Companion: Sarah Jane Smith
Written by: Robert Banks Stewart
Directed by: Douglas Camfield
Background & Significance: Each story in Tom Baker's second season covered a Doctor Who twist on a different horror movie. The season had already done a version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Mummy, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (twice!), Frankenstein. "The Seeds of Doom" was loosely based on "The Thing From Another World" (better known in modern circles simply as "The Thing") and a famous science fiction novel called Day of the Triffids, which, for those who don't remember, is about a bunch of killer plants.
"The Seeds of Doom" is the final story of Tom Baker's second season and the second of the three six-parters in The Hinchcliffe/Holmes era ("Genesis of the Daleks" being the first, "Talons of Weng-Chiang" being the third), and it was at this point that Doctor Who was at its most popular ever. Tons of people were watching week-to-week. Mary Whitehouse was screaming as often as she could about how Hinchcliffe/Holmes should be fired because of the show's violent and horrific content (thereby bringing in more people to watch it because that's what hype does). Holmes was gaining more and more influence on the show's writing, so much so that starting in the season following this one he was allowed to write two stories a season, a huge move against traditional BBC policy, which explicitly forbade a script editor from commissioning his own scripts. Hinchcliffe was pushing the budget more and more and more and making the show into a gorgeous looking thing so the sets that weren't made of two planks of plywood and a loofa. People were eating it up.
Can you tell we're in for a treat?
So let's get to it!
Now that I’ve seen all of Doctor Who (not sure if that’s a brag?) I always seem to notice the settings. I like settings, mostly because Doctor Who can go wherever and whenever, and there’s no reason any two settings should look or feel the same. One of the things that I’m always looking for is a unique, not-quite-been-done-before setting. I can’t tell you the number of times the show goes to “spaceship” or “weird planet” and pretends to get me to care. Unless the mythology of the place really intrigues me, it always feels rather generic and unmemorable. I mean… Nothing in the Williams era stands out for that reason. We only get what we know and we can only go there at one point in time. It’s why I tend to like Earth-based stories more than I like the ones that are far out in space. Earth just has a richer culture to build from because… well… we know the culture. We know the history. We know it’s geography and topography. It makes it much easier to write and much easier to absorb.
Doesn’t hurt that I love The Thing.
But seriously, there’s a reason why the setting is so effective. The isolation is just about unparalleled when it comes to Earth and it means that we’re less than a part in and it already feels like we’re seeing something new on Doctor Who. I mean, sure, it happened in "The Ice Warriors", but having just rewatched it, that story does far, far less with its setting of “isolated base” than this does. This has Winlett being taken over by a Krynoid. And my god we have to get moving before he’s taken over. But no one can help us because we’re in Antarctica and cut off from the world.
It’s the way Stewart writes The Doctor that really stands out here. He’s serious about just about everything and Tom Baker plays it all exceptionally well, I think. He gives it the right amount of gravitas and dark humour that it should have. It’s in the casualness with which he recommends that they cut off Winlett’s arm and the matter-of-factness that gets him talking about the situation so people will understand that he’s not playing around. This is a point I’ll bring up later, but more in depth…
We also get a great introduction to all our main characters and all VERY early on. I’m impressed, honestly. I love that we are already introduced to Scorby and the deliciously dangerous Harrison Chase, especially because they both feel so tremendously out of step with what’s going on in the Antarctic early in this story. Part of that is structural, but it’s nice that it makes the thing really feel like a six parter rather than being just a two parter and a four parter.
But it’s all here. All of it. Chase will come into play later and Scorby is just an added complication where we don’t exactly want one. It’s enough to have Winlett be tremendously dangerous and slowly but surely turning into a Krynoid, but throwing in Chase and his desire to steal the second pod only makes this whole thing that much more complex and interesting. Winlett’s let out and Scorby’s on the prowl. The Doctor has more than his hands full. This is a dangerous situation and it’s already spinning out of control.
So really it’s an incredible first act. There’s certain other first episodes I quite like more (“Pyramids of Mars” always comes to mind), but this one does all the things it should and “goes the extra mile”. While giving us a great first half to the Antarctica leg of the story, it starts to set up all the pieces for the remaining five parts by giving us two narratives at once. It’s exciting and bold and really makes us want to keep going, I think. Few other stories set themselves up as effortlessly as this one does, and while I would normally say “if nothing else, there’s that”, but as you can already tell there’s so much more AND we’re just getting started.
CAN YOU FEEL THE EXCITEMENT?
That rubs off a bit when you have the hindsight to know just how long this story is, but the point still stands that it’s rather impressive all the “oh no they di’n’t” they get out of this episode. The Winlett Krynoid escapes into the snow to terrorize as it will. Scorby and his sidekick Keeler are running around the base talking about how they’re going to kill everyone just as soon as they can find a Krynoid pod and get the hell outta there. And then there’s the time bomb, or the fact that the ENTIRE BASE BLOWS UP AT THE END OF THE EPISODE.
But he doesn’t, and what we get is a whole lot more threat of Krynoid than actual Krynoid. The actual Krynoid will come later, but this one’s just around to scare people and wave its arms menacingly towards the people it’s terrorizing. Hell, Scorby is more terrifying than the Krynoid in this and he can’t even do the efficient “let’s just pop them now” thing that bad guys need to do. No, instead he preps a bomb to blow up the whole place and then ties up Sarah Jane to just be sadistic about it. Not sure that makes sense, but I’ll go with it because this is pre-Austin Powers.
The Web of Fear” because he’s so creative and visual in his work where other directors’ work can at times be static and stilted. Such a refreshing breath of fresh air.
And they seriously blew up the base while showing The Doctor and Sarah running in the snow. Great staging, that. Totally “oh no” and “what’s going to happen.” Exactly what it should be.
To be honest, it’s rather shocking. Rather very shocking. It starts with The Doctor jacking their driver in the face in a brutal moment of physical violence that I don’t think The Doctor had ever done before. I mean, even Pertwee’s violence/action was all designed to be mostly defensive and nonlethal where this is wantonly offensive. It’s one thing to hit pressure points. It’s another thing to doing something as blunt as jack a dude in the face.
Now, okay, sure. Scorby’s not dead. That’s fine. I wouldn’t want The Doctor to murder someone by neck twist. That’s a little too Eric Saward for me. But at the same time, what the frak. Like what the serious frak. That’s such completely… NOT Doctor Who and I question the script editing on this because of the level of violence. And I know that Holmes himself wrote The Doctor being violent in various moments (“Time Warrior”, “Deadly Assassin”, and “Talons” come to mind), but those at least weren’t The Doctor crinking someone’s neck because he could. Like… Jesus, man. That’s just weird.
Then they meet the bad guy. And oh boy, do they meet him.
The bad guy, Harrison Chase, whom I mentioned briefly a few episodes back, is… he’s a character isn’t he? I find I quite like the memorable Doctor Who villains the Classic series throws at me. And not the big famous ones like The Master or Davros, but the ones like Soldeed and Count Scarlioni, or Solon. The memorable, ones, you know? There’s nothing quite like a good nemesis.
Chase has all the things that make him a good nemesis. He’s completely insane and he’s completely driven and his plan is powered by a powerful drive to be the world’s greatest botanist.
Lemme explain. First, this dude LOVES plants. Like, adores them. He talks to them, he collects paintings of them. Hell, he even writes music for them, including requiems and arias. And this… I mean, how is it anything other than hilarious? I mean, I know that’s kind of a duh statement, but it’s true. He plays the music for The Doctor and Sarah Jane and he pretends like this is perfectly normal and perfectly wonderful as a service he does for his pet plants. It’s absurd. Madly comic, even. And I must say it had me chuckling when it happened because he’s almost like… It’s just so James Bond, isn’t it? He’s great in the way that Scarlioni’s great. And it’s not like he even wants to take over the world. He just wants to be the world’s greatest plant curator.
I mean, lemme say this again: the guy writes symphonies for his plants. And he thinks they’re good. Like, as if the two things even have anything in common. As if he’s ACTUALLY a good songwriter. It’s genius.
Chase is wonderful. And he’s a genius. I love everything about him, and despite the fact that this season also has the capitol greatness of Sutekh as one of the best Doctor Who villains ever, it’s fantastic that just half a season later they turn around and give us this madness. This guy isn’t real. This guy isn’t legit. He’s a joke. He’s a total total joke. The Doctor’s going to beat him. That’s not even an argument. But until then, the best that Chase can do to The Doctor is play the music, WHICH HE DOESN’T EVEN THINK IS BAD MUSIC.
Mindwarp”. That guy is going to kill Peri because he wants to do the science thing. Nothing’s standing in his way.
And all for the sake of the plants.
What’s weird is the way that Banks Stewart only seems to get Banks-Stewartier as each episode goes on. And noticeably so.
I only mean that in the way that like… How much more him is this story than it was just an episode ago. Last time we had to worry about the madness of The Avengers lightly brushing against the narrative, but in this episode we have some stuff that’s wantonly Avengers and almost not Doctor Who. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still entirely Doctor Who and I don’t even really question that. Hell, at this quality, I’m not sure I’d entirely mind if it started being Avengers at this point. I mean… hell… “Revelation of the Daleks” is practically not Doctor Who and I still quite enjoyed that.
But was it really necessary? Because he goes up against Scorby and is taken hostage almost instantly without even doing so much as pointing a gun. And really, that’s bad because you’re having The Doctor have a gun just to have it. Which is… like… why?
Beyond that, there’s the crazification of Chase, who goes for the COMPLETE Doctor Evil plan by prolonging The Doctor’s insertion into the composter purely because he wants The Doctor to suffer. And sure, he wants The Doctor to suffer. But there’s not even a bloody guard in the room. Of course The Doctor’s going to escape, isn’t he? There’s no one in the room and the thing is moving impossibly slow. It’s almost completely contrived that he doesn’t even stand up and leap out of the thing. Great plan, Mr. Chase. Just lock The Doctor in a room with a crazy metal death trap and assume it all goes to plan.
But outside of The Avengers, this is also quintessentially Hinchcliffe/Holmes Doctor Who in the way that I love from their era. The fact that Keever is given over to the Krynoid and slowly turned into one is horrific in the best possible way. What’s more chilling is the way in which he’s still completely Keever up until he’s Krynoid (at which point he can no longer speak) and the way we watch him slowly transform. It’s even more horrific than it was watching Winlett... And it’s probably because of that or the fact that we know he’s suffering more than Winlett was (I remember him being asleep, but that was four parts ago and now I can’t remember).
We also get some token night shooting that’s… great. Night shoots are (of course) a rarity in Doctor Who and hard to deal with, but they really work here to heighten the drama and the fear. Really, the entire endgame of this episode is great. With Dunbar running through the woods chasing The Krynoid, Sarah Jane and The Doctor (who’s carrying a sword) are looking for it as well, while Scorby’s running around looking for all three of them.
It’s interesting how the development of the Krynoid really breaks this whole serial into three two-part stories. The first two parts dealt with a humanoid Krynoid in the Antarctic base and the middle two dealt with a pod getting loose in the middle of civilization. That Keever is possessed is something that almost happens in the background of this episode (which should highlight the fact that is both that and so memorable) and the shenanigans of the Chase Estate is really the main player of the story while The Doctor attempts to stop the pod from germinating.
And yet, by not doing that, the story subverts our expectations and makes for something… memorable and interesting. Starting with the pod is logical sense, but it also doesn’t have stakes because it has to deal with everything in the abstract (“What will happen if we open the pod?” “I dunno, but it’s probably something bad"). But starting with Krynoid running amok is great because it requires next to no setup AND gives you a definable example of monster and monstrosity. Suddenly, going back and restarting the story with “what happens if we open the pod” is that much more exhilarating because we know what’s going to happen. Someone’s gonna go Krynoid. And then we’re fucked.
But then what next? Ah ha. Suddenly we have no idea where the story’s going. Keever completely jumped past what we knew and has already moved onto something new. Now all bets are off and The Doctor’s in even more danger because this Krynoid is even bigger and more powerful than what we had before.
And now we jump into the last two parts of a story that we can’t even begin to predict anymore. Although if I had to guess, I’d suspect it starts to answer the question “What happens when we get a Krynoid unleashed?”
The first and most disappointing thing I have to talk about is the fact that it doesn’t stay night in this episode at all. It’s night until they get into the cottage and then The Doctor says “Let’s make some Molotov cocktails”, but then it’s morning and all the sexy sexy darkness night we had at the end of the last episode evaporated into the black hole of “not enough budget” and “magical story convention where time is arbitrary.” It’s unfortunate, really. The thought of the Krynoid attacking at night is super attractive and I wish it could have been, but the story is still effective during the day, so I guess I’ll let it slide. It just feels like a wasted opportunity to me, especially because the predominance of it was interiors and all that requires is a dimming of the lights.
But my real focus of discussion of this episode has to be the developments of Harrison Chase, because, my god.
Before I ever watched this story, I’d heard that Chase in episode five is some genuinely chilling stuff. Now, I didn’t think it was the first time. Chilling, I mean. But this time, now that I’ve gone through and been watching both Chase and Tony Beckley’s portrayal of him, I have to admit that I see exactly what those who mentioned it originally were talking about. And like… I don’t mean to make it sound like Beckley hasn’t been good all through this, but this stuff really puts him over the top and elevates him into the level of like… one of the best singular bad guys I think the show’s ever seen over its run. It’s like… Philip Madoc good.
That said, while it’s Philip Madoc good, the person I have to most compare it to is Simon Rouse’s portrayal of Hindle in “Kinda”. And the two aren’t really so different. Both men spiral downwards into complete old-school madness, but where Hindle’s completely over the top (and wonderfully so, so much so that I consider it one of perhaps the ten best performances in the entire Classic series; it’s really up there), Beckley plays Chase completely straight and completely… focused. A few parts ago I talked about how genius it was how that guy’s crazy, but what I don’t think anyone could be expecting is how chillingly scary that madness could actually get when put to a scary place.
I mean, for god’s sake… this was the guy who just two episodes ago was playing the music that he wrote for his plants. That really shitty music… And now… now he’s a guy who can communicate with plants, which is a great sorta… connection, if you will. Isn’t it strange that Chase gets the ability to communicate with plants at the same time that the Krynoid starts issuing orders to all the other plants around? That’s great, but it’s also like… It’s subversive. The deeper we go into Chase’s mind, the more we realize just how vastly we underestimated him when we were laughing at the way he wrote plant music. And that’s even more scary. To use an extreme example, it’s far scarier to have dinner with the guy you find out later is a serial killer than to actually meet the serial killer in the streets holding a bloody knife and slowly staggering towards you. I think it is, anyways. We trusted the guy at dinner, and now we find out that we could have been his victim?
But beyond the fact that he’s a brilliant character, Chase is great way to provide tension to the story. It’s not enough to have the Krynoid be the big massive. That’s not threatening. This is Doctor Who. Abstract problems can only work for so long before they become massively undramatic etc. But Banks Stewart does a brilliant job here of using both Chase and actual plants to provide the real threatening drama in the story. I know I’ve used the comparison before, but it’s apt: it’s total Cloverfield. And I have to love it. I can’t not. It’s a brilliant way to up the stakes and up the horror.
So yeah. I’d say it’s strong. Just a little bit. Now let’s finish this.
The first and probably most famous is the death of Chase, which is grizzly beyond just about anything I’ve ever seen in Doctor Who and far surpasses just about anything the show ever did after this. I mean… Yeah. For those who didn’t know, Chase is murdered by composter, screaming as he goes in and chewed up into little tiny bits and spit out into his own garden. As far as deaths go, it’s tremendously poetic and great (his last service to his beloved plants is feeding them one last time by making the ultimate sacrifice), but it’s also callous in its… playing out.
But it’s not enough in the sense that it’s one of those rare times when our imaginations can’t possibly do the justice of watching a real slaughter of this caliber. And sure, what I’m saying is horrific and you probably can’t believe you’re reading it, but this is the land of dreams and fantasy we’re talking about. This is fiction. This is a world where (in my view) it’s perfectly acceptable to be disappointed there wasn’t an R-rated Hunger Games in which we get to watch these children hack each other to death. Is it obscene? Yes. But I’m also aware of the fantasy of the situation AND I make it fully known that if this were real life (AND NOT FANTASY) I would be disgusted and horrified at The Hunger Games, were there actually such events to take place on TV.
The other iconic moment that makes me really… treasure this story is the death of Scorby, which is really just about everything you could possibly want out of a story like this and gets away with all the horror without ever feeling like it’s “too much for the situation” (which is rather the case for Chase’s death if you ask me). Scorby’s death is one of those things that fits perfectly into the narrative in one of those ways that makes it… fantastic. How fitting that one person in this story should on screen get death by giant evil plant?
To top that all off, the effect alone really cements this story as “The one with the evil plants”, so much so that it never REALLY needs to be done again.
And if that’s not praise, I don’t know what is.
Now, for those who aren't up to speed, lemme catch you up. While going through these stories, I think it's important to keep a track of the narrative of the Doctor so that while he goes through these adventures we're always aware of where it is he ends up and how it is he got to that point. It's easy to track with Davison. It would have been easy/wonderful to track with Colin Baker (but it's clear how they fucked that up). And Tom Baker is the one I find most interesting (especially because he's everyone's favorite Doctor and not mine). Previously, we've discussed how he pushes towards being less and less human and how he rejects the humanity he'd grown so close to in the Pertwee era. It starts in "The Ark in Space" when he flies off into the cosmos for the first time and continues in other stories, with major signposts including "Horror of Fang Rock" with the events of that story resulting in him basically peacing out when it comes to Earth until his return in "Logopolis" where he meets his final end saving not just humanity but the universe, and from Earth no less.
It's at this point that The Doctor peaces out from UNIT after being consistently near them for almost seven years. It's the last shackle of the Pertwee era cast off and with nary a Benton, Yates, or Brigadier in sight. And it's interesting because UNIT plays such an extremely limited role in this, confined almost exclusively to the last two parts of the story when the Krynoid has grown completely out of control and can only be taken out by massive airstrike means. So really, they're the means to an end. Hell, the only person on UNIT staff that The Doctor actually meets in this story is Sergeant Henderson, and he doesn't even get the benefit of a proper death, relegated to an unconscious, off-screen death by composter at the hands of Harrison Chase.
To be honest, that's a thing that kinda gets to me, except I think the answer lies in the story's violent content. As a military organization, UNIT is a symbol/entity of brute, physical force and patriarchal power paradigms. As the leading man of a television show and one who doesn't resort to physical violence, The Doctor is something of a feminist icon. Television (as Joss Whedon is apt to point out) is something of a traditionally feminist thing in that it's all about talking and belaying the point and questions rather than no-talking, getting-to-the-point, and answering every question in a short amount of time (as in film; think action movies). Phillip Sandifer over at TARDIS Eruditorum pointed out a variation of this sorta thing in his recent discussion of "Earthshock", and when he's there he made a point of pointing out how Saward's vision of the "blindly obeying the military" thing of that story is directly in contradiction to The Doctor's established values. As with all his discussions, it is absolutely worth the read.
But here The Doctor goes too far. Here The Doctor holds a gun on people and jacks a dude in the face (and another in the stomach) and cricks another one's neck. Here is when The Doctor crosses the line that separates defensive, non-lethal actions and offensive, potentially-lethal actions. And it started with UNIT. The 3rd Doctor adapted to working for UNIT by developing and training in a traditional, nonlethal karate style. This carries over slightly to the 4th Doctor, when doing things like flipping an evil doppelganger version of himself in "The Android Invasion". And maybe it's at this point that he realizes he went too far. Sure, UNIT did help take out the Krynoid through the use of an extremely deadly force, but maybe that was it for The Doctor, and the way he swears off UNIT is an indication of The Doctor's pledge to swear off such violent tactics as well. Maybe it's in retrospect that The Doctor realizes how completely unnecessary his tactics were and how his time with UNIT has tainted his ability to deal with enemies in a way that is healthy and conducive to his own philosophies.
How fitting then, too, that it comes here because the violence in this story is plentiful and rather mad and definitely worth the criticism everyone throws at it. I didn't mind it too much this time, but it's interesting as a... thought experiment, I suppose. It's interesting to see if Doctor Who can handle this level of violence because now we know that the answer is we can't, especially if it comes from The Doctor. But it is the sort of thing that you can only get away with once, and why not here? It's more forgiveable here in an excellent story that it can't overpower than in another one that, say, is vaguely strong but completely overpowered by its level of violence in my eyes.
Thank god this isn't that. Four and a half stars.
Next Time!: 5th Doctor! Festivals! Thought Crimes! How the world sees The Doctor! Lots of jail time! Terrible cliffhangers! And of course, it's not a bloody snake this time! The Mara returns and Cassandra's stepping in to talk about the wonderful "Snakedance"! Coming Next Tuesday!