Apparently, I live in some kind of "fanboy cave"!
I had never heard that this story was so badly scoffed by fandomn. That it's considered one of Tom Baker's worst. To be held in the same (low) esteem as, say, "Revenge of the Cybermen" or "The Android Invasion". Up until I read some of the reviews on this site just a few moments ago, I had always been under the impression that this was regarded by general fandomn as an enjoyable little yarn that is marred chiefly by the fact that it relies too heavilly on C.S.O. during the second half of its telling.
But now I'm reading differently. Complaints about prepostorous plotting and wooden characterisations are be bandied about by the lot of you. My big question is: what Tom Baker stories don't have some of this going on? Particularly in this era of the series!
The nice thing about Undeworld is that it does really keep these sort of problems down to the barest of minimums. With lots of free reign being given to Tom to spice up some of the somewhat more mundane elements of the story. His energy levels during the entire plot are fantastic, as he bounds about through tunnels and spaceships spreading that inimitable chaos his character is so fond of generating. He's very fun to watch throughout these episodes - whilst still not going too far "over the top" as he did sometimes in later adventures that have become notorious in this producer's run. So that, as boundless as Baker's energy seems, it does not cause damage to the storyline's credibility. The main focus is still the desire to tell an exciting adventure story. Not watch Tom Baker muck about on strange-looking sets whilst taking the piss out of bug-eyed monsters. And it's nice to see how nice of a balance Underworld draws with this element.
Underworld's biggest flaw lies, of course, in its flatness. Not just due to the C.S.O. but also some of the elements of the story itself. We have, at least, two plot elements that have, by this point, been done several times over in the show's history (attempts to preserve a race bank and a meglamaniac computer). So this immediately makes it a bit more difficult for the viewer to get all that interested in what's happening sometimes. It is always easier to get involved with a story when its premises seem "new" to us. And a good two-thirds of this story, purely from the standpoint of the series itself, is a bit of a re-hash. Even the Doctor identifies the Oracle for what it is quite quickly and almost seems to act like he's used to dealing with this sort of thing. Which, by this point, he is.
Personally, I found the scenes with the Oracle to be a bit on the tedious side because of it. In fact, it almost gives us a bit of an anticlimax to find out the Oracle is just another computer gone mad. Might have been a great twist if it had been a whole "Wizard of Oz moment" and we discovered some Minyan hiding behind the curtains who had somehow gotten his hands on a regenerator and was sustaining himself indefinitely with it whilst controlling his little underground society with an iron fist.
No such luck. Just another damned crazy computer instead. One that is nowhere near as interesting as the BOSS or Xoannon was before it. Or even WOTAN for that matter!
Adding to this story's flatness is the actual sense of inegrity the director is trying to maintain with themes of the script. We have a tired and listless ship crew that is so run-down that they actually long for their quest to become impossible so that they can finally quit it (note how Jackson actually seems to cheer up when the drive crystal breaks). And a tired and listless slave society that can see no real means of finding freedom from the tyranny that oppresses it. Admittedly, all this tiredness and listlessness, as intentional as it may have been, does make it hard for the viewer to care about much of what it is going on in the story. Perhaps the director should have been more careful with how he was portraying these elements. But that is, admittedly, a tough call to make. You want to stay true to a script, but you also have to keep overall entertainment impact in mind too. And, unfortunately, that balance seems a bit "off" in this element of the story. Thus making it difficult to become all that emotionally involved with some of the storyline.
But aside from those two problems and the actual genuine "flatness" of the C.S.O., I feel Underworld has a lot to be proud of. On the more superficial side, we have some of the best model work and laser battles the series has ever produced (shield guns are, easilly, one of the coolest hand-weapons ever devised on the show). On the "deeper" side of things, we have a story that not only borrows from classical greek mythology - but does so without being too blatant about it. Something "Horns Of Nimon" and a few other Who stories like it that were "inspired by other sources" could learn a lot from. The little afterthought the Doctor has with Leela back in the console room after the adventure is over wraps up the whole idea quite nicely and gives us some nice abstract philosophy to ponder over.
We also get, in amongst some of the afore-mentionned re-hashing, some really creative ideas too. Particularly the concept of a planet that is forming around a spaceship. And though some of the science regarding this idea is a bit "wobbly" (again, "wobbly science" is nothing new to Who and I'm still amazed at the fans who feel such tremendous need to pick it apart), it still made for some very imaginative moments. Of particular charm, of course, was the whole "descending down the tree of life" sequence. With its cute little lift music and, of course, yet more C.S.O!
So, in the final analysis, "Underworld" does have a few big problems to it. But I'd hardly label it a "stinker". I would even go so far to say that as an action/adventure tale, it excels in the way it was executed. And considering the way action elements in Who have oftentimes been a total travesty, that makes this particular story extra noteworthy. "Underworld" on a rainy afternoon with nothing to do, makes for a very fun viewing.
Maybe I just have a strong constitution, but there are very few Doctor Who stories that I find really boring. I'd even give The Monster Of Peladon an average rating, and that's usually seen as one of the show's biggest turkeys. Underworld though, like The Leisure Hive, is one of the few stories to really make me want to drop off: so much so that I had to review it in two parts, and the only other occasion I've had to do that is with The War Games which is four hours long [for posterity I should note that at this stage I haven't done The Invasion, The Daleks' Master Plan or anything else like that].
Possibly because I'm just really badly disposed to this story, Tom Baker in his art gear really gets on my nerves. This quirkiness of character is far from rare in the Williams era, but it's so devoid of any relation to anything that happens at any point in the story that you have to wonder what the point was: it's as if Bob Baker wrote the scene while Dave Martin crossed "be Doctorish" off his list with his pencil. Very quickly though we get to see the story's one selling point: its superb model work, also a common feature of the Williams era. The nebula is pretty enough and the R1C is a good model but it's the set design that lets the show down, all flat mud browns and blank spaces. You'd think that with so much of the story set in dank caves they'd have put a bit of colour in where they could, but no. The acting is poor too, with only Alan Lake as Herrick making any effort. When we first meet them they are going over what the TARDIS materialisation sound could have been which is fine up to a point, because it's what they conceivably would be talking about, but since the audience knows the answer to their questions there's really no need to dwell on the subject as much as the episode does.
Baker immediately explains why the Time Lords are thought by the Minyans to be gods, so that any sense of mystery that could be generated fizzles out. The Minyans' catch phrase of "the quest is the quest" isn't exactly spine tingling either, as well as not making much sense.
All is not a total loss on the design front as the shield guns are a nice idea, although Leela fires one without even knowing what it is. The happy guns, a sort of valium in energy form, are another nice idea but let down by Louise Jameson's poor acting (although she has improved since season fourteen). The initial set up of the plot is then given to the audience: it's a good one (hey, those ancient Greeks knew how to tell a story) but poorly delivered by the maudlin James Maxwell as Jackson. I'm annoyed as well to see K9 yet again being used to solve a plot point.
Imogen Bickford-Smith as Tala doesn't liven up for her regeneration, but it's nice to see that Tom Baker is still capable of serious moments among the clowning. The meteors outside the ship look fantastic, leading to the story's best cliffhanger. The fact that they escape only to crash again shows how much of a lazy excuse for an episode ending, but the crash itself looks great.
Now we see the caves of the P7E planet. The models, while well made, don't exactly hold the viewer after three episodes of nothing but brown and, while the CSO is much better than average, the lack of shadow or any interaction with the environment means that it never looks really real. However, I am pleased to hear that they at least made an effort with the sound effects, and the echoes work well.
The guards look ridiculous in their KKK / '70s bell bottom uniforms, but at least they tried here (veiled reference to The Long Game? Surely not!). However, no thought has gone into what separates them from the miners: it's as if the Oracle simply arbitrarily made some of the Minyan descendants slavers and others slaves. That, frankly, is not a wholly satisfying explanation.
It shows how uninspired the story is when something as pedestrian as poison gas is held off for ages to make a cliffhanger (how many times has Doctor Who featured poison gas? As many times as laser guns, okay, but how many people would put "Klieg pulls laser gun on Doctor" in their top ten cliffhangers? Right then). The moment becomes even worse when you consider that the Doctor explains how he's going to get out of it before the credits roll. Halfway through and I'm struck with how hopeless and pointless it all feels: the references to Jason And The Argonauts, potentially a good idea, now feel like a way of avoiding coming up with a proper plot.
Why does it take the guard leaders so long to notice there's gas pumping into the control room, when everyone around them has collapsed and they can't see their hands in front of their faces? Their threats to Idas's (another plank) father (and another) are delivered with a similar lack of enthusiasm, which undermines their menace ("I'd kill you now, but I'm on my lunch").
The 'centre of gravity' scenes make no sense at all. I'm not going into the physics of it, but shouldn't there be some sort of gradual decline rather than just walking through a door and finding yourself floating about? Dudley Simpson doesn't help either; I can't work out if putting lift music into the scene where the Doctor, Leela and Idas float downwards is a really good joke or just really stupid: either way, it lets down an OK special effects scene. The sword of Damocles scene is just about interesting, maybe because the colour scheme of the room it takes place in is something other than mud brown.
Herrick's sacrifice is stupid and pointless: he does it to set up the narrative for later rather than for any reason appropriate to the time. The fact that Norman Stewart's handling of action scenes is so inept doesn't help either. However, the idea that the Oracle is using "sky-falls" to systematically cull the population of the planet is a very unsettling one, and injects a bit of life into the story for an all-too-brief period.
The Seers look utterly ridiculous, possibly the most unintentionally funny monsters of all time. There are just so many jokes…the jumping bean analogy isn't a new one, but if you combine that description with a cross between the ghosts from Pac Man and a whack-a-mole game you could be getting close. The cliffhanger is another useless one, as the direction is so poor that it's unclear what's going on. Don't they want to get tipped into the machine? Why else are they in the cart?
The fourth episode is more of the same really. The Oracle sounds good (a bit like the baddie from Ghostbusters actually) and isn't exactly original, but if it ain't broke…
Why doesn't K9 spot that the race banks are really grenades sooner? The planet escape sequence is well done, with more excellent model work, particularly the destruction of the planet. The Oracle states that it deserves death, which is an original twist on the megalomaniac idea, but the fact that she is consigning all her people to death makes this seems slightly less magnanimous. Even when they are facing destruction though, the Seers just don't give a monkeys. The exploding planet kills every single baddie, pushing up the story's mortality rate to just over 46%.
The final mistake is for the Doctor to directly talk about Jason And The Argonauts, as what starts out as a (relatively) subtle reference now becomes part of the plot itself leading to questions such as "why?" and "how?". I don't even want to think about it to be honest; I'm just glad it's over.
Underworld is a poor, poor story but I wouldn't put it as low as some: the 2003 Outpost Gallifrey poll puts it in the bottom three episodes of all time, but for me it's too lifeless and dull to reach the levels of obnoxiousness needed to get a bottom of the barrel rating. It comes to something when an episode's mediocrity works in its favour like this, but that about sums up Underworld: it is a hard story to sit through and is a low point of Tom Baker's tenure.
'Underworld' has a very bad reputation. Indeed, there are fans who consider this to be the nadir of the Tom Baker era, although personally I'd much rather watch this than 'Revenge of the Cybermen', 'The Android Invasion' of 'The Invisible Enemy'. In fact, in my opinion 'Underworld' is nowhere near as bad as some fans claim, but this is damning with faint praise; the fact remains that it still isn't very good.
The basic premise of 'Underworld' - ancient travellers on a quest for a lost artefact - is basically sound, but then once you start plagiarizing Greek mythology you're probably in pretty safe territory. Unfortunately, 'Underworld' plays it too safely and rather than drawing on mythology for its inspiration, it simply embarks on a straight retelling of Jason and the Argonauts, which results in a story that feels mind-numbingly unoriginal. I suppose Baker and Martin deserve credit for at least acknowledging their sources, but the final scene in which the Doctor tells Leela about Jason and hypothesizes that legends of the past are actually prophesizes of the future is so glib as to be thoroughly irritating. Frustratingly, many Tom Baker era Doctor Who stories actually work best when their roots are showing, but 'Underworld' is an exception to this. This is particularly disappointing considering that Episode One does have some promise; the revelations about Time Lord intervention in Minyan history are potentially interesting, but this aspect of the story is swept under the carpet very speedily, after the Doctor cheerfully announces that he is a Time Lord and offers to help Jackson and his crew. There is some minor disgruntlement initially, but soon the Doctor is pitching in to the Quest with enthusiasm.
The unoriginality of 'Underworld' is compounded by the fact that it seems to plagiarize not only Greek mythology, but also recent Doctor Who. On a minor note, 'Underworld' is the second story in a row in which the Doctor arrives in an established society and engineers its complete upheaval (and in this case actual disintegration) within mere hours. This is a trivial and probably coincidental issue, but is rather noticeable when watching the series (or even just the season) in order. More significantly, a large part of the story contains a race of people that is descended from a spaceship full of colonists, has degenerated into specific antagonistic groups, has forgotten its origins, and worships the insane and megalomaniac ship's computer. And only a year after 'The Face of Evil', too. I'd like to think that this too is mere coincidence, but unintentional or not, it makes 'Underworld' seem even more derivative. To add insult to injury, having plagiarized the generally very good 'The Face of Evil', 'Underoworld' doesn't even manage to repeat its success. The Doctor has virtually no difficulty in helping the Minyans to obtain the race banks, outwitting the Oracle and its Seers with ease and failing to get into any memorably danger along the way. This is arguably also true of 'The Sun Makers', but that was carried along by a witty script and decent characterisation. 'Underworld' is just boring. There is considerable padding throughout, as demonstrated by the cliffhangers to Episodes Two and Three; the Episode Two cliffhanger is pathetic, since the Doctor spends about five minutes wandering around in the gas-filled tunnels whilst tinkering with the fumigation apparatus, announcing that he intends to reverse the flow of gas. Consequently, when this is what happens at the start of Episode Three, it scarcely comes as a surprise. The Episode Three cliffhanger is not as dull, but is very contrived; the idea of entering the P7E via the crusher is briefly introduced just long enough to provide the cliffhanger, before being instantly aborted at the start of Episode Four when a convenient ventilation duct is located instead.
Part of the reason that 'Underworld' is so boring is that totally lacks any kind of memorable villain. Back when I reviewed 'The War Machines' I claimed that I do not like megalomaniac computers as villains. I was later forced to back-pedal when I reviewed 'The Green Death' and 'The Face of Evil', but my argument regains lost ground with 'Underworld', since the Oracle (and its attendant Seers) are thoroughly uninteresting. Even the script seems to admit this, with the Doctor dismissing it as "another insane object, another self-aggrandising artefact!" Well-acted and interesting supporting characters might break such colossal tedium, but this is alas not the case. Alan Lake's bombastic Herrack is rather entertaining, and James Maxwell manages to convey the conflicting weariness and dedication of Jackson very well, but Jonathon Newth and Imogen Bickford-Smith get very little to do as Orfe and Tala, respectively. The Trogs are so apathetic and boring that it is difficult to care about them and the Guards are stock thugs. So given all this criticism, why do I think that 'Underworld' is better than its reputation?
There are several reasons. Firstly, the plot of 'Underworld' is dull, but solid. There are no real plot-holes, although as usual for a Baker and Martin script there is some very bad science on display, most notably the lack of gravity at the centre of the planet and the idea that the Trogs and Guards can survive on processed rock (although they probably don't suffer from any iron or mineral deficiencies…). In addition, the concept of transporting large numbers of people for several centuries in a small spacecraft is so ludicrous that it falls apart under any amount of scrutiny. Nevertheless, the story largely progresses from start to finish in a logical fashion. Secondly, amidst everything else, the regulars put in good performances. This might come as no surprise, but bear in mind that Tom Baker seemed very bored with Baker and Martin's last script for the series, whereas here he puts in a rather manic and enthusiastic performance. Louise Jameson also gets plenty to do as Leela pitches in to the various battles with her usual relish, and I also like her pacification and subsequent recovery in Episode One. K9 also plays a significant role, as he takes control of the Minyan spaceship, guiding it through the last stages of its quest to find the P7E.
The final reason that 'Underworld' is not as bad as some claim is the production. The model work is very good, as are the sets of the Minyan spaceship and the P7E. Most notably however, the notoriously bad CSO actually works quite well. The main drawback it displays is the lack of the depth of field, but the fuzzy line that plagued the technique during the Pertwee era is mercifully absent. Nevertheless, whilst I can find positive aspects in 'Underworld', these are not enough to salvage it. It isn't the worst Tom Baker story, it isn't even the worst story of Season Fifteen, but as a cure for insomnia it is unrivalled.
How many fans can claim the expectant pleasure of sitting down and watching a Tom Baker story that they had never seen before and better still, knew very little about? Oooh, how many times I have sat and watched Who, wishing to supernatural entities, that somehow, at the age of 29, no matter how infeasible, I could forget that I had watched a favourite story 50 times before, and experience its excitement afresh?
Well, now I can, and crumbs it was almost like a saturday teatime. The story in question was fan "not-favourite", Underworld. How I came to have not seen it before, is (rather like Underworlds repute) a dull story, consisting of UKGold video mishaps, late teen "Im too old for it now.." pretentions, and general apathy to a story that everyone says is a steaming pile of cakka....
Revisionism is all the rage in fandom right now, not suprising, given that all of us are at a stage where we have endlesly raked over a finite number of stories an infinite number of times and lets face it, what we thought was cool at 10, looks like Ressurection now. On the face of it, Underworld has commited more heinous sins than most of the loathed stories over the years, the at a glance loathometer sites the following reasons to loathe:
1. It was done on the cheap with 80% of sets being CSO travesties.
2. It appeared in Graham Williams "Silly" era
3. Tom Baker is as mad as a fish in it.
4. The story's poop.
Now, I hate to succumb to the revisionist fever, so I won't, because Ive never seen Underworld before. But, I will say this, I thoroughly enjoyed every second of this wretched adventure!!
Firstly, lets address the number one gripe, the CSO. I find it very odd that this is the oft sited reason for this stories alledged Turkeydom, surely crap budgets are part and parcel of what Doctor Who is? "Its about the scripts!" was the oft quoted defense on the school playground when someone laughed at cybermen with cricket gloves...(and boy, didnt it put that bully in his place..) but we digress...let me tell you something, the CSO's not as bad as youve been told, at no stage did it detract from the believeability of the programme, at no stage did anyones foot dissapear (as Ive often heard said) and by and large, considering what it is, its done amazingly well. The perspective is always correct, people walk accurately behind things and Tom Bakers hair is never ablaze with electronic fuzz like ole Perter's is in the Green Death mine shaft...
Funnily enough, considering the story is awash with what must have been a nightmare workload for the VidFX folk, the rest of the video effects and model work are very, very good by Who standards. The opening Nebula is tremedously effective (100 times more so than the mandragora helix just a couple of years previously) and all the raygun zaps are also well done. I think we know where the budget from the sets went....
Okay, point 2 and 3. I like Tom Baker being a crazy assed mofo and I like Who being silly, and whats more, so does my girlfriend who easily bores of Who without Tom's arrogantly witty putdowns. Whats good for her, is good for me.
Point 4. Bob Baker and Dave Martin get a lot of very unfair stick. I have to say I think these two have come up with some of the best, most imaginative stories of all time and they always write excellent dialogue for the Doc. Concepts seem to be their strong point, but not at the expense of plot or story. As most folk probably know, there are vague allusions to Jason and the Argonauts through out, it doesn't really add anything, but its an additional layer to muse over. OK, so I was left wondering if the guards were robots or simply wearing radiation suits, but as long as you don't scratch too deep...The concept of the Timelords being gods to the minyans and effectively ruining them in the process is excellent. We all imagine that this sort of Galifreyan interventionist/imperialist bashing only happens later in TOTL and such, but here it is, much more subtly and understated. I'll grant you, the idea of a computer gone meglomaniac is not the worlds most original premise, but look at the other concepts; a spaceship that has a planet formed around it, legends being the portents of things to come..etc. Even the design ideas are spot on, the radiation suits and robots look wonderfully old fashioned and the shield guns, whilst clealry made of lightweight plastic, are far more interesting than the usual bogstandard generic space laser we are treated to.
At the end of the day, without looking too closely and doing anything silly like drawing a comparison with Talons of Weng Chiang, I found Underworld to be hugely enjoyable romp with excellent ideas and some smart direction. Tom always makes these stories for me and its easy to forget that really, Tom IS the show, just like he thought he was. I cant imagine any of the later Doctors carrying this story so well. He always elevates it above the bogstandard. On any other day of the week, this would be a 3 stars or less, but for pure enjoyement, (and surely thats what its all about?) Im gunna give it 4. The TV viewing public agreed with me, ratings at this stage of the shows history were high and any future producers of the show would do well to remember that and do their damnest to ignore the fanboys....