Geekbat Tunes

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Doctor Who: The Seeds of Death

Serial Title: The Seeds of Death
Series: 6
Episodes: 6
Doctor: Patrick Troughton 
Companions: Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines), Zoe Heriot (Wendy Padbury)

The Moon, in the LATE 21st CENTURY- STOP THAT!!!- the Moonbase (not the Moonbase from “The Moonbase,” though perhaps its forerunner?) This lonely outpost is the coordinating and relay system for T-Mat, the global teleporter system that we saw being pioneered in The Dalek Master Plan. (Possibly). A ship docks, and from it emerge a combat squad of Ice Warriors, who take over the base! Heroic leader Osgood sabotages the controls, preventing them from taking T-Mat, and they kill him for it. Cowardly Fewsham values his life above all else, however, and gets to work on invalidating his superior’s (in every sense of the word) sacrifice by repairing the controls in exchange for an extended lifespan.

When Earth control loses contact, Commander Radnor, head of T-Mat, and his assistant, Controller Gia Kelly, become concerned. After some attempts to rectify things for the globally crucial Moonbase, they hit upon a crazy idea- seek out Professor Eldred, an eccentric old scientist who has always opposed the T-Mat project and instead heralds an outmoded and abandoned form of transportation: rockets. Perhaps he can design one to shoot them to the moon to go and repair the base? However, when they arrive, Eldred is already entertaining visitors: The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe, who have just materialized in his museum. In the ensuing conversation, we learn that Eldred has already been building a rocket for himself, and the Doctor convinces them to put he and his companions as the crew- along with Eldred, who is needed on Earth, he is one of the few people in this futuristic world to understand the operation of rockets.

The Rocket launches as Earth’s cities begin to experience critical shortages. The T-Mat is briefly repaired by Fewsham, and Controller Kelly takes a team up to the Moonbase just before the system goes down again. Meanwhile, Phipps, one of Fewsham’s coworkers who refused to aid the Ice Warriors, has escaped, and takes down one of the Ice Warriors with a solar energy trap, a power cell rigged to vaporize the alien. Kelly escapes her new Ice Warrior captors and meets up with Phipps, as do Zoe and Jamie, upon arrival- however, the Doctor is captured and exposed to the poisonous gas of a ‘seed’, one of which is T-Matted down to London control; these are the Ice Warrior’s invasion tools, which will spread a fungus which depletes oxygen- killing humans and terraforming Earth to be more like their native Mars. The seed is followed by an Ice Warrior, who assaults the Weather Control Bureau and takes control of it.

Fewsham is order to T-Mat the Doctor into space, but secretly transports him elsewhere within the base, instead. Then, the T-mat breaks again, for some reason. With the unconscious Doctor safe, the TARDIS group, Kelly, and Phipps decide to attack the Ice Warriors by turning up the heating. On a mission to the control room, Phipps is killed (poor guy), and Fewsham musters enough backbone to delay an Ice Warrior and allow Zoe’s escape. He then repairs the T-Mat again, and, while the Ice Warriors are incapacitated by the heat, sends all of the survivors back to London- but stays behind, knowing the consequences of his traitorous actions await him back on Earth. Instead, once the Ice Warriors get the heat down, he activates a video link and allows everyone on the planet to hear the Ice Warrior’s plans: They plan to use the Moonbase to transmit a signal to guide in their invasion fleet. Once this trick is discovered, Fewsham is killed.

The recovered Doctor discovers that fungus can be destroyed by water- the teraforming can be halted if they make it rain. Zoe and Jamie set out on their own for the Weather Control Bureau, and when the Doctor learns that they’ve gone, and that it is where the Ice Warrior is, he runs off to their rescue. Though locked outside with growing poisonous fumes (while a murderous Ice Warrior chases Zoe and Jamie inside), he manages to get inside soon enough to lead the Ice Warrior on a chase and eventually replicate Phipps’ solar energy weapon, destroying the warrior.

A plan to launch a satellite to serve as a new temporary T-Mat hub is co-opted into converting the satellite into a beacon, replicating the Ice Warriors’, to lead their fleet astray. The beacon is launched, though drowned out by its real Moonbase counterpart. The Doctor, a portable rigged version of the solar weapon in hand (and draped over his back and shoulders in a messy tangle of cables and wires), T-Mats up to the Moonbase to disable the real beacon. After dispatching several ice Warriors, he attempts to do just that, the steady, rhythmic beeping signaling impending doom- but the Ice Warriors thwart his attempts before he can succeed. The arriving fleet hails Slaar, the Ice Warrior leader (Yeah, now I give you his name, at the END of the synopsis)... cursing his name, as his beacon has led them all to fly into the sun! A triumphant Doctor reveals that while he couldn’t shut off the beacon, he did disconnect it from the Moonbase transmitting antenna- the slow, rhythmic beeping of the functioning beacon that they can hear can only be heard in that room, leaving the airwaves outside free for the decoy beacon to lead the fleet astray. As his explanation finishes, Jamie T-Mats up to follow the Doctor and dispatches the remaining Ice Warriors, and the invasion is ended.

The Seeds of Death is a variation on the Invasion-of-an-isolated-base theme, even returning to the moon as a location, but it is a very fresh and original take on the notion- as the story starts, the invasion has already occurred, and our heroes have to reach the base and besiege it themselves in order to take it back. There’s a man in hiding that you're rooting for, interesting characters on the ground, a weaselly little traitor who you're just begging to receive his comeuppance, and a rocket trip to boot! This one has it all!

It starts with a very cool opening graphic- the flare of the sun being eclipsed by the surface of the moon, with the camera then emerging on the other side of the moon to see the Earth hanging into space. To keep things moving, each of the 6 episodes alternates mirroring the same shot, adding variety to an already impressive graphic- each also ends up either moving behind the moon to focus on the Earth, or moving behind the Earth to focus on the moon- depending on where the story is taking place.

The Ice Warriors make their grand return- just as obnoxiously cruel as before, but at least a bit more interesting this time- goofy and lumpy save for their leader, who sports a more streamlined design with some great face makeup. (And their supreme leader, who sports a Michael Jackson styling). Their annoying, scratchy, hissy voices are at least a break from the standard flanging voices of the Cybermen and Daleks (Old Who had a talent for vocal variety) and, though somewhat grating, are a memorable trait for the warrior race. Their compression-ray weapon effect, while sometimes slightly off-center and missing the mark, is visually striking and very unique- I'd love to see a New Series update in which (like the Dalek rays) the effect happens only to the individual and not the whole shot- that would be the height of absolutely awesome. Combined with a unique weapon sound, it conspires to make the Ice Warriors an incredibly memorable race- unlike their first appearance, this one was probably the one that cemented them as a fan favorite in the Doctor's rogues gallery- though hopefully future appearances will be a little less noxious. Even so, some great moments- like the Ice Warrior silhouetted against the sun, advancing menacingly- or the fantastic cliffhanger in which one advances menacingly on Zoe, herself a silhouette (holy cow, what a cliffhanger that was!)- definitely leave a striking impression on the memory. Likewise for the solar energy beam trap that dispatches several Ice Warriors- the classic Who photo-negative combined with some excellent and effective editing (I can't imagine how much of a pain that must've been to edit in the non-digital film-splicing era!) making for an excellent payoff death-scene to culminate a series of tense hunts; the sheer spectacle of it brings a triumphant emotional cap to the respective scenes it climaxes- very, very well done.

Sharing co-villain status in this film is... foam. Errr... didn't we do this already? It feels a little repetitive to Fury from the Deep, but the usage in this one- especially rising in lethal, suffocating waves as the Doctor pounds on the door to the weather control station- as well as the fact that we saw very little of Fury from the Deep in video form- work together to keep the foam menace from feeling stale.

That said, characters are the strength of this serial- from the crotchety old professor who still believes in rocketry (though is absurdly contrary and negative- "Stop handing me the means to realize my dreams on a silver platter, blast it- it'll never work!!!"), the self-sacrificial and heroic moon base leader, who sabotages the controls and then smugly turns to inform the Ice Warriors that they've blown a circuit- knowing full well he is likely about to be killed for his actions in protecting the Earth, the crew chief and his efficient and no-nonsense second in command, the man left behind (who, for whatever reason in his writing, is kept interesting and a compelling character- as opposed to the standard stock generic crew character- so that you really, truly do care about what happens to him and whether he survives- kudos to the writers!) and even the weaselly little traitor, that pathetic subhuman scum who negates the commander's sacrifice and practically dooms Earth with the plaintive plea of "They would have killed me otherwise!" (Then die, you repulsive scum-! Show some backbone and take it like a man, rather than putting your life above every other person on Earth's.) Still, even the loathsome toad gets some measure of redemption- though his sudden decision to self-sacrifice and clever information transmitting don't begin to make up for his detestable actions, they do offer him some measure of humanity and a chance to rectify his attitude in the end. So, while I can hardly call him a hero in the end- more a traitor whose guilt finally gets the better of him for his heinous crimes- he at least does something heroic in the end.

This story was chosen to represent Troughton’s Doctor on the 40th Anniversary collection… and I can see why! The Doctor is a relatively subdued presence in this one until the last few episodes… but then he becomes a gung-ho action hero- the Doctor running to Zoe and Jamie's rescue was AWESOME, and his action-hero bit on the satellite... well, the Doctor literally blows an Ice Warrior away with his weapons, and directs a battlefleet into the sun- a somewhat more bloodthirsty Doctor than we're used to from the New Series! Still, it's an awesome aspect to his character- a gung-ho, take-charge Doctor on the warpath! Plus we have slapstick (an in the chase), problem-solving, and genius… a lot of all-around character aspects! Some very impressive stuff... oh, how I shall miss this Doctor...

Zoe has a great scene with the map-in-her-head, bringing her smarts to work, and Jamie has some nice comic relief, especially when the Doctor is trying to locate the door controls as an Ice Warrior advances menacingly (a tense and exciting scene, trapped in the weather control station), and Jamie reaches over to try the most prominent- turning off the lights, instead. His sheepish just-trying-to-help response and the Doctor's irritated "No, Jamie!" really made for a great comic relief moment- one gets the impression that the Doctor is tiring slightly of Jamie's technological ignorance. But, as always, his heart's in the right place and he's trying, so all is forgiven.

There are plenty of centerpieces to enjoy- from the aforementioned Doctor action moments to the comic chase scene in the moon base (with some great slapstick moments for the Doctor) to the rocket liftoff… it’s just conceptually really cool. And while the shots of the rocket with the Earth receding behind are perhaps more ambitious than they could actually achieve (the focus is off, and the stars end at a certain point, leaving just empty black surrounding them), they are nice ‘conceptual eye candy.’ The episode-ending Rocket flyby was a pretty good model shot, too. The satellites look good, and the locator signal plan (with the Doctor cutting the previously established moonbase-power to the transmitter, leaving the signal apparently going to those in the control room, but not transmitting beyond) was a clever and exciting story element. They make a game attempt at simulating weightlessness on a budget of $0, too. (Actually, the fact that the apparently low budget of this series- circumvented by re-using the Ice Warrior costumes, and evidenced by the relatively few sets in this serial- allowed for a serial of this scale is impressive. Krotons had to trade costumes for sets, and Dominators apparently had to trade new Quark costumes for being interesting, but this one thrives remarkably well during the restrictions!)

Okay, there were a few flaws- there’s only a single manual control panel without backups for the entire weather-control system of planet Earth? What the heck happened with that beaming-the-Doctor-into-space bit? The T-mat effect is lackluster to say the least (a simple jump cut that usually suffers from lighting fluctuations). The idiot who runs away from cover and out into the open instead of ducking behind said cover when an Ice Warrior points a gun at him. And clearly another actor-vacation as the Doctor is out for a good long while after exposure to the seed pod. But still, these flaws are few and far-between in an otherwise engaging invasion story… which is a surprising rarity amongst the many invasion stories of the Second Doctor’s run.

(Also, while I can’t take credit for noticing this- the wiki pointed it out- the T-mat technology in this episode may well be the same technology system being tested in the Daleks Master Plan, making the Doctor the first T-mat passenger, there at its birth and its re-imagining here…)

While Seeds of Death isn’t the character masterpiece that Krotons was, it’s filled with engaging characters (main and supporting), a strong story, a fine showcase for the Ice Warriors incorporating many unique and memorable elements, and some really nice story twists, effects, and cliffhangers. Plus, the Doctor gets to play action hero. Really, this is one not to miss.

Great moments:
The heroic commander. Rocket launch. Springing the trap on the Ice Warriors. The Zoe cliffhanger. And many more- most especially, the Doctor running to the rescue.

4.5 out of 5 Bickering Dominators for the invasion-done-right story of the Seeds of Death, which, despite a few small shortcomings, manages to entertain, engage, and even surprise- one can only imagine what the teleporter/rocket/model-heavy episode (with supposed globe-spanning invasion) could have been with a modern FX budget to truly capture the scope that its script implies! Even so, what’s there, on a character and personal level, is very, very good- another highly recommended adventure from the Second Doctor’s era, and one of the few high recommendations that can actually be watched in full motion!

Plus, the original title of this serial was “The Lords of the Red Planet,” which is a title so cool that it bestows points on the serial even though it was never used.

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