Friday, September 27, 2013

A Doctor A Week: Tom Baker: The Seeds of Doom

By Russel D McLean

11 weeks. 11 Doctors. 11 stories. Right up to the fiftieth anniversary, Russel will be reviewing one story a week for each Doctor. He will try and relate each story to a larger picture and how it relates to each period. He will occasionally make fun of them. But he will try and show you what a varied and brilliant history the show has. As well as overcoming his own prejducies about certain periods in the shows history. Each review will have spoilers and will assume a certain level of knowledge about the story in question.

Tom Baker is, for many, the quintessential Doctor. His unruly curls, his massive scarf (the first one knitted by Madame Nostradamus (a “witty little knitter” apparently) and his unpredictable behaviour (that became a little over exaggerated in later seasons) made him immensely popular. He would be the longest running Doctor, playing the part for seven years before finally leaving in his excellent final story, Logopolis.

He had several companions over the course of his run, including the “savage” Leela, the Timelord Romana and - for only a few episodes before Peter Davison was lumbered with his intensely irritating presence - the mathematical genius, Adric.

But its his partership with Sarah Jane Smith that many people fondly remember. Sarah Jane had replaced the outgoing Jo during the Pertwee years, and introduced a stronger female character to the mix. Sarah was an investigative journalist and while she was occasionally mistreated by scripts (perhaps never moreso than during the reunion special, The Five Doctors, where she got stuck down the world’s gentlest incline) she was, on the whole, a fantastic role model for a whole generation of young women, often able to hold her own against the Doctor. Her interplay with Pertwee was excellent, but the partnership of Sarah Jane and the fourth doctor was nothing short of dynamite.

Its hard to pick just one story from the Baker years, so I had to go with one that meant something to me personally. The Seeds of Doom is a story that I remember particularly well from its novelisation in the Target series of books. These novella length adaptations were written at a time when the possibility of TV repeats of Doctor Who was limited, and they introduced readers like myself to a whole back catalogue of stories and Doctors we never had the chance to meet. The Seeds of Doom was one of my favourites, and its tale of an alien plant intent on consuming the entire earth chilled me to the bone.

So what was it like to finally watch this six part story?

Surprising is the answer. Most of the stories selected for A Doctor a Week have been representative of the eras of the show they are from, or at least considered classics. The Seeds of Doom is surprising in that it is rather different from the shows that surround it. Others have claimed it to be an episode of The Avengers in Dictor Who drag, and I guess that’s true. There’s more of an action component than most of the surrounding stories, and anyone who thinks the Doctor is a lily white pacifist who never employs violence need to watch this one to see Tom Baker crash through windows, wave guns at people and generally do whatever is neccesary to get the job done.

What’s amazing is that none of this derring do is out of character. The monster of the piece is the Krynoid (Baker pronounces it “Kr-ih-noyd” but given how he also pronounces “homunculus”, we should always be wary of a Baker pronunciation), an alien plant that lives off animal matter and consumes whole planets. These creatures are immensely powerful and one of the greatest dangers the doctor has ever faced. We know this not just because we’re told so, but because Baker really sells his desperation in his performance. For this story, Baker dials back his performance and it works beautifully. His Doctor is strange and alien, but also unnerving because we never quite know which way he’s going to jump. Compare this to some later stories where he’s allowed to go full tilt pantomime crazy and tell me which aspect of his performance is more effective.

His concern for Sarah Jane is fantastic. Unlike Pertwee’s father figure, Baker’s Doctor treats Sarah equally. Yes, she’s from a race who can’t understand all the things that a Time Lord can, but he knows that she’s intelligent and that she matters as more than just someone to marvel at his brilliance. In a way he needs her, and that shows right through this story. He loses his temper at her, but he’s under intense pressure, and Sarah Jane gives back as good as she gets. There’s a reason she’s a fan favourite, and its this chemistry and genuine strength of character that secures her position in the viewer’s - and the Doctor’s - hearts. Its little wonder Lis Sladen would return to this character again and again; she’s a human being, something that would not always be the case for those accompanying the Doctor. And she’s great in this story (although of course sometimes she still gets scripted a little too weakly, but that’s as much the era this was written in as anything else.... at least she no longer has to deal with UNIT Medical Doctor, Harry, who accompanied them for a while and kept making digs about equality and women’s lib).

For a six part story, Seeds move fast. There are some mis-steps (a lot of toing and froing at the beginning when Doctor Who does The Thing, as they attempt to stop the Krynoid defrosting in Antarctica, and the awful decision to allow the Krynoid to speak, therefore robbing it of its elemental power) but on the whole, ever scene adds to the action. There are beautifully played human villains, too. Trigger from Only Fools and Horses does a nice line in thuggery as the violent Scorby, while Harrison Chase is one of the most chilling villains on record. In another life, he might have been an eco warrior. As it is he despises humanity so much all he wants is to see the world turned into a plant paradise. There’s real horror here, too, as there was during this era of Who. Phillip Hinchcliffe’s time as producer gave us some real horror stories, and with the body shock elements of human beings turning into plant creatures and some real nasty stuff with a compost machine, you can see why kids were hiding behind the sofa and why Mary Whitehouse was coming close to a heart attack as she tried to get kids TV to tone down the violence.

Seeds of Doom had a soft spot in my heart as a novelisation. And I hold it in even higher regard now I’ve seen it for real. The script is tight and witty, Sarah Jane and the Doctor are on top form, and the whole things just moves along at top speed. If you haven’t seen this one already, check it out.  You won’t regret it.


- I spent most of the last review moaning about the UNIT family, so its nice see new facets of the military organisation appear here.

- The Doctor really is violent here, and its easy to see why the part could have been written for John Steed of the avengers. And Sarah Jane makes a credible Emma Peel stand in, too.

- There’s a great moment during a fight in the compost machine where Chase tries to push the Doctor through the chompers. Baker looks genuinely bewildered as to why the other man is trying to kill him and his regret at letting Chase get chomped is absolutely clear. The is the Doctor. He does what he has to do, but he doesn’t have to like it.

- The action really is great. Baker crashing through skylight to rescue Sarah is a highlight.

- I’m still not sure how Sarah survives overnight face down in the styrofoam snow. But I’m glad she does. I’m sure the modern series would somehow work a way into saying the TARDIS did this.

- The whole opening stuff in Antarctica is brilliantly creepy and claustrophobic. Although as ever, the timer on the bomb seems to work in something other than seconds... (or else its the TARDIS stretching time... or something to do with the sonic screwdriver).

- I’m still not quite sure what the gag is in the very final scene. But I’m sure it was very amusing to someone somewhere.

1 comment:

David Cranmer said...

My first Doctor. Haven't watched Baker in years. Excuse me as I hit play on your posted video. Thanks.