Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who: The Seeds of Death DVD

By Jim Smith on 26 November 2005

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

‘The Seeds of Death’ hails from the second half of the 60s, from when ‘Doctor Who’ was genuinely the favourite TV show of the children of the British nation. These six vintage episodes star Patrick Troughton the (second television, third actual) actor to play Doctor Who, and here he’s (surprise!) fighting to save planet Earth from alien invaders, Martians in fact, who in ‘Doctor Who’ terms are also known as ‘Ice Warriors’.

The wonderfully lurid title refers to the Ice Warriors’ invasion weapon, a sort of fungus launched from seed pods (each about the size of a cricket ball) which release a gas that will alter the atmosphere of Earth in order to make it more like the Ice Warriors’ home planet. It isn’t noticeably explained why the Martians want to invade the Earth – presumably this is what Martians do – but this is more than made up for by the programme’s attempts to create a coherent ‘twenty first century’ backdrop to work the story of derring do, monsters and corridor-running into.

In the dim and distant year of two thousand-and-something mankind has abandoned space-travel and instead relies on T-Mat, an instant teleportation system which is shown as being of far more practical value to this future than the transporter ever has been on ‘Trek’ – it’s used for shipping food around the globe for instance – and the Martians’ attack on, and swift gaining of control over, the system means human civilisation grinds to standstill very quickly. There’s famine in Leningrad within the hour.

This brings us to one of the interests of this story, it’s a past vision of the future, a 1960s version of the twenty first century where there is a Soviet Union but there isn’t an internet; where the British civil service is still run by men with moustaches and knighthoods but who wear plastic jumpsuits with thick black piping around their pantylines rather than off-the-peg stuff from Cecil G. Where humanity controls the weather with four levers atop a tin box, but where space travel is still exclusively rocket-based. Where computers talk as a matter of course, but everyone still pronounces India’s capital as ‘Calcutta’.

There are imaginative costumes, menacing monsters and comedy aplenty in this 150 minute epic, and all the actors give it their all – never patronising the material but approaching its ludicrousness with straight faced integrity. Terry Scully as poor pathetic collaborator Fewsham is particularly good, as is Frazer Hines as the Doctor’s kilted, Hibernian sidekick Jamie.

‘The Seeds of Death’ comes from a different world, with its black and white video shooting (barring occasional laspes into filmed location work), largely leisurely pace and innocent thrills. It’s a hugely enjoyable chunk of 60s TV, and the remastering job done by the BBC’s technical bods is astounding. It’s difficult to imagine any other thirty five year old television being treated with such reverence; the picture quality really is astonishingly crisp and clear. The fact that, compared to much 60s TV, it’s imaginatively and fluidly shot, with the camera hiding behind sets with holes in, the odd bit of lens-flair and attention played to shadows and model work, certainly helps the episodes ’straight’ entertainment value. This isn’t, like a lot of old TV, something you’ll watch ironically. This is something you can be sucked into on its own terms.

As for the extras, well, the commentary track (what other 60s TV comes with a commentary track?) is split between actors Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury (Doctor Who’s assistants) director Michael Ferguson and co-writer Terrance Dicks. Rather than shoving them all in a room together and getting them to prattle against each other, the actors/production staff are localised on particular episodes of the serial. This innovation actually breaks up the monotony of hearing the same couple of people reiterate the same couple of anecdotes more than once over the programme’s long running time. Given that ‘The Seeds of Death’ is nearly three hours long and was made over thirty years ago, it’s doubtful than any one person involved in the production could sustain their ‘insights’ over 150 minutes anyway.

There’s also a nicely put together documentary ‘Sssowing the Ssseeds’. This gives an intelligent overview of the making of 1960s television, but is inhibited by the sheer number of people involved in the story who have died in the gap between its one and only TV transmission and its debut on shiny disc. Actor Sonny Caldinez – an engaging, amusing man – recalls playing one of the martians, as do Alan Bennion and the late Bernard Bresslaw, whose recollections come via an audio only interview, admirably dredged up by the disc’s producers from God knows where. Director Michael Ferguson (who later produced ‘EastEnders’, the poor dear) chips in too, offering interesting anecdotes about the production methods used on the episodes.

Many episodes from the black and white days of ‘Doctor Who’ no longer exist at the BBC and so it falls to this release, as one of the few representatives of those days, to present excerpts and items of interest related to the entire programme rather than the specific serial. So we get tiny clips from two other stories ‘The Web of Fear’ and ‘The Wheel In Space’ which the BBC no longer holds in their entirety. The clips themselves only exist, ironically, because they were cut out of the episodes by foreign censors. ‘The Web of Fear’, at least, looks rather exciting with its scenes of monsters rampaging around the London Underground and engaging the army on the capital’s streets. ‘The Wheel in Space’ looks as dull as its extant two episodes suggest the remaning four sixths would have been.

Also represented on the disc is the equally non-extant ‘The Evil of the Daleks’; some silent ‘making of’ black and white footage of the studio special effects being shot has survived, and this is backed by a commentary from some of those responsible for blowing up and setting on fire the dozen or so toy Daleks being demolished here.

This is, overall, a really nicely put together package celebrating 60s ‘Doctor Who’ in all its monochrome glory. Potential purchasers should not be discouraged by the truly horrid ‘Doctor Who fortieth anniversary logo’ stuck to the box.

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