|I was going to just caption this “It’s…”, but then I chickened
out because it seemed too obscure and decided on an
awkward meta-commentary instead.
It’s January 31, 1976. Queen is dead, but it’s not particularly lonely on the living because ABBA are at number one with “Mamma Mia,” a song that performs that classic pop trick of setting itself a low bar to clear and sailing miles over it. It lasts for two weeks, and is unseated by Silk’s “Forever and Ever,” which lasts one week before falling to The Four Season’s “December ’63,” better known by its not-actual-title of “Oh What a Night.” a song that is frankly alarmingly easy to argue is about someone watching Barbara Wright be menaced by a Dalek so long as one ignores the detail that it’s an American song. It lasts two weeks before Tina Charles takes over with “I Love to Love.” Donna Summer, ELO, Manuel and the Music of the Montains, and The Who also chart.
While in real news, Cuba adopts its present constitution, an earthquake in Guatemala and Honduras kills over 22,000, and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, the disputed government of Western Sahara, is formed. For our purposes, however, most interesting is the revocation of Special Category Status for people arrested as part of the Troubles. (Special Category Status was a system whereby IRA members who were arrested for bombings and other crimes were treated as political prisoners and given certain privileges, most famously not having to wear a uniform. Its revocation was unpopular among IRA members, and many when arrested refused a uniform, engaging in protest by wrapping themselves only in their prison blankets. This became a powerful symbol for the Irish republican movement.)
Speaking of blowing things up, then, we have The Seeds of Doom. Which is apparently the 16th greatest Doctor Who story ever, at least if Doctor Who Magazine is to be believed. Which, given that it thinks that The Brain of Morbius is only 40th, it probably isn’t. But the fact that Tat Wood flags it in About Time as his least favorite story of the first six years of the Tom Baker era does mean that we have now identified Tat Wood’s most contrarian view about Doctor Who. And that’s interesting, because while I disagree with Wood on some big points, I’m pretty much of the view that he’s the most consistently intelligent commenter on Doctor Who to date. And on the comments, there’s been a larger debate brewing over whether the Hinchcliffe era is, in general, overrated. So here we have a story that, look, let’s just say up front is nowhere near as good as the 16th best Doctor Who story of all time that is flat-out loathed by Doctor Who’s best critic. If we’re going to talk about the overrated aspects of the Hinchcliffe era, here is, I suppose, where we must make our stand.
Wood’s critique stems from one – and actually, as we’ll see, in a way from all three – of the things everybody (By everybody, of course, I mean pathetic fans like me. Sane people, on the other hand, wonder why the same show has unrelated stories called The Seeds of Doom and The Seeds of Death.) knows about The Seeds of Doom. First, The Seeds of Doom is structured as a two-parter set in Antarctica that leads into a four-parter set in England. Second, The Seeds of Doom is the last gasp of the UNIT era. Third, The Seeds of Doom is staggeringly violent. This third of these is, unsurprisingly, the one Wood bases his critique around.
(A clarifying note for obsessives – the About Time books do not distinguish which bits are written by Wood and which ones are written by Miles. It is, however, possible to figure it out in many cases. Based on blog comments by Miles in which he alludes to his distaste for the Graham Williams era, we can conclude that the prosecution critiques in of the Graham Williams era from Volume IV are written by Miles, while the defenses are by Wood. Conversely, in Volume V, the defense critiques talk about recovering from the problems of the Williams era, which pretty clearly flags that they’re Miles and that the prosecutions are Wood. In the case of The Seeds of Doom, there is only one critique, and so it presumably speaks for both. However the author bios at the end of each volume list each writer’s favorite and least favorite stories covered in the book. Wood lists his least favorite as The Seeds of Doom. As a result, I am assuming he is the primary author of the critique and ascribing the argument primarily to him.)
First, let’s acknowledge that the basic observation is accurate. The Doctor engages in an unusual amount of fighting here, and unusually visceral fighting, including an extremely dangerous bit of combat with Scorby, the story’s henchman villain, the creation of Molotov cocktails, and the active decision to pack a gun. And, of course, there’s the conceit of grinding people into plant fertilizer, and the fact that two people are fed into it over the course of the story. It’s a genuinely shocking level of brutality – one that creates a real sense of unease in the viewer.
And it’s worth noting that this has to be taken in a larger context within the series. The Hinchcliffe era has been consistently more violent than the Letts era. For the most part, this hasn’t been that big of a problem. To argue that the Doctor embraces non-violence as such requires, after all, a tremendously blinkered view of the character. The Doctor is not a pacifist. But it is important to note that he not only doesn’t relish violence, he dislikes it and wants to avoid it. He just fails sometimes. And this is something the Hinchcliffe era captures very well – violence is shown to be horrifying here, even when the Doctor is the one engaging in it. (Something that is decidedly interesting about the early days of the Baker era is that, contrary to reputation, Baker is a far more physical Doctor than Pertwee ever was.)
Baker, however, was never much of one for the violence, and in this story it seems to have bothered him more than usual – and with good reason. This led to extended conversations with Douglas Camfield in which they decided that Baker would play it as if he was genuinely afraid of the Krynoids. The problem is that this trick has already been used for so much better villains. It works to bolster Sutekh as a threat by showing the Doctor afraid and out of his depth because he is supposed to be a god. Even the Doctor should be scared of a god. But the Krynoids are just Axon costumes repainted green. And frankly, the most interesting thing about the Axons was that they were bright orange.
I mean, yes. Baker is in fine form here. He finds new ways to merge his continual undercutting and mockery of villains with a real sense of fear and danger. This time he does it with anger, with the Doctor several times going from mockery to either actual shouting fury (generally at Scorby) or to an ice cold rage (with Chase). But it’s not enough. Nothing in the story gives the audience the sense that this is so bad that the Doctor is inclined to pack heat. And when the rest of the story has the volume turned up on its violence just as much, the Doctor’s violence doesn’t look like a reaction to the magnitude of the threat. It just looks violent and like the sort of thing you’d expect from a story that has a man-sized meat grinder.
In fact, the entire story seems spectacularly mis-toned. Right from the start, in which the Doctor is apparently on Earth and at the beck and call of government agencies, there’s a sense that this story just doesn’t belong in Doctor Who as it exists at the start of 1976. And this starts to get to the next thing that everybody knows about this story – that it’s the last story of the UNIT era. In practice, it’s not. Yes, some troops show up who are apparently from UNIT, but there’s no serious effort to make this feel like a UNIT story – not even the token “fake Brigadier” we got for The Android Invasion.
But since The Sea Devils we’ve had the distinct sense that the actual UNIT cast might have been getting in the way at times. Even if this story wholly rejects the standard UNIT paradigm, it’s clear that, like the writer’s last story, this story is an engagement with the basic ideas of the UNIT era. (That the last story also featured the standard UNIT paradigm is largely irrelevant to this point.) And it even has something distinct to say about the UNIT era. But to understand that, we’re going to have to sort out exactly what the role of violence in the Hinchcliffe era is.
We actually talked a little about this question on Wednesday in talking about the way in which Robert Holmes’s ability to add a level of realism – albeit not the sort of realism people usually talk about when they use that word – to The Brain of Morbius by making the characters all low rent and absurd in a way that felt more honest than broad and straight-faced “seriousness” ever could. And we talked about the way this gave the story a visceral feeling that provided an interesting contrast to the increasingly magical tone of the series. Broadly speaking, violence in the Hinchcliffe era accomplished the same thing. Because the stories are trending more towards the cerebral and the fantastic, making the physical action more violent helps compliment that, making the fantastic seem real. And not real in the sense of seeming as though it could actually happen, but rather real in the sense of feeling intimate and physical.
This is an important aspect of violence in the Hinchcliffe era. It’s not just that lots of people die in Hinchcliffe-era stories. It’s that they die bleeding or actually being strangled by people instead of just saying “argh” and falling over as a zap gun goes off. It’s not glamorous action movie violence or Jon Pertwee shouting “Hai!” and people flipping over. It’s ugly, painful looking violence. It’s messy and, the word I keep coming around to, visceral. It feels like this is a world in which actions have consequences.
Once you take the violence in that context – and I think given the Hinchcliffe era at large, that context is very clear – the point of this story becomes clear. Or at least it would if, getting back to our earlier point, it weren’t January of 1976. The Seeds of Doom would make perfect sense where Terror of the Zygons is on the schedule, with Terror of the Zygons going here. The season would, in fact, have been far stronger if this had been the opener, with a few small changes, (The Doctor misses and arrives three months late, so the Brigadier is in Geneva. Harry leaves at the start. Just stretch out the amount of time a Krynoid takes to hatch and you’re good to go.) and Terror of the Zygons, with its farewell to the Brigadier, had been at the end. Or, better still, if this had been at the end of last season where Terror of the Zygons was supposed to be.
What this order would have done is let this story exist in the gruesome context of Genesis of the Daleks, and let it be a quite edgy pushing of the limits along the lines of what I suggested The Wheel in Space might have been – an aggressive challenging of the audience’s pleasures. This would even have made perfect sense with the two episode base-under-siege opener, which would have dovetailed off of the Troughton-critique of Revenge of the Cybermen. And Terror of the Zygon’s critique of UNIT would have slotted in just fine at the end of the season.
Thought of this way, the story begins to seem much more appealing. The UNIT era, after all, always depended on a vision of the show as an action thriller. So here the show gives us an action thriller in which the action is brutal and horrifying to critique the superficial pleasure of the genre. It’s a straightforward and time-honored technique – the sort of thing that, in later decades, Frank Miller or Zack Snyder made careers out of. This would be an absolute triumph, quite frankly.
Unfortunately, however, it’s at the end of the season, long after Doctor Who has been working on a level far more complex than just taking one of its own past genres and subverting it. And long after Doctor Who has already done a far more complex and devastating critique on UNIT – and from the same author. And after hitting those heights as decisively as it did, a story that has nothing more to say than “Man, action movies are pretty violent” just doesn’t quite cut it.
Still, we should be fair to the story. After all, this is the first time I’ve encountered it like this – in something close to its native habitat, following from The Brain of Morbius and preceding a two-entry break/spring and summer break before The Masque of Mandragora. The first two or three times I encountered it were on video, independent as sort of movies. In the past, of course, this has been something I’ve critiqued, complaining that we screw the pacing and feel of stories up by watching the episodes in one shot. And it’s true, serializing this over days or weeks is the best way to watch it.
But if you watch it outside the context of its season, as a six-episode serial that stands on its own – its a taut, visceral action thriller with some very, very good Tom Baker bits. And while I’ll admit that I’m baffled why it’s apparently the 16th best Doctor Who story of all time, when you remember that fandom formed its canonical opinions on stories in the video era, and thus experienced them as stand-alones instead of as a season, you can at least see why this story is beloved.
But especially when you consider how the next season is going to play out and what eventually brings Hinchcliffe’s tenure as producer to a premature halt, this story is unfortunate. No. It’s worse than unfortunate. It’s irresponsible. The Hinchcliffe era works because it pushes the envelope and is willing to be complex, challenging, and genuinely frightening. It’s excellent children’s television because it treats children like adults. And that, in the end, is what gives it a moral authority to shout down the voices of idiots who complain that it’s too dark and scary for children and inappropriate.
Given all of that, it’s infuriating to see the show faffing about with gruesome violence in pursuit of such a slender and overly simplistic goal when, just last story, it was proving that it could be so much more. But worse than that, its cynical. Especially as a season finale. Say what you like about the curate’s eggs of Robert Sloman, but one had the sense that the show was trying to go out on a high note and that it cared about making its viewer happy. This is a season finale that has nothing to say and doesn’t even try to top the bulk of its predecessors. It leaves you with a sickening sense that the past successes of this era have just been down to dumb luck.
This is a story that assumes that children just want to see over the top sensationalism. This is Doctor Who as Rupert Murdoch would design it. It’s the sensationalist, sick and nasty show that its critics in this era accused it of being. And even though for most of the Hinchcliffe era the critics were spectacularly and horrifyingly wrong, it’s honestly hard to say they aren’t in this case. Right now, Hinchcliffe is blowing the license payers’ money on a kiddie lit crossover of Saw and the Quatermass Experiment. Yes, it’s entertaining. And I’ve in the past been willing to give Doctor Who stories a pass just as long as they’re entertaining. And sure. That’s the minimum Doctor Who has to be. In that regard, calling this a worse story than The Android Invasion is unfair.
Except that here I will firmly depart from being a review blog. Doctor Who doesn’t have to exceed the minimum requirement of being entertaining. Sure. But on the other hand, the only reason I care about Doctor Who enough to write over 6000 words about it every week for something approaching fun is that Doctor Who is about something more than being entertaining. In other words, this story may be great television, but it’s bad, bad alchemy.
Because here’s the thing. At this moment in history, Doctor Who really was coming under heavy fire from some critics. We’ll get to the implications of this in a few weeks, but suffice it to say that the main one, a woman named Mary Whitehouse, was a terrible human being. She was quite literally evil, and directly embodied everything that Doctor Who as a show fights against in the culture. And the show, with this story, plays right into her hands by being exactly the piece of cheap sensationalist trash she declared the whole show to be.
So yeah. Tat Wood is right. At least The Android Invasion didn’t make Mary Whitehouse look good.