Top of the Pods by John Connors

It’s been said that atypical Doctor Who often works best but `Seeds of Doom` might appear superficially to be an example where the reverse is true. It shows what the series can do well and what its strengths are. It’s a variation of a story that’s been told often in the show yet something special comes together to make it a prize specimen. No doubt a modern take on this story would highlight the ecological issues but such depth is not needed for what remains at its heart an adventure yarn with a threat our confined heroes have a limited time to sort it out.  Yet within this seemingly traditional format, there is much that is atypical about the story.

A race against the clock is always the most dramatic of stories and Robert Banks Stewart’s taut script sketches just enough character for us to remain interested in what happens to these people.  He draws exaggerated though not especially deep characters that become fascinating despite their relative simplicity. Harrison Chase’s botanical obsession is played up to the nth degree and it’s hard not to smile as he plays his discordant symphony declaring “I could play all day in my green cathedral”. Scorby is mercenary to equal extremes waving a gun around (though you know he will never shot anyone with it) while Keeler’s nervy presence marks him out as potential Krynoid food from the first time you see him. What raises this story above the average pot boiler is the forensic attention to detail. A few examples- Hargreaves’ raised eyebrows as he hears Chase’s music again, Sir Colin Thackery’s reaction to hearing his pension might be under threat, the Doctor mouthing the correct pronunciation of Amelia Ducat’s surname. There are lots of these, all underpinning the bold action that drives the story forward.
Do the Krynoid! Everyone was in 1976
And it is a great story- rollicking along with everything making sense even down to Amelia’s small but pivotal part, the way Dunbar has a through story and the choreography of episodes three to six being paced more like a film than a TV series. The Doctor’s part in the story oscillates considerably- early on he is a step apart; “you must help yourselves” he intones as the base crew debate about who will operate on Winlett. Here, Stewart uses Sarah as a more mature sounding board, almost an equal of the Doctor’s. The only thing that really galvanises the Doctor is when Sarah herself  is in danger; otherwise he seems satisfied to play the role of observer even though he’s been asked to go to Antarctica. Why he goes by plane rather than TARDIS is never explained and the story’s curious coda, suggesting he was planning to, only confuses the issue. He also displays a lot more physical violence than we might expect; leaping through a glass canopy or slugging it out with a chauffeur. There’s more than a touch of James Bond about it all, notably Harrison Chase who could easily be a Bond villain lurking in his green volcano!

Douglas Camfield’s full blooded direction is subtler than it looks- yes we get realistic machine gun fire (about the only time till `Androzani`), but the compost machine and Krynoid transformation scenes are designed to underline the drama rather than to shock or scare. Camfield places quite a lot of emphasis on realism, shooting with the same sharp cameras that made 1980s Doctor Who look false yet somehow managing to keep matters convincing. Faced with the rubbery Krynoid he wisely uses shadows and interesting camera angles to make it look reasonably good.
As with the equally brilliant `Terror of the Zygons`, Geoffrey Burgon’s music becomes an organic part of the story; not till Murray Gold has a composer written such an intuitive incidental score. Compared to Dudley Simpson’s standard electronic trills and bleeps, Burgon is symphonic as you’d expect from a composer of his reputation and there are moments where the sound and music combine to stunning effect.

Like all the best Doctor Who, casting is key. Every one of them is superb, especially some of the smaller roles; the wonderfully harassed Sir Colin Thackery, the delightfully dotty Amelia Ducat on a  on a Miss Marple trip  and even Major Beresford who is a far more convincing military type than the series normally had.  The main characters provide some of the most watchable moments in the series’ history. The Doctor’s brooding certainly and Sarah’s loyal intuition play so well together. Tony Beckley is as camp as you like one minute yet insanely vicious the next with his henchmen indulging in what was for the timeslot some strong violence.

"Keeler, fetch the clamps!" More fun at chez Chase.

It’s not entirely perfect, oddly enough falling down at some key moments; both pod infections are staged in a contrived way, there’s a poorly arranged scene when the Doctor and co are taking plants from the house and somehow all manage to get locked outside plus a very rubbery looking wrench sees off poor Sgt Henderson. There’s also the climax which, while undoubtedly spectacular lacks the cleverness you might expect. Would it have been too much for the Doctor to have whipped up something they had to spray on the Krynoid?

Nonetheless `Seeds of Doom` is as perfect as the show has ever been, a superb conclusion to what is probably the best season of all.. 

1 comment:

  1. I quite agree - a classic that lives up to the term. (Unlike Planet of the Spiders, which is important rather than good ;-) ) I am surprised how well the acting stands-up. Of course, the whole thing is derivative (of two major sources), but that is in itself an example of something that Dr Who does well. 'Artists borrow, great artists steal!'