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Doctor Who - The Seeds of Doom

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Douglas Camfield
Tom Baker
Elisabeth Sladen
Tony Beckley
John Challis
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The final adventure in producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes’ Gothic horror themed season  of “Doctor Who”– 1975’s season 13 -- is a perky, often queasily violent action-adventure take on “The Quatermass Experiment” and “The Thing from Another World” with one of the most notable arch- (in every sense of the word) villains in the series’ pantheon of diabolical masterminds, a plant-loving aesthete who looks more like he’s wandered in from the set of a mid-sixties episode of “The Avengers”. Some Whovians have had difficulty coming to terms with what they see as this snappy six-parter’s intrinsic ‘unWhoness’, but I’ve always loved it for exactly that; and Tom Baker clearly relished the chance to play the Doctor as a pistol-wielding, gung-ho action hero in writer Robert Banks Stewart’s driving narrative full of quirky secondary characters, with a constantly evolving storyline that eventually enables it to cram in just about every variation on the monstrous-vegetation-takes-over-the- world plot-line imaginable.

A beardy scientific team conducting research for the World Ecology Bureau in the Antarctic, uncover a mysterious alien seed-pod that looks like it’s been buried in the permafrost for 300,000 years. UNIT send the Doctor (Tom Baker) and Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) in by helicopter to investigate, but by the time they arrive one of the team has already been injured after the pod sprang open and a tendril grabbed hold of his wrist, infecting him while he was examining it. By the time the Doctor gets to see him, the victim has succumbed to a strange disease which is well into the process of turning his whole body into a mass of vegetation.

The Doctor solemnly informs the assembled group that they are dealing with a deadly Krynoid: an intelligent plant species that colonises other planets by ejecting its seed-pods into space and infecting the animal life on other worlds, turning them into giant hulking vegetables which then themselves germinate, eventually overcoming all other life on the planet. While investigating the site of the original discovery, the Doctor discovers another pod and has it locked in the base’s freezer unit so that the cold will inhibit it from opening. Unfortunately, back in London, a millionaire collector of rare species of plants, Harrison Chase (Tony Beckley), gets to hear about the original discovery from his informant inside the World Ecology Bureau, and sends two of his men to the Antarctic to collect the pod and kill anyone who gets in their way.

Hired mercenary Scorby (John Challis) and Chase’s botanist Keeler (Mark Jones) get into the base by claiming to be a medical team, sent to help the stricken Krynoid victim. They eventually learn about the second pod and steal it after thinking that they have killed the Doctor and Sarah in a bomb blast that destroys the whole base. Back in London, having escaped the attempt on their life, the Doctor and Sarah set out to track down the person responsible for stealing the seed-pod before it gets a chance to infect someone else and destroy the entire planet. They are eventually led to the Tudor Mansion of the diabolical millionaire Chase, whom they discover is a cold-blooded dandy aesthete who worships the plant kingdom above all else. When the second pod finds its victim, Chase keeps it hidden and deliberately feeds it up until it becomes a towering tendril-covered mass that dwarfs the entire mansion and gains control over his mind, as well as all other vegetation in the surrounding area. With the creature now on the verge of germination, it seems that nothing can save the Earth from destruction.

First of all, top of the list of things to love about this story: Tony Beckley’s performance as Harrison Chase. The character is written in that diabolical mastermind mould familiar to James Bond and “The Avengers”, and reveals writer Robert Banks Stewart’s origins in the action-adventure genre (he wrote for countless ITV film series of the day); but Chase could so easily have tottered over the edge into high camp in the wrong hands. Although Beckley’s performance is often cited as exactly that: camp -- he actually reins in the intrinsically whimsical nature of the role, playing it absolutely straight while relishing the villain’s refined, verging on rather fey, demeanour. Director Douglas Camfield augmented Chase’s costume of wide-lapelled business suit and flowery big tie with a pair of leather gloves which the character wears at all times. Although it is never referred to at all, it helps emphasis the one quality which soon comes to dominate the character: his complete distaste for humanity. Living in refined isolation, his only human interaction being with his man servant and his two henchmen (and even they are only hesitantly tolerated), Chase spends all his time admiring his vast collection of rare species of plants, and (a real Avengers touch, this) even conducts special concerts for them, performing his self-composed atonal musical outpourings before his green friends from a raised pulpit-like platform. ‘You know, Doctor, I could play all day in my green cathedral’, he dreamily informs the Doctor and Sarah at one point, introducing his ‘Floriana Requiem’ – a loud blast of discordant, eardrum-scraping electronic tones -- just before he is about to have Scoby dispatch them. The chilling combination of Chase’s absolute aesthetic delight in the plant world and what comes to be his total disgust and repulsion with humanity in general is no better illustrated than in his preferred method of dispatching people when they get in his way: in one of the out-houses in the grounds of his Tudor estate is a giant grinding machine into which he feeds human victims to be mulched down for compost! Human life is a nuisance and of no consequence to him -- ye he considers the Japanese art of bonsai to be an unacceptable form of cruelty to plants!

If this sounds more than a little violent to you for a tea-time family fantasy show, then you’ve probably got a point! But then this is one of the more violent stories in an era which became renowned for it under the auspices of Hinchcliffe and Holmes, during which Mary Whitehouse regularly had a go at the show  every chance she got. The BBC was really rubbing her nose in it with this one though, since it was broadcast on a Saturday afternoon directly after “Tom & Jerry”, which was another perennial Whitehouse bugbear!

And she had something to really get her teeth into with “The Seeds of Doom”, since among its long list of crimes is a scene where Boycie from “Only Fools and Horses” shows the kiddies exactly how you make a Molotov cocktail! If petrol bomb production is a little too advanced, you could easily still paralyse someone from the neck down instead, if you chose to follow Tom Baker’s ‘headlock wrench’ method for incapacitating your opponent in a fight, which he performs on John Challis’s Scoby at one point. Scoby gets his own back a few scenes later though by roughly manhandling the Doctor and tossing him into some dustbins.

This story see’s the normally pacifistic Doctor being unusually physically active in a way that seems quite wrong for the character to many. If you’ve grown up with Peter Davison’s incarnation for instance, Baker’s fisticuffs must feel more than a little incongruous. He actually puts someone in hospital during this story as well, pouncing on Chase’s chauffeur (whose been assigned to kill the Doctor and Sarah) from above and punching him full in the face. And even the modern series might draw back from having the Doctor wave a pistol about like he’s in an episode of “The Sweeny” (although a line has clearly been added into the script to give Sarah Jane the opportunity to emphasise the fact that he would never really use it). Another thing that stands out as something that would never be allowed in to the modern series, is a scene where one of the many quirky eccentric characters who get walk-on roles in Stewart’s screenplay, Mrs Amelia Ducut (Sylvia Coleridge) – a Miss Marple-like spy for WEB head Sir Colin Thackeray (Michael Barrington) -- is seen puffing away on a cigar in his office with reams of smoke curling above both their heads! And then there is that grinding machine: both the Doctor and Sarah almost meet sticky ends in the thing, and one poor UNIT soldier (and of course Chase himself, eventually) actually do get turned into compost, although even Hinchcliffe, Holmes and director Camfield draw the line at actually showing us any blood.

These particularities are beside the point though: “The Seeds of Doom” is a cracking good yarn that fills its six episodes convincingly, moves along at a consistently involving pace and manages to weave together all the main science fiction influences that involve killer plants into one cohesive whole. The first two episodes are almost a self-contained tribute to “The Thing From Another World”, while the last four move the action back to England, where the story becomes a more obvious “Day of the Triffids” riff. The Krynoid vegetable monster gets to move through several stages of evolution during the course of the adventure, starting with perhaps the creepiest phase, the infecting pod tendril, which looks particularly slithery and repellent; then the gradual disintegration of the victim as he turns into an alien being becomes another reference to Nigel Kneal’s original Quatermass adventure, already a source for the early Tom Baker story “The Ark in Space”. The suit used for the latter stages of this phase was an old Axon one from a 1971 Jon Pertwee story, only painted green instead of orange; eventually good old CSO (colour separation overlay) comes into play as the creature becomes a huge, pulsating green mass that speaks in a booming echoey voice, takes controls of vines and other plants in the area and smashes through windows with thick trunk-like tentacles. With first-rate villains in the form of Challis and Beckley, against which Baker can indulge himself with his full panoply of the Doctor’s alien quirks and peccadillos, this ends up being a hugely memorable adventure from a period when Baker was at his strongest, most confident stage in the role, having fully settled in and come to relish his status as children’s hero by the end of this, his second season.

“The Seeds of Doom” arrives on DVD in a two-disc edition from 2Entertain. Disc one features all six episodes accompanied by a commentary track and an isolated music score. The music for this story was composed by Geoffrey Burgon and is an unusual and atmospheric concoction arranged for some spookily medieval-sounding instruments. This was the last time until the early eighties before anyone else other than Dudley Simpson would compose music for the programme. The commentary track features a satisfying and wide mixture of cast and crew, who join each other in various combinations throughout the six episodes, thus keeping things fresh and involving throughout. Unfortunately, there is no Elisabeth Sladen, but Tom Baker appears for most of the episodes and is his usual ebullient, eccentric self, along with Douglas Camfield’s son Joggs, Philip Hinchcliffe, Robert Banks Stewart and designer Roger Murray-Leach; and actors John Challis, Michael McStay and Kenneth Gilbert.

Disc Two is headed by a 37 minute documentary called “Podshock”. This is a step-by-step account of how the story came to be commissioned, written and put to the screen by Hinchcliffe, and Stewart, and examines everything from the production design of the base, to the exemplary model-making for the Antarctic sections and the scenes where the Krynoid drapes itself over the mansion. Here, original production designer Jeremy Bear (later replaced by Roger Murray-Leach after he fell ill) and design assistant Jan Spoczynski are joined by visual effects designer Richard Conway to explain the thinking and the process behind effects such as the creation of artificial snow in a Devonshire sand pit that’s standing in for the permafrost of the Antarctic, to the amazing model base and helicopter shots, which are unusually convincing special effects for a 1975 Doctor who adventure! Geoffrey Burgon talks about how he came to be commissioned to write the score for the story and actors John Challis, Kenneth Gilbert and Ian Fairbairn are on hand with lots of anecdotes about their experiences on the show.

Another episode of “Now and Then” provides a detailed examination of the main locations used to shoot the story. Athelhampton House, the former home of a Tory MP looks little different as the site of Harrison Chase’s home, and the film also shows us the layout of the grounds and exactly where each section of the show was shot. The film then returns us to the site of the Reigate quarry in which the Doctor tussled with Chase’s Chauffeur, and reveals that the exterior shots of the headquarters of the World Ecology Bureau were simply filmed outside the reception of BBC Television Centre! (8 minutes, 46 seconds)

“Playing in the Green Cathedral” is an examination of the unique score for this story by Geoffrey Burgon, who was commissioned for it by director Douglas Camfield after his score for the BBC adaptation of M.R. James’ “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”. (10 minutes, 03 seconds)

“So What Do You Do Exactly”. Graham Harper now directs episodes of Nu-Who but he started out as Production Assistant to Douglas Camfield on “The Seeds of Doom”. Here he explains exactly what the job entails and also explains what a production Unit Manager does, among other things. (14 minutes, 23 sconds)

“Stripped For Action”  is another instalment of this regular series examining the adventures of Doctor Who in comic strip form. This episode looks at the fourth Doctor’s treatment on the comic strip page, from the early, rather sloppy reprints of old Jon Pertwee stories with Tom Baker’s face drawn over the top in TV Comic; to the launch of Doctor Who Weekly by Dez Skinn, with contributions from DWW editors Gary Russell and Alan Barnes, and writer Pat Mills, artist Dave Gibbons and consultant Jeremy Bentham. This brings back some memories for me, in particular. It’s great to see the original mock-up issue of Doctor Who Weekly Issue One, which Skinn created using an old 2000 AD strip with some sketches of Tom Baker’s Doctor he’d had drawn on spec randomly inserted to give an impression of what he was intending the magazine to look like. (20 minutes, 18 seconds)

Also included are some nostalgic BBC trails from 1975, a photo gallery of production, design and publicity photos for the story, Adobe PDF format Radio Times listings and Douglas Camfield’s original paper edit for a compilation version of the story, and a Coming Soon trailer advertising the next release: “Meglos” from Tom Baker’s final season.

“The Seeds of Doom” is classic “Doctor Who” at its most entertaining and comes with a hearty recommendation from me.

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