Friday, February 1, 2013

The Seeds of Doom

Dear Gary—
“Welcome to the loneliest spot on Earth.” Doctor Who takes us from the Frankenstein story in The Brain of Morbius to a retelling of The Thing in The Seeds of Doom, at least for the first couple episodes.  I almost expect to see James Arness roaming the halls of the Antarctic station when the Doctor and Sarah arrive in search of a mysterious pod that was found buried deep in the permafrost. Alas, no James Arness, but we do have a rather frighteningly mutated scientist transforming into a plant before our eyes. The pod, or “galactic weed” has opened and infected Winllet, a member of the scientific expedition, and is turning him into a Krynoid.
The story quickly moves beyond The Thing, however, when hired thug Scorby arrives to steal the pod for the private collection of his employer Harrison Chase. No matter that the first pod has already opened, the Doctor has unearthed a second (“They travel in pairs, like policemen”). The scene shifts to England, to the Harrison estate, and the story becomes a fast paced action/adventure/thriller, not my favorite type of story, but the characters, the acting, the writing—all make this a fascinating ride.
“That chap you called in from UNIT, is he quite sane?” The Doctor is, of course, the sanest of all—the most rational, sensible, reasonable, sound, and wise. It is that base of calm underlying the storm of seeming insanity that we can see but others, like Richard Dunbar, cannot. I find it rather odd that Dunbar, of the World Ecology Bureau, questions the Doctor’s sanity, and yet when double dealing with Harrison Chase, who greets him with, “And what is your Bureau doing about bonsai?” and goes on, “Mutilation and torture, Mr. Dunbar. The hideous, grotesque Japanese practice of miniaturizing shrubs and trees.” Mr. Dunbar never sees past his greed to the insanity of Harrison Chase. But the Doctor puts his finger on it—“Greed . . . greed . . . the most dangerous impulse in the universe.”
It is Dunbar’s greed that I find most reprehensible in The Seeds of Doom. Chase is mad; Scorby is mercenary; Keeler is cowardly; the Krynoid is hungry. But Dunbar, Dunbar of the World Ecology Bureau (not the “Intergalactic Floral Society, of which quite naturally” the Doctor is the president), is just plain greedy, not to mention petty and vindictive. He should know better. And he does come to realize this and does atone for his sins, but to my mind it is his initial greed that is the root of all the evil that occurs in The Seeds of Doom.
In the end, it is the common man, the average Joe, the rank and file, that is the most heroic (Cotton in The Mutants) or the most base(Dunbar).
Yet the larger-than-life villains of the piece (Chase, Scorby, Keeler, Krynoid) are more interesting.
Tony Beckley is particularly effective as the mad Harrison Chase. He is not the wild haired, bug-eyed mad of stereotype. He is quietly, calmly, chillingly mad (despite his occasional outburst of “Why am I surrounded by idiots?”). He is rooted in the peaceful green world of his plants, and he comes to his ultimate conclusion: “Yes, yes . . . the plants must win. It will be a new world, silent and beautiful.” However the music he composes (“I could play all day in my green cathedral”) is rather discordant and not at all what I would expect from him.
Now Scorby is everything that I expect from a Doctor Who hired thug, and then some. Vicious and cruel, loyal for a price, looking out for himself, and surprisingly literate. Scorby has been paid to retrieve the pod and will not stop at murder to get it. “He pays well,” Scorby explains to the Doctor of his loyalty to Chase, “and when it comes to money, Mr. Chase and I are of the same religion.” The Doctor, always seeing above and beyond, declares, “Franklin Adams; 1881 to 1960; American humorist.”  “The quotes are over, Doctor,” Scorby replies (although I can’t help noting that the particular quote I believe actually dates from Voltaire rather than Adams).
However, when it becomes evident that Chase is placing everyone in danger, including Scorby, Scorby does not hesitate to switch allegiance. “Scorby, can I rely on you?” the Doctor asks. “For the moment, Doctor,” he replies.  For the moment—Scorby is always for the moment. Practical and self reliant. He has a nice little speech, Scorby does, about how he has always had to rely on himself alone. It congers up visions of a tortured youth, yet I can find very little sympathy for the man Scorby has become.
Neither can I have much sympathy for Keeler/Krynoid. Keeler, botanist in the employ of Chase, uneasy ally of Scorby. He cringes at the thought of violence, but his half-hearted objections to Scorby’s murderous schemes are nothing but cowardly.  Keeler is one of the base orders of common man. His infection by the pod and transformation into a Krynoid is horrifying, but I have little sympathy for him. His pleas for help are heart wrenching, but I have little sympathy for him. He is a victim of his own cowardice.
I see with the Doctor in our story, seeing above and beyond the common place. It is for Sarah to bring the human element to The Seeds of Doom. The Doctor rides above, seeing with the eyes of eternity. Sarah sees with the eyes of compassion and sympathy; Sarah sees with the eyes of reality; Sarah sees with the eyes of the everyday; Sarah sees with the eyes of humanity.
The most compelling example of this is in the tiniest of scenes, the most throw-away of scenes. Back in The Thing section of our story, back when Winllet is our infected Krynoid, back when Scorby and Keeler have not yet revealed themselves as mercenary thugs, back when Chase has not as yet attempted to turn the world into his own personal greenhouse, back when the Krynoid has not yet tried to devour the planet.
The infection is rapidly taking over Winllet’s body. The Doctor can come up with only one solution to save him—to amputate the arm where the infection started. He leaves it to Moberly, the station’s zoologist, to perform the operation.  “But I’m not a surgeon,” Moberly protests. “You must help yourselves,” the Doctor insists. The Doctor stands above, viewing with the eyes of eternity. Sarah sees the practical, the everyday; she understands the Doctor, she understands Moberly; simply and directly she tells it like it is. Moberly must perform the operation. “I’ll do my best,” Moberly concedes. “You’re a good man, Moberly,” the Doctor replies, but what he really should say is, “You’re a good woman, Sarah.”  The whole thing is moot, of course, as Winllett/Krynoid goes mad and kills Moberly before they can proceed, but this small snippet of a scene that ultimately goes nowhere actually speaks volumes.
Throughout our story Sarah serves in this capacity; translating the Doctor to the common man; relating on the everyday level; sympathizing, cajoling, reprimanding, reasoning. “That chap you called in from UNIT—is he quite sane?” Sarah can see the sanity; Sarah can see the calm beneath the storm; Sarah can see through the eyes of eternity with the Doctor, but she sees it with the filter of humanity.
“Have you met Miss Smith,” the Doctor introduces her, “She’s my best friend.” Not assistant, not companion; friend. Best friend. (Having just re-watched Anne of Green Gables, I’d add—kindred spirit.)
“How do you do it, Doctor? You should be compost by now.” Indeed, the Doctor should be compost, and Scorby’s frustration at the Doctor’s seeming nine lives is palpable. How he does it is Sarah—Sarah saves him, and in turn the Doctor saves Sarah. It seems to happen quite a lot in The Seeds of Doom.
“What do you do for an encore, Doctor?”
“I win.”
Yes, the Doctor wins. He always wins. With a little help from his friends.
In this case a little help comes from his friends at UNIT. But it is not UNIT proper. No Brigadier; no Benton. Too bad because this is one time the Brigadier could have blown something up with the Doctor’s approval.
A tad anticlimactic—the blowing up of the devouring Krynoid. But it is an end the Brigadier would have been proud of; poor Brigadier off in Geneva when he really could have had a bang big enough for him.
All in all, Gary, I rather enjoyed The Seeds of Doom more than I remembered. It is a return to the six-part story right when I was enjoying the break from these over-long serials, but in general the fast-paced action justifies the length. The acting, directing, and script are as good as any of this era. The characters are interesting if not sympathetic. It is a bit grim, rather horrifying really. Mocking references to “aggressive rhubarb” and “homicidal gooseberries” aside, the thought of plants turning on animal life is ghastly, and the scenes of strangulation rather gruesome. Even the Doctor is uncharacteristically violent in The Seeds of Doom, in keeping with the dark overtones of the story. And I have to say that the shots of Scorby, the Doctor, and Sarah running through thickets of threatening vines are truly effective, much better than past visions of Susan running in place while branches are slapped in her face as she supposedly runs desperately through a forest.
Yes, a definite A story, even if it is not among my favorites.
I wonder, Gary, what you thought of The Seeds of Doom. I have come this far, and not a word echoes back. I have recently been part of an ongoing quest for answers regarding an old picture—a picture of our ancestors—of our aunts and uncles and parents—a snapshot of the past. We look at these images from years long gone and wonder. Wonder what were they thinking?  What was frozen in that moment so many years ago, a moment no one can remember any more and yet it is there before us, faces smiling and laughing? Why do they have bags on their heads? Why is that bureau in the background known as the Federal Bureau? And who is that mystery person bending down in the center and who looks so much like a relative and yet no one can think who it is?
Time slips away from us. And we are left wondering. Stories left untold.
And I wonder, Gary. I wonder. If we could turn the time back; if we could sit and watch The Seeds of Doom together . . . . I wonder. “Have we been here before . . . or . . . are we yet to come?” I wonder . . . . Welcome to the loneliest spot on Earth . . . .

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