Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Serial 96: Underworld

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companion: Leela

Written by: Bob Baker & Dave Martin
Directed by: Norman Stewart

Background & Significance: "Underworld" is not exactly a well-regarded story. In that famous Doctor Who Magazine ranking of all the stories of Doctor Who from "An Unearthly Child" to "Planet of the Dead", "Underworld" was the lowest ranking Tom Baker story. And not just low ranking for Tom Baker standards (his stories get a "Tom Baker bump" because everyone loves him so frakking much), but low as in bottom five Doctor Who story. Of all time.

Now, I should qualify that by saying I don't agree with a fair bit of some of the rankings on that list, but when you get so much concentration on positive (the top ten is fairly solid, if misguided) and the negative, it turns out that the masses are really not that wrong.

I hate Underworld. I'll just say that in the background and significance. It comes in one of my least favourite eras (The Graham Williams era) and suffers from being the first 4th Doctor story not overseen in at least some respect by Robert Holmes. And I think it REALLY shows you how much you need a good writer to bring something to the table to really make a story... you know.... good.

It also suffers from being written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, more jovially referred to as "The Brighton Boys" when they were a duo or whatever.

I'll also repeat something that I've said previously: Baker/Martin are not good. Or at least, the stories that they make are traditionally stories I REALLY don't like. The only time I've actually relished in a story that they wrote, it took Patrick Troughton to frakking save the day and completely steal the show. And of the only other times I found two other of their stories enjoyable, one had the benefit of being completely re-written by Robert Holmes and based on a half-decent concept AND the departure of one of the finest companions ever, while the other was handicapped to being just two parts.

Also, two of my all time least favourite Doctor Who stories OF ALL TIME are written by these two guys. Three if you count this one. So ummmmmm..... Not a huge fan, no.

But enough blather and mea culpa whatevering.

"Underworld" comes towards the end of Tom Baker's fourth season and is still in the early years of Graham Williams's producership and it's everything I associate with the era. It's poorly written and constructed, it looks awful, it makes no sense, it's cheap, and it's schlocky in all the worst of ways. Gone is the good writing and it shows you how much Baker/Martin can't stand on their own. Known for high concept ideas, studying Baker/Martin stories is a clinic in how to not do certain things. Which I'll elaborate on.

Honestly, this story is a mess even before the really awful CSO (green screen) kicks in. It's an awful travesty, and my god do I loathe this story.


So let's get to it!


Part 1:

Sigh. This is how best I can sum this up: You know you're in for a rough time when the first episode is slow, boring, and meandering and it can't even come up with twenty two minutes of material.

So there's that. Not an encouraging notion.

Nor is it an encouraging opener. I know I like to ramble on and on about the cool things and the exciting things or the provocative things, the things that make me think or question or examine Doctor Who through a much larger and wider lens, but this is just one of those stories that does not do that, or, if it does, it doesn't make such an examination easy AND on top of that, it definitely doesn't come through illuminating the show in a positive light.

But alas I shall try. Sigh.

The one thing that stands out to me in this part more than anything is the sheer lack of.... anything. It feels like it's far beyond anyone to attempt to contribute anything inspiring to this story. I mean, honestly? Who's even trying here? Be honest. Tom Baker's turning in a substandard performance. The guest cast is a whole manner of panto and far from believable. The spaceship set is completely empty, boring, and uninspired (is the bridge a couch that sits in a circle?). The costumes look completely phoned in. The music is nothing special to sing home about. The direction is adequate. The lighting is... lit.

It's a constant, running theme or whatever that's running through this episode. It's just BORING.

I mean, seriously. This story aired in 1978. That's one year after Star Wars. And fine, that's not enough time to produce some Star Wars inspired storylines or effects or anything like that. But this is seriously, honestly fucking pathetic. There's literally no pace to this episode so far so I'm left feeling like I wasted twenty minutes on a story that literally hasn't even started yet. And your final sequence leading into the cliffhanger is the crew SITTING ON A COUCH watching ROCKS FALL onto their ship. Is there anything more BORING and UNCINEMATIC? I mean, maybe it's a British humour thing, where the world is ending, you're in certain danger, so you SIT THERE?

Come on. I defy anyone to say that that sorta thing is good. It's inherently undramatic. If The Doctor can't be bothered to be bothered by crushing death by rocks, why in the frakking world should we?

Really, this comes right back to the writing. And I know I sound like a broken record because I'm constantly harping on it, but if I'm not right? Tell me I'm not. I beg you, because this is not good writing. It's just not. It's inherently undramatic and cop-outty. Leela is written at EVERYONE'S throats (which is so not Leela). There's big sci-fi ideas but no conflict of which to speak. Where's the conflict? What even HAPPENS in this story? They spiral around a nebula. They spiral some more. They spiral some more. They're sucked in and start gravitating rocks towards them. That's ALL that happens. And it's not even done believably or like anyone putting on the show is even convinced that any of this is happening.

It's because of this that Baker and Martin don't write good Doctor Who. We'll see more on it later, but seriously. What's this story about? I watched twenty minutes of this and I have no idea.

This just proves that you can have all the ideas in the world, but without solid character work and dramatic drive and narrative your story is going to 100% fail. That's what happened in "The Curse of the Black Spot" just a few weeks ago in the new series. Tons of nifty ideas, half baked execution and whatever. This is the same way, although less. There's some cool ideas, yeah. But we only get traits, not characters. This guy's the angry one. This guy likes to be snooty. This woman is old.

And it's not even like the cool moments save them. There's this whole thing where we find out that these guys know about the Time Lords or whatever and have the ability to rejuvenate or regenerate and they've done so thousands of times (so why does this ship look worn but not lived in? and why don't they ever play with the concept of the people being thousands of years old and what that could do to people especially if it's just four people on a spaceship all that ttime), but what does that accomplish? Sure. It's a coolish concept, I'll give you that. But so was mad alien nurse or the ideas in "The Rebel Flesh" and that didn't really help either of those stories, did it? At least they both attempt to have an emotional core, no matter how ham handed. 

But Baker/Martin? Come on. Emotional core? Please. They don't even have the decency to give us that. All they give us is repeating of the meme "The quest is the quest" which SOUNDS cool because it's a catch phrase, but then you think about it and then you realize it's totally lame and doesn't make even a lick of sense. Not only that, but that's bogus writing. Don't pretend that's quality, because it doesn't do anything to enhance the story at all. It's just fake and doesn't speak to a character thing or a story thing so... bringing it up is just to show off how cool your concept is.

And come on. This concept? Not even that cool at all.

Part 2:

The worst part about this story so far is how much I keep expecting it to get better when all it really does it get worse.

It’s an epidemic of my brain, I suppose. No one wants to watch utter garbage and we’re always hoping that something will get better so that it won’t feel like we’re wasting our time, especially not when it’s something so usually brilliantly awesome like Doctor Who. But honestly… This is just… it’s not good at all. And it’s not going to get better. No sir. Which is majorly unfortunate. It's a major sigh. Once again.

There’s something enjoyable about bad stories, the things that are so camp and poorly put together and constructed that you can’t help but watch with your drunken friends and relish in the awfulness.

It’s at that point that a story can become so bad it’s good (I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but hear me out). Making a character like Soldeed and putting Graham Crowden as him in “The Horns of Nimon” actually elevates that story because it’s wrong on every level. He makes “The Horns of Nimon” incredibly watchable because it’s just so over the top and camp and awful.

But the thing about this is it’s written completely straight to be a big sci-fi action adventure story complete with running and gunning and vague metaphor.

And it’s worse off for it.

Halfway through this story, I have NO idea what it’s about and I’m still waiting for it to start. This part (like the first) clocked in at barely twenty two minutes and honestly? It doesn’t need those minutes (especially when you consider that the first two minutes is all recap from the last episode). It’s not like they’re expanding the plot or fleshing out the characters or giving The Doctor or Leela anything to do.

What do we know after this part? They’ve landed on a planetoid called P7-E and there’s slaves who mine rocks (and even that is something that you can barely glean off of this) and the crew of the ship are walking around and still on this Quest. But what is this Quest? (“The Quest is the Quest.") Who are these people? What do they want? What are they doing? Why are they here? Are they overjoyed? We know NOTHING about them except that they’re on this Quest (“The Quest is the Quest”) and they get to walk around. The only one who’s mildly written with any sort of anything (and who gives any sort of energy to the proceedings) is the guy who plays Herrick, but that’s because Baker/Martin can at least give him good lines about being the quick-to-anger badass.

The worst is knowing that everyone else in this story doesn’t seem to care. There isn’t any breakout performances, the only one who seems to be emulating a character (besides Herrick) is guy-who-plays Jackson, and that’s only because he has gray hair and thusly knows how to play world weary.

Even Tom Baker doesn’t seem to be doing anything. It’s because of stories like this that Tom Baker couldn’t ever be my favourite Doctor. Even someone like Davison in "Time-Flight" (which is only marginally better than this story) was still giving it his all and had fantastic moments of sheer Doctorness, but what is Tom Baker doing here that is special or unique? Anyone can do this. Anyone.

I don’t even think I can pick on the poor backgrounds of this story (the whole thing was shot on blue screen) because it’s not even fair and it’s been done.

To make matters worse, what about making me want to show up next week? Well, The Doctor’s working on venting gas that is being vented into a space. So… I guess that’s something? But he spends something like a minute fixing the thing and is not so successful, but he tells us what he’s going to do so all we’re waiting for is for him to do it. And that’s where it ends? Come on. It’s just done so boringly.

And again this comes back to the writing. Maybe if I cared what was going on I could invest myself into an exciting run-and-gun. At least whenever Davies did the excessive running (which was always awesome) there was a sense of urgency or exciteme nt. But I can’t even get invested in this because it’s done with such a distinct lack of energy and almost a desire to just end the story already. And I can’t say I blame anyone involved. I doubt Baker/Martin really cared about this story (or maybe they did), but it’s still poorly constructed and poorly done. There’s nothing to grip onto, and having that be the case at the halfway mark, not even knowing a suitable enemy or what this Quest is or what’s going on… That’s a huge, huge problem.

The worst is seeing all the missed opportunities. So the Minyans (the folks on the ship) have Time Lord rejuvenation technology and have been around for a thousand years? That’s great. How about some exploration of that? How about showing us what these people think after being alive and on this Quest for so long? Give me something, ANYTHING to care about in this story and I promise I will.

But I think that’s too difficult, so instead we’re stuck with another two parts that star me wanting to put a hole in my brain. For aeration purposes.

Part 3:

Finally! Finally! We find out SOMETHING!

Honestly, this part is a little better, but that’s not really saying too much. Mostly it’s because there is SOMETHING of a sense of danger that comes from the running and gunning. Even Herrick’s sacrifice towards the end of the big fire fight is noble and kind of exciting, but that serves an entirely different purpose than just being part of some mythological homage that Baker/Martin are trying to do and only really works because Herrick was the most interesting and competently written character of the Minyan crew.

No, Herrick’s sacrifice serves a different purpose. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

The vast majority of this part is exactly the same as the others. There’s some running around. There’s trying to keep hidden from the evil bad guys of the story (who are who, exactly?) and there’s the revelation of the slaves and this mythic Tree of Life (which is a spaceship? They kinda infer that but never tell us) and also the rock farming and the rock eating.

Fun fact: I have no interest in reading about rock eaters. That’s just giant bash through the skull metaphor. And it reminds me of unwritten bits of Spenser's “The Faerie Queene” what with Knights who live underground. MINUS POINTS.

But the best and most applause worthy part is the scene when the mysterious so and so’s torture Herrick for information because it’s then AND ONLY then that we actually find out that Jackson and his crew have been on this Quest (“The Quest is the Quest”) to get back Minyan race banks so that the long extinctish Minyan race can finally come back to fruition.

Know what, though? I can’t give you much applause at all for that, though, because that revelation comes one hour, four minutes, and fifteen seconds into the story.

That’s bullshit. Seriously. You waited sixty five minutes to tell us WHAT “OUR ‘MAIN’ CHARACTERS” ARE SEARCHING FOR?! Why. Why did you wait that long? Is there any reason for that? Or is it just to increase frustration and tension and my desire to throw things through the TV or shoot up this DVD set? Tell me, is there a reason? If The Doctor knew, why didn’t he tell us? Seriously, this makes no sense. Why wait until the last FIVE MINUTES of your THIRD PART of a FOUR PART story to TELL US WHAT YOUR STORY IS ABOUT.

I’m sorry if I come off as sounding angry, but honestly? This is pathetic. This is bad storytelling, it’s bad character work (what do we know about the other two people in Jackson’s crew? Nothing. Come to think of it, what do we know about Jackson? Nothing. And all we know about Herrick is that he’s headstrong and a total macho guy but he’ll buckle under torture because “telling us what we’re looking for won’t make a difference” (which is a whole ‘nother issue. Then why didn’t they just tell The Doctor in the first place?)), it’s bad in terms of tone. Is this a comedy? Is this a run and gun? Is this an action? Is this a sci fi thriller? I honest to god don’t even know because there’s a scene in here of The Doctor, Leela and what’s-his-name Slave falling down an anti-grav tube while silly, ridiculous music plays.

This is bad. It’s pathetic. It’s awful. It’s boring. We’re three episodes in and now that something’s finally happening I don’t even care.

And then our big revelation at the end is that the evil bad guys are robots? Who cares? And why does it matter? Why bother even taking off your helmets? And aren’t machines much scarier than completely ridiculous hoods? So why wouldn’t you have them off in the first place? Oh no! They’re machines (or robots! Or something!)! That makes the stakes that never existed that much stakier.

I’m sorry for ranting like this, but this goes beyond the mere suspension of disbelief. I’m all for that (I watch Classic Who all the time), but once that is broken and the floodgates open it’s all fair game. Show me another story that fails on as many levels as this one does and I’ll rip that one apart too. And it’s not even a matter of like… “Well it’s Doctor Who and Tom Baker so we should like it” or “the effects are good” because those are bullshit statements. Demand more. Demand better. We’ve ALL seen better stories than this. Just because this one’s based on a Greek myth (oh we’ll get there) or stars Tom Baker and features the almost-always-scantily-clad Leela doesn’t mean that we give it a pass. No. We need to be able to call a spade a spade and demand more because this isn’t good. It’s not. Doctor Who has been better than this. Doctor Who is better than this. And what this is is pathetic and beneath this show.

Oh, and the cliffhanger for this part sucks too.

Part 4:

My thought? Thank god it’s over, but honestly, the fourth part is probably the strongest part of the whole story, but it didn’t need to do much to really achieve that. It just becomes something that’s extremely substandard rather than something that’s truly awful.

What this part does good is actually have a direction in which the story is traveling. Now that we know where we’re going and what we’re doing, the story actually gets moving, but it’s too little too late, and the final threat of the story doesn’t even come from the guards in masks or the robots or whatever the fuck they are or even THE ORACLE who SHOULD be the big bad. No. The threat comes from two decoy race banks that are really fission grenades.

Nevermind the flaws in this plan (the fission grenades not having a fail safe so that they can be disarmed IF in fact the people don’t manage to get off the planet in time), it’s actually the bad guys who are failing here.

Remember how in part three where we find out that they’re robots or whatever? Yeah that never gets touched on again. Remember how The Oracle was a big frakkin deal and the keeper of these race banks? Yeah, she never really does anything and is resigned to her fate when the fission grenades appear again. It doesn’t even make sense why the Oracle doesn’t recognize that the race banks she’s so used to hoarding are perhaps a little lighter or something. Nevermind all that.

Or maybe it’s the bit where every last piece of information you could possibly want to know is all wedged in in the last five minutes, where we find out that these slaves are really Minyan descendants.

Jackson makes no sense here, which is saying something because we honestly know nothing about his character. But it’s true. He’s so focused on thinking about himself that he doesn’t even realize that he’s won the quest and won it a thousand times over. He has the race banks AND he has descendants from which to say “I won this mission.” Maybe if we knew more about him as a character we would know a bit more.

Apparently Baker/Martin also finally remember that there are Doctor Who tropes that they can fall back on, because in the opening of this episode our team tries to sneak in on mining carts and manage to take all the guards down WITH EASE and then run away to regroup. It accomplishes nothing. And yet, it feels very Doctor Who because there is a lot of wheel spinning in the Classic series and attempting things that don’t succeed. But at least the characters are DOING something to actively progress the plot, I suppose.

Tom Baker is also fairly decent in this, especially in the moment when he gives the fake grenades. It’s a comedy beat and it works quite well, but… he’s always decent at those.

Honestly, the unsung hero of this story (besides Herrick) is Louise Jameson, who’s totally on the nose with Leela. I’d go more into it, but I honestly can’t even remember what she did that was amazing. Perhaps she was good by comparison, because I did like the bits with her, even if she did blend in with the boring blue of the Trogs.

And then we find out that what we’ve really been watching this whole time is a parable of Jason and the Argonauts. Truthfully, I don’t mind, but… I can’t tell if they’re saying they were being clever or not. Because I’ve seen this story twice and I find the myth bits of it to be slight at best. The names are completely insane (Jackson = Jason, Herrick = Heracles, Orfe = Orpheus), and the quest…. Maybe I don’t know the myth very well, but what did the Golden Fleece do again? And isn't part of the journey back a big part of the thing? And wasn't there a bad ass chick who helped Jason because he was a sexy beast and she wanted him? So... it was a loose, suck-the-fun-out-of-everything interpretation?

Anyways. Thank god it’s over.

Final Thoughts?: You can't win them all. But saying that doesn't make losing and losing hard any easier.

This story is probably one of the worst stories that's ever been produced, and it continues this trend I have where I watch a Baker/Martin story and am constantly reminded that I just do not like their stories.

And honestly? It's a trend. It's no mistake that when you mention their stories to the Doctor Who fans who don't pay attention to writers, the resounding clang just tells you how well their stories end up doing in the long run in terms of them as writers or whatever. And it shows. It really does. It's no mistake that their stories are consistently blemishy, and this story comes at just that sweet spot: right after the departure of Robert Holmes, still early in the Graham Williams era, frakkin completely awful.

Honestly, it's not that the story isn't based on good material. Jason and the Argonauts is a fine adventure story to explore, so why not adapt it (or any myth) into a Doctor Who story?

But to say that this story is that story is… disingenuous, I think. I’d much rather watch the story of Jason and the Argonauts and all the mythic insanity that comes with that territory, what with the running around and the quest and all that. That, to me, is interesting. But the actual execution of this tale is so uninspired, boring, and wrapped in trying to be much more complex than it actually is that I find myself wanting to never read the story of Jason and the Argonauts at all.

The adaptation here is  insanely frakkin loose. The Doctor and Leela are on a completely different track from everyone else, and the actual Quest ("The Quest is the Quest") is almost completely subplotted and backstory in the scope of things.

Honestly? Put The Doctor and Leela on the Argo. Give them armor or something. Have them pal around and get into mischief and help get everyone else out of mischief. Have The Doctor be clever. Give him something to do. Give anyone something to do. But don't give me this directionless crap because this is awful and bad.

Here's a trick. What's this story actually about? Halfway through the story, I could not answer that question. That's a problem. That's bad. That's bad writing. And even now having just finished watching it I'm left with complete apathy and saying "Well it's Jason and the Argonauts", but was it? That's a cheap, bullshit answer. It leaves you saying you know what this story's about, when really you don't. You just know what another story from Greek Mythology is about. And all that's because of a really neat button you decided to go on to explain "Well this is what we were GOING for. I hope it worked" when if you had done that in the first place, it would have worked as it was. OR EVEN AS A STORY.

That's saying something. This story is so awful that it can't even admit that it's awful. It just sideswipes into another story and completely crutches itself on that.

Honestly, it's a disgrace, and it elevates most other stories with its awfulness. The effects don't help (but people are right when they say they're far from completely awful), but this story goes way beyond that. The final cut of four episodes with credits on either side of each episode comes out to less than ninety minutes and that's with each episode having a two minute precap of the last minutes of the episode before (which is excessive or whatever), so in the end we're left with... what? Barely eighty minutes of story? It's amazing that you can cut something that close to the bone and still not have enough to be decent.

So really, I can't even blame Graham Williams for this one. It just comes down to Bob Baker and Dave Martin writing a shitty story that no one even sees the point in elevating. So it becomes a blemish on the scope of Doctor Who and becomes a story that everyone can point to and say "This is why Classic Who is awful" while still ignoring that this story is so crazy exception and not rule that it's... it's just unfortunate.

And perhaps most unfortunate of all is the fact that it lives up to its reputation in every way, shape, and form.

Next Time!: 1st Doctor! Reconstruction! A Doctor CLONE?! Dodo and Steven together at last! And separated OH NO! And some non-metaphorical thematics that actually work better than metaphor (I swear that will make sense...)! Next Tuesday, Cassandra will be in guest blogging and discussing "The Savages"! Coming Next Tuesday!


  1. I don't think I hate it, but it is very poor.

  2. I read the Target adaptation of this before I ever watched the show and it was one of my favourite DW books. I then watched Underworld a few years later. Lets just say I concurred with your sentiments and even more so! Worse than Fear Her and the Twin Dilemma.

  3. Dude, it's not THAT bad (well, part 2 is) and they explain plenty of the things that you claim are mysteries- I think you just zoned out and missed it. The quest is clearly explained in episode one- which is filled with fantastic mdoel work and intruiging concepts. I'd call this one more of a 'Space Museum'- fantastic first part, lackluster final 3. Not the best... but certainly not the worst. Between this one and the Mutants... dude, just do an actual analysis, not fall back onto the lazy crutch of "This one's bad... really really bad." over and over again. It's just padding out your review like the serial padded out its running time. :-)

    1. "Know what, though? I can’t give you much applause at all for that, though, because that revelation comes one hour, four minutes, and fifteen seconds into the story." - No, that's covered in episode one and re-iterated there.

  4. Yeah, the reviewer lost me when he went on a 1 paragraph rant about the Quest being revealed when it was already explained 15 minutes into the story. And I'm still on Part 3, so I won't say anything yet, but it's nowhere near as bad as he is making it to be so far.