“…and now a new adventure in time and space: 'Underworld'”
BBC Continuity Announcer before transmission of part one.
What on earth …? How can 'Underworld' possibly have come in at number 153 in Doctor Who Magazine’s poll of polls? What is it about this harmless and inoffensive story that makes grown men and women wince at the very mention of its name? Can it really be as bad as all that?
Time for a reassessment …
Nestling gently in the fifteenth season, alongside 'Horror of Fang Rock' (21st), 'The Invisible Enemy' (125th), 'Image of the Fendahl' (58th), 'The Sun Makers' (95th) and 'The Invasion of Time' (99th), 'Underworld' is not perhaps one of the most well received adventures: especially surrounded by such gems as 'Horror of Fang Rock' and 'Image of the Fendahl', but neither is it really all that bad.
Following the gothic excesses of the thirteenth and fourteenth seasons, overall the fifteenth season is a far gentler affair, capitalising on Tom Baker’s charisma in the role of the Doctor and the interplay with Leela and K9 more than the telling of great stories. Perhaps a part of the problem is that the first story is strong, the second introduces K9, the third is another gothic masterpiece, the fourth a well-regarded Robert Holmes pastiche and the final adventure sees the return of the Sontarans. Any ‘standard’ adventure would have a hard time competing in such a season.
Bob Baker and Dave Martin contributed the script for 'Underworld' – their second for the season – and it is well up to their usual standards, combining some nice character interplay, some great dialogue, a sense of cosmic vastness and a plot contrived from one of the classics.
Of course the basic idea is to redo the story of Jason and the Argonauts from a Doctor Who point of view, and no attempt is made to try and hide these roots. In fact, the story positively delights in pointing them out. From the similarities in the characters’ and ships’ names, through to the somewhat heavy-handed parallel drawing by the Doctor at the end, this is one of two fourth Doctor adventures where the nod to a mythological base is blatant from the start (the other being 'The Horns of Nimon' aka Theseus and the Minotaur).
In the first episode of 'Underworld', which stands apart from the remaining three as an excellent example of just how good Doctor Who could be, we are introduced to an unlikely band of four space-weary travellers: the members of Commander Jackson’s crew, on an apparently endless quest for their race’s missing gene banks. Jackson, Orfe, Herrick and Tala are nicely characterised, but Jackson overshadows the rest to the extent that Orfe and Tala might as well not have been there. A shame as it would have been nice to have explored, even in a minor way, the effect on morale that a three-man, one-woman crew would have had.
There is much to enjoy and admire in the opening part. I particularly like the way that the opening scenes on Jackson’s ship lead into the revelation that the crew had actually heard and recorded the TARDIS arriving. The fact that people could actually hear the noise the Doctor’s ship made had (as far as I can recall) never been pointed out in the series so forcefully before.
Another excellent aspect is the quality of the visual effects. I would go so far as to say that 'Underworld' represents a pinnacle of model work for the show as a whole, only being eclipsed by the space station seen during 'The Trial of a Time Lord' some eight years later. The effects of Jackson’s ship (which I don’t recall being named on screen, but which is apparently called the R1C) being drawn into the spiral nebula and of it being buried in asteroids are marvellous. The imaginative use of filters and the overlaying of smoke and mist visuals makes the whole thing seem even more convincing.
The plot too is simple and elegant. The Doctor, Leela and K9 arrive on the ship to escape the pull of the nebula themselves, and find that they are trapped with the crew as the ship plunges into danger. The episode ending, with Herrick unable to blast a way out of the planet which is forming around them is both gripping and effective. It’s a great episode ending, and leaves the viewer somewhat geared up to know how they escape their fate.
It is in episode two where the problems begin.
Things start well with some more breathtaking effects as the ship escapes the asteroids and crashes into the newly formed planet around the object of their search, a ship called the P7E. Unfortunately, the plot now takes a back seat and the story drifts through two episodes of plodding corridor-running before the resolutions come in the final episode.
Furthermore, the story’s biggest handicap, the much maligned CSO caves, comes to the fore.
Watching the story today, the problem with the use of CSO is painfully apparent. To explain a little for those who may not know what CSO is: the initials stand for Colour Separation Overlay and describe a process whereby a ‘key’ colour (usually blue, although any colour can be used – Doctor Who often used yellow) can be replaced in an electronic recording by a picture from another camera. Therefore, if you put all your actors against a flat coloured background, and then ‘key’ in the image of a cave from a camera pointing at a model, or a painting, then the actors appear to be standing in the cave. The process is a little more complex, but you get the idea. In the late seventies, this technology was still beset with problems, and sequences that used the CSO effect could always be identified as the characters never quite seemed to really be where they appeared to be.
'Underworld' highlights these problems. For a start the camera cannot pan, zoom or otherwise move, making for a series of very static shots. Then there’s the actors. Forced to act against featureless screens, with no points of reference, all the performances are strained and tight as a result. Even the normally dependable Tom Baker and Louise Jameson seem uneasy, and this nervousness rubs off onto the rest of the cast.
The reason that CSO was used was simply that they had run out of money. Apparently the designer had spent all his budget building the set for the bridge of Jackson’s ship, which was also re-used as the set for the Shrine of the Oracle, and there was nothing left for the cave sequences.
One can only wish that they had been able to go on location somewhere to real caves – how much better would this story have been, for example, had it been set in the Cheddar Caves, as 'The Mutants' and 'Revenge of the Cybermen' were?
As it is, we are treated to a middle two episodes in which practically nothing happens. The new characters are uniformly bad. The P7E’s guards all suffer from a disease inherited from the Moroks in 'The Space Museum', in that they are incapable of saying lines or moving without hamming it up. The Trogs or cave dwellers are totally unconvincing in every sense and our four questing heroes from the first episode spend much of their time wandering around the caves failing to find anything or anyone, and also failing to be found by the guards and roving TV cameras.
Once we get through this middle section, however, things pick up. For a start, the Oracle is introduced. Now I know that this is, as the Doctor puts it, ‘just another computer with megalomania’ but I like its style and the way it is realised. It also has a great voice which reminds me of the Animus in 'The Web Planet': similar seductive female whispers. I called my first fanzine Oracle after this story’s ‘villain’, and I still think it’s nicely realised given that it is, after all, ‘just another computer’.
Unfortunately, the final episode is also where some of the plot holes manifest themselves. For a start we never know or understand who or what the Seers are. They take off their masks and are revealed as bucket-headed robots – or are they cyborgs? – or are they men in masks? It is left to the viewer to make up their own minds as no explanations are forthcoming on screen. Also, although the Oracle is quite capable of, apparently at a moment’s notice, creating two fission grenades that look exactly like the missing race banks, it totally overlooks the possibility of needing to defuse them at a later time.
All of this is interspersed with Alan Lake’s Herrick acting as though he is auditioning for a part in some cod Shakespeare play, and Imogen Bickford Smith failing to be given any lines at all. It still amuses me that she or her agent put about a story at the time that she was to play ‘Doctor Who’s new dolly’ in the series when her role in the story was practically a non-speaking one.
'Underworld' ends as it began, with another flurry of superb special effects as Jackson’s ship emerges from the embryonic planetoid, and the Doctor, Leela and K9 leave Jackson, his crew, the race banks and a hold-full of Trogs to continue their trip to Minyos II.
If it wasn’t for the poor CSO, and the bad pacing of the middle two episodes, would this story be so derided? I don’t think so. If you can accept that at least some of the hesitant and poor acting is down to the problems of performing against a blank wall in an empty set, then maybe it would have been far better on location. Baker and Martin’s script is really not all that bad. It’s certainly not as awful as some Doctor Who, and is actually a lot more enjoyable than most.
I would say that on balance 'Underworld' deserves another chance. Despite the problems, the CSO is excellent for the time, with none of the tell-tale blue fringing that usually typified the use of the effect. In fact, it was on this story that the video effects designer, A J ‘Mitch’ Mitchell, worked out how to remove the fringing in the first place.
'Underworld' does what Doctor Who has always done: it challenges. It pushed forward the boundaries of visual effects with scenes that would not be out of place in a high budget feature, it tried something new with video effects, it presented a complex and thought provoking story, and was made at a time when the production was going through numerous financial difficulties. It also challenges the viewer to suspend their disbelief more than ever before.
If you listen to 'Underworld' on audio only, the performances, music and sound design come to the fore, and it is excellent. From the echoing caves to the whispering Oracle, the story is full of wonder and interest.
153rd? I don’t think so.
David J Howe