by Mark Greig
After the catastrophe that was ‘The Invisible Enemy’ you would think that Bob Baker and Dave Martin would be banned for life from the Doctor Who production office. And yet here they are again, terrorizing us with another one of their mediocre monstrosities. Will no one rid us of these meddlesome writers?
After doing some uncredited work on ‘The Sun Makers’, Anthony Read’s brief tenure as Doctor Who script-editor officially kicks off with ‘Underworld’. While his predecessor, the mischievous Robert Holmes, sought influence from Gothic literature and horror movies, Read looked to adventure stories and classic mythology for inspiration. So we get stories like this one, which could easily be described as Jason and the Argonauts in Space! Shame it’s nowhere near as exciting as that premise sounds.
'Underworld' isn’t god-awful atrocious. There are actually some great ideas here, which is true of a lot of the duo’s scripts, but great ideas alone do not make great stories. Baker and Martin do their usually middling work and produce one of the dullest stories I've had misfortune to sit through. Even the mighty Tommy B, who can usually be relied upon to enliven even the most monotonous of stories with his mad antics, can’t save this one (although he does try).
'Underworld' starts out as a potentially fun adventure story, but quickly becomes a rather dreary story about freeing a group of enslaved people from the iron grip of a tyrant (right after we had a rather funny story about freeing a group of enslaved people from the iron grip of a tyrant). The tyrant in question is the Oracle, another mad computer with a god complex and not much else. How did it get like this? I'm not really sure, all I am sure of is that the show did mad computers much better in ‘The Green Death’ and ‘The Face of Evil’. The Oracle's chief lackeys are the Seers, a pair of robots with silly heads which they hide behind silly masks for no discernible reason.
One element of this story I really can't stand is the Minyans. They're a one-dimensional lot who never shut up about their bloody quest. The only stand-out amongst them is Herrick, who stomps through the whole thing like he's in an completely different show, one where he is the hero, not that bloke with the scarf and Jelly Babies. As well as being bland and boring, the Minyans are a seriously ungrateful lot. Once they’ve got what they believe are the race banks and completed their precious quest, they're more than willing to leave the Doctor and Leela behind, despite all the help they've given them. Even worse, when they find out the planet is about to explode, Jackson actually tries to kick the Trogs off his ship. That is no way to treat your distant relations. Unless it's Christmas and they just won't go home.
‘Underworld’ nearly never made it to the screen. The BBC was notoriously cash strapped during the late 70s and the budget for this story was so low that the producers considered scrapping it altogether. The production team only had enough cash to build one set, the Minyan spaceship (which was redressed and reused as the Oracle’s Temple). To save on further costs they boldly decided to film entire scenes with the actors against green screen and use CSO to fill in the scenery. It was an ambitious idea to be sure, but the primitive technology of the time doesn't do the story any favours. Let's face it, a series like Once Upon a Time, which has the twin benefits of cash and CGI, struggles to create convincing virtual sets today. How was a low budget BBC show supposed to manage it in 1977? To be fair, something I always begrudge doing, the effect doesn’t look as bad as legend would have it, but it still looks pretty bad.
Myths and Legends
The names of the Minyans are all based on crew members of the Argo:
Jackson = Jason, rightful king of Iolcos and captain of the Argo.
Herrick = Hercules, famous hero, son of Zeus, possessed a strength the world had never seen, a strength surpassed only by the power of his heart. He journeyed the Earth, battling the minions of his wicked stepmother, Hera, the all-powerful queen of the gods. But wherever there was evil, wherever an innocent would suffer, there would be Hercules! Not as popular as Xena.
Tala = Atalanta, virgin huntress and the only female Argonaut according to some legends.
Orfe = Orpheus, the Argo's resident musician, later journeyed into the underworld to find his lost love. It didn't end well for him.
Notes and Quotes
--I'm assuming what money wasn't spent on the sets went into the Minyan spaceship model, which looks damned impressive. The show has come a long way since the washing up bottle ships of 'Frontier in Space'.
--After hearing someone say "Skyfall" for the billionth time I actually found myself humming the song.
--These episodes were under-running so there is a lot of recycled footage, scenes that go on for far longer than they should and extended recaps of the cliffhangers.
--Shame we didn't get to see what the Doctor was painting.
--The script called for Leela to scream at one point, which Louise Jameson declined to do as she believed it was out of character for Leela.
--A weapon that doesn’t kill people but makes them quite pleasant? London's riot police would love to get their hands on that.
--Despite evidence to the contrary, the Doctor claims that he didn't come up with the idea of the Trojan Horse. What was Rule 1 again?
The Doctor: "Don't ever play with strange weapons, Leela."
The Doctor: "Have you ever heard of the Flying Dutchman?"
The Doctor: "Pity. I've often wondered who he was."
The Doctor: "Whatever blows can be sucked."
--When did this become Carry on Time Lord?
The Doctor: "It was what happened on Minyos that led to our policy of non-intervention."
The Doctor: "Yeah. Well, the Minyans thought of us as gods, you see, which is all very flattering, and we were all new at time at space exploration, so we thought we could help. Gave them medical and scientific aid, better communications, better weapons."
Leela: "What happened?"
The Doctor: "Kicked us out at gunpoint. They went to war with each other, learned how to split the atom, discovered the toothbrush and finally split the planet."
The Oracle: "There are no gods but me! Have I not created myself? Do I not rule? Am I not all-powerful?"
The Doctor: "Well, yes, here you are, but nowhere else — you're just another machine with megalomania, heh, another insane object! Another self-aggrandizing artifact! You're nothing! Nothing but a mass of superheated junk with delusions of grandeur!"
One out of four robots with silly heads.
Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011. More Mark Greig.