The Seeds of Death - DVD Special
This is the first time I've ever watched a Who story on DVD and I must say the quality is staggering. Vidfire is a little difficult to get used to at first (not to be confused with film fire, which is what the BBC did to Who in the 70s), as it takes away the muddy noir that we've been used to. So the Troughton era didn't really look like it was filmed in the 1920s on a super 8 then? Talk about having your illusions shattered. Once you get used to the idea of the clearer picture, though (a picture so clear you can see the dust on the Tardis rotor and it's obvious The Mighty Trout hasn't bothered to shave) it's a revelation. This does have the unfortunate side effect of highlighting how cheap and sloppy the actual production was, however. While the planet shots are surprisingly well conceived for the period, there's boom mikes and shaky cameras aplenty - in particular look out for the camera stumble 4'23m in, or the right-hand side of the frame 14'50m in, showcasing an enthusiastic crewmember.
So that's the DVD conversion for you. But what of the episode itself? Well, the DVD pamphlet bigs it up and suggests that a story where manned lunar missions became obsolete was "an incredible stance to take in 1969", like The Seeds of Death was responsible for the fall of the Berlin Wall or summat. I mean, it's science fiction, that's what it's for, right? The actual episode lasts for just 23 minutes (oh, okay, 23 minutes, 11 seconds, Anorak fans!) but it feels more like 23 hours. Maybe it's the absence of The Mighty Trout for the first eight minutes in that kills it. A notable ad-lib between the Doctor and Jamie has them discussing a rocket model: "Hey, look at the size of this one, Doc." "Yes, my word Jamie, that's… very large." When the duo said they did this all the time after it was picked up on in The Two Doctors I didn't fully believe it, and this was the first time I'd actually clocked it in a b/w episode to tell you the truth.
Yet any such banter is made impotent by a supporting cast so stagy and directionless that even Sarah Sutton would say they were wooden. There's some bint with a bug up her ass, and an old buffer who prefers rockets to remembering his lines. I'm not saying that the guest cast are poor in this one, but the best actor in it is a guy who, 17 years later, would utter the immortal "Whoever's been placed in there has been pulverised into fragments and sent floating in space - and in my book, that's murder!" Ronald Leigh-Hunt (only the really crass and tasteless would suggest his name was rhyming slang) sleepwalks through his part. At one stage he informs an underling that "I want that report… soon." He sounds about as demanding as terminal flatulence. Meanwhile, the unaptly named John Witty produces a computer voice that sounds like… a man talking very slowly. Add to this a bunch of planks walking around with their underpants on the outside and some crushing exposition and you've got a real snoozeathon just waiting to send you to sleep. It's half seven as I'm typing this bit up… I thought it was about midnight, so tired do I feel after this slog.
This is a 60s story in a negative way (for quirky innovation and charm substitute naively childish and sloppily made) and, far from being a celebration of Who's 40th anniversary, this is almost a condemnation of it. Sorry. I sometimes get a kick out of dissing Who, but slating a TMT tale gives me no pleasure at all.
Some small amusement can be gleaned from changes in language, with Louise Pajo uttering "this is fantastic!" after hearing of most of the crew being murdered. Yet Michael Ferguson's direction is unfairly praised. Yes, he does chose unusual angles, but what does that matter when he's incapable of getting a decent performance from his cast? There does seem to be an attempt to do things in real time, though, like the direction, this is more of a tricksy conceit than anything arising naturally out of the narrative. And it's pointless having real time when what happens in that time isn't worth seeing anyway.
Compare the rocket take-off sequence with that in The Ambassadors of Death, just one year later. The indignity of having actors pretending to be in zero gravity while sitting on chairs from MFI is horrible. To his credit, TMT refuses to join in as much as Hines and Padbury. They're all on a hiding to nothing, sidelined in an exposition ghetto.
"What did you say they were, Ice Warriors?" In yet more creaky exposition, Zoe confirms it for the viewers. TMT and Hines's impatient "yes!!" is amusing, though if she'd had more flair Wendy would've ad-libbed a sarky "no, go on, tell me again." Alas, she's not on good form either so she leaves it. And why does she need to be told twice with her infallible memory, anyway? Lovely bum, mind.
In some of the worst padding ever seen on the show, there's a minute plus run around, though as this concludes with the superb "Your leader'll only be angry if you kill me, I… I'm a genius." it raises it above the * * ˝ mark I would have given the episode otherwise. Wonderful stuff, always inexplicably misremembered as "You can't kill me, I'm a genius", for Who's very own "Play it again, Sam"
Sadly, the Ice Warriors, Who's slowest race, can't even lip synch to their own lines properly, while Jamie is forced to say "Now what do we do?" for a handy recap off Zoe. Did the Tardis crew always speak in such huge chunks of plot?
Any vague level of decency (and the guest cast seem to be finally getting to grips with their roles) are offset slightly by what is arguably Dudley Simpson's most over the top score - no mean achievement.
This is Who stripped down to its bare roots, all plot function, black and white villains and corridor chases. Subplot? Subtext? Nuance? They didn't even get an invite.
Much, much weaker than I remembered, it's possible that Brian Hayles wrote Monster of Peladon just so Seeds wouldn't be the worst Ice Warrior story ever made. Hugely underwritten and lacking in vitality, as the only "traditional" Troughton story of season six, it fares badly, and struggles to climb to a level of mediocrity. After their superior debut story, this is a very disappointing return outing for the Ice Warriors.
* * *
I've talked about the tremendous picture quality in the review, but it has to be said the packaging is pretty hot, too. I know not everyone likes the roundels covers, but they work fine for me. However, why the BBC would think the 80s theme would invoke nostalgia on a 60s release and why the fiddly, tiny menu was so hard to navigate is beyond me. Maybe I'm just thick, but I had the commentary and text on, without intending to, and couldn't get 'em off for a couple of minutes. Minor gripes, sure, but valid ones.
Yet when non-BBC genre fare gets slapped onto disc with nary an extra (even first-rate stuff like The Prisoner) then the amount of love gone into these discs is absolutely phenomenal. Remember the bad old days, when the BBC would put a six-part story on two VHS tapes and charge us nearly twenty quid a pop for it? That was years ago now, and here we are, getting extras, improved picture, sound, commentary… and for less money.
The commentaries here are pretty good, though the cast do have a tendency to watch the story and forget to talk, and the chemistry isn't exactly red hot. Most of this is down to Michael Ferguson, who shares the first two episodes with Frazer and Wendy. Ferguson has some mildly interesting things to say, but his stilted, indifferent delivery doesn't really make you stand up and take notice. Mind you, he's so deluded he describes Jon Pertwee as "a very, very funny man". Did the BBC hand out crack before they taped the commentary or something? Then, at the start of episode three - an episode which Ferguson also leaves midway through - Terrance Dicks joins him, Wendy and Frazer. I never thought I'd say this, but thank God for Terrance Dicks. Warm, enthusiastic, candidly self-depreciating and fun, Terrance really injects life into this one. In fact, I was so impressed with his input that I won't even mock his speech impediment, which seems to suggest that the main villains in Frontier In Space had "black willies with badges of wank." Too much information for a family tape, surely?
Sadly, however, my enjoyment was abruptly ended, as the chop and change commentary line-up sees the companions exit for episode four, and Terrance goes it alone with the director. He tries desperately to get Michael to say something lively, and does almost succeed. Thankfully, all four are reunited for the final two episodes, and, while the fifth is again sparse, the sixth features much laughter. To complement Ferguson's earlier remarks about how demanding Hartnell was, here Terrance makes a veiled criticism of the last three Doctors. There's also an informative text commentary on production, and subtitles. A nice addition.
As the first six-part DVD release, then there's an extras disc included. No one can complain about this, as it hasn't effected the price, and, if superfluous, is harmless. With all the contents lasting for exactly forty minutes, only the most churlish would complain that three of the six extras (11'43m) don't actually relate to the product they're supporting. While two old buffers talking over effects clip or a deeply naff "Tardis Cam" sequence are strictly for fans, there's some superb recovered clips from The Web of Fear and (less excitingly) The Wheel In Space. On the story itself, then there's a picture display that runs for 5'16m and a 24'05m documentary that is nice, but you probably wouldn't watch more than a couple of times. There's also a hidden "Easter Egg" which I felt proud to have found, and lasts for 56 seconds. Sadly, it's not Wendy in a bikini, but it is worth looking out for.