The Seeds of Death [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  But lately I decided to spend both some of my 50th birthday spending money and my Christmas spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters.

(Daily Doctor Who #207)

The Seeds of Death

Starring Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor.
Companions: Frazer Hines as Jamie McCrimmon and Wendy Padbury as Zoe Heriot.
Written by Brian Hayles.  Directed by Michael Ferguson.

Format:  6 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  January – March 1969 (Episodes 23-28 of Season 6)

The Seeds of Death was possibly the first Second Doctor story I ever saw, at a convention many years ago. (I also saw The Krotons around then, I’m not sure which was first). This on a big screen, but from quite far away, so it was not easy to catch all the details. It’s only shortly before I started this article that I finally watched it again a bit more properly.

Spoilers Ahead!

The Ice Warriors are back! Or, at least they are at the end of the first episode. Before that, they are just hissing voices off-screen, combined with a bunch of terrified expressions by some hapless humans (plus a few shocked deaths). Instead the story kicks off with a bunch of interesting ideas about a society that has become overwhelmingly dependent on automation–specifically the T-Mat, a computer controlled teleportation system whose functionality is essential for earth’s economy.

In this way, the story is similar to The Ice Warriors, also by Brian Hayles, in which the titular Martians were introduced a season prior. But on the whole, the themes are developed more effectively in The Seeds of Death, even if it’s a bit extreme that nobody on earth knows anything about rockets other than one disgraced old scientist.

On the whole, The Seeds of Death is a packed adventure, with a densely-told plot which spans a number of interesting settings on the earth and the moon (as well as in between). There’s plenty of action and a lot of thoughtful concepts being brought up, with nicely developed locations and some cool world-building. There are some interesting guest stars, and all our regulars get good showings, with Jamie in particular diving head first into the fray.

What the story lacks, however, is a strong sense of cohesion. There are so many ideas thrown into the mix in The Seeds of Death that they struggle with each other to find their place. The T-Mat, the over-reliance on certain technology, the weather control, the rocket journeys…all of them feel like they are jockeying for position and narrative strength. Even the titular “Seeds of Death” don’t play a big role for several episodes in, and when they do they are only one portion of the Ice Warrior’s invasion plan.

The story is also filled with potentially interesting characters who aren’t given the full development that they should be. One assumes when we meet Professor Eldred and his museum devoted to outdated technology that his suspicion of relying entirely on T-Mat is going to be important to the story. But once he helps get the rocket off the air he doesn’t really have much of a role. Gia Kelly also seems like a dynamic character, ends up being a bit generic–though she gets in on the action a bit she lacks any notable personality characteristics. And Phipps, the technician who helps the Doctor, turns out to be a much more interesting and capable guy than he first appears, but sadly winds up killed off so unceremoniously that it’s hard to realize it’s happened.

Only Fewsham winds up with anything like a genuinely satisfying character arc. The fearful maintenance worker comes across as nothing more than a cowardly traitor at first, but displays more courage and ingenuity as the story continues, and eventually dies a legitimate hero. His development took me by surprise–it was nice to have guest character get a fully developed beginning, middle and end to his story.

All of this is more-or-less made up for by the Ice Warriors themselves. On the whole they are much more menacing and dangerous then they were in their first outing, and the introduction of the “Ice Lord” (never named as such, but generally accepted to have that title now) is a worthy addition to their mythology, as is the briefly seen Grand Marshal. Alan Bennion makes his first of three appearances as a an Ice Warrior and does a good job helping to define what these characters are like.

The other strong part of the story is of course Patrick Troughton, who as always brings the right mix of cleverness, ruthlessness and clownish charm to his portrayal of the Doctor.

On one hand, we’re laughing as he struggles to stand up in the foam that is being pumped everywhere and is terrified of the huge bubble developing in front of his face. And on the other hand, it’s slightly chilling to see him cooly condemn the Ice Warrior fleet to a slow death into the heart of the sun. There is so much in Troughton’s performance that anticipates the modern Doctors, that is easily seen in this story.

3 thoughts on “The Seeds of Death [Classic Doctor Who]

  1. It’s a huge improvement over The Ice Warriors, but the look of the aliens never did much for me — it doesn’t have the visual impact of the Daleks or the Cybermen.

  2. I can see that. I think the real reason I like the Ice Warriors is the development they get in Curse of Peladon a few years later, where they really became “characters” and not just “monsters”.

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