Doctor Who Project: The Seeds of Death

Doctor Who Project: The Seeds of Death
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Use the air conditioning!

Some wag must have put a classified ad into the Intergalactic Times, offering up one planet, sold as-is, slightly used and with annoying inhabitants who need to be exterminated, because Earth gets invaded quite often during Patrick Troughton’s tenure on Doctor Who. Season Six alone features three stories using the invasion of Earth as a plot device: “The Mind Robber,” “The Invasion,” and Brian Hayles’ sophomore effort with his Ice Warriors, “The Seeds of Death” (Story Production Code XX). To his credit, Brian Hayles creates, again, an interesting take on human culture and civilization, but he falls prey to the continued flattening of Doctor Who monster motives.

Meet Slaar

In our first encounter with the reptilian Martians, their leader, Varga, wants to get his ship, and his crew, back to Mars after centuries buried under a glacier. Though ruthless, Varga shows at least suggestions of character and cunning, with some hint of honor and duty in his otherwise sibilant menace. The leader of the Ice Warriors in “The Seeds of Death,” Slaar, comes across as nothing more than petulant and impulsive, killing a human key to his scheme and then throwing a hissy (sorry!) fit when, as is inevitable, the Doctor outwits his invasion plans.

Still, for a while, Slaar’s plans work quite well, as they hinge upon an isolated base (on the moon, of course) that contains the technological linchpin required for continued human survival. Rather than the Gravitron that the Cybermen sought as a prelude to invasion in “The Moonbase,” here the wonder technology is the Travelmat Relay, or T-Mat, for short. Using the moon as a relay station, T-Mat allows for near instant dematerialization and rematerialization between any two T-Mat cubicles on Earth. This transit technology has supplanted all other forms of travel, including space flight and ground vehicles, such that there’s (almost) no way to send help to the moon. With the lunar T-Mat relay knocked out of operation, human society begins to collapse, as all foodstuffs and medical supplies move via T-Mat. Eventually, a weakened Earth would be ripe for invasion.

But that’s not the plan. Instead, the Ice Warriors intend to send foam-filled fungal seeds to a few cold cities in the hopes that the foolish humans will open the T-Mat cubicles out of curiosity and let the fungal spores escape. Sadly, that actually works, too…

A mysterious alien seed pod! Let's open it!

Technology and its discontents play a huge role in the Second Doctor’s stories and Brian Hayles’ oeuvre in particular. In “The Ice Warriors,” the technicians at the glacier base cannot take any actions without the support—tantamount to authorization—of the Great World Computer, and the machine just isn’t up to the challenge of dealing with dethawed Martian conquerers. It takes one brave nonconformist to make a decision without the approval of the machine to save the day (and it’s not the Doctor). Here, an overreliance on T-Mat as the sole means of mass transportation, as well as the functional knowledge of that system being in the mind of one person, Gia Kelly, almost leads to the invasion of Earth. Neatly, however, the Doctor and Kelly are able to use the Ice Warriors’ reliance on technology to send the invasion fleet into an unrecoverable (and fatal) orbit around the Sun, turnabout being fair play and all that.

The Doctor and his companions do not arrive on the scene until some eight minutes into the first of six episodes, by which time the viewer has had time to absorb the futuristic setting, with technocrats receiving T-Mat reports from a central computer and people disappearing and reappearing in cubicles scattered all over. But, just in case the “transporter” concept remained unclear—Star Trek had yet to air in the United Kingdom, with the BBC only showing the first episodes in mid-1969, almost six months after this story premieres—the TARDIS materializes in the private spaceflight museum of Professor Eldred, Earth’s last remaining rocket scientist, and Zoe, still vinyl clad from the end of “The Krotons,” conveniently triggers a film presentation about the Travelmat Relay system.

T-Mat Explained

By this time, the Ice Warriors have successfully infiltrated the lunar T-Mat Relay Base, landing their spaceship nearby without anyone noticing since no one ever uses rockets, thus obviating the need for any form of radar sensors. When one of the T-Mat technicians on the moon shorts out the relay to prevent the Ice Warriors from using it, panic sets in on Earth. In apparently a short number of hours, the whole planet begins to suffer grievous shortages of all manner of essential supplies, and Eldred’s ion rocket prototype is pressed into service to get a brave trio to the moon to fix the situation. And who are the three brave astronauts? The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe, of course.

Not quite the TARDIS

They can’t use the TARDIS, as the Doctor flatly states that it is not suited for short-range travel. But, since, as he declares, “I have considerable experience in space travel, and so have my two companions,” the T-Mat controllers somehow agree to let these perfect strangers board Earth’s only manned rocket on a mission that will determine the fate of the planet—and this is even before anyone on Earth knows that the Ice Warriors are responsible for the whole mess. Hayles at least tries to have someone point out the obvious logical flaw in this plan, with Kelly questioning their suitability—Jamie’s in particular—but it’s waved away with a quick aside about the Doctor’s unparalleled knowledge, as demonstrated in an off-screen conference.

And, frankly, to pick upon that inconsistency is unfair to the myriad other problems with the plot, many of which are far greater. Most significantly, the entire story seems to take place within a very short time span, a handful of days if not hours. Perhaps a radical version of the “just-in-time” inventory concept prevails in this vision of Earth’s very near future (21st Century, according to the Doctor’s dating of Eldred’s ion jet rocket prototype), but all of human civilization falls apart right away.

The cowardly human who helps the Ice Warriors repair and run the T-Mat on the moon—since for some reason they cannot do so themselves—protests that he hasn’t eaten or slept since the Ice Warriors took over, suggesting no more than two days at the very outside. Yet Eldred and the T-Mat controllers are able to put an untested rocket into lunar orbit from what appears to be a full-blown launch control center in this time span. And then, later, they launch a second rocket with a satellite that lures the Ice Warrior invasion fleet to its doom. Granted, Eldred might have had some of the facilities already prepared, yet it remains a massive undertaking given that Earth has no functioning transportation. Kelly even quips about finding a quaint automobile in a museum to motor about in.

We'll just stand back here, thanks.

Dating this story seems fairly straightforward—the 21st Century—put weaving it in amongst the other near-future stories of the Second Doctor’s era becomes far more problematic, mostly because of the presence of Zoe. She’s never heard of T-Mat, or the Ice Warriors on Mars, but she comes from a time when humanity has outposts far into the Solar System, necessitating more advanced rocketry than Earth in this story has to offer. Perhaps T-Mat was a blip in human experience seldom discussed, like the pneumatic trains of the 19th Century, explaining her ignorance of it—though it seems odd for Zoe to have any real gaps in her techno-historical knowledge. Throw in on-planet weather control, as opposed to off-world weather control as seen in “The Moonbase,” and the dating gets, well, complicated. It’s just sort of in the near future, and there’s no great effort taken to ground it in the timeline of other stories. (Though there were internal combustion engines in museums in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” too, so maybe this story comes just before that one, with the Daleks seeing Earth weakened by the Ice Warriors and…sigh, never mind.)

The notion of spacefaring civilizations needing homing beacons for navigation returns in full force in this story. Twice, in “The Invasion” and “The Wheel in Space,” Cyberman invasion fleets have been rendered harmless by preventing them from getting a fix on the planet, and here, the Ice Warrior invasion fleet cannot find the moon without a beacon. By copying that beacon signal and broadcasting it from the aforementioned satellite, the fleet is lured to the deadly heat of a solar orbit. (For some reason, the trip from Mars to the moon left them with almost no fuel to maneuver. For a martial species, the invasion shows severe logistical faults.)

And, of course, Ice Warriors really, really don’t like heat, such that they can be killed by increasing ambient temperature to 50 degrees Celsius (120-ish Fahrenheit). Once the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe reach the moon, they are able to defeat several of the Ice Warriors just by turning the big temperature wheel in the control room to “Full On.” The Doctor even kits himself out with portable solar heat weapons and, upon making a final assault on the control room at the end of the story, intends to kill every Ice Warrior he encounters.

Ice Warriors Beware!

Prior to wiping out the Ice Warrior invasion fleet, the Doctor busies himself with the minor matter of the eponymous seeds, which spread a fast-growing fungus that creates a vegetative blight. Covering acres in mere minutes, the fungus eats oxygen, reducing it’s atmospheric proportion to a level very close to that found on Mars, paving the way for the Ice Warriors to colonize Earth and depopulating it in the process. The fungus manifests as foam—indeed, in a brilliantly profligate abundance of foam that more than pays for the already hard-worked BBC foam machines—and cannot be destroyed. Except, um, by water.

Foam-bound Ice Warrior

Conveniently, the London T-Mat center also plays host to a global Weather Control Station, so Slaar sends a single Ice Warrior via T-Mat to knock out the single control device that manufactures rain. In the course of the final episode, the Doctor kills that Ice Warrior, re-wires the weather machine to produce global rain, builds a portable solar heat gun, returns to the moon, turns off the real fleet homing signal and sends hundreds (or more) Ice Warriors to a crispy death, and manages to leave before anyone can ask just what happened.

One can’t really blame him.

Still, for all it inconsistencies, “The Seeds of Death” remains briskly paced and enjoyable enough. Other than episode four, featuring lots of pointless running around in maintenance tunnels on the moonbase (and absent Patrick Troughton), there’s not much wasted energy here. Our time travellers do get pushed to the background more than seems prudent from the viewer’s standpoint—there are scenes where they literally stand around doing nothing while other people talk and talk in the foreground—but on the whole, the Doctor, Zoe, and Jamie get to play to their strengths.

Oh, my!

Patrick Troughton gets several scenes where he runs hither and yon in some of the campiest moments since episode four of “The Chase“—you know, the one with Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula—and he contorts his visage to good effect whilst covered to the neck in foam. Throw in some absent-minded professor moments and Troughton shows that he’s in his element in this story.

The Doctor shows a continued lack of sympathy for aggressors, countering Slaar’s protestations that he has doomed the Ice Warrior fleet by pointing out it’s no less bloodthirsty than they themselves behaved. It’s almost as though monsters who make repeat appearances lack any redeeming qualities or depth of motivation. The Ice Warriors never reveal why they want to conquer Earth. Though the Doctor suggests that Mars has died out and become uninhabitable, there’s no exploration of the theme: Ice Warriors are bad and deserve to die, the end. This lack of sophistication bodes poorly for the future of the series as adult science fiction, but then it never posited itself as such. One cannot deny that this approach promotes lots of fights and chases and explosions.

For Frazer Hines, the fights rank right up there, as Jamie gets several chances to tangle with Ice Warriors. He doesn’t quite ever win, but he does at least distract the brutes long enough for some other force to fell them. Otherwise, Jamie is treated as something of a village idiot. Kelly directly questions his qualifications for being on the spaceflight, and when the Doctor video-calls with news of how to defeat the fungus, he only addresses Zoe even though Jamie is standing there as well. If Hines wearied of the “dumb Scot” schtick, he didn’t show it, perhaps knowing that he (and Troughton and Padbury) would be leaving the show soon enough anyway.

Stealth Mode

Once more, Wendy Padbury receives a good deal of focus in this story, with Zoe showing off her intelligence and taking physical risks. Her character benefits from the presence of Gia Kelly (Louise Pajo), a strong callback to Sara Kingdom—highly competent, no nonsense, and focused on the mission. When a tiny ventilation duct needs to be squeezed through, Zoe volunteers, and Kelly overrides Jamie’s protestations to the contrary. Zoe almost gets killed in the process, but she manages to turn the heat up high enough to sweat out the offending Ice Warriors.

The trio, again, seems to genuinely enjoy each others’ company, both the characters and the actors. Counting from the end of “The Highlanders,” Jamie has been a companion for 93 episodes/17 stories, far and away the longest of any companion to date. There’s a real comfortability at work. It’s best to savor it now, as there are only two stories left for Jamie, Zoe, and the Second Doctor.

(Previous Story: The Krotons)

(Next Story: The Space Pirates)

Post 49 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project

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