If you came here looking for Minions, then sorry but you came to the wrong place. Will some Minyans do instead? On second thoughts, you should probably keep moving.
Underworld was originally broadcast just before Blake’s 7 debuted, and while Star Wars was in cinemas. The latter of those two was not really so much of a problem as people sometimes make out. I doubt that anyone seriously expected Doctor Who to look like a big budget film. But Blake’s 7 was a space opera and looked pretty good for its first series at least. It was obviously nothing like Star Wars, but had the advantage of a large standing set on which a lot of the action took place. So Doctor Who looking bad in comparison with a new sci-fi series was not ideal, because that was much more noticeable. And although nobody expected Doctor Who to look like Star Wars, most people probably expected it to look a bit better than this.
But the thing is, Doctor Who is vastly superior to Blake’s 7 and the same applies to Star Wars if you are judging things on any criteria other than money on the screen. Doctor Who didn’t need to compete with either of them. It just needed to set itself apart, and whilst a catastrophic shortage of money is a fair excuse for what happened with Underworld, it could have been avoided by simply not trying to make this kind of story.
Most readers of this blog are probably aware of what happened here, but just a very quick rundown for those who aren’t. Inflation in the 70s was eating up Doctor Who’s budget, so there was hardly anything left in the pot to make Underworld. The original intention was to build the spaceship set and a cave set, but the spaceship set already took the serial well over budget. CSO saved the day. And it looks horrifically bad.
So what could have been done instead, when the money ran out? Well, if you’ve only got enough money to build one set, make it a good one (not another boring spaceship) and do a base-under-siege. Recycle some old costumes if you want some monsters, or if you don’t want to do that, make something like Midnight and make it even more frightening. Doctor Who is often at its most inventive when it has to be done on the cheap. We don’t just need to look to the future to understand how that can work. Look at the first episode of The Mind Robber: an extra episode tacked on with virtually no money spent on it, a plain white studio set, the TARDIS standing set, and some robot costumes borrowed from another show. And it’s magnificent. You could even go down the CSO route, and if you do something really weird like The Invisible Enemy then you can just about get away with that. At least it would be a visually interesting failure, rather than a failure to put some dull caves on the screen.
But at this point I have spent 500 words on how a Doctor Who story looks. This is exactly what I normally try not to do, because special effects are often the least interesting thing about a Doctor Who story, and if you don’t approach the Classic series in the context of when it was made you are probably in for a world of disappointment. It’s hard to escape the failings of Underworld though, because it’s pretty much all anyone talks about.
Let’s take a different approach. What were the writers trying to achieve with this? Well, Bob Baker and Dave Martin were extraordinary ideas men when it came to Doctor Who. Their approach was often to throw as many ideas as possible at a story and see what sticks. That often leads to a feeling of good ideas being introduced and frustratingly abandoned without enough exploration. Underworld is probably our main example of that.
And some of the ideas here really are fascinating. Ironically, the one they really focus on is probably the one with the least potential: Doctor Who does Jason and the Argonauts.
LEELA: Well, is Jason Jackson?
DOCTOR: No, no, no. Jason was another captain on a long quest.
LEELA: I don’t understand.
DOCTOR: Ah. He was looking for the Golden Fleece.
LEELA: Did he find it?
DOCTOR: Yes, yes. He found it hanging on a tree at the end of the world. Perhaps those myths are not just old stories of the past, you see, but prophecies of the future. Who know? What do you think, K9?
Once that has been said (and isn’t K9 great at a deadpan response!) there’s not much else to say about it. Doctor Who does Jason….
I just stared at my computer screen for a while, not knowing how to follow that sentence. That’s because there’s not much more to say about it. As an idea, it doesn’t exactly have legs. So you transplant classical mythology into a sci-fi story and what do you get? You just make everything more boring than the original. What would you rather have? The golden fleece or a test tube? Hades, or some caves?
The more interesting things are the ones that get lost in the mix. The Minyans are subversions of Time Lords, regenerating over and over again and living ridiculously long lives. That’s an opportunity for something like Mawdryn Undead, that really goes big on the consequences of eternal life, or Enlightenment. Then we have a rerun of the idea of descendants of a crashed spaceship worshipping their technology from The Face of Evil, done in a rather less interesting manner. There are class issues, with slaves treated as completely expendable, and the fascinating idea of planets forming around spaceships over time. We even have a gun that pacifies people by making them happy.
It’s an idea that’s thrown away, but what an amazing basis for a script that would be: a gun that shoots happiness. Imagine a story that really focusses on that: the ability to stop a war by making people happy. Then you have the ethical side of it. So many good ideas. It’s just that everyone picked the wrong ones and then couldn’t afford to make them.
But look, there are far worse Doctor Who stories than this: stories that are morally bankrupt, stories that turn the Doctor into a monster, stories that are nihilistic, stories that are screamingly racist or sexist, stories that lack new ideas and do nothing but feed off the past. On a list of faults like that, dodgy CSO caves should come pretty low down. RP
The view from across the pond:
Star Trek may have been long gone on our televisions by the time Underworld premiered on Doctor Who, but its Prime Directive was an important development for the series. It spoke of the importance of nonintervention and the dangers that come from doing so. For instance, look at these examples: Bread and Circuses was god-awful, Patterns of Force Professor Zaroff would have condemned as “not ze best episode of the classic series” (come on, that was good! What are you, my kids?!?) and Return of the Archons which was never part of the body of good stories! Interfering brought trouble time and again in Star Trek. Which has this reviewer wondering: were the High Council watching Star Trek when they came up with this idea? We never did understand why they have such tedious rules. Until Underworld.
Bob Baker and Dave Martin attempted to give us an allegory about Jason and the Golden Fleece but instead show us why Time Lords don’t interfere: they are guilty of destroying a civilization accidentally. But to quote myself again, that doesn’t make sense. Unless they’re sadists. Look, they are far happier destroying planets and civilizations intentionally, like moving Earth across the universe and changing its name to Ravolox. That’s clearly better than trying to help and getting it wrong. Priorities, you know! If we’re to take away a message from this story it’s that, like meeting one’s heroes, it’s dangerous to ask for origin stories. Invariably, the legend is better than the reality because you hype up the legend. The one story that really works on creating a background for the Time Lord policy ends up giving us one of the lamest stories of the series.
So the result is not much different than the Trek episodes that dealt with noninterference. If you need to find some redeeming traits then I always liked the links to Jason and the Argonauts like: P7E is a take on Persephone, Jason is replaced by Jackson, Herrick takes the places of Heracles, etc. It’s a game of finding the Easter Egg, assuming you know the classic story. Otherwise even then it fails because the story is weak. And that’s about all there is to say about this one. It offers little else to really sink our teeth into. Even the Doctor feels that same; he refers to the Oracle as another megalomaniac computer because we’ve seen this dozens of times before. (Just this week we reviewed Face of Evil which features the mad computer Xoanon!) So when the lead character finds it boring, what are we to make of it?
The irony is that it’s not the episode I like least in the series but I would call it the one that I’m most ambivalent toward. I don’t hate it like I did Capaldi’s Hell Bent, but I feel almost nothing for this episode. It’s just there which, thanks to the use of so much CSO, is more than we can say for the set. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Invasion of Time