Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Rise And Fall Of Veggie Peril

Eleven minutes late. Carnivorous plant the size of a cathedral on the line at Athelhampton.

The plant is none other than the Krynoid, what you get when you propagate one of The Seeds Of Doom. It’s also what you get when you cross an earlier Avengers  script (The Man-Eater Of Surrey Green) with Doctor Who and a smidgen of John Carpenter’s The Thing.

By Avengers, of course, I mean the one with the lady in the black catsuit – who does martial arts. The one without the scientist who turns into a big green monster. Wait, we’re back on The Seeds Of Doom.

Anyway, there are no karate-kicking catsuited heroines in this six-parter from 1976, but after the opening two episodes in Antarctica the adventure does emulate The Avengers (a show writer Banks Stewart worked on) in tone to a degree. No bad thing and it’s something that the Pertwee era might have carried off even better – Mr Smith and Miss Grant, we’re needed! (Jo was trained as a special agent, don’t you know.) As it is, Tom Baker and Lis Sladen are in fine form, thrown into the action duo role and making a good meal of the vegetable matter on offer. Baker’s mood swings seem especially pronounced as he veers from ultra-flippant grinmeister to Fang Rock-style doom-and-gloom-Doc – compare that to the unflappable John Steed! While Sarah Jane is given some good plucky feminist material to go with the screaming and a Penelope Pitstop moment in the compost grinder.

And take note, I’m not averse to the screaming companion. A good hearty scream is as essential as all the pluck. Horror doesn’t have a hope of being scary if our favourite protagonists aren’t ever scared. Heck, the Doctor should scream once in a while.

Never mind that modern monsters have the benefit of more realistic digital rendering, it’s the conviction that sells Doctor Who’s various terrors and there’s a healthy measure of that from the cast here, regulars and guests alike.

Harrison Chase is right at home, a villain clearly rooted in Avengers soil, with his big country estate, private guards and a typical English obsession (gardening) taken to extremes. Cold chlorophyll flowing through his veins, he’s a vegetarian the way Mother Theresa was a humanitarian and Tony Beckley takes it all wonderfully seriously (even the ludicrous ‘plantain of the opera’ moment when he’s playing his excruciating atonal symphony to a full greenhouse) while obviously enjoying every minute.

John Challis is brilliant as Scorby. No thug with a heart of gold here, but a brutal mercenary with personality nonetheless. He essentially begins as part of a great double act with Keeler, then we sit back and watch self-motivation (and preservation) oblige him to ally with the Doctor and Sarah as the situation goes to pot. We can take him seriously as a killer and as the butt of the Doctor’s jokes at the same time – and the look Sarah gives him at his remark about women is priceless. It’s only a shame that he’s reduced to so much self-pity in the end and a rather pointless demise in a weedy pond. I always wished he'd survived to make a return appearance in Who.

But if that’s an unfortunate end, consider Keeler. A reluctant accomplice in everything, he has nervousness down to a fine art and is green about the gills when it comes to crime. Mark Jones does a superb job of portraying him as pathetic, while still being sympathetic. Once the Krynoid takes hold, it’s fairly obvious this isn’t going to be one of those cases where a last vestige of the man survives to resist the alien domination.

Hargreaves is an odd character, the sort of gentleman’s gentleman who takes his master’s eccentricities in his stride even as his activities spiral into lunacy. The butler didn’t do it, but he’s very much an accessory after the fact – and Seymour Green performs his duties admirably. If Poison Ivy ever felt in need of her own Alfred, she should seek out a man like Hargreaves.

Not Hargreaves himself, since he’s pushing up the daisies. But (almost) everyone is doomed in this – the clue is in the title.

Spared any nasty demise is Amelia Ducat, an ‘old lady from AUNTIE’ who is perhaps an even bigger nod to the story’s Avengers roots than Chase. Expect her to be the subject of a Big Finish spin-off any time soon.

For a six-parter, it cracks along at a pretty pace. It’s main problem lies in the fact that it starts as a fairly taut two-part thriller which ends with the monster destroyed by a bomb and ends as a more padded four-part thriller which ends with the monster destroyed by bombs. And the Doctor has the gall to lecture Scorby on how ‘Bombs and bullets don’t solve everything.’ It’s weak.

The writer has worked well to craft a formidable threat – no accident surely that the Krynoid grows to a creature ‘the size of St Paul’s’, calling to mind The Quatermass Experiment as it looms over the Chase mansion. And the creature is generally effective in its different forms, from seed through to green-painted Axon through to shambling cabbage mountain.

Superimposed snowflakes help in the opening segments (and are better at contributing to the atmosphere than they are at disguising a quarry as an Antarctic landscape), night-shooting further enhances the menace later on in the estate grounds and model work on the house is on a par with the exploding church in The Daemons. Only relatively few shots are let down by the usual limitations of budget and technology. But in the end it’s too formidable and the writer has left the Doctor no cleverer option than calling in the RAF in the form of a full squadron of stock-footage Phantoms. (To a poorly misjudged piece of soundtrack, I might add – weird pseudo-patriotic ditty removes any last vestige of tension from the moment.)

A lesser but still significant letdown is that this is blatantly a UNIT story – even down to the civil servants (Michael Barrington is highly typical of the period, albeit Thackeray is more congenial and less of a buffoon; and Kenneth Gilbert does a decent job as the duplicitous and corruptible Dunbar who tries to redeem himself). But UNIT are missing. Which is to say, they’re present – with something like a full complement of half a dozen troops – but not as we know and love them. No Brigadier, no Benton and no Harry Sullivan.

So this particular blend of vegetable soup comes with an aftertaste of missed opportunity.
Episode Three has more than its share of running around, which I don’t object to in principle – it’s all part and parcel of an adventure yarn and it shows off the spectacular grounds (and it is a great location). But it all feels a bit circular, with the one object of leading to that cliffhanger with Sarah and the pod. There’s an extra sense of contrivance to the cliffhangers as though the writer had all of them sorted in his mind and wrote the rest of the tale to fit. There’s further too-obvious contrivance at work later to bring about Chase’s ultimate end in the crusher. Poetic justice, maybe, but a defter touch in the plotting might not have gone amiss. Again, it’s as though the writer was so fond of that conclusion for his prize villain he was determined to make it happen, no matter what.

Can’t say I blame him too much, as in the end I’m quite fond of the story in spite of these few misgivings. Which, let’s face it, is a common or garden response to many a Doctor Who story.

The grass may often be greener in the imagination, but a tale like this sows a great many seeds.


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