The Seeds of Doom

DVDUnsurprisingly, following on from my last post, this became my final regular DVD review. It’s from DWM #428, which was – bizarrely – a soap opera-themed edition. As it happened, Chris Hughes and myself wrote the lead feature in that issue, an essay on how comparable, if at all, Doctor Who is to the likes of EastEnders or Corrie. But that’s not for this blog.

Let’s get back to me quitting…

I’d been reviewing the DVD releases for about a year. A year of spending all my lunchbreaks watching or writing about Doctor Who. Often weekends too. Whether you think my stuff was any good or not, those reviews were incredibly densely written. It’s very labour intensive. I don’t think it’s speaking out of turn to reveal that my predecessor/successor Gary Gillatt feels the same about the job. You’re competing with decades of fan-writing, trying to find new threads, new arguments…

And so I told Tom and Peter at DWM I wanted to stop. At least doing it regularly. So far I’ve returned to write one other DVD review, and there may be more… there may not. For me, it’s more fun reviewing the current series on TV. In some ways, that’s more of a challenge. You can’t be as irreverent, it’s a more political situation, it’s a quicker churn and – well – it’s just more alive.

Having made the decision this was to be my swansong, I then cocked it up by referring to the character of Sir Colin as “Sir Charles” throughout (corrected here).

Ah well.

DWM #428I’ve just Googled “obscene vegetable matter” and come up with 64 hits. The tendrils of 1976’s The Seeds of Doom persist.

The last story of Season 13, its parable of an alien weed intent on committing the ultimate act of armed shrubbery prompted clean-up TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse to sprout the following: “Strangulation – by hand, by claw, by obscene vegetable matter – is the latest gimmick…”

It’s true this six-parter by Robert Banks Stewart does glory in gory. Sixty-four hits, Google? There are about 64,000 in the adventure! Almost everyone duffs, biffs and clobbers their way through to the end credits. Doctor Who would never be so handy again – which, is a good thing – but for this one outing it’s fun following a two-fisted Time Lord who’s less about out-thinking the enemy than out-thumping them.

Action and, indeed, HAVOC, have traditionally been ascribed to the Third Doctor, but there’s something tangibly Pertwee-ian about the Fourth here. It’s not just the rough stuff, there’s a sense of his previous incarnation’s Rotarian side. The Doctor’s first appearance finds him already ensconced with Dunbar at the World Ecology Bureau. Sure, his insolent posture and yo-yo-ing add a hint of anarchy, but only in the same way James Bond would toss off a stiff double entendre to agitate M, before obediently heading off to secretly serve Her Majesty.

But at least 004 is less earnest than 007 when it comes to the kill. If he’s not screaming his head off at Scorby (John Challis, competing bravely against a rollneck sweater), he’s administering the most jovial of thrashings to the poor fellow. Then, when the tables are turned and our hero lies prone in a Blofeld-esque mulching machine, he refuses to make with the statutory banter: “I still can’t think of anything to say”.

With it’s vaguely Bondian themes and affection for the secret service, Banks Stewart’s teleplay feels like it was snatched from an in-tray in The New Avengers production office. Factor in additional business, such as the murderous chauffeur and unlikely OAP super-spy Amelia Ducat, and you fully expect John Steed and chums to come stomping through, whistling the Colonel Bogey March. In that sense, it’s surely one of the most un-Doctor Who-y stories ever made. But it works brilliantly.

Part of its success is due to Douglas Camfield’s sturdy direction, in which he braves many of the show’s bêtes noires. Tendrils and tentacles, for instance – which normally throttle any sense of danger with their woeful actualisation (and, yes, I am looking at you, Spearhead from Space) – slither and strangulate in effective fashion. Meanwhile, by covering everything in a superimposed jablite snowstorm, Camfield manages to patch together model shots, stock film and studio sessions to create a cohesive Antarctic setting for the story’s two-part prelude. Better still, he makes a fair fist of depicting the giant Krynoid looming over Harrison Chase’s manor. Lessons, it seems, have been learned from the writer and director’s Season 13 opener, Terror of the Zygons. That Skarasen’s death (in the theatrical sense) wasn’t in vain.

This, then, is Doctor Who at its most robust; an able director working an equally able script. Characterisation, throughout, is layered. Alright, the staff at the Antarctica base may talk like the toffiest BBC toffs ever (“Coffee and a game of three-handed crib?”), but the interplay between interlopers Scorby and Keeler is terrific, the latter apologising when tying up Winlett – a wonderful portrait of A Good Man In A Bad Situation.

Subsidiary characters also fare well. Amelia, we learn, “manned an ack-ack gun at Folkestone,” a fun line that broad brushes in a huge back story. Plus there’s plum-faced man from the ministry Sir Colin. In previous years he would have been sent packing with a flea in his ear about plodding bureaucrats, but in Seeds of Doom he proves such a canny operator, the Doctor invites him to become a new companion. If only. Imagine Sir Colin rushing out of the TARDIS in his bathers for that final scene…

But we’re being perverse. We’re talking characterisation and we’ve yet to alight upon the tale’s prize tomato – Harrison Chase (Tony Beckley). Suave, sibilant and a bit queenie, there’s something of the Quentin Crisp about this botanic fanatic. His opening line – to Dunbar – is wonderfully arch: “And what is your bureau doing about bonsai?” As a non sequitur (or secateurs, if you must), it’s rarely bettered.

He’s also great when Amelia comes to call in Part Four, tartly musing “it might” be a good idea to receive her… “and it might not.”

But of course Chase’s most vaunted line comes in Part Three, in which he declares: “I could play all day in my green cathedral!” while noodling out his Floriana Requiem on a trendy analogue synthesizer. Although he dedicates the composition to Linnaeus, it sounds more in thrall to the nuttier output of the BBC’s own Radiophonic Workshop. How long before Radio Sheffield appropriates it as a jingle?

Sadly, in the final episodes Chase devolves into issuing histrionic threats of the “all plant-eaters must die!” variety. The declaiming dastard is a hardy perennial in Doctor Who, but this one was much more interesting as a silken social dropout, living out his days of vines and roses in a country house hideaway.

You can’t have it all, I guess. And even though the story ends with an unimaginative big explosion (here was me rooting for something clever with photosynthesis), you have to conclude it’s been a thumping good yarn. Or, to tug on another of the obvious puns dangling low here in The DWM Review treehouse: Blooming marvellous.

DVD Extras

A “what went right?” documentary is always tricky. There are no Erato-sized errors to pruriently pore over, or Kamelionic calamities to have fun explaining away. Thus, punningly named documentary PodShock finds itself in dramatically unfertile territory, but makes a good go of things. Philip Hinchcliffe – fast turning into a DVD regular – talks insightfully about Robert Banks Stewart’s “throwaway lines and eccentric characters”, and explains his era’s preoccupation with human possession stories… they’re easier to achieve on screen than outright monstering.

Ian Fairbairn (Doctor Chester) also pops up to explain why Seeds became Douglas Camfield’s DW swansong. The director found the show so stressful that, at the insistence of his wife, he made a vow at Ely Cathedral never to work on it again.

Now and Then visits Athelhampton House, which doubled for Chase’s manor, but is perhaps more famous thanks to its appearance in the Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine 1972 flick, Sleuth. The World Ecology Bureau, meanwhile, was shot at BBC Television Centre itself. Our licence fee, working hard.

The inevitably named Playing in the Green Cathedral is a 10-minute interview with the late composer Geoffrey Burgon. A man who would go on to score britches-high ‘proper’ dramas like Brideshead Revisited (1981) and Longitude (2000), he remains rightfully proud of his music for Seeds, which is uncommonly beautiful and haunting. “It’s often better to stop at the climax, rather than trying to top it”, was his motto when writing for action sequences.

So What Do You Do Exactly? is a dispensable canter through the roles of Production Assistant, Production Unit Manager et al, in the company of the gregarious Graeme Harper, and then comes Stripped For Action, looking at the Fourth Doctor’s comic-strip adventures. It was an odd era for our hero, which saw him graduate from (not-so) Mighty TV Comic ignominy (Tom Baker’s face too often pasted over Jon Pertwee’s body, and adorned with dialogue like: “One more move, princess, and I will spill your precious blood!”) to the triumphant arrival of Doctor Who Weekly in 1979. Whatever happened to that, eh?

In the commentary box, musical chairs are the order of the day. Tom Baker is on duty for five of the six episodes joined by various rotating cast and production personnel. Part One has him boasting to his fellow thesps: “I saw Elisabeth Sladen’s legs once”. Much appreciative cooing. A later episode, and Tom is grilling John Challis on who’s still alive from the production, while Philip Hinchcliffe describes the story as “James Bond on tuppence”. And then a hint of home life Chez Baker: He’s never seen an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures. “I’m in bed well before that!”

As mentioned already, The Seeds of Doom ends with the Doctor and Sarah exiting the TARDIS, the latter in her skimpies clutching a beach ball in expectation of some seaside fun. However – chortle! – they’re actually back in the Antarctic! That’s kind of where I find myself now, and this’ll be my last regular DVD review for DWM. Blame/thank the equally chilly realities of day-to-day pressures for that. But it’s been great fun exercising my own obscene grey matter for these pages. Goodbye!


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