Monday, April 20, 2020

The Seeds of Doom

Doctor Who was at it’s best when it was most like Doctor Who. Seeds of Doom is as much like Doctor Who as Doctor Who ever got

The set up is pure Quatermass. Scientists at an Antarctic Base discover two frozen space-eggs. The first space-egg hatches, infects one of the scientists and turns him into a monster. The first episode ends with him trying to strangle Sarah-Jane Smith. There is a lot of strangulation in this story. A lot of punching and kicking and neck-twisting as well; not to mention a Molotov cocktail and an airstrike. The Doctor himself is seen weilding a gun, a sword, and some military strength weed-killer.

There is a twist. A beautiful, bonkers twist. The space-eggs are vegetables: literally seeds. The seeds of Doom. They would have been the seeds of Death, but Patrick Troughton had already bagsied that one. They look a lot like giant horse-chestnuts.

And back in London there is an insane, camp botanist who lives in a mansion and is much concerned about cruelty to Bonsai trees. He sends two of his goons to the Antarctic. They steal the unhatched egg and take it back to England. By the end of episode three it is menacing Sarah-Jane with one of its tendrils. (Sarah-Jane spends a lot of this story being menaced.) In the event, one of the two goons gets infected and turns into a plant man; and then a giant cabbage. By the final story it is so huge that it is towering, Cthulhu-like over the the mansion, bursting out of doors and windows. (Like Camelot, it is only a model, but it is a pretty good model under the circumstances.) In the end, UNIT sends in an airstrike and destroys it. But not before the Doctor and the thugs and the botanist and some civil servants and an endearingly dotty old artist have done more running around, getting captured and escaping than is strictly decent.

At six episodes, it doesn’t feel padded: two episodes of The Thing (this was before The Thing) followed by four episodes of Little Shop of Horrors (this was before Little Shop of Horrors). It’s a structural masterclass: the threat escalates in each episode, from a pod which might potentially hatch in episode one two a house-sized plant which is going to throw out thousands more pods in episode six. Each episode races towards a gruesome cliffhanger. Of course Chase has got a conveyer belt which runs waste material through giant rotating blades to produce fertiliser; and of course Sarah ends up tied to it. Of course the baddies leave Sarah tied up in a power-station with a time bomb rather than just shooting her.

It’s Saturday, it’s six o clock, and it’s Doctor Who. Dum-ba-da-dum, dub-ba-da-dum, wooo-weee….


Season 12 began with the Brigadier summonsing the Doctor to Earth. The Doctor wasn’t happy; but he showed up. He offered to give Sarah-Jane a lift back to London in the TARDIS, but got distracted: he eventually ended up on an alien planet where they just happened to be making evil robot doubles of Sgt Benton and Harry Sullivan. He offered to take Sarah-Jane home one last time, but they ended up in a gothic castle in a different galaxy.

But now, here is the Doctor, sitting in the office of some British government bureaucrat. The Brigadier must have called him back to earth right after he left Karn. He isn’t happy: but he’s come.

And this is pretty odd: because in Planet of Evil he was talking to demonic anti-matter beings on their own terms; and in Brain of Morbius he was dealing with Time Lord enemies and in Pyramids of Mars  he was telling Sarah-Jane forcefully that he was a Time Lord.

He’s cross when the Brigadier treats him as an errand-boy; but he’s equally cross when the Time Lords send him on a mission of utmost importance.

It’s like: the Doctor is debating with himself about who he wants to be from now on. I am a Time Lord: don’t treat me like a Time Lord. I work for UNIT: don’t treat me as if I work for UNIT.

And in retrospect, we can see that the programme is still arguing with itself about what kind of a programme it should be from now on. Are we going to carry on watching Doctor Who stories in which ladies run around quarries being menaced by monsters and rescued by an eccentrically benevolent alien? Or is it going to be about high-concept fantasy, full of horror-pastiche and the mythology of Gallifrey?

When Sarah-Jane woke up in Solon’s lab she briefly thought the last three episodes had been a terrible nightmare. Planet of Evil, Pyramids of Mars, and Brain of Morbius have been very unlike Doctor Who stories. And now the Doctor is back in some Whitehall office, with his feet on the desk, playing with a yo-yo, pretending that he is reluctant to save the earth from yet another alien invasion. It’s like the rest of the season never happened. Normal service has been resumed.


Tom Baker has changed his mind; again, about what kind of Doctor he wants to be. He gives a very straight performance: there are few grins and few Shakespearean flourishes. One feels that “What you have done could result in the total destruction of all life on this planet” should have been delivered with more menace — or perhaps with inappropriate levity. By episode six he is being actively nasty; shouting at people and telling them to shut up. Perhaps Tom himself is bored by the script. But in a funny way this seems to work in the story’s favour. The Doctor isn’t scared of the Krynoids in the way that he was scared of Sutekh. They are, in the end, only big plants. But he is perturbed and worried by them: like a Doctor who has been called in to deal with a serious life-threatening but eminently treatable illness. Only when being threatened by Scorby, the mercenary thug, does he start to grin, and to be more than usually annoying.

“Okay, start talking!”

“Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had perfect pitch…”

He comes across as a cheeky schoolboy who is about to get thumped; the childish, grinning, silly Doctor is an act to patronise and annoy baddies. (Minor baddies: the ones he has contempt for.) It is a shame that this deliberately annoying persona is going to become his entire personality as the series progresses.

From the beginning, this Doctor has mostly kept his outdoor clothes — hat, coat, scarf — on indoors. In this story he wears them when walking around the South Pole, even though everyone else is wearing specialised cold weather gear. At one point he disguises himself as a chauffeur: he puts a long black coat over his own coat. The scarf sticks out below the hem. It is ridiculous, but it is wonderfully ridiculous, the sort of ridiculous that little boys love.

Since the Christopher Eccleston reboot, the Doctor has carried a quiver of get-out-of-jail-free cards: the sonic screwdriver; the psychic paper; the TARDIS itself. The Fourth Doctor makes little use of that stuff. He doesn’t need to. He is perpetually jumping over walls; hurling himself through skylights; disarming bad-guys, even wielding weapons. His get-out-of-jail-free card is being the Doctor. If he is tied to a chair with a gun pointing at him that is only because at this moment he chooses to be so.

No TARDIS; no Brigadier; no familiar monsters. This is Doctor Who without any Doctor Who icons. Tom — floppy hat, baggy coat, long scarf — is the icon now. He defines what Doctor Who is. Doctor Who used to be bigger than any one actor. Tom Baker is already irreplaceable. He is ushering in a golden age; but he is also going to kill the programme.


A big chunk of Terror of the Zygons took place in a wood panelled library belonging to the Laird. Pyramids of Mars was mostly set in Prof Scarman’s wood-panelled stately home. And here we are in Chase, the mad botanist’s mansion. In memory, it all merges into one endless game of hide and seek through the stately homes of England, with giant vegetables and Egyptian mummies and the Loch Ness monster lurking around every corner.

There are scenes in the non-specific civil servant’s office and there were scenes in the chief astronaut’s office and there were rooms in a spaceship thirty thousand years in the future which looked very much like someone’s office.

And quarries: representing alien planets and the Antarctic and sometimes actual quarries.

The same scenes. Over and over. Nothing looks too alien. But we know: the milkman is an android and the laird is a Zygon; the plants in the greenhouse will strangle you and the oversized conker will wipe out all life on earth.

It has been said that Doctor Who is about putting the very, very strange alongside the very, very ordinary. That is certainly where it ends up: but that is not where it starts. It starts with the defamiliarization of the ordinary. These are the labs and classrooms and streets and pubs and villages that you might walk down in your everyday life. These are the sorts of stately homes that you might visit on a Sunday afternoon with a National Trust handbook in one hand and a bottle of ginger beer in the other. (Chase gives the Doctor and Sarah a guided tour of his mansion before trying to kill them.)

This is a children’s programme. This is what a child’s world is like. Ordinary things are strange and terrifying. Grown-ups may turn into monsters at any moment. They threaten to burn us at the stake and grind us down into fertiliser and we don’t understand what we did wrong. But for all we know a phone box or a wardrobe might contain something wonderful.

What was it G.K Chesterton said? Doctor Who doesn’t teach us that botanists sometimes throw pretty ladies into grinding machines. It teaches us that there is usually a way to escape from them.


I don’t have a problem with people who take Doctor Who seriously. I take it pretty seriously myself. But I am constantly amazed by people who take it literally. It is about as sensible to talk about a Doctor Who Universe as it would be to talk about a Monty Python Universe.

Look at Harrison Chase. As a human being, his almost inconceivable. As a piece of fiction he is one of the most morbidly funny ideas the series ever came up with.

He’s a James Bond villain. He lives in a posh mansion. He is surrounded by thugs and flunkies. He says “Why am I surrounded by idiots!” and “Guards, guards!!” and “Nothing can stop me now!”. He tries to mash first the Doctor and then Sarah into fertiliser and he positively enjoys doing so. “Your death will be agonising but mercifully swift” he says. No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.

Is he motivated by power, or world domination, or wealth or ideology? No. What he is interested in his flowers. He’s a collector. He wants to have rare blooms which no-one else has. But he seems to sincerely love his flowers. He thinks that hybrid strains are unnatural and that bonsai trees are cruel. By the end of the story, he is sitting in his greenhouse in a lotus position, ranting about the green and about how animals are usurpers on the earth. He’s quite poetic in a way. At one point he is said to be insane: at another point he is said to be possessed by the krynoid (which is hard to justify in terms of anything resembling the actual plot). But he basically just marches to the beat of a different drum.

Quite often I find myself typing that a villain or some Alienses want to take over the world because they are Doctor Who monsters and that is what Doctor Who monsters do. Chase is very much better than that. He prefers plants to people. He is cold-bloodedly interested in finding out what would happen if Keeler turned into a giant vegetable and he quite likes the idea of the human race being extinctified.

There could have been a point to all of this: a moral message about preserving the rainforest or being careful with industrial insecticide or taking your crisp packets home after a picnic. But somehow “plants versus animals” takes the place of political or moral ideology. It’s just us vs them: we are the animals and they are the plants. Chase is a classical villain but instead of being a Nazi or a Communist he’s a plantist. It’s completely bloody mad but it works.

The story is surprisingly character-driven. The characters may not be deep or psychologically believable; but they are autonomous human beings, rather than neatly packaged parcels of plot device. Scorby is a thug and knows he is a thug and knows he is good at being a thug. When the Doctor points out that he is working for a loony, he replies “When it comes to money, Mr Chase and I are of the same religion”. (The Doctor misattributes the quote to Franklin Adams: it is actually one of Voltaire’s.). He talks about having been a mercenary and knowing how to take care of himself: he switches sides in the final episode. “Can I rely on you?” says the Doctor? “For the moment” Scorby replies. The civil servant Dunbar passes secrets to Chase in return for money because he has been passed over for promotion; he turns against him (and risks his life) when he realises he is a psychotic lunatic and not just a plant thief. Keeler is a scientist who likes working with Chase’s plant collection and is scared of Scorby.

Even Amelia Ducat, who is quite obviously there as space-filling comic relief, has her own little motivation: she’s an artist; precious about her paintings; cross that Chase hasn’t paid her; and thinks that it is fun to “do her bit” and play at being a spy on behalf of the government. She is sometimes said to be a tribute to Lady Bracknell, but she’s a lot more like Miss Marples: the superficially harmless old lady who everyone underestimates. The Oscar Wilde connection comes from a single line: when Sarah says that they found one of her paintings in the boot of a car — a Daimler — she replies “The car is immaterial.” But surely it is Mrs Ducat who is wittily quoting a line from a famous play?


Speaking of superficially harmless old ladies…

Mary Whitehouse complained about the violence in this story. It was the molotov cocktail she objected to. The following year she would claim her biggest scalp, and force the BBC to cut the drowning scene out of Deadly Assassin, bringing the Hinchcliffe era and Tom Baker’s original characterisation of the Doctor to a premature close.

But she does have a point: this story is very, very violent.

There is something quite morbid about the preoccupation with executions and execution-style killings in what is still ostensibly a children’s programme. In this season the Doctor has been put into a gas chamber, threatened with being burned at the stake (twice), tied to a stone cross with a bomb next to it; put into a casket and fired into space. Quite possibly BBC guidelines felt that “I will leave you tied to the railway lines and wait for the train to squash you” was less violent and more in keeping with wholesome family entertainment than “I will shoot you with my gun or stab you with my sword.” Doctor Who is meant to be scary: Jon Pertwee always said that kids liked being scared. And this sort of thing generates suspense; it allows the viewer to contemplate Sarah’s fate for a few minutes.

One feels that the villain is being sporting; giving the Doctor a fair chance to come along and spoil his plans. And, indeed, that the writers are being lazy. It is relatively hard to think of a peril which arises naturally from the story and an escape which follows logically from the peril. Much easier for a baddie to put everyone in a death trap because he’s a sadist, or just because it is the sort of thing which baddies do.

Scorby sneers “You shouldn’t have long to wait,” before leaving Sarah in the room with the time bomb; Chase smiles “I imagine they won’t mind a few minutes delay,” when an urgent appointment prevent him from having the Doctor and Sarah shot. (He says that he is having them “executed” and points out that a former owner of the estate was also executed — presumably for being a Catholic in the sixteenth century.) It makes me wonder.

It was barely a decade since the last hanging in England; one of the last Frenchmen had has head chopped off a few weeks after this story went out. Was there a kind of nostalgia for the carefree days of pre-meditated killing? Or a subtle message that hurting someone in cold blood was something only a plant worshipping psychopath would ever stoop too?

Episode 3 starts with a close up of Sarah’s unconscious face after being blown up in the antarctic. It ends with a close up of her equally helpless face as she is held down next to a hatching krynoid. Of course, the Doctor arrives in a shower of broken glass and saves her.

Villains have to be cruel and heroes have to be kind. If the hero is a boy and the hero’s best friend is a girl — and they have to be one or the other — then the boy is probably going to spend quite a lot of time rescuing the girl from peril. But in the 1970s, nearly all stories had boy heroes with girl sidekicks; so you could easily run away with the idea that girls’ main purpose in life was to be menaced by baddies. Terrance Dicks, god bless him, was only partly wrong when he said that you can’t push too hard against the genre. Sarah may have been imagined as a liberated career-woman, but she still ends up tied on a conveyer belt moving towards the revolving saw. That’s the kind of thing Doctor Who is. It helps a great deal that Elisabeth Sladen can act: and conveys to the audience that she is afraid in proportion to how scary the situation is. She is never just a damsel in distress. She hardly ever screams.

Jon Pertwee pointed out that the reason Doctor Who appeared so high up Mary Whitehouse’s list of “most violent shows on television” was that the Viewers and Listeners Association included “binding” — tying up — in its tally of acts of violence. And in Doctor Who goodies were being tied up by baddies every five minutes.

I don’t think that the BBC was providing early evening audiences with bondage scenarios at any conscious level. Although they did openly admit that some adult males watched Doctor Who in order to ogle pretty ladies, and that the writers sometimes played up to this. “Something” they would say of any new female casting “for the dads.” But the emphasis on Sarah-Jane’s helplessness is striking. The Seeds of Doom is not Fifty Shades of Grey. But it may be an example of the kind of thing which Fifty Shades of Grey is a sexualisation of.


Season 12 had run from January to May 1975; Season 13 returned at the end of August, having only been off the air for three months. There was another three-week break for Christmas, and the series continued until March. Which is as much as to say: Doctor Who was on TV for 45 of the 62 Saturdays between January 1975 and March 1976. It was part of the day-to-day texture of British TV — of British life — in a way that no modern programme could ever be. There was not yet any such thing as a Doctor Who fan: but everyone watched Doctor Who. And the role no belonged irrevocably and definitively to Tom Baker. Jon Pertwee already felt like part of a long-vanished world.

If you are enjoying my essays, please consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)


Richard Worth said...

I know I always go back to Tolkien and nursery furniture, but 'The Quatermass Experiment' was originally x-rated, likewise the 1951 'The Thing', James Bond and 'The Avengers' adult light entertainment, and both in the 21st century are fit for children's parody. 'The Seeds of Doom' may be like one of those fairy tales where the dark shadows and the red-hot iron shoes are still there. The kids love it because they feel they are getting a peek into a scary but exciting grown-up world and Mary Whitehouse complains for much the same reason. Also interesting that 'Seeds of Doom' was three years before 'Alien': not sure what Ripley and Sarah-Jane would have to talk about

Mike Taylor said...

I can't explain why this should be so, but The Seeds of Doom was the one Doctor Who story that ever properly scared me. It haunted me in a way no other story did. Whenever I needed to go to the toilet, I would run downstairs the moment I had flushed, in case the flush summoned the krinoid and it got me.