Underworld *

"Thud! The sound of my head hitting the keyboard after this unremitting exercise in tedium..."

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Doctor Who story guide
Patrick Mulkern
Patrick Mulkern
Underworld *

Season 15 – Story 96

"None of us likes it, but the Quest is the Quest" - Jackson

Storyline
At the edge of the cosmos the Tardis lands aboard the R1C, a spaceship crewed by four weary Minyans who've been on a quest for 100,000 years. Led by Captain Jackson, they've stayed alive using Time Lord powers of regeneration, while tracking the P7E, a ship containing the race banks of their lost civilisation. Jackson's ship plunges into a spiral nebula, at the heart of which a new planet is forming around the P7E. In tunnels at its core, their fellow Minyans have evolved into Trogs, Guards and Seers, whose lives are controlled by a megalomaniac computer, the Oracle. The Doctor, Leela and K•9 must help the Minyans escape this oppressive underworld and set course for Minyos Two…

First transmissions
Part 1 - Saturday 7 January 1978
Part 2 - Saturday 14 January 1978
Part 3 - Saturday 21 January 1978
Part 4 - Saturday 28 January 1978

Production
Studio recording: October 1977 in TC3

Cast
Doctor Who - Tom Baker
Leela - Louise Jameson
Voice of K•9 - John Leeson
Jackson - James Maxwell
Herrick - Alan Lake
Orfe - Jonathan Newth
Tala - Imogen Bickford-Smith
Rask - James Marcus
Tarn - Godfrey James
Idmon - Jimmy Gardner
Idas - Norman Tipton
Guard Klimt - Jay Neil
Ankh - Frank Jarvis
Lakh - Richard Shaw
Naia - Stacey Tendeter
Voice of the Oracle - Christine Pollon

Crew
Writers - Bob Baker, Dave Martin
Incidental music - Dudley Simpson
Designer - Dick Coles
Script editor - Anthony Read
Producer - Graham Williams
Director - Norman Stewart

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
Thud! Sorry, that wasn't the Minyan spaceship impacting another new world, but the sound of my head hitting the keyboard after this unremitting exercise in tedium.

All sorts of excuses could be (and have been) made for Underworld: chiefly, inexperienced personnel struggling with budget constraints and edicts from BBC executives to tone down the programme's violence, horror and fear factor. But there's really no defence for such vapid characterisation, dodgy science and a dearth of anything dramatically engaging. Nothing compels the viewer to keep watching or come back next week. It's as if anything that was ever good about Doctor Who has crawled deep under ground and died.

Seeing Underworld again, I rather empathised with actress Imogen Bickford-Smith (Tala) who drifts through the entire drear-fest like a sour-faced somnambulist. Wake up dear, it's Doctor Who. Oh, all right then, don't bother. I'll nudge you when it's finished. But wait, hasn't your agent put it about that you're replacing Louise Jameson as the new companion…? Not on the strength of this zestless audition, you're not.

And as for your crewmates, they look as if they'd be happier in a serial about long-distance haulage (The Brothers, perhaps). What's really on their minds when they trot out their mantra "the Quest is the Quest"… a better part maybe? At least, Alan Lake (Mr Diana Dors) shows bursts of energy as the pent-up, bouffanted Herrick. Whereas the Trog under-dwellers look like extras rejected by the usually unfussy Crossroads casting director; their "panic" during the skyfall scene is execrable. And who doesn't snigger/cringe/jeer when the leaden Seers lift their cowls to reveal the ball-studded bollards beneath?

The confrontation between the Doctor and the Oracle ("nothing but a mass of superheated junk with delusions of grandeur") provides a fleeting frisson, lifted by the performances of Tom Baker and Christine Pollon. She makes the Oracle sound rather like the Animus from The Web Planet (1965). Or should that be an irate brothel keeper on fifty fags a day?

The tension wavers when the Doctor rams home that the Oracle is "just another machine with megalomania. Another insane object, another self-aggrandising artefact." Yes, we've yawned at mad computers before in Doctor Who (as recently as Face of Evil), as well as in Star Trek and the rest.

The quest for humour seems beyond this team. At the top, primitive Leela is seen capable of piloting the Tardis while the Doctor is busy decorating. He strides in wearing artist's smock, brandishing a paintbrush, his face flecked in paint. But the scene is directed with little flair for comedy.

The only section that amuses me is when Leela is pacified by the Minyans, only to be brought to her senses by the Doctor: "You're primitive. Wild, warlike, aggressive and tempestuous, and bad-tempered, too." "Who did it? I'll kill them. I'll kill them!" she fumes. "You're all laughing at me!" - expertly conveyed by faultless Louise Jameson.

I also rather love the spiral nebula looming on the Tardis scanner (although this may have more to do with Dudley Simpson's sombre underscore). "A gas cloud coalescing to form a whole new star system," explains the Doctor. "We're on the edge of the cosmos, the frontiers of creation, the boundary between what is and isn't, or isn't yet, anyway." Ooh, I'm almost getting excited.

The BBC Visual Effects Department pulls the stops out. The opening starfield, the nebula, the Minyan spacecraft crash-sploshing into the molten surface of the new planet are all beautifully executed. Even the interminable CSO cave sequences are for the most part a technical triumph. But good fx - while a relief - cannot compensate for dismal drama. Some of Doctor Who's all-time classics contain heinous fx, but nobody minded because those serials were the televisual equivalent of page-turners.

1970s Who plundered good ideas, be they from Nigel Kneale and John Wyndham (the early Pertwees) or gothic horror (early Bakers). Now the classic texts are fair game. Etymologists may have readily spotted the links to Greek mythology: Orpheus/Orfe, Heracles/Herrick and Atalanta/Tala. Just as Persephone descended to Hades, the P7E lies at the core of "the realm of Hedas".

Calling your story Underworld is one key pointer, but if viewers have missed that, at the end the Doctor calls Jackson Jason. He tells Leela, "Jason was another captain on a long quest… He was looking for the Golden Fleece." And then a rather deft touch: "Perhaps those myths are not just old stories of the past, you see, but prophecies of the future."

It's extraordinary how sometimes the stories with the grandest ideas turn out to be the dullest to watch. Underworld may not be hell on earth but there's a worry that the BBC Drama Department has, like Demeter's daughter, feasted on pomegranate seeds - and sent Doctor Who spiralling into a pit from which it may not return any time soon.

Underwhelmed.

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Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

[Available on BBC DVD]

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