Thursday, 1 August 2013


Of course, the finale to Tom Baker’s second year as Dr Who is brilliant. But why exactly, when it’s unashamedly derivative and got a plot you could write on a Post-It note?
Mr Chase and his beautiful plants. (Image: BBC)

‘You know, Doctor, I could play all day in my green cathedral.’
A man turns into an alien in Antarctica, gets blown up, then a man turns into an alien in England and gets blown up. ‘Timelash’ has got more imaginative story development. So has ‘Time and the Rani’. So why does ‘The Seeds of Doom’ have such an unassailable reputation, particularly when Tom Baker himself hated the script?

Watching it again last night, I was struck that, like ‘Terror of the Zygons’ which was made by the same team of writer Robert Banks Stewart and director Douglas Camfield, ‘The Seeds of Doom’ is a triumph of execution over content. In both his scripts, Banks Stewart has clearly set out to put the kids firmly back behind the sofa and with a director as visceral as Camfield in control, he succeeds in this aim admirably. The horrific imagery is partly why ‘Seeds’ is such a success: graphic strangulation in a dark corridor, Sarah (Elisabeth Sladen) tied up near a bomb counting down to zero, the twitchy Keeler (Mark Jones) lashed to a bed and being slowly absorbed by his Krynoid infection, Sarah and company being attacked by plants as Harrison Chase (the magnificent Tony Beckley) sits cross-legged watching… not forgetting Chase’s compost-come-bone grinder. 

'Alright, Chase. YOU'RE NICKED!'
(Image: BBC)
Every one of the supporting cast has decent dialogue and believable character development too. Scorby (John Challis – yes, Boycie from Only Fools and Horses), a mercenary – these soldiers of fortune were in the news a lot in the 1970s – can’t trust anyone and in the end cracks up because of it. Keeler is a weak man out of his depth with violent men like Scorby and pays the price for taking Chase’s money, as does the greedy but ultimately honourable Dunbar (Kenneth Gilbert). Hargreaves (Seymour Green), Chase’s silver haired butler, stays loyal to his employer amid the spiralling chaos and dies as a result of his commitment.

I’ll stick my neck out and say that ‘The Seeds of Doom’ isn’t really a Doctor Who story at all. Unlike ‘The Mind of Evil’, which riffs on everything from A Clockwork Orange to OO7’s nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the story’s influences aren’t at one with Doctor Who’s style. The Doctor is suddenly bad tempered and starts crashing through windows and beating up villains like a cross between The Sweeney’s Jack Regan and The Avengers’ John Steed. The latter series is an overwhelming influence: in its first Diana Rigg season, the story ‘Man-Eater of Surrey Green’ featured a carnivorous alien plant being cultivated on a country house estate, while the eccentric Amelia Ducat (Sylvia Coleridge), man from the ministry Sir Colin Thackeray (Michael Barrington) and army support Major Beresford (John Acheson) are all archetypes straight out of The Avengers. The story even ends with a comedy sketch like the filmed episodes used to. At least the Doctor and Sarah aren’t shown chasing a runaway milk float.

Producer Philip Hinchcliffe was famously so concerned about the level of horror in a scene in ‘The Ark in Space (his first story) that he cut it. Two years on, he seems to have decided that the audience will now accept realistic violence and extremely adult scenes of people being crushed to death in a mechanical grinder – Chase’s dying scream is memorably horrible. Or maybe it’s Douglas Camfield’s influence. For such a cultured man, the director was keen to push the boundaries of what was acceptable on television. He was removed from The Sweeney’s pilot ‘Regan’ for wanting to rewrite the script to include a rape scene and would work with Hinchcliffe again on Target, the BBC’s answer to the ITV Flying Squad. On that series, Camfield would finally go too far, with the Sam Peckinpah-style machine gunning of a young girl and boiling water poured over a naked woman. Even though the 1970s was a very liberal time for television, Target was cancelled because of the complaints about its violence.

So, ‘The Seeds of Doom’ is great, but for an odd mixture of contradictory reasons. These days, more and more I find myself rewatching the Graham Williams produced stories starring Tom Baker. The production values and acting might not be as consistent as that of the Hinchcliffe years, but on the whole the scripts are far more imaginative and original and, it has to be said, Tom looks a lot happier with the emphasis on wit and word play.

Then again, I know I’ll be back in my green cathedral before too long.

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