Doctor Who And The Seeds Of Doom – Written by Philip Hinchcliffe & Read by Michael Kilgariff – CD / Audible (BBC Worldwide)
The seventies as a decade is almost embarrassingly studded with visual memories from Doctor Who that have either stayed with viewers ever since, or have inspired them to turn their talents in creative or crusading directions. Where Jon Pertwee had his ‘one with the maggots’ that put the reader very firmly on the side of ecologists and green politicians, Tom Baker’s Seeds of Doom took a somewhat bleaker, more John Wyndham look at the equations of life and the (ahem) seediness of the human spirit, ever open to bribes and threats. It re-invented the idea of killer, carnivorous plants from space, and then – because it was seventies Doctor Who – it made them enormous, big as a country house, and so devastating the only way to destroy them was to bring in the RAF and blow them to green, tendril-quivering smithereens.
This was plant-fear and ecology-suspicion writ huge across six episodes, so as to properly (ye gods, I swear these are accidental) bed in the discovery of the Krynoid seed pods in the Antarctic permafrost, and follow their journey from hand to hand and body to body, growing more and more disturbing as they went.
Producer Philip Hinchcliffe has been only an infrequent novelizer of stories from the show’s history, but his style is such that when he turns his hand to imagining those stories on the page, you notice them for a gritty grimness, and a pace that won’t be beaten. For instance, The Seeds of Doom, a six-part, 25-minute-per-episode story (150 minutes, for the mathematically challenged) is wrapped up, written down and read here by series monster actor Michael Kilgariff in just 171 minutes – that’s just 21 minutes away from being novelized in real time!
Fat on this novelization’s bones, there is not, not a scrap of it. And yet, while it starts off in a fairly portentous Hammer Horror style, telling you blatantly of IMPENDING DOOM (Insert your own musical stabs, there’s no time here), it does materially add to what we know, and what we realise we needed to know about the story’s chief human villain and archetypal nutjob, Harrison Chase.
Coming across on screen as a slightly camp Bond-villain, or more interestingly as a spoiled but unloved child grown to manhood in coldness, Hinchcliffe importantly fills in some crib notes on Harrison Chase’s personality and the particularities of his psychosis – it’s never explained in the TV version of the story that he always wears gloves because he despises human beings, and wants there always to be a barrier between him and them.
The big alien baddie here is the Krynoid, a new take on the idea of Deadly Space Vegetation, eating the animals. Starting, as they always do, as a tiny seed-pod, the Krynoids grow fast by eating the natives. The more they eat, the more they grow, pushing the story along at a rate of knots and with an impressive body-count until reaching a country house-destroying conclusion having the pollen bombed out of it by a handy bunch of military types in planes. Funnily enough, as when the idea was later recycled in Terror of the Vervoids, when it comes to a battle between plants and animals, the Doctor’s usual pacifism rather deserts him, and he’s happy enough to call in the big guns to destroy the Krynoid utterly, and to throw some punches of his own, which are rare enough to make themselves immediately noticeable in Tom Baker’s time as the Doctor..
Beyond the little strokes of character shading which add materially to the sense the story makes, there’s little to choose between this novelization and the televised version – except perhaps that when you watch it on TV, The Seeds Of Doom feels like one two-parter and one four-parter tacked together by virtue of a single alien threat and a single powerful nutjob. Here, the flow is much more fluid, so you get a Seeds of Doom that actually feels like a single coherent, five-cliffhanger story – which with the best will in the world towards the TV version, is something that works to the benefit of the listener.
Another thing that benefits the listener of course is that the snow of Antarctica is supplied by your imagination, rather than by a bumper BBC box of polystyrene, and the Krynoid-Human creature, rather than being a recycled costume from The Claws of Axos, is free to look as monstrously vegetative as you like, and is helped on to that image by Hinchcliffe’s sometimes fairly uncompromising imagery – he tells us, for instance that where once there was a face, now there’s a mass of gnarled and twisted bark. With the available 1970s budget when the show was shot, that simply didn’t come through. With this version, Hinchcliffe helps your brain to never sleep again, filling it with images of self-animating tendrils, hybrid creatures of pain and vegetation, the horrific idea of humans being eaten alive by a plant with a vengeance and a hunger. The audiobook version of the story really brings the horror of The Seeds Of Doom to bear.
As for Michael Kilgariff – initially, given that he’s most recognised by Doctor Who fans for his role as the Cyber Controller and the Giant Robot of Tom Baker’s first season, he seems like rather a random choice to read this story. However, he gives Hinchcliffe’s horror-heavy writing a solidly rumbling, ominous quality, and while never striving to do a Tom Baker impression, he succeeds in conjuring his Doctor at several points, giving occasional threads of Bakerish glee or gravitas to push home the reality of the story.
All in all, The Seeds of Doom is a frequently overlooked highlight of the Tom Baker-Elisabeth Sladen era of Doctor Who. This audiobook version belts along and renders a faithful version of the on-screen experience, with a little more fluidity and a little more character-shading. Would it be even better with more sense of the Krynoid’s nature and/or motivation? Possibly, yes – a Seeds of Doom novelization that explained the all-consuming hunger of the plant, its touched-upon communion with other plants and its ability to make them do its bidding would have been a whole different, wetter, greener, richer, more horrifying version of the on-screen story, and that’s not really what’s here. But what is here is a version that stays true to that on-screen, rip-roaring battle for the planet, with just enough fresh foliage to make it newly interesting. Tony Fyler