DOCTOR WHO - THE SEEDS OF DEATH

Director:  Michael Ferguson 

Starring:  Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines, Wendy Padbury, Louise Pajo

The Seeds of Death, originally broadcast in 1969, was one of the last Doctor Who stories to be made in black and white, and is the first story to be released on DVD to mark the 40th anniversary of the series (the current plan is to release one story from each Doctor's reign during 2003). It's also the first six-episode Doctor Who story to be released on DVD, since there were initially concerns that cramming six episodes on a single disc would be ill-advised. Ironically, now that the technology has improved to the point where this should be feasible without compromising quality, it's become cheap enough to manufacture two disc sets that can be sold for a little - if anything - more than a single disc. Even more ironically, The Seeds of Death was put together under the impression that it would be authored as a single disc, so the generous array of bonus material that's on offer might have been even more comprehensive,  had it been known that it would eventually be split over two discs (a dual-layer disc for the feature, a single-layer disc for the various extras).   

The series was being well-managed at the time, and relatively well funded. The BBC had recently made three seasons of the anthology series Out of the Unknown, and was becoming increasingly skilled at making science-fiction. Doctor Who was certainly benefiting from the miscellaneous props, costumes and models it was able to recycle! 

The story is particularly well directed (by Ferguson, who later went on to produce Casualty, The Bill and EastEnders), who uses numerous directorial flourishes and techniques that must have been quite innovative at the time, giving it an exciting edge that has meant that it's not become too stuffy. The story, about a race of aliens who plot to colonise Earth after wiping out the human population with suffocating spores, is rather routine, and thinly spread over six episodes (the ideal length for a Doctor Who story seems to be four episodes, more or less the same length as the average feature film). Some of the story looks quite cinematic, shot on large sets that certainly wouldn't disgrace a modest feature film (a few others, like a technological control room shrouded with drapery, that reveal some serious penny-pinching, however!) The featured alien race, the Ice Warriors, were returning to the series after a very popular debut story, and make impressive villains (although their Achilles' heel - heat - makes for lazy plotting). The series' three regulars (the Doctor and his companions, Zoe and Jamie) were all on the verge of leaving the series at this point, and had obviously established a comfortable rapport with each other.

The Doctor's foes - the Ice Warriors.The six episodes have been extensively restored by the Doctor Who Restoration Team, and look nothing like the versions released on VHS in the mid 80s, so comparison is practically pointless. The VHS version was washed out, with poor contrast and significant geometric distortion. The DVD has almost perfect contrast and greyscale, and restores detail in the lighter areas which was simply absent before. The series certainly hasn't looked this good since it was originally transmitted, and it's quite probable that it didn't look this good even then! For more information about the re-mastering of the series, see our article on early Doctor Who on DVD, or visit the Doctor Who Restoration Team's website. If your exposure to black and white television is limited to the odd Steptoe and Son repeat (practically the only black and white material BBC Television seems willing to acknowledge these days), then the picture quality of this disc will be a revelation. It's not without its flaws, however, but you'd have to be examining closely it with a good eye to spot anything seriously detrimental (there are hints that the digital video noise reduction (DVNR) or MPEG compression might be a little excessive here and there, and occasional signs of motion artefacts). 

The disc's audio quality (2.0 Dolby Digital mono at 192kbps) is less distinguished, but this is entirely due to technical inadequacies of the original source recordings. It is, however a distinct improvement on previous versions. Much of the hiss has been carefully filtered out, dialogue is almost always clear, and Dudley Simpson's quirky music is free from distortion.

The first disc contains two significant bonus features. The first is a commentary track. For the first time on a Doctor Who disc, the producers have opted for a 'revolving door' plan, perhaps acknowledging that contributors cannot be expected to remember much from something they worked on more than three decades ago. This is a clever move, since the group dynamics change depending on which combination of cast and crew members is being used. The contributors to this commentary are Michael Ferguson (the director), Terrance Dicks (the series' script editor) and stars Wendy Padbury and Frazer Hines. Ferguson seems well-prepared, and imparts some interesting trivia and anecdotes (interestingly, he also admits at one point to one fundamental mistake: that of not making the series' two different locations look more distinctive). Hines and Dicks don't take the task as seriously, preferring to poke fun at the wobbly sets and dodgy lines of dialogue. Padbury doesn't make much of an impression, sadly, but does offer the odd point of interest. Like the episodes themselves, the commentary track is supported by English subtitles. The disc's other asset is a running text commentary, using one of the subtitle streams to offer non-stop production trivia. This information provides hard facts to support, complement and occasionally contradict the commentary track. Neither track will alienate casual viewers, although in-depth knowledge of the series would be an advantage.

The second disc features a bunch of miscellaneous clips, headlined by a new twenty-five minute featurette, Sssowing the Ssseedsss, which contains interviews with two of the actors who played the aliens, extracts from an audio interview with the late Bernard Bresslaw (of Carry on... fame) and comments from the story's costume designer Sylvia James. It's not likely that any of these contributors would be able to reminisce for the duration of a commentary track, so this featurette is the ideal length to allow them to add their comments. 

Doctor Who fans are very grateful indeed to Tony Cornell, who shot ten minutes of silent 8mm behind the scenes material from the 1967 story Evil of the Daleks (only one episode survives, to represent what was probably one of the series' best stories). His record of the filming, titled The Last Dalek, is offered here, with commentary with two members of the special effects team featured in the footage, Michaeljohn Harris and Peter Day. Seeing the footage is quite frustrating, of course, but very rewarding.

A series of very short clips from missing Doctor Who stories starring Patrick Troughton is offered. These were recovered from New Zealand, and contain footage cut out of the episodes for being too frightening. Out of context they won't mean much to casual viewers (a couple of them will be downright mystifying), but fans will get a real buzz from watching these precious seconds from The Web of Fear and The Wheel in Space

The last few Doctor Who DVDs have each featured a short clip of the TARDIS in various exotic environments, which were created by the BBC's Special Effects department for use on the official Doctor Who website. This time it's TARDIS-Cam No.5, and the setting is suitably chilly. Heaven only knows what casual viewers make of these!

A comprehensive photo' gallery (set to a montage of sound effects from the story) is also offered.

I couldn't wholeheartedly recommend The Seeds of Death to someone with only a casual interest in the series (for one thing, the four part Patrick Troughton story Tomb of the Cybermen - also available on DVD - is a better representation of his era), but anyone with even a passing interest in TV science fiction should be thrilled. If nothing else, The Seeds of Death DVD demonstrates that archive television programmes can be completely reinvigorated using state-of-the-art restoration techniques. Material which might once have simply gathered dust in the vaults can be given new a new lease of life, and made available to a whole new generation. 

 

 

 

 

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