Camfield, captivation and The Seeds of Doom (1976)

seeds doom1

It’s got dodgy models, polystyrene snow and some epically fake beards. Lots of CSO, wobbly rubber monsters and foliage waved vigourously by off screen crew. And those are just production hassles; what about the preposterous plot, the cheesy villain and a Doctor so violent he makes Colin Baker look like a kitten? But despite everything working against it, The Seeds of Doom remains a perennial favourite. (Perennial, geddit? No? Ah well.)

It’s popular for a simple reason: it’s thrilling. If not ‘edge of your seat’ stuff, then it’s at least ‘keeping me from doing more important stuff’ stuff. It’s got that visceral excitement that comes with the audience’s concern that we can’t see a way out of this for our heroes –  a hallmark of good Who. And if we’re honest, this ability to captivate is rare. But it’s common in stories directed by Douglas Camfield.

Camfield is Old Who‘s most celebrated director, probably all Who when you consider that although New Who has showcased many excellent directors, none have established a canon of Who like Camfield. The Seeds of Doom was his eighth and final story (after which he apparently swore in front of an altar to never direct Doctor Who again) at the helm solo and there’s not a dud among ’em. How did he get them so right? Is there a Camfield style?

In technical terms, not really. He has a few directorial flourishes. In Seeds there’s a sort of stop/start zoom when Sarah (Elisabeth Sladen) comes across zoologist Moberly’s (Michael McStay) corpse. There’s the sudden cut away from impending violence, such as when superloon Harrison Chase (Tony Beckley) moves to clobber Sarah in Part Six. A few bits and pieces, but not much in the way of showy visuals.

But his close ups are just that little bit closer than the norm; actors’ faces tend to fill the screen. His sets are dark, gloomy places; he must have won some arguments with those BBC lighting designers who reportedly liked to keep the lights up. These factors make Seeds feel that bit more claustrophobic than other stories.

There’s also a determination to eschew the incidental music of Dudley Simpson. I don’t know if the two had a falling out, but there’s a mid-period of Camfield stories where it seems the director would prefer to use stock music, or as in Inferno have no music at all, than use Who‘s house composer. For this story, he uses Geoffrey Burgon, as he did in Terror of the Zygons to great effect. Burgon’s combinations of flute, strings and clavichord give the show a haunting edge, which is just that shade less comforting that Dudley’s standard fare.

But other directors have brought their own flair to the show and others have used composers other than Simpson, but none have the strike rate of Camfield. The answer to Camfield’s success must lie elsewhere, and I think it must be how he works his actors.

Everyone seems to be giving just a little bit more in a Camfield production, just trying that little bit harder. They all take it seriously, natch, but the performances are just that bit more intense. What did Camfield do to elicit this level of effort, missing from so many other Whos? Was there a military style pep talk? Were there extensive rehearsals drilling the actors’ performances? Or was there an unwillingness to settle for anything less than 100% commitment to a scene?

Certainly, he casts brilliantly. Seriously, think back over Camfield’s stories. Is there anyone who doesn’t fit their role like a glove? In Seeds we can look to even some of the minor roles and see some excellent work going on. Consider Seymour Green as long suffering butler Hargreaves. Green plays it with a level of grumpiness that adds colour without pulling focus. Phone calls are answered begrudgingly, doors opened with disdain. When Chase complains about being surrounded by idiots, he sneaks a sympathetic glance toward fellow hired help Scorby, who he clearly thinks is a few rungs down the hierarchy.

Consider Sylvia Coleridge as batty old floral painter Amelia Ducat. She plays the lighter moments just right, but when she goes undercover to infiltrate Chase’s mansion, she’s all business. Cool, smoking a cheroot, she not only collects valuable intelligence, she takes the opportunity to extract a penalty payment out of Chase for one of her paintings. “Consider me available for any future assignments!” she coos as she exits the story. UNIT’s unpaid artistic adviser perhaps? I can see it.

Then there’s Mark Jones as botanist Keeler. He spends the first half of the story being a study in nervousness, permanently alarmed by everything. Then he’s infected by the pod and starts mutating into a Krynoid. This leads to him being tied to a bed, served raw meat and pleading for his life. In a scene which really pushes the boundaries of family viewing, he nearly succeeds in convincing Sarah to set him free, and when she refuses, he erupts in fury. “You want me to die! You want me to die!” he roars ferociously. An impressive turnaround.

John Challis as Scorby is perhaps the most perfect casting of all, one which influences the whole feel of the show. Challis looks and sounds like he’s walked off the set of a cop drama. When he says he’s going to murder five people and bury them in the polystyrene snow, you believe him. He’s a walking threat of violence wherever he goes, and he adds to general tone of realism with which Camfield treats this outlandish story. When in Part Six Scorby mentally breaks down, finally confronted with a problem he can’t fight his way out of, it is another moment which is wonderfully true.

But this story’s crowning glory is Tony Beckley as millionaire plant enthusiast Harrison Chase. As camp as a Kylie concert and with as many costume changes, he spends the first four episodes purring his way through dialogue like “the last things you will ever see will be my beautiful plants.” When we looked at The Invasion (directed by Camfield), I talked about Tobias Vaughn as a potential Bond villain, and Chase is another. He’s got a house full of guards, henchmen to sneer at, an ostentatious killing machine in his composter and his own private radiophonic workshop on which he can play Malcom Clarke’s greatest hits to his plants live. Dye one of those three piece suits green, give him a cartoony title (the Green Thumb!) and he’s a Batman villain.

Except he’s not really. It’s far too nuanced a performance that that. Once he’s overtaken by the Krynoid in Part Five, Beckley adds a permanent grimace to his performance and starts walking like he’s looking for a fight. He’s permanently revolted by anything that’s not a plant. He has nothing but contempt for everything else; when the Doctor (an energized Tom Baker) tries to talk some sense into him via a walkie talkie, there’s no big confrontation between the two – Chase simply hangs up. But his way  with words hasn’t entirely deserted him. After feeding poor old Sergeant Henderson (Ray Barron) to the compost machine, there’s time for the briefest of eulogies. “We’re helping the plant world, the Sergeant and I,” he opines. “In different ways, of course” he remembers to add.

But surely the last word on this story must be shared between Doctor and Villain. “What do you do for an encore?”, wonders Chase after the Doctor has jumped through a skylight, beaten up Scorby and rescued Sarah from a grasping tendril. Brandishing a pistol, the Doctor says through gritted teeth, “I win!” Despite the oddly adult tone and the formidable production challenges, yes, Seeds of Doom, I rather think you do. Thanks Douglas.

LINK to The Ultimate Foe. How about this? Both feature statues of Queen Victoria.

NEXT TIME. It would be so much easier if I was one thing. Saddle up, we’re moseying into A Town Called Mercy.

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