I’ve heard of flower power, but that is ridiculous.
It took until 1976, but Doctor Who finally turned the Doctor into a secret agent, replete with a loquacious super-villain who commands an army of uniformed henchmen for a foe, in Robert Banks Stewart’s “The Seeds of Doom” (Story Production Code 4L). Aside from the alien plant creature bent on consuming the planet, this story could have featured Roger Moore or Patrick Macnee with little alteration. The Fourth Doctor’s scientific knowledge advances the plot but does not inform the resolution in the least; he’s an action hero, through and through, jumping through windows, donning disguises, brandishing pistols, and wrestling with bad guys mere inches from whirring blades of death.
“The Seeds of Doom” could not have been made during Hartnell or Troughton’s runs. Indeed, the analogous Second Doctor story, “The Seeds of Death,” which also features deadly alien seed pods finding their way to Earth, centers around the dangers of technocracy, the Doctor having to match wits with bureaucrats and Ice Warriors, the former being perhaps the more difficult foe. In Stewart’s tale, the Fourth Doctor confronts a chlorophyl-thirsty megalomaniac who composes orchestral overtures for his beloved plants and commands a giant garden estate patrolled by flunkies with matching jumpers and submachine-guns. No subtle disquisition on humanity’s increasing tendency towards centralized thought, this.
It wouldn’t be a Robert Banks Stewart story without world agencies, and here the World Ecological Bureau’s Antarctic expedition finds a giant seed pod buried twenty thousand years deep in the permafrost. The Doctor is dispatched by UNIT to assist the investigation, but before he can arrive, the pod releases a tendril that infects a researcher. The hapless man turns into a Krinoid, a “galactic weed,” in the Doctor’s parlance, that has the nasty side effect of consuming all non-plant life on any world where it germinates. They always travel in pairs, and the Doctor helpfully digs up the second pod to prove his point.
Harrison Chase, the wealthy hortiphile, learns of the pod through a corrupt contact at the WEB and sends two henchmen to retrieve it (and dispose of any pesky witnesses). Given that the story starts in Antarctica, at a weather-isolated base, one feels at the beginning that the action will take place in this small space, with a dwindling number of survivors fighting against the plant-creature and Chase’s thugs. Stewart has other ideas, though, and by the end of the second of six episodes, the initial Krinoid is destroyed in a blast triggered by the bad guys, killing the last of the researchers as well. Only the Doctor and Sarah survive, because of course they do.
Rescued by Royal Marines and brought back to London—the TARDIS being nowhere on display in this story save at the very end as part of a humorous season finale moment—the Doctor and Sarah take their concerns to the WEB, where Chase’s conspirator arranges for a car driven by an assassin to pick them up in a scene right out of Dr. No. After some chase and fight scenes in a quarry, with the Doctor engaging in rather vigorous fisticuffs, the Doctor disguises himself as the chauffeur and drives into Chase’s mansion—though not before making a stop at the home of Amelia Ducat (Sylvia Coleridge), noted horticultural painter and, as it turns out, undercover agent of the WEB, for information on Chase.
Ameila Ducat’s role is a strange one. Though UNIT is involved in this story, particularly at the end, none of the “normal” UNIT personnel make an appearance, despite their fitting into this story in a far more organic sense than in their swan song, “The Android Invasion.” The Doctor’s need for external assistance in this story requires some peripheral figures to get messages to the outside once he and Sarah find their way into (and cannot get out of) Chase’s lair, hence the seemingly harmless Miss Ducat. She’s played mostly for comic relief, but it’s a shame there’s no fuller development of her character—during Hartnell or, especially Troughton’s eras, there would have been at least the prospect that she came onboard the TARDIS for a story or two.
Once the action shifts to merry old England, a fairly standard four episode story unfolds, with the second pod being germinated into a Krinoid that grows to the size of a house. The Doctor and Sarah take turns rescuing each other from Chase’s henchmen, and when the Krinoid reveals itself as the real threat, everyone bands together in uneasy alliance to save themselves and the planet. Everyone except Chase, that is, who forms some sort of symbiotic relationship with the sizable killer shrub. The creature turns out to have malevolent intelligence once it has grown, capable of communicating, controlling other plant life, and of recognizing the danger to its plans posed by the Doctor.
Giving the Krinoid intelligence actually makes for a less compelling story; when it’s an amoral natural force, the focus remains on humanity’s greed and how it leads to situations like, oh, a thirty-foot high potted plant smashing buildings. Once the Krinoid reveals itself to be actively evil, everything dissolves into a run-of-the-mill action story devoid of all but the most black-and-white ethical concerns. The resolution comes not from the Doctor using Chase’s mad science against the force he has unleashed but through convincing the Brigadier’s stand-in, Major Beresford (John Acheson), to call in a pair of RAF Phantoms to bomb the beastie into oblivion before it sprouts thousands more pods.
Missing, too, is any form of moral reckoning for Chase or his unscrupulous right-hand man, Scorby, who tries to kill both the Doctor and Sarah no fewer than three times during the story. Forced to work with the Doctor to survive, and finally realizing Chase’s madness, Scorby comes to no personal revelation about the wrongness of his actions. He panics, runs outside the little fort he and the Doctor have cobbled together for safety, and gets drowned in a pool by a vine of begonias.
“The Seeds of Doom” is not without its merits. Veteran director Douglas Camfield moves proceedings with admirable pace, and the camerawork sparkles, most notably with the scenes of plants engulfing various characters throughout the latter half of the story. In lesser hands, these scenes would just be vines moving back and forth in front of bored actors, but here, there’s a genuine sense of unease, if not terror, as Sarah and Scorby struggle for air as they are pulled under writhing masses of verdant tendrils. Too, Chase’s plant orchestra platform, with its silver and black triangle motif, calls to mind, just a bit, Ken Adam’s superlative set design on the Bond films.
Both Tony Beckley (Harrison Chase) and John Challis (Scorby) imbue their roles with appropriate menace, Chase seeming just-mad-enough without indulging in the Grand Guignol, and Scorby displaying sufficient sociopathy to make a viewer question just how long his partnership of convenience with the Doctor and Sarah will last. In keeping with Bond film tradition, Chase even has a that de rigueur moment where the Doctor and Sarah are caught, but not disposed of right away, proclaiming, “However, before you die, you will be granted an unique privilege.” Chase insists on revealing his plans and taking the Doctor on a tour of his gardens before consigning him to a giant compost mulcher that serves as a set piece for multiple fights.
As for the Doctor, his shift to all action, all the time comes with a particular increase in his temper. Throughout the story, Tom Baker is called upon to shout, berate, harangue, and generally grouse about humanity not doing anything for itself. No one is spared his ire, as he tells all and sundry to shut up and listen, Sarah included. It’s an unpleasant demeanor, intended perhaps to convey some degree of seriousness to the Doctor’s action hero mien, but not a personality one would like to encounter on a weekly basis. Tom Baker does handle all the action with conviction, punching baddies and wielding a pistol as though this were The Avengers instead of Doctor Who; his acknowledgement to Sarah that he would never actually use the pistol helps lessen the shock at seeing him wave a gun about, but it doesn’t remove the dissonance entirely.
Elisabeth Sladen has what might be considered a typical role as we near the end of Sarah Jane’s run as a companion: captured, rescued, rescues the Doctor in turn, make a crucial plot point, gets captured again. Her role as a journalist has paid dividends throughout her run, given that most Sarah Jane stories take place on Earth, where she might have a useful contact or remember an article she wrote on a subject; here, she recognizes Amelia Ducat’s name on a picture in the trunk of the assassin’s car, giving them a clue to Chase’s identity. When the stories move through time or space, as they will almost exclusively soon, her credentials matter less, but for now, Sarah Jane is in her element.
For a season ending story, “The Seeds of Doom” might not reach the heights of “The Green Death” or “The War Games,” but it makes an appropriate capstone for a series that has been in transition. We’re in full-fledged action and adventure mode now, with generous dollops of horror, violence, and the outlandish added for good measure. The effects more or less keep up with the demands of the scripts, and Tom Baker is certainly the right actor for the job.
For many people, this iteration of Doctor Who is Doctor Who, and there’s a compelling point to be made that the time period starting with Season Thirteen defines the original version of the series in public consciousness. There will always be those who point to Pertwee or Davidson as their Doctor, but what’s on display in “The Seeds of Doom” and the earlier stories this season is the development of Tom Baker as the quintessential Doctor in the public eye. Shame about his temper, though.
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Post 88 of the Doctor Who Project