Sitting in the café at the local leisure centre. One eye is on the uploader, another on this screen, a third on the Americano that’s cooling to my upper left, and a fourth on Joshua’s swimming lesson. And they say men can’t multitask.
‘The Seeds of Doom’ – not to be confused with ‘The Seeds of Death’, an as yet unwatched Second Doctor story – caught us rather off-guard. It contains a nice little two / four split, moving from an Antarctic base, all fake snow and great big furry muffs (you – yes, you at the back – you can stop sniggering, and then come up here and explain the joke to the whole class), in the first two episodes, through to a posh English mansion, with an impressive garden and amazing greenhouse, both of which carry weighted significance in the story. Only I’d failed to realise our stay in said mansion would be extended over a hundred minutes rather than fifty. It wasn’t until the end of episode four, and the realisation that in the remaining few minutes they had an awful lot to wrap up, that I realised there was much more of the story left to be told.
As a parenthesis, I remember experiencing similar feelings of bewilderment at the end of Attack of the Clones and The Matrix Reloaded – both of which, I thought, were fairly muddled and both of which left an awful lot to unpack in their respective sequels in order to bring the story arc to a satisfying and rounded conclusion. The unfortunate truth – the astute among you will have seen this coming – was that neither Revenge of the Sith nor Matrix Revolutions manage anything of the sort, leaving instead a sort of shell-shocked emptiness trailing in their wake. There’s no real sense of closure or satisfaction, very little emotional connection, and you carry a begrudging sense of admiration for the visual spectacle but feel, perhaps, that the whole appearance of both films, if anything, simply gets in the way. You’re left empty, hollow and unsatisfied. It’s sort of how I imagine sex with Katie Price. In any event you can imagine I was pleasantly surprised to see ‘The Seeds of Doom’ stretch to a very comfortable six-episode narrative with plenty of cliffhangers – the good, old-fashioned sort – and a reasonably terrifying monster. Again, how I imagine Katie Price.
We open in an Antarctic base with a superimposed snow effect. (The base itself looks like matchboxes but it is admittedly quite impressive when it later goes up in flames.)
The seeds themselves refer to a couple of pods that are found buried in the Antarctic, unearthed by some researchers sporting ludicrous facial hair.
I mean you can practically see the glue. The best thing to do in such circumstances, of course, is to pair him with another scientist similarly garbed, in the hope that two fake beards will sort of cancel each other out.While all this is going on, Doctor and Companion are wandering around investigating and generally making a nuisance of themselves. The beards were bad enough, but award for fashion disaster of the week goes once more to Sladen. (And I don’t care that it was the seventies. It’s bloody awful.) Back at the lab, one of the pods germinates and latches on to the unfortunate Winlett, who is rapidly transformed into Swamp Thing.
I mean it’s fair enough, really, because if you’re going to turn a man into a plant there’s only so many ways you can do it, so some overlap – whether intended or not – was inevitable. Anyway, stomping around the Antarctic for a while, killing several people in his wake, Winlett is eventually destroyed when the base is destroyed by two saboteurs. The Doctor and Sarah Jane – who have come to investigate – escape with their lives, just barely, and regroup back in London. Here the focus shifts onto millionaire Harrison Chase, who is constantly looking out for rare and valuable specimens with which to embellish his collection.
Part of the joy of ‘The Seeds of Doom’ comes from its casting. Classic Who boasts a wealth of fine character actors in all manner of roles, back in the days when you didn’t need to cast pop stars or comedians to get a big draw. (It should also be noted that this particular bugbear of mine took root before the show’s resurrection – as tempting as it is to blame this on Julie Gardner, it really started in the 80s with Hale and Pace, not to mention the whole Ken Dodd thing.) ‘Pyramids of Mars’, in particular, has a substantial number of established performers (including Village of the Damned’s Bernard Archard, and Michael Bilton, who played Old Ned in To The Manor Born), most of whom don’t live beyond the first episode. Typically these supporting characters carry dignity and weight, irrespective of what side they’re on, and they’re always fun to watch.
‘The Seeds of Doom’ has Boycie. Who is, in this, an utter bastard. He carries the accent he’d later adopt in Only Fools and Horses, more or less, but a little less London. He is still an utter bastard, even though you expect him to mutter “All right, Rodney?” every time Baker walks onto the screen. It’s nonetheless a chilling performance, and we’re left devoid of any real sympathy for what is, as Sarah Jane points out, really a very lonely character.
There is a hint at redemption for the man, in his closing scenes, as the monster closes in. A frustrated and angry Scorby rants at the Doctor and Sarah Jane, as he frets about their imminent destruction:
SCORBY: So what are we supposed to do? Wait here until the Krynoid reduces this place to rubble?
SARAH: Don’t be so negative. Major Beresford’s going to come up with something.
SCORBY: Oh yeah. That laser gun was useless, wasn’t it. Look, I’ve never relied on anybody, just myself. I’ve always got myself out of trouble. Africa, the Middle East, you name it. I’ve not been a mercenary for nothing. I’m a survivor, right?
DOCTOR: Hmm? Scorby, bullets and bombs aren’t the answer to everything.
(The room shakes and more ceiling plaster comes down.)
SCORBY: What are we going to do?
SARAH: Oh, just shut up, will you? We’re all in the same boat.
It was at this point that Emily turned to me and said “Do you suppose he had an unhappy childhood?”. And I suppose he did, but the lovely thing about this scene is that it’s so underplayed. Challis rants, and the implication that he’s seen and experienced dreadful things is heavily implied, but there’s no resolution, no sudden character development, and no moment of clarity for any of the characters. It’s the sort of scene that Russell T. Davies would have been unable to write. Or, if he had, it would have come out something like this:
SCORBY: What are we supposed to do? Wait here until the Krynoid reduces this place to rubble?
ROSE: Oh come on, now, where’s your sense of optimism? The Doctor’ll get us aaart of it, won’t he? That’s what ‘e does. Doctor?
DOCTOR: [not really listening, apparently fiddling with something on a nearby window ledge] What? Oh, yes, of course. That’s right. Still got…ooh, a good fifteen minutes before the end of all civilisation. Plenty of time.
SCORBY: But you don’t have any ideas! You’re fresh out! You can’t turn to your friends out there, they’ve got nothing! You can’t rely on them! [beat] You can’t rely on anybody.
DOCTOR: [turning, addressing him properly, walking across] You know, you talk a lot about being alone, Scorby. Almost out of necessity. And somehow I think it’s because you’ve had to be. [He is now very close to him.] That’s basically it, isn’t it?
Scorby stares hard, swallows, doesn’t respond.
DOCTOR: There’s nothing wrong with feeling vulnerable and reliant on others. That’s not a sign of weakness, that’s a sign of strength. Shows you’re a team player. But you’ve not been able to do that for a long time, have you?
The piano is starting up.
SCORBY: [after a long pause] I was…twenty-three. We were in the Gulf. Doing a sweep of the eastern outskirts of Kabul. Pinned down in a room by sniper. Seven of us. No way of taking him out, not without him…managed to get coordinates out over the radio. They said they’d come get us.
DOCTOR: But they didn’t.
Piano and strings louder; we can hear faint, echoing sniper fire as background FX.
SCORBY: I lost my entire squad that day. We had to move eventually. Jennings was wounded, had to get him to hospital, couldn’t just…worst thing is it was my call. I was in charge. They died because of me. And I learned something that day, Doctor. Learned you can’t rely on anybody else. And that sometimes it’s best not to have anybody rely on you.
The Doctor stares for a moment. The piano and strings build to a crescendo as Scorby breaks down.
DOCTOR: I know what it’s like. You may not think it to look at me, but believe me I know. And I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
Aaaaanyway. While Scorby’s been spending all his time threatening the Doctor, the second pod germinates – this time the unfortunate victim is Keeler, scientist and somewhat reluctant villain. Keeler’s basically a decent enough chap, a voice of reason who doesn’t deserve his grisly fate, irrespective of what side he’s on. Both Keeler and Scorby, however, stand in the shadow of Harrison Chase, their eccentric (“Poor people are crazy, Jack. I’m eccentric”) employer who is determined to TAKE OVER THE WORLD using plants. As you do. He does this by playing the organ, conducting ghastly experiments and feeding his victims into a compost machine – “The sergeant’s no longer with us,” he remarks to a cornered Sarah in a typical fit of Bond villain delay tactics that conveniently allows the Doctor to reach her in time. “He’s in the garden. He’s part of the garden”.It all comes out in the wash – well, the flames, actually – when the house is destroyed by the RAF, mirroring the earlier destruction of the Antarctic base. The closing episode is suitably frenetic and intense, with menacing plants that sound incredibly like the Triffids in the 1980 TV adaptation of John Wyndham’s masterpiece, which led me to deduce that the production team lifted their sound effects from whatever they’d used here (which is again understandable, seeing as once again there’s probably only a set number of ways you can do menacing plants, and it’s only fair, seeing as ‘The Seeds of Doom’ owes so much to Wyndham as well as Quatermass). There’s a general sense of scalating tension, not least from the Doctor, who it seems spends the entire story permanently grizzly, forever shouting at someone or other. For all that doom and gloom it’s a ripping yarn – compelling from its first minutes to its last – although the serious undercurrent is undermined in the final minutes with an amusing final scene where Sarah Jane and the Doctor head off for another adventure, only to arrive promptly back in Antarctica when the Doctor forgets to reprogram the TARDIS. The snow makes it impossible for them to get their bearings and they can’t figure out whether they’ve already been, or are in fact yet to arrive. The two make a hasty exit before they cause any ontological paradoxes, which is funny, because in my experience that was never something the show really worried about…