Sunday, 2 January 2011

Dating The Seeds of Death: The Miles-Parkin Debate

For fans obsessed with continuity, the dating of The Seeds of Death is a key question. It is one of the few classic series stories that are set in the 21st century. One reason why this is a puzzling question is that one of the companions for this story is Zoe who is also from the 21st century. Is this story set in her past (in which case it is odd that she knows nothing of the events) or is it set in her near future (in which case, is there an older version of Zoe on earth at the same time as 15-20(?) year old Zoe?)?

Two key Doctor Who guidebooks take opposing stances on the question. Lance Parkin wrote A History of the Universe for Virgin books which gave a detailed history of the universe. In this guidebook, he argued that Seeds of Death is set in 2044, before Wheel in Space (Zoe's first story). Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood About Time, wrote a gargantuan six-volume guide to Doctor Who. In the second volume, they placed The Seeds of Death after 2070. Parkin published a massively enhanced second edition, AHistory which responded to the arguments of Miles and Wood.

We know this story is set in the twenty-first century because the rocket is said by the Doctor to be a 21st century technology and because we know that space travel was in a far more advanced state in the early 22nd Century (see Nightmare of Eden). It cannot be too early in the 21st century because the 21st century rocket program was abandoned when Eldred was a much younger man and because weather control was invented in 2016 by Salamander (see Enemy of the World). So either we go with Parkin's mid-21st century date or Miles and Wood's late-21st century date.

Key arguments:

Zoe's lack of knowledge of T-Mat

Zoe does not show any prior knowledge of T-Mat technology or recognition that this is something used in her own time period. This suggests that the story occurs in her future. Zoe is also unaware of any Martians, like the inhabitants of earth in this story.

On the other hand, Parkin pointed out that Zoe shows a peculiar ignorance of history in general.

Zoe's knowledge of rocketry

Parkin pointed out Radnor's comment that Zoe knows more about space travel than Eldred. He argues that this is a clear indication that Zoe is from a more advanced period.

Miles and Wood argued that Parkin reads too much into this statement. They argue that Radnor is not an expert in space travel himself. It is the Doctor who shows the most knowledge of the field and Zoe's main contribution is in making calculations. I would also point out that Zoe's experience of space travel is more recent, whereas Eldred has not travelled in space for many years.

The history of space travel

Parkin argues that the space program must have been in a very primitive state before this story. In Wheel in Space, spaceships have been sent at least as far as the asteroid belt. There are fleets of spacecraft and a space personnel training program has been in place for years. We know from The Sensorites that interstellar missions with crews in suspended animation were sent out in the 21st century. Parking finds this evidence quite conclusive.

I am not so convinced. Eldred does not say how far his space program reached or how extensive it was. It could be that it was as spectacular as what we see in The Wheel in Space. It may be that there were a few spacecraft that were more advanced than the ion-jet rocket designed by Eldred. Possibly there may even have been one or two one-way deep space missions launched with crews in hibernation, allowing colonies like the one on Vulcan to be established in the 21st century. If the story is set no later than about 2080, it is possible that deep space missions could be well on their way at the tail end of the 21st century.

Parkin made much of the dating of the insurance firm Galactic Salvage. This firm was apparently set up in 2068 and went bust in 2096. He argued that it is unlikely that firm insuring spacecraft would be in operation during a period in which they have been abandoned. Miles and Wood reply by pointing out that their market might be no more restricted to spacecraft than Scottish Widows are restricted to insuring Scottish widows. In any case, we can be sure that they are offering coverage to the unmanned satellite rockets that are still launched in the Seeds of Death era.

War or peace?

Parkin argues that Seeds of Death is set in a time of world peace. This does not fit what we see in Warriors of the Deep, set in 2084, in which the world is divided up into power blocks at enmity with each other. Both New York and Moscow are connected by T-Mat.

Miles and Wood replied that China is not included in the T-Mat network. It could be that China and it's allies could be one of the power blocks in Warriors of the Deep. They also point out dialogue in Seeds of Death that suggests that the relationship between the west and Moscow is not all that cosy.

The first Moonbase story

It is clearly stated that the story Moonbase is set in 2070. This features the Gravitron, a technology that controls earth's weather. Clearly, this technology either replaces the weather control technology seen in Seeds of Death or else it is replaced by it.

Miles and Wood argued that the weather control technology seen in Seeds of Death is much more advanced and efficient than the Gravitron, but Parkin is not at all convinced of that. It seems uncertain which of these two technologies is the more advanced.

A more impressive argument was levelled by Miles and Wood concerning the appearance of the moonbase in Seeds of Death. They pointed out that it seems much larger, suggesting expansion. They also pointed out that the moonbase seems to be filled with unused and abandoned equipment, suggesting that it no longer serves it's original purpose. I find this argument very convincing.

One problem with putting Moonbase before Seeds of Death is that we might wonder why, having seen the moonbase invaded by Cybermen, they did not foresee it being invaded by other extraterrestrials.

Technology in Wheel in Space

Parkin points out the use of laser guns in The Wheel in Space, whearas projectile weapons are used in Seeds of Death. In response, I would point out that projectile weapons are used in a number of Doctor Who stories further in the future. It may be that the lasers are used in space because they are more effective there, rather than because they have greater destructive capabilities than projectile guns.

Parkin also points out the advanced robots in use in Wheel in Space. These are of course designed for use in a spacetravelling environment. It may be that these are just not necessary in the earthbound and lunarbound technological environment of Seeds of Death.


The New Adventure novel Transit is set in the early 22nd century and seems to be set in a world in which Seeds of Death was recent history. The novel assumes a late 22nd century date for the T-Mat incident.


While Parkin offers strong arguments for a mid-21st century date for Seeds of Death, I am more inclined to go with Miles and Wood and place the story in the late 21st century after both Moonbase and Wheel in Space.


  1. There's another possibility: Wheel and Seeds take place at about the same time, but Zoe's visit to her past in The Invasion between those stories caused a massive alteration to the timeline. In the first timeline, some of the Cybermen's invasion ships made it to Earth before being defeated; their technology was reverse-engineered and formed the basis of the world seen in Wheel with its space stations, robots, brain augmentation, asteroid colonies and so forth. The second timeline, after Zoe shot the entire invasion fleet out of the sky, has a much smaller space programme that never made it beyond the Moon.

  2. Thanks for visiting and sharing your thoughts.

    I don't accept that line of thought. I don't think that history can normally be altered in the Whoniverse.

    When the Doctor arrives in places, he often assumes quite large amounts of knowlege about past events. If history could easily be altered, the Doctor could never have such certainty about past events.

  3. I beg to differ regarding rewriting history; in the most recent series, for example, the Doctor seemed quite happy with the idea of reviving the Silurians in 2020, which would obviously affect history on the grand scale from that point on.

    But if you don't like that idea, there's also the theory I came up with that Space Station W3 is a pocket Universe like Castrovalva, and not part of human history at all. That was mainly to explain why it seems to exist in a mediaeval cosmology where the stars are little lights attached to the inside of a crystal globe surrounding the Solar System, but it also accounts for Zoe's lack of knowledge regarding history, candles, kilts, what year she's actually from, and so forth, quite apart from any inconsistencies with other serials.

  4. I don't consider the BBC Wales series to be canon. If ideas like rewriting history feature, they can be junked because they don't fit the classic series.

    I think that line in Cold Blood about the possibility of changing the future just shows that Moffatt does not have a clue about Doctor Who.

    Thanks for your second suggestion. I think you might have difficulty running it past William of Ockham.

  5. Even sticking to the classic series, the Third Doctor made two attempts to do the same thing with the Silurians, which would have changed history just as much.

    Not to mention that the Doctor in Pyramids of Mars explicitly states that a man can change the course of history "to a small extent", while a being of Sutekh's power can destroy it. So history can be changed, it's just a question of how much, and by whom.

  6. The Doctor's knowlege of future earth history is limited. The Third Doctor had no reason to think that his intervention in Dr. Who and the Silurians and in The Sea Devils would alter history. For all he knew, their might have been Eocenes peacefully settling in Australia in the 21st century.

    The Fourth Doctor's comments in Pyramids of Mars are problematic and his supposed trip to a devastated 1980 is even more problematic.

    I would suggest that when the Fourth Doctor made that comment, he was not being technical. He was simply trying to show Sarah that individual actions shape history. The Doctors' and her interventions did not alter history but simply played a part within established history.

    As for the trip to '1980', Sarah suggests that it is a trick. I think she is right. The Doctor had probably taken her to one of Saturn's moons.