Doctor Who: The Seeds of Doom Review
This review contains plot spoilers.
In the Antarctic, a group of scientists find a strange seed pod in the permafrost, meaning that it has been buried there for some twenty thousand years. The Doctor, called upon by UNIT to investigate, takes Sarah Jane with him to the base. However, the pod has opened and the tendril that came out has infected a scientist, who rapidly mutates into an alien plant creature, a Krynoid. Meanwhile, plant-loving millionaire Harrison Chase (Tony Beckley) sends two of his men to the Antarctic, and they steal a second Krynoid pod...
Written by Robert Banks Stewart, The Seeds of Doom (not to be mistaken for the Second Doctor story The Seeds of Death) was the last story of the show's thirteenth season and the Tom Baker's second as the Fourth Doctor. Many longer Who stories subdivide into smaller sections: The Talons of Weng-Chiang is four parts and two parts, for example, and the not-yet-on-DVD The Mind of Evil is three and three. (It's not just the case with six-partners: the Hartnell-era four-parter The Ark, also not yet on DVD, is two and two.) Most of the first two parts of Seeds of Doom take place in the Antarctic, and the crisis brought about by the first pod is resolved at the end. Although he does appear in these episodes, main villain Harrison Chase is in his huge house in England and takes something of a back seat. But his henchmen bringing back the second Krynoid pod precipitates the second section of the story, which takes up the remaining four episodes.
I was eleven when Seeds of Doom was first broadcast (between 31 January and 6 March 1976), and many scenes I remember to this day. It embodied everything I loved about the show at the time, the middle of the three seasons both produced by Philip Hinchcliffe and script-edited by Robert Holmes. It wasn't afraid to be dark and gritty and violent, with some threatened – and actual! - nasty ends for its characters. I'm astonished that it has a mere U certificate from the BBFC – it's only the menus which raise this DVD package to a PG. Like the previous year's The Ark in Space, it deals in body horror before David Cronenberg had made his first commercial feature, and before Alien and The Thing were even in production.
It has been pointed out that, apart from finding the second pod, the Doctor doesn't actually drive this story, and nor does he resolve it. That said, by now Tom Baker had grown into his role to such an extent that he's a delight to watch, and at the time you notice that he's a protagonist not doing a lot of protagging.
The same goes for Sarah, though she has a memorable woman-in-peril cliffhanger at the end of Part Three. She also nearly gets chewed up by an industrial mincer, Exterminator style. This was to have been Elisabeth Sladen's last serial – she decided to stay on for the first two of the next season – and there was talk of killing her off. Leaving aside the hapless Katarina, way back in The Daleks' Master Plan, deaths of much-loved Who companions were not on the agenda. I'd imagine that would have traumatised a generation of youngsters, particularly the girls who saw her as a role model. A later companion's death (any Who fan will know who I'm talking about, but if you don't, don't follow the link to this story) didn't have the same effect.
As the chief villain, Tony Beckley, black-gloved like The Master, is all silky menace. Just for once he's not after world domination – but he's happy to let his beloved plants do just that. John Challis and Mark Jones are good value as the secondary heavies, thuggish and in over his head respectively.
One of the defining characteristics of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era is that on the whole they managed the balancing act of providing generally high-quality Who on a BBC budget. Unlike later Who, Seeds of Doom mostly looks good, with design by Jeremy Bear, who fell ill after designing the Antarctic sequences and was replaced by Roger Murray-Leach. Geoffrey Burgon provided the score, and he would certainly go on to greater things, of which more see below, before his death in September 2010.
The story does have its shortcomings. The revelations that the Krynoid can speak at all, let alone in English, and that it can control the nearby plantlife – leading to one character's memorable demise – are a little silly, and some of the CSO work when it goes on the rampage is rather unforgivingly exposed. Miss Ducat (Sylvia Coleridge) is a secondary character who outstays her welcome, an opinion clearly shared by Hinchcliffe, who removed most of her scenes when he novelised the story.
From the beginning, Doctor Who had had a foothold on contemporary (okay, near future) Earth in its choice of companions – though that only applies to Ian and Barbara, Dodo and Ben and Polly. Vicki, Steven and Zoe came from the future, while Katarina, Jamie and Victoria were from the past. All that changed, with the Doctor's exile to Earth from the 1970 series onwards, and Liz Shaw, Jo Grant, Harry Sullivan and Sarah were all of their time. Also an integral part of the Who family were UNIT, led by the Brigadier. Nicholas Courtney was not available to reprise that role, and instead UNIT is representated by a faceless bunch of non-regular characters led by Major Beresford (John Acheson). This would be UNIT's last appearance for thirteen years, and – as I say above – Sarah would leave two stories later, cutting the Doctor's last ties with Earth. His next companions were humanoids from alien planets, his own included for one (or two) of them, and he didn't gain another human companion until Tegan, just as Doctor Four was about to turn into Doctor Five. The Seeds of Doom was also the final serial directed by Douglas Camfield, who had been involved with Who since the very first serial, An Unearthly Child, on which he worked as a production assistant. (Camfield died in 1984, aged just fifty-two.) So while The Seeds of Doom isn't really an end-of-era story, it has that feel to it.
2 Entertain's release of The Seeds of Doom comprises two discs, one dual-layered and encoded for Region 2 only, the other single-layered and encoded for Regions 2 and 4. Both discs have optional audio navigation.
Most Who serials of the time were shot with a mixture of 16mm for locations and 625-line video for studio work. The Seeds of Doom was an exception to this (The Sontaran Experiment was another) in that it was shot on video throughout, the location work using a BBC outside broadcast unit. The picture – which is in the 4:3 ratio all television was in then – has been very well restored. Inevitably it looks a little soft by modern standards, and some of the darker scenes are lacking in shadow detail. But that's what Seventies video-shot television looks like, and I don't suspect it can look better than it does here.
The soundtrack is the original mono. Nothing much more needs to be said than it's a professional job of work, with dialogue, Geoffrey Burgon's score and the sound effects well balanced. Subtitles for the hard of hearing are available for the episodes and the extras apart from the commentary.
This commentary features Tom Baker, Philip Hinchcliffe, Robert Banks Stewart, Roger Murray-Leach. actors Kenneth Gilbert and Michael McStay and, representing his late father, Joggs Camfield. As usual, there's a mix-and-match arrangement, with three or four contributors talking per episode. The actors tend to talk while they're on screen, which in McStay's case means he only chats for the first episode as his character is killed off at the finale of it. There's no moderator this time, though Camfield (whose age was in single figures when the serial was made) takes this informal role for the episodes he comments on. It's a pity Elisabeth Sladen isn't present, and Baker isn't as overbearing as he has been on other Who commentaries.
Also on Disc One, you can hear Burgon's music as an isolated score option. Production subtitles, this time provided by Martin Wiggins, as ever tell you all you need to know about the serial, and a lot more besides.
Disc Two begins with “Podshock” (37:17), the making-of documentary. Many of the commentary participants appear here too. Also appearing are actors John Challis and Ian Fairbairn, production assistant (and later director) Graeme Harper, original designer Jeremy Bear, design assistant Jan Spoczynski, visual effects designer Richard Conway and Geoffrey Burgon. This featurette is its usual thorough self, taking the serial from its troubled beginning (it was a hurried replacement for a six-parter called The Hand of Fear, which was somewhat different from the four-parter of the same name which aired in the following season) and its troubled production – one actor had a car accident while another fell ill with chicken pox, and the master of the opening episode went missing almost causing an emergency re-edit.
Burgon gets his own featurette, “Playing in the Green Cathedral” (10:06). He had been a somewhat leftfield choice for Who: Douglas Camfield had picked him after his work on the 1974 BBC Ghost Story for Christmas adaptation of M.R. James's “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”. Up to then his main output had been scores for ballet and modern dance and for orchestras and choirs. Burgon had scored Terror of the Zygons (also written by Banks Stewart and directed by Camfield) and was asked back for Seeds of Doom. This was before Burgon had scored a cinema feature (his big-screen debut came in 1979 with Monty Python's Life of Brian) and before his small-screen work on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Testament of Youth and Brideshead Revisited made his reputation. The budget for Seeds of Doom had allowed for just four musicians (not including himself), though he used the resources of the Radiophonic Workshop to great effect. He found it a great experience. I'm very glad this featurette was made now as waiting for the DVD release of Terror of the Zygons would have been too late.
Another undersung job is that of the production assistant, television's equivalent of a cinematic first assistant director. Douglas Camfield worked in this capacity for director Waris Hussein on the first-ever Who serial back in 1963, and on Seeds of Doom his assistant was Graeme Harper. Harper has, of course, since gone on to become the only person to have directed for both old and new Who. In “So What Do You Do Exactly?” (6:25) he describes the assistant's role,.primarily to run the show on behalf of the director and their employers the BBC.
“Now and Then” (8:58) continues the the series of featurettes comparing locations from the serial with them now. This was mainly Athelhampton House in Dorset which stood in for Harrison Chase's residence. The estate was then owned by the MP Sir Robert Cooke. Parts of it dated back to the fifteenth century and it previously featured in the 1972 film Sleuth.
“Stripped for Action – The Fourth Doctor” (20:20) continues the series of featurettes looking at the Doctor's incarnation in graphic form, here during the seven years of the Tom Baker incarnation, discussed by writers (Pat Mills), artists (Dave Gibbons), three former Doctor Who Monthly editors and a fan and authority on the medium, Jeremy Bentham. As before, I'm not an especial fan of comics, but I still found this of interest. Bigger fans than me will find it more so.
More specific to Seeds of Doom are off-air trailers and continuity announcements (1:26), which is instant nostalgia for those of us who were there at the time, back in the days when Max Boyce could “complete an entertaining evening” on BBC1. And for that matter when BBC1 ended with the National Anthem and didn't broadcast through the night. Also on the disc is a self-navigating stills gallery (4:40) and a Coming Soon trailer for the next DVD release, another Fourth Doctor story (well, there are more of them than for any other Doctor), Meglos (1:08).
Available in PDF format are the listings for the serial from Radio Times. At the time it was common to repeat Who serials in often cut-down omnibus form (sixty minutes for a four-parter, ninety minutes for a six-parter), often during the Christmas holiday season. It was planned to repeat Seeds of Doom in this form over Christmas 1976, but in the event it was replaced by a Gerry Anderson TV film, The Day After Tomorrow (also known as Into Infinity. Douglas Camfield's notes for re-editing the serial are presented as a PDF.
There are two Easter Eggs. For the first, click left from “Stills Gallery” on the second menu page to hear John Challis tell (1:17) how he and Tom Baker used to trade impressions. For the second, click left from “Playing in the Green Cathedral” to access an out-take (0:11) in which part of the location refuses to cooperate on screen.