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The Seeds of Doom - An Appreciation

By Guy Blythman

The release of a Doctor Who story on video and the publicity this receives provides an opportunity to reassess the story's quality and its significance in the programme's history. Will this happen with The Seeds of Doom? Certainly there is much I can find to say about the story eighteen years on.

In terms of quality the story is undoubtedly very good, as one might expect from something directed by Douglas Camfield. The pace is well-maintained and the cast is excellent, with particularly good performances from Tony Beckley (Harrison Chase), John Challis (Scorby) and Sylvia Coleridge (Amelia Ducat). The Krynoid monster, if unspectacular, isn't all that bad; it suffers from being seen for too much of the time in CSO, although the scenes towards the end of the final episode with the adult creature towering above Chase's house are among examples of the more effective use of this process in the show.

The story's biggest flaw, particularly when everything that comes before it is so good, is the ending, with the Krynoid bombed to bits by the RAF. It isn't so much the use of stock footage that annoys me here so much as the feebleness of resorting to conventional means to remove the threat to civilisation. The Doctor should employ original and interesting methods to defeat his enemies. His loss of touch here is rather alarming. I feel the imagination of the writers deserted them at this point. I also can't help wondering how it would have been if the Brigadier and Benton had been in it; one thing it misses is the former saying 'Come on, Benton, let's go and turn this bally Krynoid thing into chop suey', or something similar. The better a story is overall, the more we miss the one or two gems which are absent.

There are also a couple of things that don't really make sense. If the Krynoid can be destroyed by conventional weapons, why doesn't the Doctor say so when he discusses the situation with Beresford and Thackeray in episode five, rather than wait until shortly before the creature is about to germinate, when he is desperately trying to contact UNIT over a radio he has only just repaired after it was damaged by Chase, handicapped by not knowing Beresford's wavelength?

Secondly after learning from their visit to Amelia Ducat that the pod is probably in Chase's hands the Doctor and Sarah don't inform the authorities of this before attempting to recover the pod on their own. Had they been killed by Chase and his henchmen, as very nearly happens on several occasions, the pod would have gone on to germinate without anyone outside Chase's retinue knowing about it, with the worst possible consequences for Homo Sapiens. It's just as well Amelia turned out to be an undercover agent for the World Ecology Bureau (WEB) and contacted Thackeray and Dunbar after the visit (as obviously she did).

It might also be added that much of what happens in the first and second episodes is ultimately inconsequential, although they work well as a stage-setter for the rest of the story (but what six-parter ever worked properly, apart perhaps from The Talons of Weng-Chiang)?

I often find myself thinking that The Seeds of Doom would have been an excellent Jon Pertwee story due to the James Bond antics which take place, and the prospect of Beckley and Pertwee attempting to out camp each other (not because of the ecological theme, such as it is; to compare it with, say, The Green Death is grotesque considering that Chase's concern for plants leads him to hate other forms of life and ultimately ally himself with the Krynoid to destroy mankind).

More than a few words deserve to be said about characterisation in the story. The Seeds of Doom was conceived as good entertainment rather than a psychological study, but as with anything else purporting to be this, good characterisation was essential. Some of the characters are merely performing a certain task or series of tasks, such as the UNIT men Henderson and Beresford, and do not need to be particularly rounded; some, like Amelia Ducat and Thackeray, add colour and humour to events but are otherwise not sufficiently important to justify giving them much attention; and some are notable because of the opportunities they provide for analysis of their personalities and motives (which were not taken up in Philip Hinchcliffe's rather sketchy novelisation).

After the Doctor and Sarah the most important person in the story is Harrison Chase. The first thing which strikes one about this character, other than the power and authority he radiates, is his effeminate manner. It suggests he is homosexual, although this would not appear to square with his evident preference for plants over people whatever the latter's gender.

I think Chase was somehow wronged by a male lover and his disillusionment at what had happened took the form of an estrangement from the human race in general, regardless of sex. I imagine that the Chase family were liked and respected before Harrison, earning goodwill by opening their magnificent house to the public. When Harrison came into his inheritance he closed the house to all but his retinue and a few privileged visitors, treating anyone else with the utmost disdain. As well as retaining an effete, 'camp' manner, Chase is petty, mean (witness his neglecting to pay for Amelia Ducat's painting and then haggling over the price), autocratic and has a strong streak of cruelty.

One can speculate as to what has been his precise relationship with Scorby and the guards; although they are essential if he is to protect his extensive possessions from thieves and the despised general public, and undertake missions allover the world to 'acquire' more plants for his collection, they are probably also leftovers from a time when Chase liked to be surrounded by butch males (who might not themselves be gay). Chase probably despises Scorby for his loutish manner, while the macho mercenary returns his master's dislike for him, though not openly expressing it, on account of his effeminacy.

Then there is Keeler, Chase's principal expert and Scorby's accomplice in stealing the first Krynoid pod. Although seedy, Keeler is not a 'bad' character; certainly he is far from being evil in the way Scorby and Chase are. He protests, albeit ineffectually, whenever either of the two plans on killing someone. How exactly did he become involved with Chase? Keeler is undoubtedly very intelligent, and at one time it looked as if he had a promising future as a scientist. I think it is likely that he committed some misdemeanour which although probably not involving harm to another person was serious enough for no respectable employer to want to take him on (Chase of course is not respectable despite his aristocratic lifestyle and polished manner).

Needing a scientist of ability to help with his botanical research and tend his vast collection of plants, and not being too fussy about whatever Keeler had done wrong (since he was quite prepared himself to ignore the law in order to get what he wanted), Chase recruited the latter into his service. To Keeler, continually out of work because of the harm his career prospects had suffered, the offer of a job from someone of considerable wealth, who could afford to pay him a handsome salary, must have been a godsend. Keeler is completely unable to break free from Chase, partly out of weakness of character and partly because he depends on him for his bread and butter. When he tells Sarah that Chase owns him, body and soul, this is not just delirious rambling (he is at this time in the early stages of Krynoid infection); it is entirely true. In a story characterised by death and destruction, Keeler is easily the most tragic figure, because of the way his inability to break Chase's hold over him eventually leads to his 'death' (assuming he has not somehow become absorbed into the group consciousness of the Krynoids). His mutation into a Krynoid encouraged by Chase in the interests of science, he ends up as just another of his master's experiments.

There is one other character in the story whose role calls for some explanation; Hargreaves, Chase's butler. He appears a staid and respectable figure, and yet what are obviously criminal activities, including attempted murder, go on all around him without his registering much in the way of protest. I think Andrew Martin in In-Vision 13 is right in believing Hargreaves to be the old family retainer. He is kept on because he comes in useful in a large establishment such as Chase's. Because of his job he is conditioned to obey, while his loyalty to the Chase family is such that he does not report his master's activities to the police even though he must know perfectly well what is going on. Chase obviously knows he can be trusted, or would have sacked him long ago.

Hargreaves like Keeler is a tragic figure. He is something of an anachronism, one of a dying breed (if you will pardon the cliché). He must know that the Chase family will eventually die out since Harrison's probable homosexuality and current estrangement from the human race in general preclude him having any children. His commendable, if probably misguided, loyalty to his master eventually brings about his death; refusing to desert his post when the Krynoid goes on the rampage, he remains in the house and is strangled by plants under its control.

The character of Dunbar is also in some ways similar to that of Keeler. Although his willingness to help Chase steal the pod in return for money shows his corruptibility, he did not realise the lengths Chase would go to acquire it, and is genuinely horrified to learn of the apparent murder of Stevenson (actually killed by the first Krynoid) and the attempted murder of the Doctor and Sarah. Having said that, he does assist later on in a further attempt to get them out of the way; this is a measure of how far fear that the part he has already played in the affair might be exposed (unless he suffers an even more terrible retribution), if he refuses to co-operate, has enmeshed him in Chase's web. Such is Chase's power and influence that no-one can ever entirely leave his service (they know too much about his dodgier activities) and he can exact any price to ensure they keep silent, or continue to be of use to him when necessary. When he makes his initial approach to Chase, Dunbar has a pretty good idea of what the dangers may be; 'This was the moment he had been waiting for... the moment he would gamble not only his career but, if the rumours about Chase were true, perhaps even his life.' He has little excuse for the predicament he has got himself into.

It is only fair to stress that Dunbar's conscience is clearly troubled by what he does. Eventually he redeems himself by confronting Chase in a bid to force him to hand over the pod, at the risk of his own life. This results in him being killed by the Krynoid as he flees from Chase's men through the grounds of the house. His death, although principally a means of winding up the sub-plot of his treachery in a dramatic fashion, could be seen as a salutary reminder that whether or not we deem it unfair repentance of our sins does not necessarily mean we escape their consequences. He realises this at the end. 'As he struggled through the creepers and bushes Dunbar cursed his own weakness. Greed, that ancient vice of man, had ensnared him into a lurid web of murder and betrayal. Now, in this tangled wilderness, which plucked his clothes and tore at his skin, he was discovering the price of his folly.' The clinging vegetation which hinders his flight from danger is a physical symbol of his entrapment.

Although a great character, with a nice line in dry humour, Scorby is too lacking in complexity, both morally and intellectually, to be a rewarding subject for analysis. He's basically a nasty piece of work who, given the opportunity to indulge his favourite past-time - pointing guns at people - does so.

What does the story add to our knowledge of the 'Whoniverse'? I would say very little. For one thing it is not, in any way, typical Doctor Who. References to the Doctor's alien origins are few (although the 'alien knowledge' of his which the Krynoid says it wants to absorb is presumably that he derives from being a Time Lord). The battle with Chase and his minions seems to take up as much, if not more, time as that with the alien menace. The realism in the story, embodied in the violence perpetrated by the likes of Scorby, is such that we find it hard to believe this is the same show as contains elements like the TARDIS and the Time Lords, with whom the presence of such characters would appear hardly compatible. In-Vision 13 tells us the main reason; 'Robert Banks Stewart [the story's writer] was not a regular Doctor Who viewer, and he knew nothing of the programme's history. As a result, he depicted the Doctor and Sarah as two investigators in the style of The Avengers, a show which he had written for in its Emma Peel era.'

Another thing which prevents it from making much of a contribution to the developing mythology of the programme is its lack of originality. The theme of the 'blobby green menace from outer space which will destroy civilization as we know it' had an impressive pedigree by 1976, the year the story was first transmitted, and is even less likely to enthuse today, while the megalomaniac with his private army and apocalyptic designs, who bumps off his enemies in a fiendish machine (the compost grinder) but eventually ends up in it himself, is the stuff James Bond movies are made of.

The Seeds of Doom is in part an affectionate tribute to the clichés of mid- and late-twentieth century popular fiction (note that we also see an attractive heroine being fed horizontally towards the above-mentioned fiendish machine). Douglas Camfield clearly took his Doctor Who work very seriously, but nevertheless had his tongue in his cheek on a number of occasions. There is also a certain amount of stereotyping; of homosexuality (Chase), and perhaps of women (Sarah, who screams and gets tied up a lot, though her treatment is less sexist than that accorded to some of the previous female companions). The story is historically valuable in that it demonstrates just what one could get away with on television in the mid-1970s. Not all of this is ideologically dubious, and like the poor ending it doesn't detract from our enjoyment of the story. Camfield realised that a touch of humour in places would do little harm and might even add to the story's appeal (or he would not have attempted it). Of course, in being corny and derivative in parts The Seeds of Doom is not out of keeping with the rest of Season Thirteen (or for that matter one or two stories from previous seasons; consider the King Kong-inspired Robot, or The Daemons which I was surprised to realise is basically a remake of Quatermass and the Pit).

But coming as it does at the end of the season, The Seeds of Doom represents the high-water mark of this tendency in Doctor Who. Never again would the re-hash of tried and tested formulae from other genre be quite so blatant; producers, and to some extent viewers, would demand something more original and sophisticated. Derivation would not by any means entirely disappear (just as it had not been absent from the programme prior to Season 13) but re-use or elements from other worlds of fiction would be done much more cleverly and stylishly (as in The Talons of Weng-Chiang). As the same time changes in social attitudes, at any rate on the part of political activists and television producers, would make it less acceptable to stereotype such groups as gays and women. Just try to imagine Ace getting frequently tied up, or lying helplessly in the belly of the compost grinder while its blades bear down on her! Though she would have given Scorby and Chase a good run for their money, as indeed does Sarah. In one sense, if not in any other, the serial marks a turning-point in the programme's history. After it, the unashamed emulation of the B-movie gives way to the 'science fiction romance' of Season 14, the clever humour of Douglas Adams (which the appalling special effects of late-70s Doctor Who and the over-the-top performance of Tom Baker unfortunately prevent one from appreciating) and the intellectual complexity and pretentious artistry of the Nathan-Turner era. The Seeds of Doom was the last of what are now referred to, in the self-parody of the Doctor Who concept that has begun to creep into the New Adventures, as the 'good old-fashioned alien invasion(s)'. It wasn't just the Krynoid, and the Doctor's involvement with UNIT, that died in Part Six.

One interesting thing about the story is that it sees the Doctor firmly back in his role of defender of the Earth. It is from his post as Scientific Adviser to UNIT that he is called to help identify the first Krynoid pod. He appears to have suppressed for the time being his desire, first evident in Pyramids of Mars where it causes an internal conflict which clearly makes him unhappy, to sever his connections with UNIT and resume being just a wanderer in time and space. Nevertheless, throughout much of the story he is in a dark and gloomy frame of mind. During the Krynoid affair much of the less pleasant side of human nature is revealed in the corruptibility of Dunbar and the nastiness of Chase and his sidekicks. This produces in the Doctor a feeling of disgust and disillusionment with the species he has been trying to protect these last few years. At the same time the whole business is a reminder of Earth's vulnerability and his responsibilities towards it. He wonders if Man can ever be trusted to look after himself (witness his impatience with the stupidity of the Antarctic scientists, who allow the first pod to germinate and then fail to realise the danger of the situation they have created). The internal conflict returns, accompanied by a weary bitterness towards the situation he finds himself in; his feelings find expression in the rather startling violence he employs on occasion against Chase and co.

The final overwhelming impression left by events on the Doctor (and indeed myself) is one of senseless waste brought about by human greed, wickedness and stupidity. The Seeds of Doom is a highly depressing story. The body count, which included quite a few characters one has no reason to dislike or who can be pitied even if not altogether respectable, is high, and the destruction of the Antarctic base and Chase's mansion are regrettable. Sergeant Henderson's demise in the grinder leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. At the end of the affair the Doctor and Sarah feel mentally and emotionally exhausted. Hinchcliffe's novelisation: 'The Doctor and Sarah were seated... in Sir Colin Thackeray's office, examining a battered roll of film of the Krynoid. 'We found it in Chase's camera,' examined Sir Colin... 'It's a wonder anything survived that inferno,' said Sarah, a note of sadness in her voice. The Doctor too looked rather glum, as if the strain of the last few hours had not yet passed from his mind.'

This item appeared in TSV 43 (March 1995).

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