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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Doctor Who (Classic): “The Seeds Of Death”

Illustration for article titled Doctor Who (Classic): “The Seeds Of Death”

“The Seeds Of Death” (season 6, episodes 23-28. Originally aired Jan. 25-March 1, 1969)

As much as I like “The Seeds Of Death” as pure entertainment, I’m not sure there’s all that much to say about the story on a deeper level, because that’s really its biggest flaw: It’s kind of a low-budget late-‘60s British TV version of a Michael Bay movie, geared to deliver thrills and spectacle but not particularly interested in whether the story being told actually means anything beyond “bad guys threaten good guys, who defeat bad guys.”

That was kind of a problem with the Second Doctor era in general, which was far less wide-ranging in the kinds of stories it told than First Doctor-era Doctor Who, coming to rely on alien-invasion plots to the point where there’s a widely used shorthand phrase in Who fandom to cover this period’s signature subgenre: the “base under siege” story, in which an isolated outpost of humans is menaced by some monster or monster from beyond. It’s a classic format not unique to this show by any means—it’s also the driver of Alien, Night Of The Living Dead, and Assault On Precinct 13, to give three of my favorite examples—but the Troughton era came to rely on it as its bread-and-butter, overusing it to the point of exhaustion. And while “The Seeds Of Death” is intriguingly forward-thinking in a couple of respects, ultimately it feels like it settled for less than it could have achieved. The series as a whole wasn’t quite so unambitious—we’ve already looked at two other stories from season six, “The Mind Robber” and “The War Games,” both of which were more complex and rewarding than this one. But I think that the superficial emphasis on thrills and chills in “Seeds Of Death” was, unfortunately, more typical of this era, and  maybe indicative of why the series came close to cancellation during this season, before the drastic overhaul in season seven that brought in the Third Doctor.

Which is not to say that on that  superficial level, “Seeds Of Death” doesn’t deliver the goods. It does. The story moves along at a nice clip and maintains a constant sense of tension and danger, despite the fact that Patrick Troughton was on vacation for a week and therefore the Doctor had to be unconscious and absent for an entire episode. (Which was a frequent occurence on black-and-white era Doctor Who—it’s also why William Hartnell goes missing for part of “The Time Meddler.”) If you absolutely have to lose the main character for a week, the fourth of six episodes is a good choice—it’s just when the villains are increasingly running riot, so his absence serves to make them look stronger, and doesn’t hurt the pace of the action as much as it might have. There are some Doctor Who episodes that I would be more than happy to never be reminded of their existence again, but this isn’t one of them. Whatever its flaws, it’s still plenty of fun. I’ve seen it at least five or six times over the years, and will happily watch it again in the future. It’s just that when it comes to its villains, the Ice Warriors, it doesn’t bother to find anything interesting about them. They’re just big dudes with guns and freaky armor, when there’s clear potential for them to be compelling characters in their own right.

The base-under-siege in “Seeds Of Death” is a moonbase, which, of course, is not a randomly chosen location for a show made in 1969. The Apollo 11 landing would happen just half a year after this was broadcast, and the space race was in the public consciousness more than ever before or since. If you’re making a sci-fi TV series in 1969, you’d have to be crazy to ignore that, and indeed Doctor Who had already featured moonbases and orbital space stations prominently in recent Cyberman stories “The Moonbase” and “The Wheel In Space.” Here, the rocket-travel subplot takes up the better part of two episodes, with the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe going through the entire process from liftoff to landing—which is almost immediately made irrelevant since the T-Mat teleporter is fixed before they even reach the moon. It's padding the story, perhaps, but also an indicator of just how exciting and dramatic rocketry seemed like back then. But what’s intriguing is the nostalgic, elegiac attitude “Seeds Of Death” has about the space program—T-Mat has created a worldwide network of instant travel and trade where nobody lacks for anything, and that’s also killed humanity’s collective sense of adventure. Since the teleporters' range doesn’t go further than the moon, nobody has bothered with further exploration, and only the lonely old Professor Eldred in his museum of ancient transportation still dreams about it. It’s oddly prescient—more 2012 than 1969. When “Seeds Of Death” first broadcast, Neil Armstrong’s foot was still six months away from its one small step for man (and one giant subliminal screw-you to the Silence), and instead of celebrating that, Doctor Who is mourning for the days when people still made big, crazy, breathtakingly ambitious plans for science and adventure like the Apollo program.

Illustration for article titled Doctor Who (Classic): “The Seeds Of Death”

This is actually the second appearance of the Ice Warriors, who were introduced during season five as the title villains in a now partially missing serial set during a future Ice Age Britain. Bulky, slow-moving and turtle-like, they’re an aggressive, militaristic species from Mars who want to conquer the comparatively hot, steamy Earth because their own world is becoming unable to support life. That single sentence is the sum total of the exploration of Ice Warrior culture in a six-part story that lasts 145 minutes. “Seeds Of Death” devotes more time to the question of whether weaselly Fewsham (played by a well-cast Terry Scully, looking like a British cousin of Steve Buscemi) is really a traitor than it does to the question of why the Ice Warriors are invading, or whether they’re anything but violent thugs. And yet, there’s the potential for something more interesting built into their one-sentence back story: They’re trying to escape a dying world. They’re fighting for their own survival. It’s true that they started this conflict and that they don’t have the right to survive at the expense of humanity, but nobody on either side makes any attempt to negotiate or stop the bloodshed. The Doctor himself is perfectly happy to take an eye for an eye:

SLAAR: The heat of the sun will kill them! You have destroyed our entire fleet!
DOCTOR: You tried to destroy an entire world.


He’s not wrong, exactly, but that is a pretty unforgiving and simplistic view compared with the way the Third Doctor treats another villainous alien-reptilian species in the following season’s “The Silurians,” who are, by design, far more nuanced, and not coincidentally make for a far more compelling story. The Ice Warriors themselves would get rehabilitated in the next story I’ll be looking at, season nine’s “The Curse Of Peladon.” If the Ice Warriors are one-dimensional thugs here, though, what saves them from being dull is that they’re effectively scary one-dimensional thugs. Alan Bannion is literally hissable as the raspy-voiced Ice Lord leader Slaar, and it’s little wonder why he was brought back twice more, in “Curse Of Peladon” and its sequel, to play two more Ice Lords. And there’s a real sense of panic and confusion created in the scene where a lone Warrior teleports into London station, wreaks havoc and lumbers unstoppably out the door.

One thing “Seeds Of Death” does very well is strong female characters. Except for the Doctor himself, Zoe and Miss Kelly are far and away the smartest and most competent people in the story, and what’s more, they don’t need to prove themselves to any chauvinist men. It’s simply accepted. Maybe that’s a British thing, considering that The Avengers’ Emma Peel, another ass-kickingly awesome lady, was also on TV screens around this time. But it was certainly more progressive than what Star Trek was doing in 1969—sure, Uhura is great, but there’s also “Turnabout Intruder,” the episode that basically claims women are too emotionally unstable to handle being leaders. Compare that to the way Radnor, Miss Kelly’s boss, openly and unstintingly acknowledges that she’s so important to the success of T-Mat that without her the entire enterprise will fall apart. At the very beginning of the first episode, we get a nicely evocative bit of dialogue that shows how amazingly fast and efficient the T-Mat network is, and why the world has come to rely on it exclusively, with the computer’s rapid-fire line “Bombay-Tokyo shipment activated. Bombay sending now. Tokyo receiving now. Dispatch completed.” And in the next episode, as the TARDIS crew’s rocket is counting down for takeoff, it’s significant that Miss Kelly’s face  has the countdown numbers superimposed over her face—in a visual sense, she is the computer.


Granted, it’s remarkably shortsighted to be so reliant on only one person for a worldwide global trade network, and probably criminally dumb to let her go to the moonbase herself in episode two, but that’s a different issue, and the story’s tendency toward the simplistic means that issue is just not gonna get addressed. Doctor Who has always tried to appeal to audiences of all ages, but “Seeds Of Death” stays kid-friendly by not sweating little nuances like plausibility. Or complex machinery, for that matter—the entire world’s rain is apparently controlled by one device about the size of a sewing machine that toggles between WET and DRY. And, of course, it’s equally dumb for the Ice Warriors to attack Earth, with its huge oceans and frequent rainstorms, armed with a spore that is killed by water. (I guess the Martian invasion planning didn't include watching any M. Night Shyamalan movies either.) That doesn’t necessarily make it a bad plot twist, except that to make it work the story would have needed to care about why the Ice Warriors were invading in the first place. Such an obvious Achilles’ heel might have been an interesting wrinkle to throw in there, showing their desperation—maybe things have gotten so bad on Mars that they need to resort to a tactic like that because they’re running out of time.

Illustration for article titled Doctor Who (Classic): “The Seeds Of Death”

As usual, Troughton’s performance anchors the story. I’m always impressed by the way he deliberately plays against the heroic type, and the cliffhanger of episode five gives him a great moment for that: Covered by the foam-like Martian fungus, he watches in horror as a bubble containing oxygen-destroying spores expands before his very eyes, which nearly killed him earlier in the story. Troughton is terrific at scenes where his facial expression has to carry the weight of showing how much danger he’s in. It’s not an impressive prop, just a white balloon and a roomful of soap suds, but Troughton makes you believe he’s really in danger.

Stray observations

• This has nothing to do with this particular Doctor Who episode, but did anyone besides me think that Pierce’s line in this week’s Community about ranking his marriages was a stealth reference to our little show? “If I had to rank them, I’d go 4th, 7th, 2nd, 5th, 1st, 3rd, 6th … No, wait, 1st, then 5th.” I mean, that would be a pretty respectable ranked list of the first seven Doctors as well, the kind of thing that reliably dominated fanboy discussions on the dial-up Internet Doctor Who chatgroups in the 1980s when McGann, Eccleston, Tennant and Smith weren't yet in the picture. (It's an infinitely arguable list, of course, which is half the fun of it. Mine would be 4-2-3-1-7-5-6, or maybe switch 7 and 5. Or maybe put 7 before 1?)


• The final episode’s pitched battle with an Ice Warrior in waist-deep soap suds is fine in its own right, but it would have been improved with a little more kung fu, Black Belt Jones-style:

• And because it features several shots of the Doctor's two-handed solar weapon from "Seeds Of Death," I have an excuse to officially post this:

• Upcoming schedule: Next up, the Third Doctor meets the Ice Warriors again in “The Curse of Peladon.” Then, starting April 15, we’ll get into the Davros-era Dalek tales in order, interspersed with some non-Dalek material to keep things from getting stale, hopping around between eras as much as possible. I might change my mind about a story or two, but here’s the plan:

April 1: “The Curse of Peladon”
April 15:  “Genesis Of The Daleks”
April 29: “The War Machines”
May 13: “Destiny Of The Daleks”
May 27: “The Claws Of Axos”
June 10: “Resurrection Of The Daleks”
June 24: “The Ribos Operation”
July 8: “Revelation Of The Daleks”
July 22: “Black Orchid”
Aug. 5: “Remembrance Of The Daleks”
Aug. 19: “Ghost Light”
Sept. 2: “The Krotons”