Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Serial 48: The Seeds of Death

Doctor: Patrick Troughton (2nd Doctor)
Companion: Jamie McCrimmon, Zoe Heriot


Written by: Brian Hayles
Directed by: Michael Ferguson

Background & Significance: So now that we're back in this season again, I probably don't need to go into the sordid details about just how much work it was to produce Doctor Who by this point. Now in its sixth year, the show was getting more and more ambitious, and its ambition was getting harder and harder to produce on a shooting schedule as rigorous as it currently had. They were doing over forty episodes a year and the grind was relentless. The previous season had the benefit of being impossibly formulaic and unambitious. But now that the show as under Peter Bryant's producership, it was trying increasingly new and different things.

Or at least, it seems that way to me.

"Seeds of Death" is something of an anomaly for the season. It's very obviously a base-under-siege story and is the second story of the season about a massive invasion of Earth. The previous base-under-siege story also happened to be a backdoor pilot to the UNIT era and featured lots and lots of Cybermen. This one features the return of the Ice Warriors, elevating them to "return monsters" status and the Ice Warriors' creator Brian Hayles does a lot to expand the Ice Warriors' mythology and make them a bigger threat than they were previously. But it really does function as a last hurrah to the base under siege format that... well... plagued the Troughton era.

So let's get to it!


Commentary!:

Part 1:

It annoys me when stories sideline The Doctor and his companions for a ridiculous amount of time. For one thing, it’s ridiculously obvious that this is just padding. The story, technically, hasn’t even started yet and can’t REALLY start until The Doctor gets in there.

Sure, that’s to be expected. It’s a six episode story. And it’s a way of delaying the story so you can backload the back half of the story with action and adventure, but at the same time… I don’t really love the conceit. It reminds me of just about every Colin Baker story, in which he’s sidelines for 20-40 minutes (and sometimes more) before entering the plot. It lacks punch and energy a story desperately needs in its opening beats. I mean, The Doctor and his companions don’t even enter the narrative until ten minutes in. And it’s not for another few before they even engage with any other characters who are in the story.

While on the other side of the narrative we have a whole hell of a lot going on.

For one thing, we’re introduced to this notion of the invasion of a moon base. So. Base under siege. But Hayles and Ferguson play the episode without showing the menace. It’s a strong tactic to produce intrigue, but again because we don’t know these characters and they’re not really sketched out too well, the moon base is just “thing that happens” rather than being “thing we care about.” There’s some good beats, like watching the guy proudly sabotaging the T-Mat system to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Then again, he’s killed the instant after he does that. So… that happened.

Just about the only stuff that’s interesting in this story is the stuff going on at T-Mat central. The stuff with Kelly and Radnor, I mean.

But even then the stuff with them isn’t exactly super engaging. All that happens with them is a catastrophic worldwide T-Mat failure, which only happens because the T-Mat is a giant house of cards, such that if one of theT-Mat stations goes out, they’ll all go out. Sounds like a massive design flaw, especially considering ONE OF THE STATIONS IS ON THE FRAKKING MOON. And now the T-Mat people have to get an expedition to the moon, which is only possible via rocket ship, which is unfortunate because the only person who has rockets is the owner of a HUGE rocket nerd who has a rocket museum. Which is where The Doctor and Zoe and Jamie come in. Because they’re at the museum.

The whole situation is really well-realized by Hayles. He really takes the idea of technology and pushes it forward, where newer, more efficient technologies render older ones obsolete and useless.

And it’s not that the old technologies don’t work or function, it’s just that the new stuff is better. Like television. Television is nice, but nowadays people play video games. Lots of video games. Why watch the story when you can EXPERIENCE the story. The more immersive the storytelling engine is, the more people are going to want to play it. It’s like holodecks. The biggest problem with holodecks is that the second holo-technology becomes mass-produced and to the quality that it’s indiscernible from real life, human culture will just stop. Because why live real life when you can make your own fabricated holo-life?

Hayles here plays the shrewd card. He goes for a society that’s bored with space travel, where you can just go to the moon by hopping in a magic box and transporting there instantly. Considering the story was aired in 1969, just six months from Apollo 11 landing on the moon, it’s an interesting take. And strangely prophetic. There’s the notion that by the time this story takes place (in the late 21st Century) space travel is completely passé and boring. It’s exactly what happened. Hell, we’re not even an eighth of the way into this century and all space travel is essentially museum based at this point. So it’s interesting to see a guy lauding the importance of space travel in a story at the height of space mania talking about how that mania will eventually turn to something else (like Kardashians).

And at the end of the day that’s the thing that’s most remarkable about this story at this point. It’s barely even started (I’d argue it hasn’t) and it’s already thrown a great sorta concept and idea at us. It’s nice. Welcome, even.

Hopefully they jack up the excitement.

Part 2:

This episode features the moment where I essentially gave up on this story the first time through and the thing that has a nomination for easily one of the most boring Doctor Who episodes ever made.

The main problem of this episode is it attempts to dramatize what is essentially an abstract travel story. The main crux of this episode for The Doctor and his companions is their attempts to get to The Moon. They’re gonna go there by rocket. So yay rockets. But the problem with travelogues is that they are intensely incredibly boring. They don’t have any real driving drama, conflict or stakes. And yeah. Sure. It’s a rocketship so that’s cool and there’s the constant worry that something’s gone wrong with the ship and we do leave the episode on one of those beats, but the fact remains that what we watch from their perspective is half an episode of debate on how they’re going to walk to where they’re going next and then another half an episode of watching them walk to the destination.

And if JRR Tolkien has taught me ANYTHING, it’s that walking is intensely, unbearably boring.

The rest of the episode is the Ice Warriors’ continued domination of the moon base, in which one of the guys manages to escape and rig up a weapon to vaporize the Ice Warriors. And we get another scene of one of the guys agreeing to help the Ice Warriors on the basis that they not kill him. So that’s something. But nothing happens with him. He manages to rig up the moon’s T-Mat to travel in one direction (to the moon) that allows Kelly to bring a team of technicians to the moon so they can initiate repairs on the T-Mat so the world can get back moving again.

Now I like this. I like the T-Mat thing and the notion that you could cripple Earth’s entire infrastructure by knocking out one element. The picture that Hayles paints of the world is good and works in a Doctor Who context. The whole world has just stopped. It’s like a worldwide internet crash. Just imagine…

What I don’t like is the bit where the T-Mat comes back on and Kelly and her team go to the moon, thereby completely eliminating the entirely boring Doctor and crew going to the moon storyline. Like… It just invalidates it. The Doctor and everyone going to the moon is there because they need to fix the T-Mat while on the phone with Kelly. But if Kelly’s there… And yeah, sure it’s not like it’s planned. The T-Mat is fixed after The Doctor etc have all taken off in the rocket. But at the same time, isn’t it? Isn’t Hayles as the story writer person an orchestrator of a plot that doesn’t really quite hold together and is needlessly happening?

There’s an easy fix to this. The Doctor and crew land on the moon in the TARDIS initially. They go in the T-Mat with Kelly when it gets fixed. Yeah, that eliminates the rocket idea, but the rocket execution is boring. Really boring. About the only thing that’s good that comes out of it is the image of the numbers flicking on Kelly’s face as she counts it down. The rest of it is boring. So boring. Nothing happens and it’s a needless set piece designed to feed off the then-massive fetishism of space travel as a commentary of how cool it is, but it comes across as lame and not nearly as exciting as it thinks it is. And it’s not even the model work. The model work is all fine and good. It’s all the rest of it, which is a massive waste of The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe and a waste of my time.

Ugh. Now let’s watch the story start.

Part 3:

You know, it’s funny. I should be annoyed by this episode, but after the first two it feels like way more of a rollick and fast paced than it actually is to the point that I was honestly surprised that it ended where and when it did.

But the thing that injects this story with energy is that once The Doctor and Jamie and Zoe land on the moon we basically have a giant massive moon runaround. Sure it takes them the first third of the episode to actually get off the bloody ship but at least they’re off the bloody ship. But once we have The Doctor going up against the Ice Warriors and running through corridors away from them it’s fantastic. And it’s probably not even that fantastic, but it’s just such a nice thing to see The Doctor and his crew be some actual component in this story that it’s something of a relief if you ask me.

I have to question all of the mythology of this story. Because of the events happening and how much I’m not engaged by them at all, I find myself questioning everything that happens.

For example, yes. T-Mat going down cripples the world and puts it all in shut down. But T-Mat’s been down for how long? A day? A week? Fine. A week at most because the dude in the moon has been doing nothing but hanging out in that supply closet. And now we’re told that there’s catastrophic famine and the people of the world are starving? So… people don’t have pantries? And the stores are all out of food? Has all the food spoiled? I just don’t buy that. Nor do I buy the notion that The Ice Warriors would open up the T-Mat only to kill the people who showed up. Wouldn’t the people who show up be the technicians? Your invasion is unknown. They’re not soldiers…

So now the Ice Warriors don’t quite have a functional T-Mat and they killed two of the lead technicians but left the simpering ninny alive.

Honestly, the thing that’s most interesting about the story at this point is the eponymous seed.

The seeds are nothing short of terrifying, at least, as of this moment anyways. For one thing, the seeds are in a box and there’s a beat of mystery about “what’s in the box.” And then The Doctor opens the box and pulls out the seed. When it explodes it takes The Doctor out for the count. And he goes down. Like a bitch. And it’s… it’s crazy. These seeds can take out The Doctor? And now The Ice Warriors are sending them down to the planet? Because they can? And they expand before they explode? It’s fantastic and quite Doctor Who: turning something that’s seemingly harmless and innocuous into something lethal and terribly dangerous.

I mean, the seeds are just balloons, aren’t they?

And really all of what I just mentioned is what this story has going for it right now. It’s so completely lowered my defenses by being so incredibly boring in the first two episodes that the third episode (in which yet more nothing happens) is leaps and bounds purely by comparison. And it’s still not great. In fact, it still can’t keep my attention and it’s still moving nowhere and we’re halfway through this story. Yes, Troughton is good but he’s always good and he’s no more amazing here than he is anywhere else. So far it’s not his best story and not by a long shot. His last three performances were miles better than this and to be fair that’s not his fault. It’s just that they were better written and gave him a lot more to do. This is just generic and him doing the best he can do with what he’s given.

And halfway through this, I’ve seen single episodes that are better than these first three put together.

Part 4:

Sigh.

So the story keeps moving and Troughton takes a week’s holiday. On the one hand, thank god he's not missing from one of his best stories (imagine him being entirely absent for an episode of “The War Games” or “The Mind Robber” or “Tomb”), but on the other hand, Troughton is particularly missed and especially here because without The Doctor or any other form of impetus to propel the story forward, we’re left spinning our wheels. For yet another episode. And at this point I’m willing to just go out there and say this is not “Space Pirates” bad but “Space Pirates” boring. The Doctor and his companions have been sidelined for the entire story and have not affected any sort of change at all.

So… sorry if I sound less than impressed.

The really nice bit in this episode is the character of Fewsham. Now, I haven’t mentioned him yet, but he’s an Ice Warrior collaborator who is teaming up with the Ice Warriors to save his own goddamn skin. And it’s a fine character. He just has to look scared and acquiesce and beg everyone around him to just cooperate so they’ll all be okay in the end. But in the middle of this episode, Fewsham draws a line in the sand when he realizes what’s going on. By collaborating with the Ice Warriors, Fewsham has doomed the earth because now the Ice Warriors are sending down the seed pods via T-Mat and using them to something something we don’t know that is the beginning of the Ice Warrior invasion force.

So Fewsham puts his foot down. He says he will not help the Ice Warriors any more. But they steam roll over him. He’s gone too far down the rabbit hole and the Ice Warriors are an unstoppable force. So good luck trying to stop them.

And I love that Fewsham turns coat and decides that he’s gonna help humanity wherever and whenever he can moving forward. It’s with his help that Zoe manages to make it to the temperature control to take out the Ice Warriors. It’s a nice turn for the character and absolutely deserved, if you ask me. It’s a bit disappointing to see him just standing back at the end of the episode when Zoe’s in peril and an Ice Warrior’s closing in on her, but we can’t expect everything from him. And besides, we need another cliffhanger. So…

The thing that really strikes me about this is the use of visuals. Ferguson (if you’ve seen “Ambassadors of Death”) is something of a massive visualizer and he’s really done a good job in this story of providing great images to go along with the story. The backlit area where Zoe’s standing at the end of the episode is a wonderful backdrop and really does a great job of illustrating silhouettes or what have you. Likewise the quick reaction cuts are shots of adrenaline to action sequences that could probably benefit from them. It’s jarring, especially on a show like this and it brings a very specific visual texture to a show that usually doesn’t have one. It’s also terribly memorable, and the way that Ferguson gets to his visuals must have been especially striking then, especially because it’s still striking today and to the generation built on music videos and nonstop fast cuts.

And we get some real progress on the Ice Warrior plan, which is all about these seed pods which explode over and over again. And an Ice Warrior walking around during some location shooting. So… that’s a thing. Why? No idea. It’s just happening.

Part 5:

And finally there’s some real movement. The Ice Warriors are invading for realsies now. They’ve seized control of the weather control center. The Doctor and everyone is back on earth…

But is it too little too late?

Probably. I mean… the story has taken so long to get moving that even though we’re rocketing towards end game there’s just about no energy from the script. Like… none. And I don’t know what it is, but nothing really seems to matter. There’s stakes, but all the stakes are abstract. There’s no real danger (as exemplified by the moment a seed pod explodes right in front of The Doctor and he coughs a bit before walking it off) and no real threat from the Ice Warriors. Hell, they haven’t really done a lot in this story except shoot a few people I didn’t care about.

There’s just no urgency to any of this. And then there’s the revelation that the Ice Warriors are using this fungus that bursts forth from all the seed pods to make an atmosphere suitable to them.

But then Hayles completely undercuts the value of this by having the fungus be allergic to water. And sure, the Ice Warriors are great because they really headed off everyone else and got to the weather control center and now control it so humans can’t make it rain in England. Now… why you’d want to start your invasion in England if your main weapon is impossibly allergic to water is probably not the best thinking… So too is it probably a bad idea to rely on just ONE Ice Warrior to do that. It’s not like you need a bunch of Ice Warriors holding the moon base. It’s hardly a problem up there. You’d really only need the one Ice Lord up there and then mass assault the weather control center and hold it with a giant legion of Ice Warriors. That seems to make more sense to me.

So it really stretches it for me and just comes back to the notion that…. Hayles isn’t a super interesting writer. I’m sorry, he’s not. "The Ice Warriors" is hardly a rich and invigorating story and "The Celestial Toymaker" is utter, utter rubbish (as we’ll discuss when we get there). The only story he ever really got right was "The Curse of Peladon" and then he completely washed away all of that goodwill by throwing in a rubbish sequel. Which is also boring. Like this. The only things he seems to be good at is stuff like Fewsham where he’s got lots of good character work. But the stuff around all this with the monsters and what have you is terrible. Peladon is fantastic because it’s not about monsters. It’s all court politics. When he tries to go even remotely big the whole story gets dull as doornails.

And Fewsham bravely sacrifices himself in this. It’s great to see and kinda wonderful to bring his character to his ultimate conclusion, but he was probably the most interesting thing about this story and… now he’s gone. So whatever.

I have to say though, the stuff with The Doctor at the end as he races out to get Jamie and Zoe at the weather control is the best stuff about this episode. Hell, it’s the best about this story. And all of that is down to Troughton’s performance. I mean, for god’s sake, the entire final beat of this episode is him getting inundated with fungus which is really just a hell of a lot of bubbles. And somehow he makes it menace and genuinely tensiony. Few other people could pull that shit off, and that Troughton does, and does it well here is really… It’s just great.

Here. Watch it.


So that’s cute. Too bad the rest of this episode is nowhere near as good as this bit. Not even close.

Part 6:

It’s not until you realize that The Doctor is running around for the majority of this episode openly murdering Ice Warriors that this whole thing kinda falls apart.

Now, Hayles does manage to get away with it. For one thing, The Doctor isn’t quite shooting people with guns. He’s got giant heat lamps that he uses to bombard the Ice Warriors with radiation, completely obliterating them. So… yeah… Murder. I guess that’s a thing that The Doctor does now. But it’s wrapped up in so many sci-fi tropes that he kinda gets away from it. So too does he almost get away with helping to send an entire fleet of Ice Warrior spaceships to their deaths by sun. Does it quite work? I means it’s kinda genocide what he just did, isn’t it? Yeah. Kinda.

But watching The Doctor run through the plot and affect change and move it forward is something I’ve been waiting for this entire story. Watching him square off with the Ice Warriors and talk the Ice Lord to death is easily the best Troughton in the story

I think, though, that this story really just closes the book on The Ice Warriors, though. They’re just not interesting monsters or villains as Hayles writes them. They have the same weakness, which is actually an incredibly awful weakness. They can’t handle heat, which is fine. They’re Ice Warriors. That makes sense to me, but there’s nothing new or interesting about them in this. The only thing about is they have more promise to actually conquer Earth and the plan involving the moon and using it as an outpost is at the very least terribly interesting. And yet… they’re so dumb. They make a fungus that’s allergic to water. Know what the earth is covered in? Frakking water. I mean, come on.

Seeing it come together at the end is fairly entertaining. Watching The Doctor actually be an active presence plays to the strengths of the era and makes this whole thing a delight to watch. I mean, considering that this is the tail end of his tenure as The Doctor, don’t you think they woulda done a better job of putting him front and center in his penultimate and antepenultimate stories? Sure, his last story is an absolute corker of the highest degree, but watching the best actor on the god damn show not even be a real presence in the narrative just feels like… it’s just a waste. And all he has to do is turn the water back on and get the rain going again so the world can continue rotating.

Seriously, when it comes to the Troughton stuff it’s like… where was this story? Even the way he sneaks out like Batman and then makes a big deal about it at the end is so quintessentially this Doctor… So why did it take this long?

It’s frustrating. And I can’t even hate on this episode because it also has Jamie coming valiantly to The Doctor’s rescue in the last few minutes in the best way. It’s a moment of friendship and teamwork of the kind that speaks right to the relationship between The Doctor and Jamie. Same with Jamie providing a distraction to the Ice Warrior in the weather control center. And Troughton getting physical comedy as he falls into the weather control center amidst a positive deluge of bubbles.

Where was this story the rest of the time? I mean, seriously.

Final Thoughts?: So I know it's the unpopular opinion, but I actually can't stand this story.

Probably shoulda mentioned that before I started, huh?

But it's true. This is really just the latest in a long series of stories in which you could feel the wear and tear on the show starting to catch up with it. And its not that this story is all over the place. To the contrary, it's fairly straight forward isn't it? It's kinda like a base under siege only with way less of the staple characters. Only this time the base under siege is Earth, isn't it? And we saw that previously in "The Invasion", only "The Invasion" had a whole lot more going for it, didn't it? It's way more run-aroundy than this, but it also has a lot more going on to the point where you don't even realize that that one has two entire extra episodes.

This, though? This is just boring.

For one, the plot of this story is alarmingly simple and really takes forever to accomplish anything, doesn't it? The real plot doesn't kick in until episode four and even then The Doctor doesn't get into the middle of the action until about the end of episode five. With one episode to go. As a Troughton story, it's a waste of their best resource and the best actor they have on staff. And really, even the companions are given next to nothing to do when you get right down to it. Sure, Hayles wrote the whole story not knowing if Jamie was going to be in it or not. Zoe does nothing really memorable except change a thermostat and wail helplessly.

What kills it though is that Hayles has no idea how to make the Ice Warriors interesting or compelling as a threat or force.

The best use of the Ice Warriors in this is in the first episode when you don't know what they are. And really... how hard is that to do? All you have to do is not show the menace and have the menace menace and terrorize the people all around them? Hell, the most interesting thing about the Ice Warriors is the introduction of the Ice Lord as the head of the Ice Warriors and this story does NOTHING with that character except make him insanely generic as a leading bad guy, barking orders and doing your generic bad guy things. I mean, is this really it for them?

No, it's worse than that. After watching the other three Ice Warriors stories and seeing this one for a second time, I'm now willing to just pass of the Ice Warriors as uninteresting and boring. I've never seen them do anything clever or interesting. Hissy bad guy voices are overdone in Doctor Who as far as I'm concerned, and the use of it here is overly dramatic and done without any energy or anything to keep me interesting. It's an attempt at being sinister but it never comes close and by the end of this story I'm hoping they just don't talk to The Doctor so we can get the story moving again because it drags everything down. Their only weakness is heat and even then it's... what does it do? It slows them down and kills them. As a weakness that's a pretty broad one. About as broad as a weakness to water. Which is also a thing apparently. You'd think they'd be smarter than that.

But no. I can't be a fan of the Ice Warriors. Which is unfortunate, because on paper these are among my favorite Doctor Who villains that's ever been. They're massive lizard soldiers from Mars. And they're called Ice Warriors. Tweak the design, put them in metal armor, give them halberds, and I'm 100% on board.

As it stands now, not so much. And it's a shame. Part of the reason people recommend this story is because it's one of six Troughton stories that exists in its entirety. Seven if you count the animated episodes of "The Invasion". So we're for some reason obligated to like it because it's a Troughton story and there's so few of them. But I can't do that. I found it boring and uninteresting the first time. This time it's excrutiating. It's really bottom of the barrel, Troughton-wise. Hell, it's not even in the good half of the season, aspiring to be somewhere at the crossroads of "Mediocre" and "Let's Get Through This". God. If you want good Troughton, go watch ANY of the other surviving stories from this season (minus "The Dominators" because good lord) or any of his other great stories. Screw whether they survive or not. They're a damn sight better than this, because this doesn't even do anything, much less anything interesting.

So no, I will not throw the show a bone simply because a story managed to exist. Nor am I going to fetishize a different Hayles story because it's considered a classic and because he's just a guy who happened to get lucky one time. Screw that. I demand better because Troughton/Hines/Padbury deserved a story that's better than this, one in which it takes almost two and a half episodes to get into the meat and potatoes of the story. They did. Thank god they got it in other places because... Man. This is really the dregs of the era. It can't even do a compelling or interesting base under siege story. And that format has its own bloody structure that the show was content to do for an entire season and never really change up too much. Hayles's script can't even pull that structure off AND HE HAD DONE IT BEFORE. This one was to be bigger and better and it's an EASIER structure to pull off. Hell. He had TWO FRAKKING BASES TO DEFEND.

And this is what we're left with? God. It's like they're trying to make a case that the show needs a major reboot. Thumbs way way down.

Next Time!: 4th Doctor! Sarah Jane! An Anti-Matter Planet! Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde? Sure? Creepy set design! And a Scribble Monster! Cassandra steps back in to discuss "Planet of Evil"! Coming Next Tuesday!

2 comments:

  1. I really loved this story...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hey! me too! I love it when you're not alone!

    ReplyDelete