Premise: When an Antarctic research team uncovers a seed pod the like of which is unknown to humanity, the World Ecology Bureau sends an eccentric military scientific advisor (known only as “the Doctor”) to investigate. But they’re not the only ones interested in the pod–the ruthless and unbalanced millionaire Harrison Chase has been tipped off to the pod’s existence by a corrupt bureaucrat, and he’s dispatched a mercenary team to retrieve the pod by any means necessary. But even more dangerous than Chase and his soldiers are the pod itself: a specimen of Krynoid, an alien lifeform which can take over human hosts…and desire nothing less than the destruction of all animal life.
One of the legendary shows for scaring the crap out of young kids is Doctor Who, and there’s a school of thought (well, there might not be, but there should be) that states that the show was never scarier than during its “gothic horror” phase, a series of stories which borrowed liberally from the tropes and conventions of classic horror movies.
The first thing that most people seem to associate with classic Who are the production values, so I’ll address those first. The classic series was an often-ambitious science-fiction show made on the budget of a kid’s show (from what I’ve heard, the six episodes of “The Seeds of Death” cost, in total, less than £10,000 in 1975 money–at a time when the British economy was plagued by inflation), and as a result the effects tend to look like they mean well but simply aren’t that convincing. (I generally don’t see this as a problem; Doctor Who comes from a tradition that doesn’t always equate “good effects” with “looking exactly like they would if they were really happening.” As a word of warning–and I hate to sound condescending or defensive here, but I think it’s a point that needs to be made–if you look at “unconvincing effects” as being “bad effects” and that “bad effects” means “bad show/movie,” classic Doctor Who is not the show for you.)
Luckily for “The Seeds of Death,” it’s got director Douglas Camfield behind the camera. Camfield is generally highly regarded as one of the show’s best directors during the ’60s and ’70s, partially because he brought cinematic touches to his work at a time when British shows still tended to feel like they were filmed plays as opposed to scaled-down movies, and partially because he took the show very seriously and put a lot of work into making it look as good as possible. (A lot of the show’s worst-looking episodes were directed by people who figured that since the show was aimed at a young audience, they didn’t need to bother making it look good.) That’s not saying that the show doesn’t look low-budget, because it definitely does; what it does say is that Camfield was good at making ten thousand points look like fifteen or twenty thousand. There’s only one or two effects shots that are unforgivably poor given what the effects team had to work with, and I was particularly impressed with the model shots.
The scripts, by veteran crime-show writer Robert Banks Stewart, are also very strong, at least in the beginning. The chief inspirations here are The Day of the Triffids (killer plants), The Thing from Another World (alien menace buried in polar ice) and The Quatermass Experiment (man turns into alien monster), with a dash of The Avengers (action, adventure, overly eccentric characterization) for good measure. Despite the young age of the target audience, the story’s content has a tendency to be surprisingly horrific (the “man transforming into Krynoid” sequences in part four are particularly chilling). Unfortunately, Banks Stewart tends to go a bit off the rails in parts five and six, with a number of plot developments that are very silly even by the standards of a story that’s about a gigantic man-eating plant.
The production is rounded out by an excellent cast. “Seeds” comes at the end of Tom Baker’s second season in the role, and the story presents an excellent example of why popular culture regarded him as the definitive Doctor for so long. (David who?) He’s able to put his distinct stamp on the role (many of his most memorable lines in “Seeds” are ad-libs) while avoiding the tiresome self-indulgence of his later seasons. The late Elisabeth Sladen, playing Sarah Jane Smith (the show’s then-current female juvenile lead, or “companion” in fan parlance), is just as strong–feisty, intelligent, and brave–putting in one of her finest performances on the show.
The guest cast is also excellent. Tony Beckley, as Harrison Chase, pulls off the rare trick of being a Who villain that can go camp and over-the-top without losing his menace. John Challis puts in a gritty and convincing performance as the amoral mercenary Scorby, and it’s a particular delight to watch his cool detachment gradually disintegrate across the story’s final two episodes. Other excellent performances come from Sylvia Coleridge (as the adorably dotty painter Amelia Ducat), Mark Jones (as the squeamish–and ultimately doomed–botanist Arnold Keeler) and Kenneth Gilbert (as Richard Dunbar, an embittered and corrupt WEB official).
At their best, the stories provided their own peculiar takes on those genres without feeling like rip-offs, resulting in a run of unique blends of science-fiction and horror the likes of which are rarely seen today. “The Seeds of Doom” isn’t the best of them (that honor would almost certainly go to either “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” or “Pyramids of Mars”), but it’s still quite strong, and holds up very well even after thirty-five years.