Wednesday, 2 September 2009

The Seeds of Death

Previous viewings - many

The Seeds of Death is probably the closest we've got to an "ordinary" Troughton story that survives in its entirety. It's a six-part base-under-siege story with a returning monster (The Tomb of the Cybermen might also qualify but it's a four-parter and not set on or near Earth). Brian Hayles returns to pen another Ice Warriors outing, although given the writer's track record I'm not exactly filled with confidence. Can he finally pull off a great story?

The overriding feeling of this story is familiarity, and the half-year absence of bases-under-siege has done nothing to make me miss them. Fortunately the time seems to have been used to work out the good and bad points of the genre and make some changes, and rather surprisingly a fair amount of what have been my criticisms of other stories have been addressed. These include the addition of extra locations, to avoid repetitiveness and a slow pace, easing the TARDISeers into danger rather than landing them in it, and dropping the moronic base commander (hard to think of another variation of one anyway!). Unfortunately, they've also added in some new problems; the budget isn't up to realising the various Earth locations and they all end up looking like the same basic set, Patrick Troughton is missing for a whole episode (fortunately a rare occurrence), and unlike the Season 5 stories this doesn't seem to want to be scary.

It's also one of those stories that starts with a lengthy prologue before we meet up with the TARDISeers. By whenever this is set, the Moonbase is no longer a weather control centre as in The Moonbase, but rather a relay station for T-Mat, Doctor Who's answer to Star Trek's beaming, only without the snazzy effects. For plot reasons it's poorly designed, too; without the Moonbase, T-Mat can't operate, which would throw the world into total chaos. This would stretch credibility if it wasn't for the way Hayles has written most of the characters, as people who have been raised in a world whose many privileges they take for granted, and where catastrophic problems just don't happen. Until now.

At Moonbase we have Commander Osgood, the pathetic Fewsham and technician Phipps. As they try to solve a problem of late deliveries, the base is broken into by a squad of foes. The reveal of the Ice Warrior is the cliffhanger to Episode 1, but we already know it's them before that, as we hear the heavy breathing whenever they speak, akin to "surprising" us that those creatures shouting "exterminate!" are in actual fact, Daleks. Thinking quickly, Osgood sabotages the T-Mat to prevent the Ice Warriors from invading Earth, which gets him killed. On the Moonbase side of things, I found Fewsham an excellent character, a man who was already barely coping with the day-to-day operation of T-Mat, and who fears death so much that he does whatever the Ice Warriors tell him to. We see him turn into a nervous wreck, driven by self-preservation but hating what he's doing, enough to convince himself that he has no choice.

In the TARDIS, the Doctor and his companions find themselves in a space museum (repeating ideas much?). Fortunately this time the presence of the museum makes more sense as we learn more about the history of T-Mat, and how the humans have lost interest in space travel because T-Mat has increased demand in instant travel. The museum is run by Professor Eldred but apparently isn't open to the public. It's all quite lucky too, because Eldred just happens to have a rocket ready for launch that could get people to the moon to repair the T-Mat. Eldred is a good character because, rarely for a base-under-siege story, he gets quite a bit of screentime but is never in danger himself. His temporary refusal to allow the T-Mat personnel to use his rocket is frustrating and probably qualifies as padding. Another strange thing is that he hangs around at Earth Control after the rocket mission is complete until the end of the story, and even seems to have authority there. I must have missed the explanation for that.

On the Earth side of the mission, we have Commander Radnor of Earth Control, a quite dull man who serves little purpose in the narrative except to provide a male authority figure. I did like Miss Gia Kelly, a character who exemplifies the problem-free lives of the people in this era. I think of her as a Zoe-type who excels in command and getting the job done rather than science. Louise Pajo doesn't quite carry off the brains-over-personality character as well as Wendy Padbury, but she's similar to the other characters in this story in that they seem real in a Star Trek: The Next Generation-type faux-futuristic way and has quite an individual look.

End of Episode 2, and the TARDISeers still haven't joined the action, they're up in Eldred's rocket travelling to the moon, with a contrived cliffhanger which is instantly reversed in the reprise. I've not really felt the Doctor is all there in this story, however his chipping in with the occasional comment is in-keeping with his behaviour in similar stories. Zoe is in her element in a time period that brings back memories of The Wheel in Space, while Jamie is his usual self although Brian Hayles seems to have forgotten that the Doctor and Jamie work better as a team, putting them together only sparingly throughout the story. As the rocket lands, the Doctor makes contact with Phipps, who has escaped the Ice Warriors.

Episode 3 is pretty much a runaround, with the plot progressing little despite the Doctor's presence. That's perhaps a big flaw of the story; the Doctor doesn't actually do anything until after his holiday in Episode 5. Sure, he's now where the Ice Warriors are, but he spends half the episode running away from them then the other half listening while they reveal their plan drip-by-drip as he pretends to help them like Fewsham. Apart from the wonderfully Second-Doctor-esque line "your leader will be angry if you kill me - I'm a genius!" Episode 3 isn't great. Unfortunately, with the Doctor knocked out by a seed (a white ball), he's gone for the next episode.

If memory serves, Patrick Troughton's only previous holiday was for Episode 2 of The Web of Fear, and I remember that story coping well with his absence. This one doesn't. As the Ice Warriors proceed with their plan, with T-Mat repaired, Fewsham is told to T-Mat the Doctor into space, and more of the seeds to the various T-Mat centres on Earth. An Ice Warrior also T-Mats down to Earth Control and rampages about a bit. The main thrust of Episode 4 is the Doctor, Jamie, Zoe and Miss Kelly's attempts to retake the base, but it takes them until the cliffhanger to put their plan into action, with Zoe sneaking into the control room to adjust the temperature controls to something the Ice Warriors will find uncomfortable. It's one of those episodes where really nothing happens, although it was a good cliffhanger I suppose.

In Episode 5, it turns out the Doctor was T-Matted into another part of the base, and conveniently the Ice Warriors have returned to their ship, so the surviving Moonbase personnel T-Mat down to Earth. We now enter the best part of the story, because the Doctor is in his element as he analyses one of the seeds, while Jamie and Zoe work out that an Ice Warrior is heading for the weather control station to prevent it from raining, as water is deadly to the seeds. The seeds have a similar effect to the weed creatures from Fury from the Deep, spreading foam everywhere, but it's not scary this time around, only providing us with some silliness courtesy of Patrick Troughton as the Doctor is overwhelmed by foam outside the weather control and pulls all the terrified facial expressions he knows. You've got to feel for the Doctor as he knocks on the door for what seems like ten minutes before Jamie and Zoe answer. A very memorable cliffhanger.

With the seeds taken care of, the Doctor turns his attention to the incoming Ice Warrior spacefleet. The Ice Warriors approach Earth by tracking their homing beacon, which gives Fewsham his inevitable heroic sacrifice moment as he gives the fokls on Earth a chance to duplicate the signal, which the Doctor uses to divert the fleet and send them spiralling into the Sun.

There are loads of reasons why I like The Seeds of Death. The main one is that it's very well directed - I can see how low budget it is but I just don't care. The cleanup for DVD is particularly lovely. The side characters work much better than usual, for one thing I remember all of their names (on first viewing). True, the Doctor is hardly there but I'm a fan of the Hartnell era so that's not enough necessarily a criticism in my view. The other characters are good enough to keep the thing going, and the Ice Warriors themselves are better than they were in their debut.

Horror quotient - Okay, so it's not scary. We've had Ice Warriors before, we've had foam before, and Fewsham occasionally seems over-the-top in his hysterical manner. I don't think any of this hurt the story at all.
Comedy quotient - The usual - Troughton gets the best lines and Jamie has the second-best.
Drama quotient - You wouldn't think it but this story is actually quite dramatic, though I'd attribute that more to Michael Ferguson's direction than Brian Hayles's writing (though this is his strongest story).

There are flaws galore but I love it. One of my biggest Who guilty pleasures.


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