“Well Gorilla, I went on record; I said this could be the sleeper match-up right here” – Jesse Ventura on the match between Mr Perfect and The Blue Blazer at Wrestlemania V.
The idea of a ‘sleeper hit’ – that being something that unexpectedly ends up being considered great despite a lack of promotion or general attention – is an interesting one.
I read a thread in the off-topic section of a Scottish Football forum the other day where a poster asked the question ‘What old Doctor Who stories should I track down on DVD?‘, and he was given the usual suspects in what is traditionally the Doctor Who hit parade. You know the ones…
- Genesis of the Daleks
- Caves of Androzani
- Pyramids of Mars
- Seeds of Death
- Robots of Death
- Talons of Weng Chiang
- The Five Doctors
- The Daemons
- Ark in Space
…and so on and so forth.
Nobody ever talks about the Seeds of Doom.
It never seems to get brought up when people talk about classic stories or great guest stars, it was released in the tail end of the VHS release era and took an age to come out on DVD.
It seems to be a hidden gem in the Doctor Who crown jewels, because despite the fact nobody really talks about it, that infamous old list – The DWM Mighty 200 – lists it as the 16th best Dr Who story of all time, and the 8th best of the Classic Era of the show.
Now I know I criticise those rankings, because after all the story that comes directly after it is Terror of the Zygons, but the fact is that in spite of it getting no attention, it still ranks higher than many stories that people do talk about. So away from any sort of influencing of what is supposed to be ‘classic’, this story manages to break through.
Let’s review it and find out why that is.
Doctor Who – The Seeds of Doom Review: What’s This One About?
A story in two linked parts, this is about two seed pods found buried in the Antarctic. They are Krynoid pods – an alien form of hostile plant life that can eat animal tissue and take over an entire planet.
The first two episodes are like The Thing, with a small group of people in the South Pole being terrorised by one of their own who has been turned into a Krynoid.
The latter four take place back in England, with a flora-obsessed insane millionaire – having hired goons to steal the other pod – trying to harness the power of the Krynoid for his own gains.
Thoughts – Unlike Anything We’ve Seen Before
In so many ways, the Seeds of Doom is unlike anything we’ve seen up to this point in Doctor Who.
For a start, it’s far more adult than other stories.
Yes, we’ve seen death in almost every story in the show’s history up till now, but there’s a certain detachment to it. You can have a Dalek kill someone with its death ray or an Auton shooting someone with its detachable gun hand and I think that seems more clean and fantasy like.
Here you’ve got a man being clubbed over the head with a metal wrench, and then fed into a pulveriser. Fuck…that’s grim. That’s up there with getting dunked face first into burning chip fat.
On a similar note, censors might look at men dressed up in funny costumes like Cybermen or Sea Devils and think ‘That’s ok if they terrorise the Doctor; it’s not real’, and the kids would probably know that too. They can allow themselves to be scared by the usual Doctor Who monsters because they know it couldn’t happen to them.
But for the most part, the main antagonist is a gun-toting mercenary who regularly beats up the Doctor.
And then there’s the Doctor himself. We’ve seen him being physically involved with people before – Jon Pertwee’s Doctor especially. But Pertwee used a sort of made up martial art. Here, the Doctor is jumping on people from above & punching them in the face, as well as trying to snap people’s necks with his bare hands.
But it’s not just what he does from a physical point of view either – he acts more intense than normal. His jokes are laced with a notion that he’s taking things more seriously than usual, he’s angrily screaming at people, and he’s issuing orders to thugs to create Molotov cocktails.
So the Seeds of Doom is going down a thematic line that we’ve not seen before.
But it’s also stylistically different.
Here, the Doctor is seen as a sort of ‘Troubleshooter for Hire’, in that I suppose we’re to believe he’s just been living in England before he and Sarah are asked to go to the South Pole. And though it has UNIT in it, they are merely ‘soldier candy’ for the end part.
I don’t think it would have worked as a ‘traditional’ UNIT story, and had it involved the Brigadier and Benton it wouldn’t have come across half as intense as it does.
But I have to say, all these aspects that are different are fantastically good. We’re soon going to get to a point in Doctor Who where his link with ‘modern Earth’ is severed completely. Yes, stories with the ‘UNIT Family’ had ran their course in my opinion, but this
format could have worked in at least a semi regular state.
So it’s a pity that it’s the only story of its kind, but it also makes it stand out more for me, because I think it’s brilliant.
Performance and Story Together
When I look back at some of my reviews, the ones that really stand out tend to be the ones where the actors put in brilliant performances, rather than it being an amazing story. You’ve only got to look at the Brain or Morbius review I recently published. Praising the story came secondary to praising some of the dialogue or the way the actors played it.
The Seeds of Doom has that of course, with top quality lines like “I’m not a patient man Doctor”, “Well your candour does you credit” to name but one of many, and it has excellent performances throughout the cast, with no letdowns from anywhere.
But added to that is that this is one hell of a story. Where some adventures will spend an episode or two treading water, The Seeds of Doom flows from beginning to end. The split of environment and restart with a new Krynoid in Episode 3 helps matters, there’s no doubt, but that’s not a crutch – it’s just good storytelling.
As I see it, looking at the Tom Baker era so far, you’ve got stories like Ark in Space which has a great plot and some efficient acting, then you’ve got stories like Brain of Morbius which have great acting and wonderful dialogue but a plot which is merely good, and you’ve got a story like the Pyramids of Mars which has both a very good script and very good performances but maybe doesn’t have the humour or the sparkling dialogue, and it slows down towards the end.
But the Seeds of Doom manages to have excellent performances combined with a powerful plot and quality dialogue.
I said that Brain of Morbius was my favourite story of the Baker era, but only one story hence, its lost it’s title to this.
John Challis – Living in the Shadow of Boycie
There’s a thread on a Doctor Who forum about the top 10 guest artists to appear in the show. And many of the names you’d expect to be on that list are on. The likes of Philip Madoc, Kevin Stoney, Peter Jeffrey, Julian Glover, Bernard Kaye, Peter Barkworth – they’re all there.
And they deserve to be of course. These people are excellent actors who do a wonderful job with what they are given.
But missing from that list is John Challis.
In the same way as people will criticise Ken Dodd’s performance in Delta and the Bannermen because it’s Ken Dodd and not because it’s poor (and when I eventually get to that review I’ll say that I think it’s actually a very well performed cameo role), I think people don’t want to put their name to praising Challis because he is famous for being Boycie in Only Fools and Horses.
You ask 100 British people where they know Challis from, and 100 will say Only Fools. That’s the role he’s most famous for, that’s the role he made a career on, but that’s a role that isn’t exactly critically acclaimed.
And yet, before he was Boycie he was Scorby. And he was magnificent.
In all of Doctor Who, there is not a better ‘hired goon’ character. He’s got him down to a tee. So many actors would take a reasonably well written character like that and do an efficient job of it, but it wouldn’t be memorable. But Challis does a fantastic job. He works so well against both Baker and Sladen, he’s fully invested in the character and he makes him multi-layered. You feel that there’s a certain vulnerability about him, and despite not having the flashy lines
like Philip Madoc did as Solon, or the ridiculous OTT brilliance of Christopher Robbie’s Cyber Leader, he commands the screen when he’s on it.
So here’s to John Challis. I disassociate him with the Boycie character and commend him for being a quality actor in his own right, and would happily place him in my Top 10 Guest Artists in the show.
The Doctor and Sarah – Equals
Another aspect of this story that stands out is that the Doctor and Sarah are written very much as equals. He leans on her as much as she leans on him.
Gone is the dynamic of the older man and his young dumb sidekick here.
Of course, in modern Who this is par for the course. Towards the end of her run, Rose was very much equal billing with the Doctor, while now Matt Smith’s Doctor is positioned in equal footing to Amy (but not poor old Rory of course).
But it’s something new for this era, and since she’s only got two more appearances before she leaves, it’ll never happen again, which is sad.
- While John Challis stands out as the best of the guest cast, it’s very strong on the whole with nobody letting the side down. I must commend the writing and casting of Harrison Chase as well as the performance of Tony Beckley in playing the role. You can fully invest in his creepy obsession with plant life, along with him being both dangerous and pathetic. Another massive plus point in the story.
- On the other hand, if I have to criticise it, I’ll say that some of the attempts at making it look as though they were in Antarctic were pretty pathetic.
- And that TARDIS prop is literally falling apart by this point.
- Another slight criticism I have is that Scorby didn’t have to die. Although it fit in well with him having a breakdown, he seemed too savvy a character to go out to his death.
- Oh, and while the principle of it was good, the execution of the cliffhanger to episode 4 was feeble.
- Having said that, all the other cliffhangers were tremendous.
- Incidental music and location is somewhat secondary to the other positives of this story, but they certainly help in making the story what it is.
- The Krynoidin human state is of course just a repainted Axon, but it looks effective. And the makeup given to the likes of Keeler when he was half was transformed was also exceptional.
- I could be wrong, but I believe the Krynoid on the house was done by stop motion animation. Again, it looks great so you invest in it more.
- I could question why the Doctor didn’t just take the TARDIS to the Antarctic, but hey-ho.
- What I would say though is that having the Doctor not bother to wear any warm clothing at the South Pole makes him seem alien. A little thing, but again effective.
- Another great line of dialogue worthy of mention: “It’ll be the end of everything! Everything! Even your pension”. Superb!
- Tony Beckley appears to have noticeably shorter hair when filming on location.
- Finally, how obvious is it that the Ecology Bureau is just Television Centre?
Doctor Who – The Seeds of Doom Review: Final Thoughts
As I said before, Brain of Morbius couldn’t even retain its title as the best Tom Baker story so far against its first challenger.
The Seeds of Doom is absolutely brilliant. Any issues with it – dealt with above in the Random Observations section – are trivial at best. No, this story – to me at least – is pretty much faultless. A wonderful example of Doctor Who and yet a departure from what we can usually expect from it.
It wouldn’t have worked with any other Doctor, nor would it have worked if Tom Baker approached the part with his usual level of frivolity. His seriousness, along with his interaction with the other characters, sells what is a super script.
I look at all the stories I’ve rated so far; I look at what came first for each of the first three Doctors and I look at this, and I’d honestly say this is probably the best yet. It’s just that good. In times to come there will be a couple more challengers to the crown in the classic era, like Weng Chiang and Androzani, and there are a few excellent stories in the modern era, but this deserves its place in the top 10 stories ever.
And going back to the very beginning, nobody seems to talk about it or know about it.
It’s the very definition of the sleeper hit.