“The Seeds Of Doom” (season 13, episodes 21-26; originally aired Jan. 31-March 6, 1976)
Horror and good old-fashioned scariness have always been a big part of Doctor Who’s appeal. The standard joke in the early ’60s was that kids watched the show from behind the sofa, not on it, for fear of the Daleks. The Silence and the Weeping Angels serve the same function today. But in seasons 12 to 14, the early years of Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor, the series made horror a driving force. The show started to push at the boundaries of what you could get away with in family-friendly TV, with a focus on the intensity of the violence and the creep factor that echoed Hammer Studios movies. It had the desired effect of getting attention, good and bad—ratings went up, but so did complaints from censorious conservatives. That was a primary factor in why the BBC broke up the creative team after season 14, packing off producer Philip Hinchcliffe to take over crime series Target, with script editor Robert Holmes leaving soon after. But it was a great ride while it lasted—out of the 17 serials made in these three years, I’d call 10 absolute classics, and none of the remainder are less than watchable and entertaining.
And “The Seeds Of Doom” is one of the greats. A tightly written and directed horror/thriller about an alien weed called a Krynoid, it’s anchored by a great performance by Baker that capitalizes on the rapid mood swings and charismatic intensity of his Doctor to underscore the atmosphere of unearthly danger with grim hints of what he knows but isn’t telling us about Krynoids, and then to work as his own comic relief with a zinger and a toothy smile that lightens the mood without letting you forget there’s an apocalypse blooming in the garden.
If you’re even a casual fan of horror movies, you probably recognize the basic plot of “The Seeds Of Doom.” It starts on a remote Antarctic research station where scientists find something alien buried in the ice—in this case a pair of seedpods, tens of thousands of years old—which wakes up and infects one of them, consuming and eventually becoming him, and it might do the same to everything on Earth if it escapes. It’s basically redoing The Thing From Another World, in other words. But this being the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era, it’s more complicated than that. Their blend of action sci-fi and gothic horror wore its influences on its sleeve, not merely taking inspiration from older movies and books but usually doing a straight-up pastiche, throwing in ideas taken from several different sources. Season 13 had already featured Whovian takes on Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (“Planet Of Evil”), Boris Karloff mummy movies (“Pyramids Of Mars”), and Frankenstein with a bit of The Fly (“Brain Of Morbius”) For the season finale, they drew not only on Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World and the short story that inspired it—“Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell—but also Nigel Kneale’s The Quatermass Experiment, H.P. Lovecraft’s “At The Mountains Of Madness,” and a 1965 Avengers episode, “The Man-Eater Of Surrey Green,” in which an alien plant takes over the mind of an insane aristocrat in a scheme to take over the Earth.
What elevates this above the level of imitation is that “Seeds Of Doom” and the other pastiches weren’t just parades of cheap, winking references, but serious attempts to combine the best parts of their sources and make something that at least approaches the originals in quality. Raiders Of The Lost Ark didn’t break a lot of new ground either, but nobody can say Steven Spielberg doesn’t know how to craft a movie. This is best seen in that spirit. Is it less conceptually ambitious than Seventh-Doctor stories like “The Curse Of Fenric” or “Ghost Light”? Sure. It’s following the basic template of “The hero must stop [THREAT] before it destroys the Earth,” not exactly an uncommon plot on Doctor Who. But it succeeds brilliantly at that game. “Seeds Of Doom” is a hugely entertaining piece of action-horror, and a worthy if low-budget precursor to John Carpenter’s masterful version of The Thing, made six years later. (Did this influence Carpenter’s movie? I don’t know, but it’s possible; the guy knew and loved British horror films well enough to hire Kneale to write Halloween III and use the name Quatermass as a pseudonym in Prince Of Darkness.)
Longer Doctor Who serials like this one can be draggy, but “Seeds Of Doom,” even at six parts, moves like lightning from Antarctica to the English mansion of Harrison Chase, an unnervingly obsessed fan of botany with the money and power to do anything he wants, and who is thrilled to find out that his new stolen bauble can also fulfill his dream of exterminating humanity in favor of his precious, silent plants. He’s straight-up nuts and evil from the moment we meet him, insisting that bonsai is the equivalent of torture—a grotesque (but watchably compelling) parody of an environmentalist back when the movement was especially new and frightening to the mainstream. The politics of that seem more than a little reactionary, but then, Chase is the villain—mirroring him on the other side, there’s the Doctor as an inherently countercultural figure who’s fighting for ordinary people. Yet like Chase, the Doctor here seems particularly hard-put to show sympathy for the people he’s trying to save, or even explain what’s going on, knowing nobody else is aware of the Krynoid’s full threat or capable of dealing with it. He isn’t willing to even pretend to be interested in the petty problems of humanity; his eye is on the bigger picture. He’s got the burden of saving us from giant tentacled monsters from outer space, so don’t bother him about saving us from ourselves. It’s Sarah who takes up the role of rallying people’s morale, as she does with the scientists in Antarctica, or taking them to task for selfish cowardice, as she does with Scorby, the thug who gives in to panic when the chips are down.
The pacing is terrific, hitting just about every cliffhanger on a crescendo of ratcheting tension. Yet it has time to breathe where it needs to, lingering on the grotesque transformations of the Krynoid’s victims, who don’t simply fall down one moment and get up the next as Krynoids, but are transformed slowly, over several scenes. It’s especially effective in the case of Keeler, the crooked but still-sympathetic scientist who pays a high price for associating with Harrison Chase, losing his mind and body to a carnivore by degrees, while he’s still conscious and has a very good idea of exactly what’s happening to him.
“The Seeds Of Doom” has a reputation as being excessively violent, which is not entirely unearned considering the fight scene where the Doctor seems to break Scorby’s neck. (He’s fine, but don’t try that at home.) But matched against 2012 TV like The Walking Dead or Game Of Thrones, the violence here seems almost ordinary. Of course, part of the problem was Doctor Who’s sizeable audience of kids: Is it too violent for them? All I can say is that I first saw this when I was 5 and loved it, and still do.
- This is the last UNIT story of the 1970s, bringing down the curtain on an aspect of the show that defined it for most of the decade. And it cuts the ties with the Doctor’s old military crew, who’d been a deep source of support and of frustration for so many years, in a way that feels like running into somebody you knew in high school and realizing they’ve changed so much you don’t recognize them anymore. Literally, in way: None of the familiar cast of soldiers like the Brigadier show up, and instead UNIT’s represented by the one-off character Major Beresford, who does his job well but shows no particular interest in the eccentric alien scientific advisor with the long scarf. The show had been cutting the Doctor’s ties with UNIT for some time now, and here they are little more than a generic army squadron. It’s disappointing, but the show had moved on.
- Foolish limo-driver/assassin, never chase the Doctor into a quarry! It’s giving him home-field advantage!
- The human-sized growth stage of the Krynoid is a repainted Axon costume from “The Claws Of Axos.” In closeups, you can see places where the green paint didn’t completely cover up the red.
- A whole host of great lines in this one, including the Doctor’s admonishment to Sarah that they shouldn’t give up: “Nothing’s hopeless. All we have to do is think.” Baker’s reading of the line shows a difference between him and his predecessors—the first three Doctors probably all would have said that encouragingly, but the Fourth is annoyed that he has to say it even while he means it.
- The Doctor explains how he knew there would be a second pod in the ice: “They travel in pairs, like policemen.”
- “Be reasonable, Sarah! What choice has he got [than killing us]? We keep interfering.”
- “What do you do for an encore, Doctor?” “I win.”
- Despite the similar-sounding title, “The Seeds Of Doom” has nothing to do with season six’s “The Seeds Of Death.”
- Sir Colin and Major Beresford mock the Doctor’s warning that the local plants will start turning violent by joking about “aggressive rhubarb” and “homicidal gooseberries.” Clearly they’ve never taken self-defense training from this guy:
• Upcoming schedule:
Sept. 30: “The Romans”
Oct. 14: “The Three Doctors”
Oct. 28: “The Deadly Assassin”
I haven't chosen November and beyond yet, but I will within a day or so. Watch this space.