Doctor Who and The Seeds of Death
By Brian Hayles
Transmission dates 25 January – 1 March 1969
In the far future, the revolutionary T-Mat system has taken precedence as the only form of travel, allowing people to transport themselves or goods to key metropolitan centers all over the planet. The entire affair is overseen by a hub on Earth and a remote moonbase staffed by a skeleton crew. When the moonbase drops out of communication, T-Mat falls into chaos and the planet struggles to maintain control. A stranger named the Doctor and his friends hold the only hope of uncovering the mystery of what happened on the moon, but is even the Doctor prepared to face an old enemy from Mars, the planet of war?
The Troughton era is famous for the over-use of core ideas such as the ‘base under siege’ seen in both The Web of Fear, The Invasion and of course The Seeds of Death. What is sometimes forgotten is how well these core concepts were used and how it allowed the production team to create bizarre imagery as seen in the Tomb of the Cybermen, the Dominators and Web of Fear. In addition, Troughton was an accomplished character actor and excelled at depicting great intelligence or buffoonery on the head of a dime. These rather straight forward adventures may seem repetitive (because they are) but they are also some of the best Classic Doctor Who adventures.
Writer Brian Hayles had already delivered the stunning epic introducing the Ice Warriors the previous year. Rumor has it that a sequel was put into place to justify the extravagant cost of the Ice Warrior costumes and capitalize on their popularity. The Troughton years are often referred to as ‘monster era’ and for good reason; two Daleks adventures, two Yeti stories, four Cybermen battles, the Quarks, Krotons, Seaweed creatures and two confrontations with the Ice Warriors make it perhaps the most monster-centric period of the program. Hayle’s first story and this one are very similar in that each depicts a future society held together by technology and easily drawn into confusion by an outside threat. Whereas the Ice Warriors in their first adventure were introduced by accident, this second encounter is one of invasion.
The Doctor and his crew arrive in a dilapidated space museum maintained by the eccentric rocket scientist Professor Eldred. When communication with the T-Mat moonbase is lost, Commander Radnor thinks of his old friend Eldred and jumps at the opportunity to utilize his knowledge and skill in order to launch a rescue mission. Somehow the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe quickly earn the trust of Eldred and Radnor and end up on the only attempt that Earth has at success aboard a rocket aimed at the moon… somehow put into action in just a few hours. The rocket scenes are incredibly silly but the cast are very aware of this, Frazer Hines goofs about as the simpleton Jamie (and even makes a pass at Zoe- Wendy Padbury) and the Troughton’s Doctor larks about with wires, blustering at random fires from the control board. When the rocket loses contact with the homing beacon needed to land, a new character emerges named Phipps who has luckily found a cabinet of resourceful devices and helps the Doctor get back on track.
It still strikes me as odd that Christopher Coll (Phipps) was being considered as a replacement for Jamie. Frazer Hines’ agent was anxious for the actor to move on, so it is understandable that the BBC would want a fall back plan, but… seriously?
Once on the moon, the story changes and becomes an adventure of survival. The moonbase is over-ridden by deadly Ice Warriors and the Doctor and Phipps are unable to contend with them. What follows is some very silly padding as Troughton runs up and down corridors, coattails flapping. Doctor Who was clearly a family program in 1969, so it should come as no surprise that there would be some silliness at the expense of the monsters. Troughton trips past them, turns the awkward creatures about by their arms and narrowly escapes death several times over. I’m sure this was an attempt to lighten the mood somewhat so that the kiddies could sleep at night without worrying about the Doctor getting murdered by these things.
The Doctor quickly explains that Mars is a dying world and that the Ice Warriors are in search of a new home, but that hardly earns them any sympathy. At this stage, not much is known about the Ice Warriors. They appear to be like massive reptilian creatures with similarities to turtles with their shell-like armor. Later stories would flesh out a culture based on honor and a warrior’s code, but here they are no different to any number of cold war pulp monsters from space. That’s not really a problem, as they excel at being one of the most memorable monsters from the 1960’s. In this story, Ice Lord Slaar is introduced and is simply terrifying. Sleeker and more nimble than his lumbering counterparts, Slaar hisses through jagged sharp teeth and proves to be a devastatingly menacing villain.
The Ice Warriors returned twice in the 1970’s (in The Curse of Peladon and The Monster of Peladon) and were just as successful then as in the previous decade. I recall hearing that there were several plans to bring the Ice Warriors back in the 1980’s that all fell through and even though Waters of Mars hinted at them, we have to date not seen a modernized take on these classic baddies (though they are surely next in the list after the Yeti).
The Ice Warriors are armed with a sonic gun that produces an outstanding visual effect, tearing the victim apart with a horrifying sound. This is of course accomplished with the miracle of camera trickery and mirrors… but I still quite like it. Along with the Dalek deathray, it’s one of the most iconic effects of the program.
The direction by Michael Ferguson is outstanding. Doctor Who is often given some stick for looking cheap, but this story is very stylish. For a mainly studio-bound adventure, it is very innovative. He had previously directed one of my favorite Hartnell stories the War Machines and would later direct both The Ambassadors of Death in 1970 and The Claws of Axos in 1971. His gift for pacing and camera angles is evident in this story. The take off sequence remains eye-catching as do the scenes showing the Ice Warriors lurching about on location.
Later programs would attempt to directly approach women’s lib, but there’s a definite move in that direction here with Miss Kelly, the shapely genius that the future cannot do without. Terse and to the point, Kelly is a cold and unsympathetic character, yet she is also the cleverest person this side of the Doctor. Introducing her to the mix not only gives more attention to the world of the future, it also gives Zoe someone to bond with and act off of. The scenes where the two of them are working in the solar power room are kind of mystifying simply because they are both so emotionless and socially removed from the situation.
The Earth of the future is a rather odd place in that all technology not associated with T-Mat is disregarded, as seen in the space museum where the TARDIS initially lands. The culture is shown to be rather sedate as people lazily go about their business living in a paradise where everything is instantly provided for them. In the face of a crisis, Commander Radnor responds quite well, but is driven to panic at losing Miss Kelly since she’s ‘the only person who understands T-Mat.’ That’s job security for you. Maybe this is why the cast are dressed in less than complimentary hip-hugging uniforms looking more like a child’s playsuit than clothing?
The sudden arrival of gun-toting security guards is very out of the blue, as are their contemporary firearms in place of the expected rayguns.
The trio of Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury is one of the finest lineups of Doctor Who. As I had pointed out previously, with a few exceptions (The Mind Robber, The Enemy of the World) many of the Troughton era adventures centered around similar themes of alien invasion. In any other situation this would have made the program boring and predictable but in this case the regular cast was so strong that they carried it off with great success.
I don’t mean to write off Deborah Watling as Victoria Waterfield as I also enjoy her but the chemistry between Hines and Padbury is infectious. The main cast are simply having the time of their life and it’s great fun to watch.
Zoe- the girl from the future and Jamie -the boy from the past is an ingenious angle that I am surprised has not been used more often. It not only acknowledges that the Doctor travels through all of time but it also gives the viewer differing points of reference to relate to. Ever the pragmatist, Jamie mainly accepts things for what they are while Zoe is determined to understand and decipher them. I wonder if we will see a pairing of companions like this again?
Leading Jamie and Zoe is the Doctor who knows more than he lets on and while he is joyful to live a life of excitement he is also full of anxiety at the dangers they face. He frenetically scampers from scene to scene, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. There have been attempts to replicate or pay homage to his performance (I’m looking at you, McCoy and Smith), but there is no other Doctor more animated than Troughton.
Regarded by many as the best actor to play the role, Patrick Troughton’s depiction of the ‘cosmic hobo’ would be echoed in subsequent actors and become a staple of the character.
There is a strange mixture of comedy, drama, horror and action in the Troughton era and the main cast manage it admirably, never over-selling a joke, over-reacting to a monster or over-playing tension.
As Fewsham, Terry Scully really steals the show. Throughout Seeds of Death, Fewsham appears to be a cowardly traitor, collaborating with the Ice Warriors in their attack on the Earth. Even Commander Radnor and Miss Kelly write him off as useless when it pointed out that he is their only hope of regaining contact. Throughout a long story such as this (6 parts), several strong supporting characters are called for and Scully does much of that work here – stuttering his way through scenes with Slaar and teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
In his first incarnation, the Doctor was a canny fellow who operated from a position of dignity and power. His second incarnation is an entirely different affair and puts up the false front of a clown while secretly scheming the downfall of his foes. While other incarnations may be more pacifistic, the Second Doctor has no qualms about dispatching his enemies with extreme prejudice. The creation heat ray may have been a desperate creation by Phipps, but the Doctor creates a lash-up death ray that he uses to make quick work of the deadly Ice Warriors. One can argue that this was an unusual situation in which the human race was facing absolute extinction, but it strikes me as odd that the Doctor’s solution is such a violent one.
Hindered as all Doctor Who monsters are, The Ice Warriors do not plan to simply arrive on Earth and take over, their small squad of roughly four soldiers against the eleven speaking parts and extras on the planet below. Through the use of chemical warfare, they will pave their way to victory. This is so attractive an idea that the modern BBC Wales program still uses it even though its budget is extraordinarily higher than ever. In the case of the Seeds of Death, seed pods are sent to the planet that expand and burst, consuming oxygen and terra-forming the planet to better suit the martians all at once. Neat, huh? To visualize this, a foam machine is inexplicably employed and its silliness all over again as Troughton slips about covered head to toe in suds.
It is a shame that there are not more examples of the Patrick Troughton era as so many of these episodes are still missing from the archives. I remember back in 1983 when my local PBS station showed a few omnibus edition examples of previous Doctor Who stories (they mainly played Tom Baker and Peter Davison episodes) and The Seeds of Death was chosen as the Troughton story (The Daleks and Carnival of Monsters were also shown). It encapsulates so many themes and ideas of the classic Doctor Who that one could point to it as a perfect example of the series. Monsters that can’t move properly or see straight, a world in peril and a strange silly man in a long coat saving the day.
(more colourised images of Doctor Who can be found here)