREd Tomb of the Cybermen, you’ll certainly see the difference. For more details on the restoration and the vidFIRE process, I refer you the Restoration Team Website.) This serial wasn’t as much in need of restoration than some others, but it’s fair to say that the results are stunning, probably just as good as it was on original broadcast. Quite probably better, given that we’re watching it on TV sets much larger and less forgiving than their 1969 equivalents.
The sound is the original mono, and little needs be said that it’s a professional recording job, with the dialogue, music and sound effects well balanced and clear. A remix would certainly be inappropriate. There are thirty-six chapter stops, the usual six per episode, two of which being the credits sequences. There are three sets of subtitles: optional hard-of-hearing captions for the feature and the commentary, and Richard Molesworth’s by now customary informational subtitles. I don’t know why more DVDs don’t do this: if you want making-of information, you’re spared commentators’ waffle and faulty memories. My only criticism is that too often these subtitles present us with someone’s filmography. It might be a better idea to have biography pages as an extra instead.
The commentary features Michael Ferguson and companion actors Frazer Hines (Jamie) and Wendy Padbury (Zoe). Script editor Terrance Dicks joins them at an appropriate place: as he wrote the final versions of the last four episodes (Hayles was unavailable to complete his work, though still gets sole on-screen credit), he turns up at the beginning of Episode 3. The four clearly have a considerable rapport. As there was between Hines and Deborah Watling on the Tomb commentary, there’s quite a lot of banter between Hines and “Padders” here. Fortunately memories seem more or less intact even after more than three decades, and this is an engaging commentary, easily able to fill two and a half hours.
On to the second disc, the main extra is “Sssowing the Ssseedsss”, a twenty-five minute featurette about the Ice Warriors. Interviewed are Alan Bennion and Sonny Caldinez (both of whom played variations on their roles in later serials) and make-up artist Sylvia James). A particular bonus are some audio snippets and production photos of the late Bernard Bresslaw, who played the lead Ice Warrior in the earlier (1967) serial that introduced them. The remaining major extras are really more for the hardcore fan/connoisseur than for the casual viewer, as they aren’t actually relevant to The Seeds of Death. First up is “The Last Dalek”, a ten-minute 8mm film shot by Tony Cornell at Ealing studios during the filming of the climactic Dalek battle from Episode 7 of The Evil of the Daleks, an episode which no longer exists in the BBC archive. A snippet of this film (with the surviving soundtrack of the episode) appeared on the Tomb DVD. (It was more relevant there, as Tomb was the story that immediately followed it.) Here we get to see the whole thing, with a commentary by visual effects designers Michaeljohn Harris and Peter Day. The model-work is undeniably impressive, but this is really not much more than someone’s home movie, and the commentary is soporific.
In 2002 Graham Howard, a New Zealander fan, discovered a reel of clips removed by the local censor in the 60s. This reel turned out to contain clips from missing episodes of The Web of Fear and The Wheel in Space. What this amounts to is a couple of minutes of solid action. The scenes of Yeti on the rampage from the former story certainly make you wish you could see the whole of it. There’s only one clip from The Wheel in Space but you can see how it might offend the censor, as it features a fight where one man’s face is banged against a wall. This extra is the reason for the package’s PG certificate: The Seeds of Death itself and all the other extras earn a U.
The second disc is rounded off by a photo gallery and the fifth of BBCi’s “Tardis-Cam” sequences. Unlike anything else on the disc, this is in anamorphic 16:9. It’s a demonstration of what Doctor Who might look like with modern CGI techniques: the result, showing the TARDIS in a snowy landscape, is pretty but pointless. Highlight this feature on the menu and then click your left button and you’ll bring up the one Easter Egg, a fifty-second clip of the commentary being recorded.
The Seeds of Death is a solid and at times quite tense story. It’s well served by a DVD that makes it look probably as good as it ever could, given the limitations of the source material. The extras are mostly well thought out. If they’re mostly for the connoisseur, then I suspect that’s the most likely audience for this DVD in the first place.