Sunday, June 26, 2016

"The Seeds of Doom"

Aired Jan 31 - March 6, 1976

6 Episodes

Story 85

Written by Robert Banks Stewart

Directed by Douglas Camfield


Returning to Earth, the Doctor is asked by the World Ecology Bureau to head to Antartica to investigate a strange seed pod uncovered in the permafrost. The Doctor warns the scientist not to touch the pod until her arrived, but curiosity get the better of them, and they decide to do some cursory examinations. In the process, the pod opens and stings one of the men, infecting him with strange green fungus all over his body.

But the Doctor isn't the only person racing to Antartica. Eccentric millionaire and plant's right activist Harrison Chase has sent two men of his own, scientist Keeler and mercenary Scorby, to obtain the pod and bring it back to him by any means.

Once at the base, the Doctor discovers another pod in the ice and deduces that both pods are in fact Krynoid, a form of extraterrestrial plant life that journeys through space until it arrives in a suitable environment, whereupon it germinates and then transforms all animal life on the planet into Krynoids until it becomes the dominant life form.

As the infected scientist transforms into a Krynoid and kills the other men in his expedition, the Doctor and Sarah race against time to keep the infection contained and destroy the remaining pod. Their efforts are hampered by Scorby and Keeler. A bomb set by them winds up destroying the Krynoid, ending that threat, but the two men manage to escape back to England with the second pod.

The Doctor and Sarah return to England to try and stop Chase from unleashing the Krynoid, but are too late to stop the pod from germinating and infecting Keeler, who begins the transformation. Chase accelerates the process by feeding the infected Keeler raw meat, thereby accentuating the Krynoids already predatory instincts.

Soon, the Krynoid begins to grow to a gigantic size, rampaging throughout the grounds of Chase's estate. Reluctantly teaming up with Scorby, the Doctor and Sarah scramble to survive. Eventually, Chase is killed by a compost machine into which he was attempting to throw the Doctor, while the now gigantic Krynoid is destroyed by UNIT before it can spread its seed pods all over the Earth.

The Seeds of Doom is kind of an oddity in Doctor Who. It's a revered story, whose standing is only growing over the years. It's also an extremely unusual story in terms of tone and in how it perceives the title character of the series.

This is a Doctor that is far more of an action hero than he's ever been, even during the most dashing and swashbuckling moments of the Third Doctor era. He crashes through windows,  socks thugs on the jaw, and generally behaves more like the star of an action series than the eccentric bohemian scientist he is more often depicted as. There are those that don't like this serial for precisely that reason, that the more aggressive Doctor and the more action-oriented tone results in a story that just doesn't feel like Doctor Who.

Those people aren't wrong. This is a story that feels different, and I've never thought that to be a bad thing, overall. It's an outlier, and if you can enjoy it as such, then it's also one of the best directed, most tense and brilliant stories of the Fourth Doctor era. It's possibly the best structured six-part serial in the history of the series, without a doubt one of the best directed serials ever, and one of the most effortlessly enjoyable in the classic series.

Tom Baker gives a different performance than he's ever given in the series to date. There's no doubt that Baker's first two seasons saw him experimenting with how remote and alien he could make his Doctor. Baker deliberately plays with unusual line readings to accentuate the Doctor's alien point of view. He'll play foreboding lines with great humor and jokes as deadly serious. In The Seeds of Doom, Baker seems to be experimenting with the idea of the Doctor recognizing very early on the magnitude of the danger Earth is in, and then decides to play that to the hilt. The Doctor here is far more determined, far more intense than we've often seen him. And Baker allows what is obviously his distaste at the very realistic sadism and brutality of the Scorby character to influence the way the Doctor interacts with him. The Fourth Doctor suffered no fools, and he despised cruelty, but have we ever seen him as enraged with an antagonist as we see in his dealings with Scorby? 

The rest of the cast is equally impressive. Tony Beckley turns in one of the great truly bonkers performances in Doctor Who as Harrison Chase. Beckley knows how to inject just the right level of camp and charm to make Chase engaging, but still retain a glint of madness that is believable. He makes a patently ridiculous character work by how much he commits to it. John Challis, meanwhile, seems to be playing Scorby as if the character wandered onto the set from some gritty police procedural, resulting in perhaps Doctor Who's definitive thug character. Kenneth Gilbert, Hubert Rees and the incredible Sylvia Coleridge all do great work as well.

Robert Banks Stewart, who wrote another atypical story with Terror of the Zygons, may have a style more well-suited to The Avengers, but there's no denying how watchable his scripts are, nor how well he structured them in conjunction with script editor Robert Holmes. The story is essentially two adventures, with the first two episodes being the terror at the base in Antartica, before turning into a four-part adventure back in England. This allows the viewer to entirely forget the length of the story, a trick that finally figures out how to effectively pace these six part adventures. Arguably, this is the best example of structuring in this way, and it's part of what makes this serial zip along so well.

The other, and perhaps largest factor in the serial's success is the direction by Douglas Camfield. Long one of Doctor Who's best directors, his skill at controlling the pacing of stories was second-to-none. Camfield excelled at maximizing the programme's meagre resources like no one else, giving the stories he directed a cinematic sense of scale. He's justly lauded for his military-like deftness with the organization of shooting, but you also can't deny his skill at leading a cast of actors either. His serials are rife with actors giving great work, and he was neither afraid to encourage actors' suggestions nor indulgent of them. This resulted in the company of actors having great affection for the man, and also great respect. 

The Seeds of Doom is the last Doctor Who serial Camfield would direct, and though it represents perhaps his finest work on the series, one can't help but think that in the troubled years to come, Doctor Who would have greatly benefited from his steady hand. Camfield passed away in 1984, at the age of 52. 

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