Oh, to be a fly on the wall in the Doctor Who production office in 1977, when designer Dick Coles broke the news to producer Graham Williams that finally – after 15 years of eking out alien worlds and space operas out of budgets smaller than the tea lady had access to – the budget of an average Doctor Who story had finally proven impossible to work around.
DICK: So the good news is that the set designs look terrific.
GRAHAM: That’s brilliant! You’re a genius.
DICK: The bad news is there’s no money left to build them.
GRAHAM: All the designers say that.
DICK: They are all right. But this time it’s not, “there’s no money to make the sets, but I’ll find a way.” This time it’s “there’s no way in Television Centre we can make this work.”
GRAHAM: OK, well what are our options?
DICK: Well, you can cancel the story.
GRAHAM: I’m pretty sure my contract says to deliver 26 episodes this year.
DICK: Or you could cancel the next story.
GRAHAM: The Killer Cats of Gin-Sengh?! No way! It’s gonna be an epic.
DICK: Or we make all the sets as models and use CSO to matte the actors in.
GRAHAM: Will that be convincing?
DICK: Not for a minute.
GRAHAM: Give me a moment to think it over. (Opens drawer, takes out a bottle of whisky and takes a large slug.) OK. Let’s go.
In one way, it’s a pity that Underworld‘s makers had to resort to this, because their decision has come to define the story. It’s the thing it’s remembered for. Often, the only thing it’s remembered for. And like many of Doctor Who’s most egregious shockers, it’s so infamous that it makes you search even harder for the story’s redeeming features. Surely, so the theory goes, if only Underworld (or insert name of story here) hadn’t had the misfortune of having to rely so heavily on CSO (or insert other production misfortune here), it would have been a success, because at heart, it’s a really good story.
Well, if there is a decent Doctor Who story buried deep within Underworld, it’s very difficult to unearth. It was a story borne of pragmatism; writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin, knowing script editor Anthony Read’s predilection for stories based on myth and legend figured they could get an easy sale by basing a Doctor Who story on the tales of ancient Greece. They were right, but the sheer convenience of their inspiration shines through. Yes, as a retelling of Jason and the Argonauts it’s obvious enough but you can just sense no-one gives a hoot about the Minyans and their deathless quest for the race bank of their ancient peoples. Not Baker and Martin, not the actors and certainly not the audience. They’re too boring a lot for that.
The Greeks, of course, loved a monster: the Hydra, the Minotaur, Medusa and so on. But for some reason, there’s no such big bad in this underworld. So we have to be content with human baddies, who, in the story’s second biggest design fail, are dressed in hooded felt jumpsuits. We can’t see their faces most of the time, so most of the time, it’s hard to care about who they are and what they want. Perhaps, the hopeful audience member might think, when they eventually pull off those shapeless hoods, there’ll be some ghastly but exciting monster underneath. But no, beneath those hoods are the faces of fairly ordinary looking middle-aged white men. You kind of wish they’d kept the hoods on, which is saying something.
I have this theory (unburdened by any actual evidence, mind) that there must have been some rule in the 1970s that extras whose faces were entirely obscured were paid less than those who showed their face. This would explain the prevalence of fully masked guards in late 70s Who. It’s a costume design quirk which starts here in Underworld, but see also The Pirate Planet, The Androids of Tara and The Creature from the Pit. It would be the only good reason to explain why we see so few faces of the ruling guards in Underworld. It’s particularly mystifying when director Norman Stewart cuts to a close up of one the featured guards (Rask? Tarn? Who would know?) for them to deliver their line, and it’s like looking at talking sack. I mean really, what’s the point? (If not that when present on the set of the Oracle, complete with chains and swords, the hooded men fit right in with what is apparently Doctor Who’s only sex dungeon. Oh sure, they had enough money to build that one.)
To be fair on Stewart, he had his work cut out for him. If this is Doctor Who’s most poorly directed story, then we need to remember he didn’t have a full complement of cameras to work with, because at least one, and sometimes two, had to be pointed at the miniature sets for the actors to image they were on. It’s easy to criticise the astonishingly boring cliffhanger to Part Two and the clumsily shot cliffhanger to Part Three, but given the pressure he was working under, it’s amazing we got to see anything at all.
Where the whole plot is going, is that the Minyan crew has come to edge of the universe to find their race bank, which is held by the R1C, a spaceship which a planet has formed around. The ship’s despotic computer, the Oracle, has fashioned a society out of this protoworld and its crew, with a caste of gun-toting guards and a lower class of rock mining Trogs. Never mind ripping off the ancient Greeks; here Baker and Martin baldly rip off the previous year’s The Face of Evil. In that story, a mad computer created a society of warriors and technicians as an experiment in eugenics and things were only put to rights when the Doctor (Tom Baker) cured it of schizophrenia. Here, things are far more pedestrian. The Minyans fight their way towards the Oracle over the course of three episodes and then the computer tries the ol’ switcheroo and tries to blow them all up. The Doctor fixes everything by doing a reverse switcheroo. Vamp until explosion and end credits.
Sadly, the conclusion must be drawn that an overreliance on CSO is only one of Underworld’s many problems, and even with a budget which stretched to caves of expertly pained jablite, this would still have been a dog of story. To redeem it, it would need a design, writing and directorial overhaul. And an approach to Doctor Who which sees the program as worthy of more of just a retelling of some old mythic tale with a few name changes.
If only its makers had had the confidence to play one final wild card: a wild card named Tom Baker. In Underworld, the great man has yet to decide that he’s the most interesting thing on screen and attempt to steal every scene with a joke, a smile, an overplayed gesture or all of the above. Only he could spark something of interest in Underworld, but that version of Tom hasn’t arrived yet. Move this story to Season 17, give Tom his head and a few stiff gins and see what happened. If only they’d lit that blue touch paper. No amount of CSO could have dampened that.
LINK TO The Return of Doctor Mysterio: All right, this is a bit desperate, but Underworld and Superman were both released in 1978, and Superman‘s a big influence on Mysterio. (Better links are welcome, comment away!)
NEXT TIME: Get in! We’re treading on Thin Ice.