Five Hundred Eyes

The Seeds of Doom

"I want our money to show on the screen."
                                      - John Nathan-Turner.

The Seeds of Doom is a real cheapy. Sets are either totally naff (the polystyrene "Antarctic") or, at best, mediocre (Chase's mansion, etc.). The impact of the admittedly large amount of exterior location work is undermined by the use of the eternally grotty videotape. Even the main monster is only so-so for most of the time we see it. In short, it is difficult to deny that this story would have been a hell of a lot glossier and slicker if an extra two episodes hadn't been needed at the last minute to make up a six parter.

The Seeds of Doom is a real classic.

One of the most notable aspects of Seeds is its use of violence and horror. More than anything else, this story is characterised by an atmosphere of cold, gloating sadism, manifesting itself in scenes of physical and mental torture explicit even by the standards of mid-1970s Doctor Who. The instances of physical violence are quite callous and unstylised: one particularly flinch-inducing scene has the machine gun-toting mercenary Scorby (John Challis) grabbing the Doctor by the hair and savagely smashing his head against a convenient hard surface. For his part, the Doctor hospitalises another of Harrison Chase's goons and, in one scene, effects an escape by seizing Scorby's head with both hands and giving it a sharp, violent twist. Nasty. Even Sarah Jane is socked on the jaw at one point by the demented (and unchivalrous) Chase (Tony Beckley).

Far more disturbing that the fisticuffs are the scenes of Chase's insane glee at the horrible transformation overtaking the luckless Keeler (Mark Jones) who had been infected by the alien Krynoid pod :

CHASE: Amazing!
KEELER:: My ... whole body's changing! Look at my arm ... Get me to a hospital ... please!
CHASE: Don't be ridiculous! We'll look after you here.
KEELER: Do something ... you must do something!
CHASE: (Peering at Keeler's infection) It's incredible ... absolutely unique!
KEELER: For pity's sake, help me!
CHASE: It's for your own good.
KEELER: You can't keep me here! I need medical attention - look at me!
CHASE: The rate of increase is astonishing. Remarkable, Keeler. Protein absorbtion from the animal, of cour se.
KEELER: What animal?
CHASE: Your own body. We shall have to give you some food soon ...
KEELER: (Stares appalled) Chase! Stop behaving like a maniac and get me to hospital!
CHASE: Don't be ridiculous! That would ruin everything. Together, we could be on the verge of a great scientific discovery - we must observe the process closely.
KEELER: Hargreaves - don't listen to him, this is murder.
HARGREAVES: I'm sure Mr Chase is right, sir, and it's for your own good.
CHASE: You're changing into a plant, Keeler. You're privileged. Think of it. A marvellous new species of plant! I shall need some equipment to monitor this experiment ...

The sheer conviction with which these scenes are acted make them extremely powerful and, indeed, almost too intense to watch. Throughout, Keeler is choking and twitching in obvious pain, hardly able to believe what Chase is saying, while his master looks on with a clinical, yet maniac, fascination. Beckley's performance here makes Chase one of the most utterly loathsome villains Doctor Who has ever seen, easily outranking such tyros as Davros or Sutekh.

Here too, the production values perk up considerably. The make-up work on Mark Jones' Keeler is astonishingly good : a mottled green colouration of the skin, followed by a hideous creeper-like growth covering the whole body. (Eat your heart out, David Cronenberg!) Unfortunately the Krynoid's next form is the slightly risible green-sprayed Axon, but this halfway stage was so convincing that it scared at least one eight year-old shitless back in 1976. The only things at the time that came anywhere near it in the sofa stakes were the incredible Anti-Matter monster from Planet of Evil and that giant cyclopean squid from Space 1999 which slurped its victim into its gaping maw, and then squirted them out again, charocal-grilled.

Anyway, it was no surprise that such a violent and disturbing set o †f episodes would arouse hysterical screeches of rage from Mary "Quite Contrary" Whitehouse and her minions : "Strangulation ... by obscene vegetable matter ... is the latest gimmick, sufficiently close up so that they get the point. And just for a little variety, show the children how to make a Molotov Cocktail." (Tulloch and Alvarado, p.158.) If only the old dear had taken the time to wipe the froth from her lips and restrain the knee-jerk reactions, she might have "got the point" herself. The point being that the undeniable brutality of much of Seeds is redeemed by precisely those feelings of outrage and horror it inspires in the audience, feelings which only reinforce one's conceptions of right and wrong. The scenes of Chase delighting in Keeler's suffering are unpleasant because delighting in another's suffering is unpleasant - as I'm sure Mrs Whitehouse would agree. The cause of good is never helped by pretending that evil is anything less than evil, or that it doesn't exist.

In episode six the by now absolutely barking mad Chase ("All planet-eaters must die!") finally gets his, chewed up by his own grinder (a lot less bovver than a hovver) and pumped into the garden to the accompaniment of a truly virtuoso death-shriek from Tony Beckley. Now, Whose Doctor Who featured a whole bunch of kiddies, obviously not the slightest bit disturbed or "desensitised", who showed that the moral implications of scenes such as Chase's demise weren't lost on them: "I didn't like it when the man got crushed in the machine and was put into the soil in the garden ... But he did deserve it because he was trying to kill Sarah and the Doctor. He wasn't very nice. He was horrible. Because the baddies have got to be got rid of, anyway." Of course they have! Doctor Who is no different in this respect from countless fairy-tales which use violence to make a simplistic moral point. The fact that things are rarely so clear-cut in real life does not mean that such simplistic lessons are valueless. And if the violence of Chase and co. is there to show what evil is, that of the Doctor is there to show that, sometimes, evil can only be overcome by violence, which is thus justified. As Philip Hinchcliffe put it: "If he got himself into a corner and he'd got to fight his way out of it by somebody going to the wall then, yes, they'd go to the wall! His world was such that he could no longer be a boy scout." (Incidentally, Whitehouse is way off-mark concerning the specific point of the "Molotov Cocktail". Anyone who didn't already know how to make one would learn nothing from what was shown on screen.)

Even if a mature viewer disagrees with Hinchcliffe's non-pacifist sentiments, at least an important issue is being implicitly articulated within the programme; the individual viewer can then consider his or her own stance on that issue. Not bad for a low-budget childern's television series which remains good entertainment, unlike Star Trek when it tries to air moral issues in its usual pontificating way.

As well as being one of the most violent and horrific Doctor Who stories ever, Seeds of Doom is, incredibly, also one of the funniest; it exhibits to perfection what Tulloch and Alvarado describe as "Hinchcliffe's mixture of the fearsome and comic in stories". Like the best tragic dramatists, Hinchcliffe saw that a measure of comedy served both to lighten an atmosphere of doom and, paradoxically, to heighen it. Seeds is not a depressing story because it makes the viewer laugh so often; but because that laughter is nervous, uneasy laughter, the carefully built-up impression of menace is never ruined. In Seeds it is, of course, Beckley's performance as Harrison Chase which is the crucial element here. Beckley out-does John Hurt's Caligula in the camp department, but not once does he go too far to convince as a lethally dangerous villain. My favourite example of this harmonisation of the chilling and the hysterically funny is that wonderful scene of Chase in his greenhouse, playing at his synthesizer and regaling the Doctor and Sarah (both of whom have been sentenced to death) with such ghastly "masterpieces" as the "Hymn of the Plants" and the "Floriana" Requeim (dedicated to Linnaeus), while uttering such over-ripe lines as "You know, Doctor, I could play all day in my green cathedral!" ("I talk to the rees, that's why they put me away ...!") Almost as good is the moment when Scorby, having stolen a Krynoid pod from the Antarctic base, announces that "[The first pod] was destroyed. We had to blow the whole base to smithereens, plus everyone in it." "What a pity," replies Chases with genuine regret, before adding the delicious qualifier : "I could have had two pods!"

Also inextricably intertwined with the horror is the very strong element of pathos. The fate of the weak stooge Keeler has already been discussed; that of the Antarctic personnel in the two-episode "prologue" is also moving. Early on, the characters of Charles Winlett, Derek Moberly and John Stevenson are shown indulging in cheerful friendly chat; when Winlett is infected by the first pod, we share the others' desperation as they frantically try to help their sick friend. These are real people acting as real people would. And when Moberly, preparing for the last-ditch operation on Winlett, encounters his friend in the darkened corridor, the latter, despite his deformed appearance, initially appears not as a menacing figure, but as an object of pity, huddled pathetically against the wall, his expression one of horror and despair. The moment lasts only a second or two, before the alien instinct takes possession and Winlett claims his first victim, but the sense of pathos is undeniably there, and the effect of it is to heighten the viewer's emotional involvement in the story and the characters no end. Even when Winlett is irreversibly taken over, we still feel sorry for him. Cue brooding Baker soliloquy, intoned over Geoffrey Burgon's sad, haunting incidental music: "I told you he was changing form. Already his mind's been taken over; very soon his entire body will alter ... There'll be a transition period, a grotesque parody of the human form. By now Winlett no longer exists - and we must destroy what he has become ..." Delivered the way only Tom Baker can, this is powerful stuff.
Horror, morality, humour, pathos ... These are the qualities which go to make up great Doctor Who. Acting and characterisation? All the protagonists in Seeds are memorable and well-drawn, all have a distinct dramatic purpose, from the use of the minor character of the dotty, cigar-smoking painter, Emilia Ducat (Sylvia Coleridge) who nevertheless bravely infiltrates Chase's stronghold, to the major henchman and psycho Scorby, whom the typically outspoken and forceful Sarah Jane acidly sums up in one unforgettable outburst : "You're as mad as Chase, Scorby. Other people don't matter! All these guards, all these guns - it's just a big game to you, isn't it? Gives you a sense of power! You're not complete unless you've got a gun in your hand!" Baker's Doctor is also interesting in Seeds, displaying some distinctly Pertwee traits: beating up baddies, crashing through plate-glass windows to rescue his companion in distress, and bawling out the bureaucrats of UNIT and the World Ecology Bureau in order to get some swift action to deal with the menace of the murderous marrows. Nor is the actual plot a disappointment! Helped along by the late-lamented Douggie's rollercoaster direction, the narrative is just fine, leaving neither a confused, convoluted mess (Time and the Rani) nor a farcical stretched chase sequence posing as a story (Delta and the Bannermen). And if the resolution of the Krynoid problem (getting the RAF to blow the thing to poop) seems a bit of a cop-out, at least it gives us a chance to feast our eyes on the one type of "production value" which is always up to scratch - the superb model work. The mindblowing realisation of the final-stage Krynoid squatting atop Chase's mansion is a definite instance of "how did they do it?". A filmed model-shot, obviously, but how on Earth did they manage to get the tentacles to thrash and flail in such a life-like manner? At any rate, it makes up for the green-sprayed Axons and the laughable twelve-foot rubber tentacles poked through set windows!

By now you may have gathered that I rather like Seeds of Doom. Certainly, as a reminder of just how good Doctor Who used to be it has few peers, and is just not to be compared with the story that so shamelessly ripped it (among others) off, the coprophilious concotion that was Terror of the Vervoids. If one had to criticise it, one could say that Seeds occasionally seems unsure of exactly what type of story it is trying to be. Is it a Planet of Evil -type white-knuckler? A Zygons/Android -type UNIT action-adventure? A Pyramids/Brain -type Gothic pastiche? It tries to be all these, but doesn't quite succeed in melding all the genres into a completely harmonious whole. But it has to be said that this is all very much a coldy intellectual criticism, which doesn't really apply when one is actually involved in watching it. Seeds exerts so powerful an atmosphere of its own that the viewer is just swept up in the rushing flow of events : he doesn't analyse as he watches, he feels. Ultimately, The Seeds of Doom is an irresistibly convincing production, which deserves a collossally higher rating than Richard Marson's patronising and lukewarm comment in DWM #124: "something of a minor classic" indeed! Let the last word go the Philip Hinchcliffe, talking about his era as a whole, but whose remarks apply particularly well to The Seeds of Doom:

"I would be very surprised if anyone before or after bettered us in terms of surprise, of sensationalism and of powerfully-created cliffhangers ... My imperative was to make the show as gripping and as realistic as I could, and it became apparent to me that the success of a programme depended, to a large extent, on getting good character actors. So we aimed at writing parts that would attract better actors who could see a thumping good role for them to play. Good actors convince people, and when that happens you can raise the level of illusion in the programme almost to infinity."
- DWM Winter Special 1983/4

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