Monday, April 30, 2012

The Seeds of Doom

The Doctor: It's more serious than death, Mr. Stevenson.  He's changing form.

The Seeds of Doom represents everything that makes the Philip Hinchcliffe / Robert Holmes / early Tom Baker era so beloved amongst Whovians.  It's not the sort of brilliant gem Pyramids of Mars or Brain of Morbius are, but it showcases an era firing on all cylinders.  The writing, directing, acting, and production execute the stories so well that even a simple story like this rises to a classic level.

First, Hinchcliffe hired Douglas Camfield to direct.  Camfield started directing Who back in its second season, and was one of the most reliable directors on the show, and remains one of the finest the series has ever had.  Here, in his final Who serial, he wrings every drop of atmosphere and excitement out of the story he can.  The action, visual style, shot composition, and editing are as good as the show ever got until Graeme Harper (who was the Production Assistant here) started directing in the '80s.  The chases and fights are thrilling, the staging full of energy, and the monster played very well. (on which more later)  Even though the outdoor scene suffer from using the OB Video rather than film (which makes for a much cheaper, less atmospheric look), Camfield still weaves a rousing yarn.

He's helped along by Robert Stewart Banks' superbly paced, well-plotted script.  Many six-part stories feel padded; this one feels exactly the right length, and Banks' tight, action-packed writing is largely responsible.  Script editor Robert Holmes' concept of splitting the story into two distinct parts - in essence, a fast two-part story followed by a linked four-parter - helps, too; the change of location from Antarctica to England keeps things lively.

The cast plays their roles to the hilt.  The scientists at the Antarctic base feel completely believable and like real people.  Hubert Rees' Stevenson particularly shines; his delivery of the lines about the Pod being alive are brilliantly underplayed.  Same with the politicians in London - Dunbar's character arc from his corrupt early scenes to his remorseful later ones is particularly compelling.  Still, it's the villains, naturally, who are most memorable.

The Krynoid is done about as well as it could be given the time and budget.  The makeup when on the half-humans/half-Krynoids is genuinely horrific, as is their deeply unnerving breathing sound.

Later, the miniatures of the gigantic Krynoid are rough but still awesome.  Camfield and his crew deserve tremendous praise for executing the creature so effectively on such low-budget effects and limited scheduling.

As for the human viallins, much of the horror of watching Keeler's transformation into the Krynoid comes from Mark Jones's performance.  Even more engaging is John Chalis's Scorby, a perfect brawns-over-brains thug.

But it's Tony Beckley's quietly insane Harrison Chase who's truly chilling.  On the surface, he's just a ranty, one-dimensional baddie, but Banks fleshes out his love of plants over people with great detail.  His harsh electronics "songs" he writes for his garden plants (The Hymn of the Plants and, naturally, Requiem) are a wonderfully nutty addition.  Beckley raises Chase to another level entirely, however, with a mesmerizing performance.  When Chase finally meets the now-gigantic Krynoid, he tells it not to eat him, but that it only wants to help it, even as its monstrous shadow overwhelms him.  Beckley gives the scene a fearful worship of awe and even love that's just fantastic.

He also plays Chase's descent in the final episodes brilliantly.  The others all wonder if he's been taken over by the Krynoid or if his love for it has finally made him snap - and Chase toes the line so well even we aren't entirely certain, even at the end.

Chase: Soon, the Krynoids will dominate everywhere.  And your foul species will disappear.
Sarah: And you'll all flower happily ever after.
Chase: You and your kind are parasites.  You're dependent on us for the air you breath and the food you eat.  We have only one use for you.

In the end, he may in fact be one-dimensional anyway, but it's an electrifying dimension.

Of course, Sarah Jane Smith is marvelous.  The way the Doctor trusts her and treats her as an equal, the way she earns it through pluck and cleverness, and the chemistry between Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen gives their relationship incredible warmth.  Here, the Doctor twice stops his monologuing and lets her give the big speech, which she does magnificently both times.  Even better are the scenes where she faces down Scorby with some blistering lines.

But it's the Doctor who's most interesting, as it should be.  After Pryamids and Morbius above pitted the Doctor against god-like foes, Seeds of Doom sets him against something entirely different: a killer plant, a "galactic weed" that consumes animal life.  It forces the Doctor into a difficult position.  After all, he can't throw witty insults or monologue at the Krynoid.  He can only fight it physically.  And what's fascinating about Seeds of Doom is how the Doctor reacts to this.

Of course, when the humans are waving their guns at him, he's absolutely at home, insulting them, laughing them off, and even making demands of them.  And Banks' (and script editor Holmes') dialogue and Tom Baker's delivery somehow make it completely believable and awesome that his swagger and wit actually keep them from shooting.  It's exactly what we expect from the Fourth Doctor.

Chase: However, as I propose to have you executed...
Sarah: Why?  We haven't harmed you.
Doctor: Oh, be reasonable, Sarah.  What choice has he got?  We keep interfering. 

But most of the time, he's solemn and thoughtful.  Granted, he was like that in Pyramids as well, but there's a difference.  Here, he snaps in an impassioned anger.  He's not just scared that the Krynoids will win; he's furious.  And given his reaction to the human villains, his wrath comes from his inability to swagger and talk his way out of this.  He won't win by being witty, or clever, or inventive.  He'll win simply by employing violence better.  And it's horrifying to him.  There's a scene where the Krynoid speaks, demanding the Doctor's life.  And he doesn't say a word back to it; he ignores it, and returns to the conversation with Scorby and Sarah about what they're going to do.  And as Scorby suggests throwing the Doctor to the monster, the Doctor explodes at him.

The Doctor: Scorby, if I die, you die. 
Scorby: I'll take a chance on that.

After Sutekh and Morbius pushed him to his limits intellectually, it's a new and terrifying way of seeing the Doctor pushed to the edge.  And even more than the creepy monster or the magnificent rants of Chase, it's the Doctor's fear and anger that are truly terrifying.

And yet, this also gets at the story's weakness.  After all, this is Doctor Who; the entire point is to see how the Doctor cleverly and witty finds his way out of danger and turns worlds upside down.  Seeing him brandish a gun and have a mercenary use Molotov Cocktails is strange.  And in itself, it's a cool variation on Who, particularly given how great Tom Baker is at the action stuff, running about and doing his own stunts with great style and physicality.

But in the end, the Doctor's solution to the problem is simply to have UNIT call in an airstrike.  He doesn't finally find a clever way out or something interesting to do.  Even when the Doctor blows the bad guys up, there's something more intriguing about it.  But not here.  In Ambassadors of Death, the the best UNIT story, he found a way to use their military force and save the day without firing a shot.  Here, he just lets them explode the problem and move on like nothing happened.

And this creates a bigger problem.  After all, this is one of the most visceral and violent stories in the series.  The Hinchcliffe era is full of these, but the Doctor himself undercuts the violence.  But here, where he's part of it, the story seems somehow more generic and far more violent.  Doctor Who isn't a cuddly show (most of the time), but it's supposed to be more than just killing monsters.  Seeds of Doom is a terrific yarn, but it's fundamentally unsatisfying.

Still, even with that in mind, Seeds of Doom is a superbly crafted adventure serial with fantastic performances.  And unlike some of the '80s serials that are every bit as visceral and violent as this, Doom is fun. (and only Graeme Harpers Revalation of the Daleks is anywhere near as well crafted)  Doctor Who doing a more straightforward action story once in a blue moon for the sake of variation is easily forgiven when it's as awesome as this.


* * * ½


  • Scientist: "We were expecting someone much older."
    Doctor: "I'm only 749.  I used to be even younger."

  • On the DVD audio commentary, Tom Baker calls Techno-babble "Baffle-gab."

  • The Fifth Doctor's detractors often bring up the scene in Earthshock where he pretty much gives into the Cybermen once they threaten to kill Tegan.  Personally, I let it go because it's a very, very consistent piece of characterization.  There are occasions where the Doctor puts his companion's lives below his mission (Evil of the Daleks, Mindwarp, lots of 7th Doctor stories), but it really is the exception rather than the rule.  Seeds of Doom is one of the former.  Scorby points his gun at the Doctor, he stares him down.  He points the gun at Stevenson, no reaction.  He points his gun at Sarah, and the Doctor caves immediately.
  • Of course, on the other hand, it is only Tegan.

  • (Okay, I actually like Tegan.  Generally.)

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