Sunday, 4 June 2017


Chapter The 55th, it's Jason and the Argonauts in Space (but not quite as exciting as that sounds).

The Doctor, Leela and K9 materialise aboard a spacecraft manned by a group of Minyans, a race which once treated the Time Lords as their gods; the crew are lead by a bloke called Jackson, which sounds a bit like Jason (him with the Argonauts) but perhaps not close enough for the allusion to be clear without some kind of heavy-handed reference made to it. They are on a 100,000 year quest to collect their genetic race bank from another ship that escaped Minyos all that time ago. They find the ship at the centre of a planet made of green-screen, which has been formed by the collision of multiple Doctor Who clichés - put-upon rebels, brutal overseers, bad robots, and a crazy supercomputer. The Doctor liberates the race banks and the populace, who leave with Jackson and his crew. The Doctor then helpfully makes a heavy-handed reference to Jackson sounding a bit like Jason (him with the Argonauts).

After The Time Monster took so long, I wanted to improve the turnaround for Underworld, and get it watched and blogged in a day or two. I sat down on a morning in the half term holiday to watch all four episodes from the DVD in one go. I was accompanied by my two youngest (boy of 7, girl of 5), but garnered no interest from the Better Half nor the eldest child (boy of 10). We couldn't quite manage the feast in one sitting, but took a break for an hour or two before polishing it off with the final episode. Middle child, the boy of 7, wanted it put on the record that he guessed the fake race banks released by the Oracle in the final episode were bombs. He was also very excited, jumping up and down, during the climax of that final episode, so the story does work with one key section of its intended audience.

First-time round:
Underworld was one of the very last original series stories I caught up with; it's hard to put an exact date on it, but it would have been sometime in the mid- to late Nineties; after I'd graduated from university in 1994, but while I was still living in my home town of Worthing, which I left in 1999. I watched it with Zahir (my school and university friend previously mentioned on this blog) at his house. I would in those years occasionally visit him for an evening, and we'd watch stories he'd been lent by a colleague who'd taped them from UK Gold. By that point, most of what was available we'd seen, and most of what we'd not seen was not so easily available. I can't be sure after so long exactly what our reaction was, but likely it was similar to my latest watch: slightly disappointed, but still finding it somewhat fun.

One of the most iconic TARDIS teams appear in this story. The Doctor, Leela and K9, just like Mickey Mouse, can all be easily identified in silhouette, which is sometimes said to be a quality to aim for when creating memorable characters in a visual medium. They were the first regular cast of Doctor Who to have action figures made of them, and I don't think that was a coincidence. Timeless. Classic. Yet, the few stories they all appeared in are hardly the big hitters, or anything close to it: The Invisible Enemy, The Sun Makers, The Invasion of Time, and the story at hand: Underworld. It's a veritable chorus line of underwhelming. This isn't necessarily a rare phenomenon in Doctor Who: the Cybermen are famous Doctor Who baddies, and  - in whatever version - they look great on a magazine cover. But, you'd be hard pressed to pick too many stories they've appeared in that were wholly successful, where you don't have any reservations. What a waste. And so it is here. Or is it? The best part of the story is its three protagonists; if the vehicle allows them to do their thing well, as I believe Underworld does, then does it matter too much if that vehicle itself is a jalopy?

There's no complex plot to get in the way of character interplay. Aside from the incorporation of homages to various ancient myths (as well as the Argonauts, there's Orpheus, Hercules, the Sword of Damocles, etc. etc.), this is a retread of 'default' Doctor Who. The Doctor overthrows a repressive regime and rescues the downtrodden, exactly as he did in the previous story of the season, and countless others before and since. But, despite being continually told by Doctor Who reference books over the years that this story is boring, I never felt that on this viewing, and it's mostly down to the regulars. Saturday nights in 1977 and 1978 were all about sharing some time with those characters; the promise was fun, and they would never disappoint, just as they don't here.

Of the regulars, Louise Jameson as Leela probably gets least to do this time, but still has some fun playing the savage warrior blissed-out after being zapped by a pacifying ray gun. Tom Baker has tinkered slightly with the mix throughout the season, reducing the acid in the Doctor's humour in favour of a certain absent-minded playfulness, but not yet reaching the zany heights that would come in the following two years. Best value of all is John Leeson, who always finds an extra special little something such as K9, such as giving a little squeak as the Doctor clips the bulldog clips to his ears. The guest cast is less interesting, though, with only Alan Lake's gusto as Herrick standing out.

The effects work is consistently good. That's not the abiding viewpoint that's been put forward over the years, but I found no real evidence on this viewing that the quality was much different to the stories around it. The model work is uniformly excellent, and the green-screen backgrounds used for the underworld caves are perfectly serviceable - there's a lot of them, but they're fine. The decision to realise the caves in this way, as a cost saving measure, is often called out as the reason why the direction of the story is static and boring, but there's two things wrong with that analysis: a) cave scenes in a shabby set would not have been much better; in fact, the stylised comic book look of the green-screen version actually gives some visual interest, albeit probably unintentionally; b) there are some shocking examples of Underworld's direction being static and boring in the non-cave scenes too, and they were shot on real sets. Clearly, this story was struggling for adequate resources - the giveaway is the length of the recaps, padding out the episodes to full length - but there's also lots of other shots held just a little too long. Again, though, I didn't see anything here that's worse than The Sun Makers, say, which is usually rated a lot higher.

Both The Time Monster and Underworld take inspiration from ancient myths (the Minotaur, Jason and the Argonauts); this led to them both being released in the same 'Myths and Legends, Yes Okay That's a Bit Tenuous, But You Have to Buy This Stuff Anyway Because You're An Obsessive Completist' DVD boxset, to give it its full title.

Deeper Thoughts:
A Long Time Ago in a studio far, far away. Underworld is part of the season where Doctor Who starts having model spaceships and zap guns pretty much every week. This has been put down to a bid to ape Star Wars; but it can't be that, can it? All of season 15 was in the can before Star Wars reached UK cinemas, so it's just a coincidence. Then, by the time Star Wars could have exerted any influence, season 16, Doctor Who has moved on from space opera for the most part, and started on a different brew - literary adventure narratives, lots of humour - a world away from Luke Skywalker's saga. It was only by the time of Peter Davison's first season in 1982, and thereafter, that there's noticeable input borrowed from Hollywood sci-fi, and then it's sampling a broader set of films, part of the boom that followed the 1977 movie. Star Wars, just in and of itself, gave birth to many imitations on screens both big and small, but it didn't so much as scratch the surface of Doctor Who.

Why should this be? Pragmatism? Perhaps. There was no way the show was going to produce anything like the spectacle of a blockbuster on its budget. But, maybe it's more because Doctor Who had been there and done it all before. Once you subtract the spectacle, what does Star Wars have to copy? Planet-hopping space opera? Doctor Who started that in the Hartnell era, and has done it comprehensively since. Hi-tech update of wizards and quest adventure? Arguably, that's what Doctor Who is and has been since day 1, and - as Underworld demonstrates - it was still trying different flavours of that same approach 15 years later. Many other shows inspired by the success of Star Wars appeared in its wake, and disappeared after one or two seasons; perhaps this was because they only really had a big budget approach to emulate, and everything else that contributed to Star Wars' success was specific to the cast and crew involved with it. Luckily, Who hadn't the option to copy the big budget approach, and had been around so long, and tried all sorts of different styles over the years, that it rarely looked like it was trying to cash in, but with less cash.

Did the influence ever work the other way? Interestingly, one aspect of Underworld that did get emulated later by George Lucas in his Jedi franchise was filming huge sections of a story with actors just against a green-screen. This is how much of the three prequels were made. Like Underworld, they too weren't 100% successful or well received.

In Summary:
Under-powered, under par, underfunded? But maybe underrated, too. (Just like the UK's public services and public sector workers: VOTE LABOUR.)

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