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Hitting Rock Bottom

By David J. Howe

The Bottom Ten No.7
DWM Score: 47.27%
DWM Placing: 153rd

What on earth ...? How can Underworld possibly have come in at number 153 in Doctor Who Magazine's poll of polls? What is it about this harmless and inoffensive story that makes grown men and women wince at the very mention of its name? Can it really be as bad as all that?

Time for a reassessment ...

Nestling gently in the fifteenth season, alongside Horror of Fang Rock (21st), The Invisible Enemy (125th), Image of the Fendahl (58th), The Sun Makers (95th) and The Invasion of Time (99th), Underworld is not perhaps one of the most well-received adventures: especially surrounded by such gems as Horror of Fang Rock and Image of the Fendahl, but neither is it really all that bad.

Following the gothic excesses of the thirteenth and fourteenth seasons, the fifteenth season is overall a far gentler affair, capitalising on Tom Baker's charisma in the role of the Doctor and the interplay with Leela and K9 more than the telling of great stories. Perhaps a part of the problem is that the first story is strong, the second introduces K9, the third is another gothic masterpiece, the fourth a well-regarded Robert Holmes pastiche and the final adventure sees the return of the Sontarans. Any ‘standard’ adventure would have a hard time competing in such a season.

“...and now a new adventure in time and space: Underworld”
BBC Continuity Announcer

Bob Baker and Dave Martin contributed the script for Underworld - their second for the season - and it is well up to their usual standards, combining some nice character interplay, some great dialogue, a sense of cosmic vastness, and a plot contrived from one of the classics.

Of course the basic idea is to redo the story of Jason and the Argonauts from a Doctor Who point of view, and no attempt is made to try and hide these roots. In fact, the story positively delights in pointing them out. From the similarities in the characters' and ships' names, through to the somewhat heavy-handed parallel drawing by the Doctor at the end, this is one of two fourth Doctor adventures where the nod to a mythological base is blatant from the start (the other being The Horns of Nimon, a.k.a. Theseus and the Minotaur).

In the first episode of Underworld, which stands apart from the remaining three as an excellent example of just how good Doctor Who could be, we are introduced to an unlikely band of four space-weary travellers: the members of Commander Jackson's crew, on an apparently endless quest for their race's missing gene banks. Jackson, Orfe, Herrick and Tala are nicely characterised, but Jackson overshadows the rest to the extent that Orfe and Tala might as well not have been there. A shame, as it would have been nice to have explored, even in a minor way, the effect on morale that a three-man, one-woman crew would have had.

There is much to enjoy and admire in the opening part. I particularly like the way that the opening scenes on Jackson's ship lead into the revelation that the crew had actually heard and recorded the TARDIS arriving. The fact that people could actually hear the noise the Doctor's ship made had never (as far as I can recall) been pointed out so forcefully in the series before.

Another excellent aspect is the quality of the visual effects. I would go so far as to say that Underworld represents a pinnacle of model work for the show as a whole, only being eclipsed by the space station seen during The Trial of a Time Lord some eight years later. The effects of Jackson's ship being drawn into the spiral nebula and of the ship being buried in asteroids are marvellous. The imaginative use of filters and the overlaying of smoke and mist visuals makes the whole thing seem even more convincing.


The plot too is simple and elegant. The Doctor, Leela and K9 arrive on the ship to escape the pull of the nebula themselves, and find that they are trapped with the crew as the ship plunges into danger. The episode ending, with Herrick unable to blast a way out of the planet which is forming around them is both gripping and effective. It's a great episode ending, and leaves the viewer somewhat geared up to know how they escape their fate.

It is in Episode Two that the problems begin.

Things start well, with some more breathtaking effects as the ship escapes the asteroids and crashes into the newly-formed planet around the object of their search, a ship called the P7E. Unfortunately, the plot now takes a back seat and the story drifts through two episodes of plodding corridor-running before the resolutions come in the final episode.

Furthermore, the story's biggest handicap, the much-maligned CSO caves, comes to the fore.

Watching the story today, the problem with the use of CSO is painfully apparent. In the late 1970s, this technology was still beset with problems, and sequences that used the CSO effect could always be identified as the characters never quite seemed to really be where they appeared to be.

Underworld highlights these problems. For a start the camera cannot pan, zoom or otherwise move, making for a series of very static shots. Then there's the actors. Forced to act against featureless screens, with no points of reference, all the performances are strained and tight as a result. Even the normally dependable Tom Baker and Louise Jameson seem uneasy, and this nervousness rubs off onto the rest of the cast.

The reason that CSO was used was simply that the production team had run out of money. The designer had apparently spent all his budget building the set for the bridge of Jackson's ship, which was also re-used as the set for the Shrine of the Oracle, and there was nothing left for the cave sequences.

One can only wish that they had been able to go on location somewhere to real caves - how much better would this story have been, for example, had it been set in the Cheddar Caves, as The Mutants and Revenge of the Cybermen were?

#6 : Time and the Rani

This item appeared in TSV 56 (October 1998).

Index nodes: Underworld