Thursday, 26 September 2013

Underworld written by Bob Baker & Dave Martin and directed by Norman Stewart


The story in a nutshell: Greek mythology is plundered, the Time Lord’s dirty washing is exposed and the reason for their non-interference policy is revealed. Oh and there’s loads of wondering around in five-inch caves.

Teeth and Curls: There is something awkward about the initial scenes between the Doctor and Leela that doesn’t sit right – its almost as if Tom Baker and Louise Jameson are saying the lines under duress, the bits where they have to be nice to each other sound forced and the bits where he can fly off the handle are keenly felt. Compared to his dextrous chemistry with Sarah Jane or either Romana, it fees stiff and uncomfortable. A shame because at their height (Robots, Talons, Image, Sunmakers) they were practically unconquerable. However Baker and Jameson are still the most watchable things on display in this story but they work far better as individual characters rather than a unit. I really like the moment in episode where the Doctor stares out at the scanner wistfully looking at nothing expecting the wonders of the universe to come out of nowhere – it is one of the few times during his reign the 4th Doctor seems in genuine awe of the universe. He is really abusive to K.9 obviously not realising yet what a hit with the kids the metal dog will be (his attitude would change completely towards the dog in the next season where there is a suddenly outpouring of affection for the tin dog). I love how charming he can be to strangers, he really puts Idas at ease and carries a child to safety as they escape to the safety of the R1C. There is one of the first examples of Tom Baker taking advantage of his popularity, staring at the camera and asking ‘I wonder where it all went?’

Deadly Savage:  Louise Jameson is a superb actress and real coup for the series to have been cast and honestly I cannot imagine anybody else following Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane with as much capability and making as much of a success of it. As a violent, independent, funny savage she is a unique character and there has been nobody quite like her before or since. Her best stories (Robots, Talons, Horror, Fendhal, Sun Makers) are some of the best Doctor Who stories, period. And Leela has a lot to do with why. However in Underworld Leela is often patronised (mostly by the Doctor) treated like a fool by the writers (the machine that turns her into a purring cat) and used as a walking weapon that the Doctor can deploy on cue. Jameson struggles gamely with this material but I wouldn't be surprised if this was the point where she got in touch with Graeme Williams and asked for her character to be written out (in reality it was probably much earlier). Watching Leela operating the console made me bite my nails, the consequences could be catastrophic. I love the Doctor’s ‘don’t ever play with strange weapons Leela. Make sure the safety catch is off Leela. She just grabs a gun and fires regardless. The Doctor describes her as primitive, wild, warlike, aggressive, tempestuous, bad tempered, a warrior from a warrior tribe, courageous, indomitable, implacable, impossible. Leela has a spectacular strop after she realises she has been pacified (‘You’re all laughing at me!’). ‘Who did it?’ she asks brandishing her knife menacingly. You’ve got to love how she says hello to people, jumping on them with a knife raised screaming ‘Surrender or die!’ I wouldn't know whether to be terrified or turned on! Louise Jameson could make watching your washing spin exciting but it is a good comment on the quality of this script that she can be seen desperately trying to make Leela likable and funny but she is given so little to work with. Leela is trying to incite revolution again – I think she has an addiction to stirring up rebels. She'll be at again in the next story. Sweetly, Leela kisses K.9 on the nod, another nod to her strength of feeling for John Leeson.

The Good Stuff: The model work is extremely accomplished, typical of the Williams era. Baker and Martin are never short of an idea or two and their backstory is really rather compelling, it's just a shame they failed to inject this history into a more dynamic script. The Minyans thought of the Time Lords as Gods and they gave them aid but as soon as they were technologically able they kicked the Gallifreyans out and went to war. The R1C got away before their planet exploded and the whole affair was considered distasteful enough that the Time Lords promised not to interfere in another culture. That is a massive gap in Time Lord history plugged, explaining why they don't use their Godlike powers benevolently and why they objecting to the Doctor interfering in the lives of other cultures. It's subtly done, but it makes a lot of sense. I like the pacifist gun and think we could have a lot of fun deploying it in Parliament. Being buried alive in meteorite fragments is brought to the screen in an effective way (you might just feel claustrophobic as the fragments attract and overwhelm the ship) and Dudley Simpson scores these moments memorably. Episode two begins with two great set pieces, first the ship tearing from the wall of rock and then landing in a planet in the process of formation. I wonder if the decent model work was the cause of lack of budget elsewhere? Was chasing the effects of Star Wars worth this? The long shots of the characters being pursued through the CSO tunnels are quite well done but there are some serious fringe problems in places. If you squint you might just be able to believe that these are real caves. Can I have a shield gun please? The electronic effects of them firing are perhaps the best example of this kind of thing in the Williams era (the sword and sorcery weaponry from Tara aside). The Doctor, Leela and Idas floating down the gravity well is about the funniest thing on offer here, it’s gloriously silly (she holds onto his gracefully floating scarf end) and accompanied by a Dudley Simpson lullaby! The P7E computer voice gave me the willies and the bridge decked out as a temple is pleasantly atmospheric (if inferior to the similarly designed sets in The Face of Evil). Frankly, it is just nice to see the actors inhabiting an actual set. Norman Tipton gives a sweet performance, the only character that displays any real personality beyond what the script asks of him. The destruction of the world is a terrific ending and the ship rides the shock wave, a climax too good for this story.

The Bad Stuff:  This is a Doctor Who story where the production was so underfunded that they had to resort to shooting the actors against miniatures rather than building physical sets. Surely that means there is going to be a dazzling array of imaginatively designed miniatures for them to be super imposed into, some expensive looking models that could never be assembled as sets? Oh no wait, its just a bunch of caves. How thoroughly tedious. Wow, how tatty does the TARDIS look? Time for a spring clean, I think. I leave interior design to my much more informed better half but even I know that cream leather sofas do not make for a particularly classy flight deck. Compare Jackson’s crew here to Rorvik’s crew in Warriors’ Gate; they have no personality, no humour, no relationship to each other of note and offer relatively little interest for the viewer. They are the dullest bunch I think we have ever met in the series. The direction is remarkably static with the camera always stationary and there are no attempts to make it visually interesting as the best of the Who directors can do in their sleep (not helped by the dominant colour on display being beige). Little of note happens in episode except an awful lot of running around in caves. The fumigation set piece is really dull and lasts the length of a bible. Even worse it is one of the cliffhangers so we have to live it all over again in the reprise. Why is this story so devoid of incident and dialogue? Nobody ever shuts up in the other Baker & Martin scripts - was it to allow the audience time to marvel at the (not so) dazzling technical trickery. No wonder it is so unmemorable. The guards are faceless in every sense of the word. Is Herrick’s sacrifice supposed to mean something? He’s the dullest character of the lot! Apparently the actor was a rare with (Tom Baker be heard saying so to Louise Jameson in of the studio sessions that were recorded) but it never translates on screen. Sneaking in via the mine workings should become a Doctor Who drinking game it is such a cliche. It's so formulaic the next thing you know the whole thing will be the work of a deranged super computer. Oh…wait. The Doctor even states its ‘just another machine with megalomania’ – the script doesn’t even disguise its banality! The end of episode three might by the worst ever; plodding, embarrassingly realised, lacking tension and nonsensical. How on Earth did that cliffhanger convince 11.7 million people to tune in to the final episode? Was there so little on ITV at the time? What are those ruby-eyed thimble heads all about? I've seen some phallic masks in Doctor Who before but they might take the award. By now Dudley Simpson is working on both Doctor Who and Blakes’ 7 and his work is suffering as a result, it feels like the same cues being reeled out on a loop. The crazy computer has gives the Minyans two fusion grenades rather than the race banks, a potentially exciting closing set piece but does the director attempt to make this in the least bit exciting? Nope. The tension is utterly bearable because there isn’t any. The double bluff of giving the Oracle the grenades back rather than the race banks is really tired. Much like everything on display here.

The Shallow Bit: Louise Jameson is simply mouth watering. That’s all.

Result: Probably the dullest Doctor Who story I have ever forced myself to sit through, it took me four attempts to get through this the first time I tried. And that's going up against some stiff competition from The Dominators, Arc of Infinity and The Rebel Flesh two parter. Classic Doctor Who sometimes lacks finesse in it's effects but it usually makes up for it with quality dialogue, rich performances, sparkling imagination and good storytelling. Underworld shows you what happens when this situation is reversed. The effects are fairly good  considering the pressure the production was made on but everything else is devoid of life. Underworld has long stretches where nothing happens at all, faceless nobodies run around failing to interact in a plot that fails to progress beyond the end of episode one. The latest mad computer lacks even a witty retort and the Doctor and Leela are given little opportunity to shine, an abomination considering we know how good they can be at this stage in their relationship. I don’t mind the CSO, it hardly compiles the story’s problems when there are this many to start off with. Some of it looks quite convincing if you squirt some water in your eyes...although I still can't believe with a effects based production they stuck to dreary old caverns. Frankly the behind the scenes documentary on the DVD is far more interesting than the story itself: 2/10

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