The quest is the quest.
Revolution seems to be in the air on Doctor Who in the late 1970s. No sooner do the Fourth Doctor and Leela wrap up a revolution on Pluto than they arrive at the edge of the universe to rouse another rabble in Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s “Underworld” (Series Production Code 4Y). The similarities between this story of class-based servitude and “The Sun Makers,” to say nothing of Baker and Martin’s last take on the topic, “The Mutants,” fades somewhat behind the blurry outline of all the green screen/color separation overlay effects that fill the story’s four episodes.
Rather than build extensive tunnel sets, director Norman Stewart (helming his first Doctor Who story) and the production crew call upon CSO to project our heroes, villains, and assorted throngs of oppressed people into a welter of warrens. Used sparingly, CSO creates a nice illusion; used frequently, as here, the seams show somewhat starkly. The overall effects work—in particular the worst space suits to ever appear in this, or any, science fiction series—might fairly be considered a failure, but the fractured storytelling on display here makes clear that no degree of perfection in the effects could have saved this tale.
Bob Baker and Dave Martin have always been given creative leeway by Doctor Who‘s producers. Barry Letts allowed them to conjure up the beautiful, golden, writhing Axons (and to stick Roger Delgado to a wall with tentacles) in “The Claws of Axos,” to say nothing of their invention of Omega and significant amounts of Time Lord canon in “The Three Doctors.” Philip Hinchcliffe, meanwhile, gave them leave to write the same role in two different genders in “The Hand of Fear,” a brilliant innovation that helps sell the complicated character of Eldrad. And in “Underworld,” Graham Williams, for his part, stands back as Baker and Martin offer an answer to a series-defining question: why do the Time Lords adhere to a policy of non-intervention?
Williams might have been better off demurring. To hear the Doctor tell it, some hundred thousand years ago, when the Time Lords were just starting to explore space-time, the Time Lords granted the Minyan civilization access to advanced Gallifreyan medical and weapons technology, which promptly led to their self-destruction. Ever since, the Time Lords have (mostly) refrained from interfering in the affairs of others, precisely to prevent another such catastrophe from occurring.
But prior to the destruction of Minyos, a colony ship containing the “race bank” of the Minyan people (shades of “The Ark in Space“) set out across the stars to establish a new home. It vanished, and for a hundred thousand years another Minyan ship has sought it out, on a quest to retrieve their “genetic inheritance” and restart the Minyan people on the inventively named Minyos 2. And just how did the crew survive for the hundred thousand years the quest has taken? Well, it turns out that the Time Lords shared one very particular secret with the Minyans…
Just like that, Baker and Martin repurpose one of the most dramatic conceits in Doctor Who—regeneration—as a routine hygienic function akin to teeth brushing. There’s nothing special about Minyan biology; their regenerations stem purely from technology bestowed by the Time Lords. Indeed, when one of the Minyan crew members collapses because she neglected to go through yet-another regeneration cycle, she’s just hauled off to a lounge chair and zapped back to health in a few unremarkable moments, albeit as the exact same person she was before. No alteration of the personality or visage here.
Baker and Martin invoked technological regeneration in “The Hand of Fear” as well, and we’ve seen hints that external forces are at play in Time Lord regeneration in “The Brain of Morbius,” which introduces the Elixir of Life, used to assist tricky Time Lord regenerations. But to reduce the process to a few minutes in a machine rather takes the shine off of Gallifreyan exceptionalism. The Doctor may be hundreds of years old at this point, but he’s wet behind the ears compared to these Methuselahs.
The entire first episode builds up the tension about the Time Lords being considered mischievous gods by the Minyans. When the Doctor and Leela materialize inside the Minyan ship in order to avoid the intense gravity of a newly formed nebula, one of the Minyans attempts to kill them on sight, apparently nursing a hundred-thousand-year grudge against the Time Lords for their perfidy.
But then, after a few blasts from a Minyan pacifying ray, everyone becomes friends and the entire sub-story about Time Lord and Minyan history disappears. Baker and Martin just drop it; nothing further in the story hinges in any way upon the changes foisted on Minyos by Gallifrey, nor on the extreme life span of the four questing Minyans. It’s remarkable world building that comes to naught, narratively speaking. And when confronted by the admittedly horrible world that they find when the lost colony ship is inevitably located, the Doctor doesn’t consider for a moment the lessons of ancient Gallifrey expounded upon at length in the first episode. He intervenes—rather explosively, as it turns out.
The missing colony ship formed the “core” of a developing planet inside the nebula, its relative gravity accreting stellar detritus around it for centuries untold. The Minyan quest ship crashes through the loose rock of the planet, winding up deep under the surface near the colony ship, in the titular Underworld. Over the millennia, the original colonists developed into castes, with “Trogs” spending their lives mining rock which is fed into machines that create food and energy from the minerals, all overseen by a few Guards who are ruled by mysterious Seers, with the whole affair orchestrated by the Oracle—in actuality, the now-sentient computer from the colony ship, suffering a bit of megalomania not unlike the computer that commanded the Tesh in “The Face of Evil.”
Baker and Martin never explore how this culture evolved, with its curious blend of ancient rituals—execution via swords hung on ropes that burn away—and high technology. The Oracle, dedicated via its programming to preserving the Minyan “race banks,” cares not for the ancestral Minyans themselves, ordering the Guards to periodically kill the Trogs in order to keep their numbers low. More peculiarly, the revelation that the Seers are no longer Minyan but strange alien/robot hybrids remains unremarked upon. The quite effective moment of their revelation, near the end of the third episode, portends some grand shift in the plot, but they just throw their hoods back on and get about with the Trog smashing in the final episode, yet another wasted plot thread left hanging.
“Underworld” stands as a series of very interesting concepts and ideas that go nowhere, serving as mere window dressing on a bare-bones plot. The Doctor and Leela see the state of the Trogs and decide to free them from their servitude, Leela even shouting out, “Revolution!” as she attempts to exhort them. They receive but little help in their nascent guerrilla war from the Minyans, who hurry back to their spaceship once the Oracle gives them their “race bank” in exchange for simply leaving—though in truth, they are given fusion grenades instead, the Oracle having placed explosives in casings similar to those used for the genetic codes.
The Doctor suspects it is all too easy, so he tricks the Oracle, silly machine that it is, into revealing that it still has the precious golden cylinders, which he promptly purloins. Once back at the spaceship, the Doctor learns from K-9 that the false cylinders contain enough explosive to destroy the planet. In keeping with the Doctor’s recent policy of deadly honesty, he takes them back to the guards with the factual assertion that they are the false cylinders, set to obliterate everything. The guards, of course, don’t believe him; it’s not violence if you give someone a bomb and tell them it’s about to explode, apparently.
With the explosives out of his hands, the Doctor leads all the Trogs (some twenty to thirty in total, leading one to again wonder how this society functioned at all) into the Minyan ship, which blasts off before the planet shatters into several, um, large pieces in yet another less-than-brilliant effects sequence. And then the Doctor and Leela go on their merry way, another society freed from its shackles before tea time.
Not even Tom Baker can enliven this story, the script giving him few outlets for his broad humor and expressive grin. The Fourth Doctor expresses occasional moments of fascination, though they mostly come at Leela’s expense, as when he chides her for not seeing the mystery and wonder in the nothingness at the edge of the universe; it’s a meanness sadly present in all three of Baker and Martin’s portrayals of the Fourth Doctor to date. Even his scenes with the Minyans and the Trogs come across as more condescending than inquisitive, as though he’s trying to live up to the Gallifreyans’ divine billing. This attitude takes a step back from the far more personable Doctor of the last few stories. He does seem to enjoy twirling his trademark scarf around as a makeshift fan at one point, though.
Louise Jameson’s Leela comes in for uneven treatment by Baker and Martin as well. While a few scenes do show her as a warrior, stalwart and ready for battle, she’s relegated more often to playing nursemaid to the Trog Idas (Norman Tipton), constantly reassuring and coddling him while dragging him along into dangerous situations. Most of the fighting is done by the Minyans: Jackson (James Maxwell), Herrick (Alan Lake), Tala (Imogen Bickford-Smith), and Orfe (Jonathan Newth). Deprived of her main narrative function, Leela falls back into the “primitive” role that, when not counterbalanced by her heart and bravery, makes poor use of Jameson’s talents.
Only K-9 (John Leeson, voice) comes in for rounded character treatment, perhaps not surprising given that Baker and Martin initiated the character in “The Invisible Enemy,” another story with extensive world building (and excessive visual effects work) used to little real consequence. Somehow K-9 has gained the ability to power entire spaceships, to say nothing of its skill at piloting them. It maintains a fierce loyalty to the Doctor and, as demonstrated in “The Sun Makers,” can home in on him unerringly, no matter how much rock stands in the way. Though many wanton laser blasts fill the screen in this story, K-9 contributes but a few of them, being used in more constructive and serious pursuits for the most part. Leela needs the number for K-9’s agent…
At its heart, “Underworld” wants to be a retelling of the myth of Jason and the Argonauts: a long and perilous voyage, a quest for the Golden Fleece (here the golden “race bank” vials), the Minyan name. It’s not a concealed sub-text; the Doctor himself references the myth and even calls Jackson, the Minyan leader, Jason. One can surmise that the story started there, wound up at least an episode short, and then had the concept of the Minyans being able to regenerate after an encounter with the Time Lords added in as both plot leavening and to emphasize the length of the Minyans’ quest. For our sakes, at least, this quest is only four episodes long.
(Previous Story: The Sun Makers)
(Next Story: The Invasion of Time)
Post 99 of the Doctor Who Project