The six-part Doctor Who serial “The Seeds of Doom” dates from 1976 and was part of the show’s 13th season, which has a strong claim to be considered as one of the best runs of the classic era of the show since it also included “Terror of the Zygons”, “Planet of Evil”, “Pyramids of Mars”, “The Android Invasion” and “The Brain of Morbius”.
Sadly I didn’t see any of these stories when they originally aired, since I’d gone off in a major pre-teen strop on the quite sensible and reasonable grounds that Tom Baker was not Jon Pertwee. I have repented in the 40 years since of course, and have caught up with all the aforementioned stories on UK Gold or more recently on pristine digitally remastered DVDs, and while many Whovians cite “Zygons” or “Pyramids” as their favourite story from this period I have to say that speaking for myself I think it has to be “The Seeds of Doom”.
Doctor Who stories that ran to six parts invariably ran the risk of sagging in the middle from lack of plot, but “The Seeds of Doom” cleverly gets around this problem by having a two-episode prologue before the main event. Initially, the Doctor (Tom Baker) and his assistant Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) head to an Antarctic research station upon hearing of the discovery of a strange plant pod in the ice. Before they are able to get there, the pod hatches and infects one of the scientists working at the station, quickly transforming him into a giant, highly mobile and extremely lethal plant creature. The Doctor recognises it as a Krynoid, a form of galactic weed that wipes out all animal life on any planet where it gains a foothold.
The Doctor manages to take care of the first manifestation, but then the main act begins after a second pod is discovered and stolen by agents working for millionaire Harrison Chase, who is obsessed with all plant life and views plant-eating animals with utter disdain. His experiments lead to a new outbreak, and without the limiting factors of sub-zero conditions the Krynoid quickly grows to massive proportions and is ready to germinate, which will mean the inevitable end of all life on Earth. The Doctor and Sarah meanwhile are trapped in Chase’s mansion and are fighting for their lives, not only against the Krynoid but against the increasingly crazed Chase and his gun-toting guards.
What’s really noticeable about “The Seeds of Doom” is what a cracking pace it achieves not least thanks to one of the show’s all-time best directors, Douglas Camfield. The first two episodes in the Antarctic are non-stop, nor is there a second wasted when it comes to relocating to Chase’s mansion in the south of England. Admittedly the fourth and fifth episodes slow down somewhat, with a lot of creeping around the mansion trying to avoid being caught, getting caught or escaping after bring caught, but even here that is all nowhere near as much of a time-filling exercise as you get in many stories of this vintage. Indeed, it actually helps crank up the tension wonderfully and leads to the development of the supporting characters to a degree that’s still all too often lacking even in today’s drama.
At the top of the pile when it comes to the guest cast, Tony Beckley steals the show as Harrison Chase. He’s silkily malevolent in the early scenes along the lines of a particularly demented 70s Bond supervillain such as Stromberg or Drax, but then completely loses it in the final two episodes when he becomes positively crazed. Beckley delivers an equally compelling performance here, too.
The character of Chase’s chief henchman Scorby is also unusually rich. Played by subsequent Only Fools And Horses star John Challis, Scorby arrives at the Antarctic as a solidly black-hearted bad guy incarnate. This becomes more layered when he returns to England and we soon realise that his dedication to Chase is based strictly on the appeal of money; and then when the Krynoid breaks out, Scorby quickly switches to survival mode, ditching Chase and opting to pitch in with the Doctor or Sarah Jane as temporary allies for just as long as they serve his self-interest. In the end he’s unable to cope with what he’s seeing around him and he snaps; in making a run for it he seals his fate, but it’s been a fascinating character development arc for him along the way.
Another character who gets a remarkable transformation – albeit of a more overtly physical nature – is botanist Arnold Keeler (Mark Jones) who reluctantly accompanies Scorby to the Antarctic. He is essentially good natured if weak when it comes to standing by as Scorby steals the second pod and kills the remaining members of the science team. While he might not be exactly blameless in the unfolding events, Keeler nonetheless pays a very heavy price when he becomes the second infected host, and Jones’ performance as the fast-mutating victim is both believably effective and genuinely horrific.
There’s also Seymour Green as Chase’s unflappable, peevish manservant Hargreaves who is finally overwhelmed by events; Michael Barrington as top civil servant Sir Colin Thackeray who is nonetheless quick-witted enough to do what’s necessary once the Doctor is able to send word; and Kenneth Gilbert playing Richard Dunbar of the World Ecology Bureau, an essentially decent man who makes a terrible mistake by selling out to Chase in the first episode and who then comes to an awful finish when he tries to make amends. There’s also some notably effective performances from John Gleeson, Michael McStay and Hubert Rees as the doomed Antarctic scientific research team, and a nice cameo for Sylvia Coleridge as dotty wildlife painter Amelia Ducat who turns out to be a dab hand at covert undercover operations.
Although she’s in “The Seeds of Doom” for only a few scenes, the character of Amelia Ducat is effectively the comic relief in what is an unusually black and grim story. Even Baker is uncharacteristically intense and serious in this serial, only turning on the smiles and the jokes for brief moments when verbally sparring with Chase in an effort to gain some tactical advantage. The seriousness suits Baker well, and it all helps make the audience realise just how critical the stakes really are when not even the Doctor has time to clown around.
That said, rather like Peter Capaldi in new Who season 8, you wouldn’t want him to be his dark all the time. And indeed, “The Seeds of Doom” as a whole undoubtedly pushes the boundaries of what’s acceptable in family television then or now. The anguish and suffering of the transforming Krynoid hosts is especially unsettling, even more so given that Keeler in particular had been a fairly likeable character for several episodes before succumbing. But there’s also a lot more earthly violence too, with Chase’s guards firing off sub-machine guns and Scorby putting together a Molotov cocktail which is definitely not the sort of thing you would want your kids learning off of Blue Peter. The Doctor even carries a handgun at one stage, although he does at least make the point that he’ll never actually use it. That said, at one point he knocks out Scorby using a neck twist that would be genuinely dangerous (if not deadly) if copied in the school playground. It’s the sort of thing that was routinely edited out of any US shows that aired pre-watershed through the 1990s and 2000s so it’s really quite shocking to see it here in any shape or form. Also quite scary for young audiences are the grinding jaws of a compost-making machine which threatens to pulp first the Doctor and then Sarah; when someone finally does fall in it’s a relief that the production team doesn’t go berserk and spray lots of fake blood around the place, or else we’d be looking at an X certificate!
Naturally, national busybody Mary Whitehouse was outraged by all this violence on display; and to be honest in this case she might have had a point. On the DVD audio commentary, even those who worked on the show at the time like Baker, producer Philip Hinchcliffe and writer Robert Banks Stewart (who also wrote “Zygons” and who sadly passed away just last month) muse on whether the show might have gone just a little too dark around this time. Maybe it had; but what brilliant, classic serials resulted from this walk on the wild side.
That’s not to say that “The Seeds of Doom” is perfect. For one thing, Stewart’s script was commissioned by Robert Holmes as a late-notice replacement for the story that eventually became “The Hand of Fear” and written at high speed at very short notice. There’s nothing wrong with the quality of the result – quite the contrary – but you can nonetheless see more clearly than usual where the writer found his inspirations. The first two episodes are quite clearly influenced by the 1951 sci-fi classic The Thing from Another World which likewise features a plant-based monster running murderously amok at an Arctic science station; the film’s misguided bad guy (analogous to Harrison Chase) even has the suspiciously resonant name of Dr Carrington. “The Seeds of Doom” also riffs off BBC’s classic The Quatermass Experiment from 1953 in terms of a space-borne infection mutating its victim into a monster that’s about to reproduce via spores at any minute. Once the Krynoids start walking, it’s impossible not to be reminded of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, while nearer to home the body horror sequences strongly echo those from “The Ark in Space” which was a Doctor Who serial shown the previous year; and the structure of the main act in which the Doctor and Sarah tangle with an alien monster and a possessed helper in the grounds of an English country mansion are straight from “Pyramids of Mars”. Stewart may also have been influenced by a 1965 episode of Cult TV classic The Avengers called “Man-Eater of Surrey Green” and might even have read a strangely familiar 1975 comic strip Doctor Who story entitled Death Flower.
None of which should take away from Stewart’s success in writing such a terrific story as “The Seeds of Doom” at the end of the day. It’s one of those scripts that could easily be repurposed for a 21st century remake with remarkably little remedial work required. Of course today’s production values and effects would be miles ahead of 1975, but even so the original version looks remarkably good for its age. While the sets are quite clearly on a soundstage they’re still well designed and immaculately dressed, with the Antarctic base in particular beautifully lit for maximum creepiness. Even the sandpit that doubles as a snowy tundra in the middle of a storm works amazingly well, while the obvious model-based FX sequences are still a welcome and charming change from today’s omnipresent CGI. Even the inevitable use of CSO (colour separation overlay a.k.a. chroma key, forerunner of today’s green screen) works much better than it usually did in mid-70s Doctor Who.
If I had to make one complaint about the serial, it would be the very end (and please do look away now if you’re avoiding spoilers) which is disappointingly uninspired, as the Doctor simply calls in the RAF to bomb the hell out of the house-sized Krynoid before it can reproduce. Really? That’s the best they could come up with? It’s the first response that UNIT would have tried even if the Doctor hadn’t been around. It rather suggests that the Doctor’s involvement here is largely superfluous – indeed, his one major contribution to the story is to unearth the second pod that endangers the planet in the first place, so arguably everyone would have been better off if he’d not been around at all! It’s a shame that the ending is such a flop given that Quatermass had shown the way when it had came up with a much better, more inventive and distinctly more Who-ish resolution to its own infestation problem two decades earlier.
On the other hand, the choice of ending does mean that we’re treated to some spectacular model explosions which look absolutely terrific. There’s also a brief epilogue featuring the Doctor and Sarah returning to the Antarctic in the Tardis (which actually makes no sense because of some previously excised dialogue, but never mind) and seeing a shivering Sarah in summer clothes carrying a beach ball in the middle of a snowstorm is still a delight, and a terrific way of bringing that year’s run of episodes to an end.
Not many shows have the sort of rich background and pedigree as Doctor Who. “The Seeds of Doom” is one of those stories that remind you just how good the classic show was when it was firing on all cylinders; and season 13 presented us with not just one such example of genius, but six of them back to back. That’s good going in anyone’s book, even if I didn’t realise it at the time while I was off sulking about Jon Pertwee no longer being the Doctor…
Doctor Who: The Seeds of Doom is available on DVD. As well as an audio commentary from assorted cast and crew, there’s an isolated music track, production subtitles, a making-of, a look at how the country home locations at Athelhampton House in Reigate look today, one featurette about music composer Geoffrey Burgon and another on production assistant (and later director) Graeme Harper, together with a look at the Fourth Doctor’s adventures in contemporary comic strips. There’s also a photo gallery and a selection of off-air continuity announcements from the original BBC One transmission, topped off with the Radio Times listings for the story in PDF format.