Doctor Who: Myths and Legends (II) (UK - DVD R2)
The Wilson Bros feel under-weather as they are forced to endure Underworld...
This is part of the Doctor Who: Myths and Legends box-set
Continuing the Myths and Legends set, we turn our attention to the 1978 Tom Baker story, Underworld.
Season fifteen was a difficult period for Doctor Who—a golden age has just ended with the departure of producer Phillip Hinchcliffe, having been responsible for the show’s wonderfully successful ‘gothic’ period, bringing forth classics such as Pyramids of Mars, The Brain of Morbius and The Talons of Weng Chiang to name but a few. Replacing Hinchcliffe was producer Graham Williams, who set about making several decisions as to the direction of Doctor Who that would be greeted with little enthusiasm for hardcore fans, but would be embraced by certain other areas of fandom. Williams first decided that the K-9 character originally intended to appear in one story ( The Invisible Enemy) was worth keeping on as a regular part of the show and Williams also seemed to want a greater degree of humour in the show. Although writers such as Robert Holmes had injected a sly, sardonic wit in his scripts (and those he touched up as story editor) during the ‘gothic’ period, Williams appeared to favour a slightly broader type of humour. Another problem encountered was that by this point in the season, the money had effectively run out and inflation had hit hard, meaning that ways of cutting back costs had to be found and the idea of filming a story mainly using the relatively new process of Colour Separation Overlay (CSO)—filming actors against a blue-screen and putting in the backgrounds separately—suddenly seemed like a good one.
Underworld opens with the Doctor (Tom Baker) and Leela (Louise Jameson) finding themselves aboard a Minyan spacecraft—their presence is immediately detected and the sound of the TARDIS materialising allows the Minyans to identify the Doctor as a Time Lord. The Doctor’s people are looked upon by the Minyans as gods, as the Time Lords interfered with the Minyan’s development in the dim, distant past. The end result had the Minyans learning the secret to Time Lord science, including cellular regeneration, effectively allowing them to live forever. The Gallifreyans were expelled from Minyos and the planet was destroyed in a final battle, but not before the Race-Banks, which contained the future the Minyans, were despatched into space.
The commander of the RC1, Jackson (James Maxwell), explains to the Doctor and Leela that they are looking for the P7E, which contains the Race-Banks. The RC1 manages to locate the signal of the P7E, and the ship manages to avoid being turned into being buried in the centre of a newly-forming planet, but also realises that the P7E suffered the same fate, but without being able to avoid being turned into a planetoid.
Underworld starts out promisingly enough, with some nice banter and chemistry between Baker and Jameson and the premise is certainly interesting. The design of the RC1 spaceship is reasonably impressive and the sense of conviction from the supporting cast members effectively sells the dramatic set-up.
Sadly, once the action switches to the caverns of the planet, the fascinating premise starts to wash away like autumn leaves down a storm-during a passing monsoon. As with An Unearthly Child, the first episode is great (that first Doctor Who story has the greatest opening episode in the show’s history), but it goes rapidly downhill after that. Just like that story first transmitted in late 1963, there is a character that can be seen wearing underpants underneath their tattered primitive clothing. The enthusiasm of the cast help to buoy things a little, but they battle in vain against a script that is leaden without sufficient production values to underwrite it and they also battle against some of the naffest looking robots in the history of the series—these things are essentially people dressed in what look like oversized pyjamas, along with enormous heads and some silver button-like things to give the vague indication of facial features—the black-clad robots are the most amusing to look at, as they resemble the sort of cheap and nasty fancy dress gorilla outfits of old. When the masks are eventually whipped off, the things are even more hilarious, as they look like something out of a 1950s low-budget sci-fi, rather than a 1970s low-budget sci-fi.
The idea of having K-9 piloting a ship is a good one, as it allows the character to do more than just appear as the canine equivalent of the sort of school swot who used to get beaten up regularly. The only problem with this scene comes in the execution, as the mechanical interface that allows K-9 to manoeuvre the RC1 looks suspiciously like a pair of bulldog clips.
The Colour Separation Overlay process also has visual hairdressing capabilities, as one shot sees Tom Baker’s trademark loose curly locks transformed into a tight bubble-perm, which would be appropriate seeing as Tom Baker is a Scouser, after all.
One amusing thing about the occasionally dubious use of CSO is that there are scenes in episode three where the Doctor waves a certain long, trailing piece of apparel around and because of the movement it generates, it causes the CSO process to go a little mad and the garment keeps dematerialising and rematerialising—Time and Relative Dimensions in Scarf, you might say…
The Minyon slaves must have the hardiest feet in the known universe, as they are able to walk over endless expanses of rock that make up the floors of the caverns with no effort whatsoever. The wonders of CSO also allow K-9 to be able to traverse across the sort of terrain that would ordinarily have him burn out his motor at the first pebble. Whilst it’s good that the technology here allows him to play a more useful role in the story, there will certainly be some viewers who miss the ‘you stay here, K-9’ sort of dialogue that is one of the greatest get-out lines since the old ‘go guard the door, Shemp’ in several Three Stooges shorts.
Beyond the obvious smutty double-entendre in the Doctor’s observation that ‘whatever blows can be sucked’, it also somehow manages to encapsulate the general feeling of Underworld, in that it both blows and sucks in equal measure.
The cliff-hanger of episode three is somewhat rushed—as the Doctor and Leela are concealed in a mine-cart, they are unaware that a potentially ghastly fate awaits them, because the contents of each cart is being tipped out into somewhere nasty—not enough is done to set up the situation and when the climax comes, it almost has viewers scratching their heads because it all happens so fast.
OK, so we are well aware that we’ve been putting the boot into Underworld, but there are some interesting concepts at work; when the Minyan slaves are questioned by Leela as to the nature of the universe, one of them replies that the upper part of the cave is the sky, to which Leela replies, ‘no, it’s a roof’—such a casual revelation would have been mind-blowing to a civilisation that was taught to believe that life and the universe consisted of nothing more than dank caves and servitude, being suddenly presented with literally a universe of possibilities.
The sequence where the Doctor, Leela and Idas (Norman Tipton) travel in zero gravity is a very interesting idea, and something that could only really have been done using the Colour Separation Overlay process. On the scenes where the trio are making their way through the shaft, the music playing is very atypical for Doctor Who, with an almost dreamlike, poetic tune that sounds like something in the style of Ennio Morricone work for Dario Argento.
In terms of scale, what is attempted here is something grand and ambitious, the sort of scope they were aiming for versus amount of money they had to spend could was comparable to the William Hartnell story The Web Planet; both stories could be commended for trying something ambitious, but the budgetary constraints hamstrung both productions. The Web Planet was a six-part snooze-a-thon that was so boring that it could have been used in scientific research into finding a cure for insomnia— Underworld had a more interesting premise, but it began to fall apart during episode two, rather than being a stinker from the outset like the Hartnell story.
In terms of the performances, Baker and Jameson are as great as they ever were during this season, but special mention has to be made regarding the once Mr Diana Dors, Alan Lake, who turns in an off-the-wall performance as gung-ho Herrick, whose over-the-top use of violence and machismo sees him come a cropper and end up in the hands of the villainous Seers. Lake suffered from depression and alcoholism and ended up committing suicide a few months after Dors’ death in 1984.
When the Doctor finally confronts the sentient computer, the Oracle, who masterminded the enslavement of the Trogs (the long-lost relatives of the Minyans), the confrontation is disappointingly short and seems to be something of a cop-out after spending three and a half episodes building up to that point. There is a giant plot-hole toward the end that involves a deadly duplicate of the Race Banks, which concerns K-9 being able to detect the duff set and the Oracle not being able to tell them apart, but we shouldn’t dwell on such things…
Underworld looks pretty good here the fact that it was entirely shot on video means that there are no pesky film inserts to drag down the overall look of the story. Images are as crisp and as clean as they will ever look, with the much of the CSO work coming over particularly strongly. Episode four (to our eyes, anyway) looks a little grainier during the CSO sequences, but is still fine.
Much as you would expect, really – it sounds as good as it did when it originally went out, with clear dialogue and little-or-no hiss on the soundtrack.
Audio Commentary: For the first time, actors Tom Baker and Louise Jameson are together in the commentary booth, along with co-writer Bob Baker. Baker is his usual lusty self, salivating over the sights of Jameson’s pins as they watch this story, not to mention frequently mentioning his affection for actress Imogen Bickford-Smith. Baker and Jameson make for a great pairing, with Bob Baker chipping in with interesting anecdotes from time-to-time—not to mention plugging his upcoming Aussie reboot of K-9. The trio spend a couple of minutes putting the boot into Star Wars, which was released around the same time, but they were probably oblivious to the term ‘the pot calling the kettle black’. Probably the most amusing exchange happens between Tom Baker and Jameson, when one asks the other ‘were we friends by this point?’ to which the other replies, ‘yes, I think we were’.
Into the Unknown: This look at the troubled making of Underworld features interviews with script editor Anthony Read, writer Bob Baker , designer Dick Coles, video effects designer JA Mitchell, actors Norman Tipton and Jonathan Newth, with archive beyond the grave interview footage with writer Dave Martin and convention footage from the great beyond with producer Graham Williams. What you get from this documentary is an appreciation of just how much was done with next to no money—the cast and crew speak fondly of the experience, that somewhat flew in the face of the all-powerful unions at the time, but unlike Shada, most pitched in an just got on with producing the show.
Underworld—In Studio: This is undoubtedly the highlight of the extras on this disc (and possibly the standout in the entire Myths and Legends set) with remarkable footage of the studio filming of this infamous story, which also acts as a companion to Into the Unknown, which describes the headaches caused by the extensive use of CSO. It features Tom Baker being both very relaxed and also very tetchy and swearing quite heavily. It’s also nice to see Louise Jameson having a laugh on the set. The best piece of footage in this featurette has Baker and Jameson hanging from a piece of set and Baker is unhappy with the crew chattering amongst themselves and bluntly tells them to hurry up and get the shot with a bleeped ‘f’ word thrown in for good measure—Baker is seen as both a genial, good humour man and also an irascible luvvie. The footage varies in quality, as the material was retrieved from tapes from the long-obsolete U-Matic and Shibaden video systems—the result is that some of it looks like the studio footage from City of Death and the rest looks like the stuff from The Talons of Weng Chiang. Generally, this is absolutely wonderful stuff that provides a genuinely fascinating insight into just how things were during this period of Doctor Who.
Photo Gallery: Presenting you with numerous images from Underworld, accompanied by some of Dick Mills’ special sounds for the show. It’s interesting (and thinking about it, not unsurprising) that all of the photographs presented here are taken from the scenes that take place on the practical sets, rather than ones shot in front of the CSO blue screens. You would have thought that in order to drum up publicity, the production would have comped up a pic of characters in the caves, but evidently not.
Production Subtitles: As reliable as an anti-immigrant story turning up every day in the Daily Mail, the production subtitles give to access to an exhaustive and almost incredible amount of information, minutiae and titbits about the production of this particular.
Coming Soon: A trailer for the next title from 2Entertain—the Fourth Doctor and Romana II story, The Creature From the Pit. Bet you can’t wait…?
PDF Materials: Pop this sucker into your PC or Mac and you will be granted access to view the Radio Times listings for each episode of Underworld.
You might have guessed that we don’t exactly have a great deal of affection for Underworld. It came at a time when the show was feeling a little sorry for itself after the departure of Philip Hinchcliffe and was struggling to find a slightly different direction for itself. The premise is a pretty sound one—the performances of Baker and Jameson are great and the first episode is most impressive—so the momentum generated by the goodwill of these aspects might be enough to carry some fans through to the end. The extras on this disc certainly help you to appreciate the efforts that went into making a Doctor Who story where they really had bugger all in the kitty.
Review by Wilson Bros
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 29th March 2010
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Aspect: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono English
Extras: Audio Commentary, Into the Unknown featurette, Underworld: In Studio, Photo Gallery, Coming Soon, Production Subtitles, PDF Materials
Easter Egg: No
Director: Norman Stewart
Cast: Tom Baker,Louise Jameson
Length: 88 minutes
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