Underworld

DVD NTSC
Region 1

DVD PAL
Region 2
Box Set
VHS Video
NTSC
PAL
(Doctor Who Story No. 96, starring Tom Baker)
  • written by Bob Baker & Dave Martin
  • directed by Norman Stewart
  • produced by Graham Williams
  • music by Dudley Simpson
  • 4 episodes @ 25 minutes each
Story: The Doctor and Leela find themselves on the edge of the known universe, where new stars and planets are still being formed. What is the mysterious interstellar quest that a group of nearby Minyans have embarked upon? What is their ancient link to the Doctor's own people? And what secrets are they about to discover in the heart of a newly formed planet?

DVD Extras include:

  • Audio commentary by Tom Baker (The Doctor), Louise Jameson (Leela), and co-writer Bob Baker.
  • "Into the Unknown" making-of featurette (31 min.) with script editor Anthony Read, writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin,
    designer Dick Coles, video effects designer A.J. "Mitch" Mitchell, actors Jonathan Newth (Orfe) and Norman Tipton (Idas),
    and rare footage of the late producer Graham Williams.
  • "In Studio" raw footage (17 min.)
  • Photo Gallery
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.


This is another oddball of a story from Bob Baker & Dave Martin. It is full of unique and fascinating sci-fi ideas that only these two writers seem to be able to come up with, and it is chock full of visual effects, most of which work amazingly well for a Doctor Who production. Classic mythology also provides a solid back-bone for the story itself. But somehow neither the script nor the characters nor the acting are very inspired, and the end result is a bit slow-paced and rather dull.


Outer space scenes are always better when they have lots of stars in the background, but since "Underworld" has a specially written reason why starry backgrounds will not be appearing in this story, the opening shot says a fond farewell to them, pushing them out of frame in one direction, while the TARDIS sails through in the other. Justified. The TARDIS scanner is disappointingly pitch black for a while, but soon fills with outstanding visuals. Model work for the police box and the Minyan cruiser in outer space are top notch; if only every story had this level of sophistication, the entire series itself would almost certainly have a higher reputation.

The Importance of Charismatic, Skilled Explorers in Sci-fi

The good TARDIS interior gets its due in the first and last episode, as has been the case in every story this season since its debut in "The Invisible Enemy" (story no. 93). But a new bad legacy is beginning to take shape: This is the third story in a row to skimp on proper visuals for both the arrival and departure of the police box exterior. Not good.

The dialogue starts to noticeably fall apart on this very subject, as the Minyan crew is introduced on the bridge of their ship while the sound of a disappointingly off-screen TARDIS materialization quietly wafts in from another compartment. The crewmembers are all busy staring at their monitors and instruments, and begin talking about a mysterious "it". And so the confusing dialogue begins to flow. Just what is this undescribed "it" that they are so keen to investigate? The audience is left to wonder what they're talking about for several beats, in addition to the questions of who they are and what they're all about. Finally Captain Jackson gains enough wit to ask to HEAR "it" again, the first indication that they have been talking about a sound. The script could have fixed this with dialogue like "What was that sound?" instead of "What was it?". Failing that, the director could have fixed it by having the actors lift their heads, cock their ears, and respond to the sound of the TARDIS materializing off-screen, but that doesn't happen either and several beats of confusion are the end result. It appears that no one on the production is paying attention to what they're doing.

If only that were the only instance of that sort of thing, but excruciatingly bad dialogue pops up all through the rest of the story. It seems to be largely a function of character. The Doctor is about the only character who comes across well, largely because Baker and Martin allow him to completely adapt to any situation, understand it, and articulate an explanation for it that is both complete and entertaining. Most other characters are shown to be limited to understanding the things that they are already familiar with, and even then they often have trouble expressing themselves. For the most part, these characters are not properly skilled to explore the sort of high-end sci-fi concepts that Baker and Martin want to write about. In the end, the characters are left to utter clumsy gags and gimmicks whenever they try to wrap their minds around something new, and the humour falls flat here and rarely works. Today's catch-phrase crutch is "The quest is the quest." Easily the dullest of the three that Baker and Martin have come up with during their last few stories.

Once more, Leela seems to get the worst of the treatment, with constant references to her being primitive, and not smart enough, and super-keen to fight any battle for any reason. And on top of that, we see her feeling more freedom to flip switches on the Doctor's well-guarded TARDIS console than any other companion before her. The paradox is astoundingly unbelievable. When problems arise in the TARDIS's flight, the natural assumption is that she had something to do with it, even though hindsight suggests that the story hadn't actually intended to give that impression. Leela does at least get a good emotional scene early on, accusing everyone else of laughing at her. The production team might have made more progress with her character arc in the long-term if they had done more with this kind of confrontation, and showcased more of her perceptiveness and too-often-overlooked adaptability.

The questing Minyan crew manage to stand out a bit amongst the guests, as does Norman Tipton's character Idas. Pretty much all of the other characters are easily forgettable, having little screen-time and few close-ups. The story's "villains" lack presence more than any other on Doctor Who for some time. Too many of them hide behind masks too often to tell who is who, and some even take off their masks to reveal another mask beneath - why did they bother? By the time the credits roll, half of the character names have still not made enough of an impression to be recognizable.


Virtual Set Experimentation

Of course, the big cost-saving experiment on this production is to have small cavern models keyed into the background to avoid having to build any full-scale cavern sets. This does give the cavern scenes a strange look, but then it is a new type of environment, a tiny newly formed planet, short on gravity in the tunnels nearer its core - so who is to say it shouldn't look the way it does? What is most noticeable is the restriction on camera movement. Although a very successful left-to-right pan is achieved near the end of episode two as the Doctor tackles a piece of fumigation equipment, the camera remains rigidly frozen during most shots to ensure that model and live-action elements line up as best as possible, which limits visual artistic expression somewhat. A lot of intercutting happens instead, occasionally not getting required ideas across, but being successful most of the time.

Is this a good template for the future? Well, considering that the biggest problem on most Doctor Who productions is not so much money as it is time, and quite often studio time specifically, the time-consuming lining up of shots probably isn't as efficient as just having a decent set to start with. That said, models CSO'd in always have their place in the wide-angle establishing shots. I like the general impression of size that these tunnels in the planetoid have, but a lot of the close-ups and dialogue scenes might have worked just as well with a real and smaller set, and allowed more of a focus on performance.


Beam me up, Mitch!

A lot of care and passion must have gone into the laser beams superimposed onto the picture during fire fights. These are amongst the very elite best effects the classic program has ever boasted. Visual beams glowing in several colours, seen clearly exiting the weapon accurately, moving across the frame, and impacting the target. Even when too much begins to happen at once in later scenes, and some firings are limited to glowing target-impact diamonds only, the quality of the beam effects remains consistently high overall. If anything at all could be improved, perhaps the movement in some firings should be faster, and perhaps the sound effect could be deeper and/or contain more power. But this story really can be proud of its laser effects.

K9 only gets to fire a single blast himself in the final episode, and he and his line-of-fire are only visible after the smoke clears, so there isn't really any comparable laser effect for K9 this time.

One of the story's sore points is the old ritualistic cult formula that rears its ugly head in the second half of the story, complete with sacrifice rescue, and megalomaniacal leader. This is a bore as usual, and very little has been done to make this week's version of it anything special in terms of character or plot or style.


Flying Minyans Regenerate Best

One interesting bit is the fact that at least some of the Minyans are capable of biological regeneration like the Timelords, and don't seem to be affected by a thirteen-life limit. This staple process of the Doctor Who series is demonstrated exceptionally well in this story, with Jackson narrating its background and supporting the visuals of Tala undergoing the process. Dudley Simpson puts in his most atmospheric piece of music for the story during this moment, making it one of the best of the entire tale. Regeneration is well-motivated here also, successfully combatting old age and staving off death indefinitely.


Norman Stewart, recently graduated from being Production Assistant on "The Invisible Enemy" earlier this same year, proves himself to be an excellent technical director, but had yet to become proficient at drawing excellence out of his cast and staying focused on story when planning his sequences of non-effects shots. In the end, the effects are not strong enough alone to overcome the deficiencies of the characters and the script, and overall the story occupies one of the lower ranks of the season.



This story is currently available on DVD and VHS video:
DVD NTSC Region 1
for the North American market:
in the U.S.
in Canada
DVD PAL Region 2
"Myths and Legends"
Box Set
VHS Video
NTSC for North America
PAL for the U.K.

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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "The Invasion of Time"



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