Doctor Who Project: Underworld

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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.

Foggy tunnel, CSO-style

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.

Not quite haute couture

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?

Gallifreyan technology?

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…
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Doctor Who Project: The Sun Makers

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Praise the company!

For all the humor, both intentional and otherwise, found in Doctor Who through the years, seldom does the series edge so deliberately towards comedy as in Robert Holmes’ “The Sun Makers” (Story Production Code 4W). Especially when juxtaposed with the rest of Season Fifteen’s dark, fear-tinged stories, this far future romp through an overblown capitalist dystopia comes across as tonally jarring—while also serving as a bit of a palate cleanser. It doesn’t always have to be moody horror and intergalactic conquest, after all; sometimes the Doctor and Leela just want to stir up a revolution of space cockneys and milquetoast bureaucrats.

Viva la Plutonian Revolution!

With the Fourth Doctor seemingly as incapable of piloting the TARDIS as William Hartnell’s First Doctor, our time travellers arrive unexpectedly on the ninth planet in the Solar System, which has not just a breathable atmosphere but also six separate mini-suns. Holmes makes no attempt to situate this story in Doctor Who‘s tortured canon of future Earth, whose fate has a more convoluted history than that of the Daleks. The Doctor seems utterly surprised by the state of Pluto, no less the engineering marvels than the dismal condition the humans there endure.

As an exercise in world building, “The Sun Makers” allows departing script editor Holmes to show off his prodigious narrative skills; through a few solid details, he creates a setting as rich and layered as in his other recent stories, “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” and “The Deadly Assassin.” Here, the human inhabitants of Pluto in the distant future toil under oppressive taxation on the necessities of life, with an extra levy on the overtime needed to pay for it all, just because. The nameless Company rules all, with profit the sole aim.

Endless Corridors in the Megropolis

Director Pennant Roberts, last at the helm of another atmospheric story, “The Face of Evil,” takes great advantage of location shooting in an industrial complex; the long, harshly lit concrete corridors, often framed in extreme long shot, give life to the Megropolis, the underground city where the last survivors of Earth toil in a warren of incessantly bright hallways. One can almost hear the infernal buzzing of the fluorescent lights. By contrast, the studio-shot scenes have a claustrophobic darkness to them that serves the story well, with executives being given the privilege of shade and shadow denied the working class.

Gatherer Hade and the Collector

Given the striking direction, Holmes’ story could easily—and powerfully—have been told straight, with the usual smattering of Tom Baker’s bon mots and pulled faces leavening the serious commentary on capitalism’s grinding treadmill, but Holmes and Roberts dive fully into camp, particularly as seen in the interactions between the human Gatherer Hade (Richard Leech) and the Collector (Henry Woolf), the avaricious ruler of Pluto who hails from the planet Usurius, a moniker worthy of inclusion in the Terry Nation Name Hall of Shame…
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Doctor Who Project: Image of the Fendahl

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You know, I don’t think these cows know anything about the time scanner.

Set on contemporary Earth for the first time in six stories, Chris Boucher’s “Image of the Fendahl” (Story Production Code 4X) nevertheless ranges far back into the past for its antagonist—some twelve million years. While the Doctor and Leela confront mad scientists, evil cultists, and a gran with a mean handbag throughout the tale, their real foe turns out to be an ancient humanoid skull, dated some eight million years older than humanity’s earliest known ancestors. Being a skull, albeit one with a pentagram etched inside it, it doesn’t actually do much for most of the story’s four episodes, relying instead on the aforementioned scientists and cultists to carry out its nefarious plans. The gran, thankfully, turns out to be on the Doctor’s side.

The skull of the Fendahl

To Boucher’s credit, he keeps the audience guessing as to the source of the story’s danger, weaving multiple, broadly sketched plots in and out of focus, though all centered around the skull somehow. The resulting surprise when the various groups realize that they have been but puppets to the force within the skull comes as a refreshing twist on the otherwise tired tale of secretive covens bent on reviving their long-lost masters, as seen in “The Daemons,” “Pyramids of Mars,” and, most recently, “The Masque of Mandragora.”

Mad scientist hard at work

Doctor Fendelman (Denis Lill), a wealthy scientist, along with his associate—and part-time cultist—Maximillian Stael (Scott Fredericks), have been conducting experiments on the skull intended to examine the energy that he claims is locked within it. The “sonic time scan” they use generates a temporal disturbance so threatening to the fabric of space-time that the Doctor must investigate, leading him and Leela to a rural village, ostensibly somewhere in England, that just so happens to nestle near a haunted woods.

Thea Ransome and the Skull

The time scan does more than offend the Doctor’s sensibilities, however—it causes the skull to glow, which somehow also kills a nameless hiker in the nearby mist-shrouded woods and begins to control another scientist working with Fendelman, Thea Ransome (Wanda Ventham). The effects team overlays the amber-hued skull over Ventham’s face, shifting the focus back and forth in time with a droning background rhythm, while the hiker screams and stumbles, filmed by director George Spenton-Foster in quick cuts and jarring camera angles. The overall effect creates definite unease in the viewer, with the linkages between events both obvious and yet completely inexplicable; the tension persists palpably, at least until the Doctor starts talking to cows…
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Doctor Who Project: The Invisible Enemy

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Contact has been made.

Early seasons of Doctor Who suffer from the TARDIS problem—with the ability to get the Doctor out of any trouble, through its inviolable walls and inter-dimensional time and space travel capabilities, the TARDIS requires writers to deploy all sorts of legerdemain to take its plot-skewing powers away from him. Only a change in the Doctor’s attitude, from risk-averse observer to inquisitive hero, solves the otherwise intractable dilemma, with the Doctor finally wanting to stay rather than to flee. Veteran writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin introduce another such problem in “The Invisible Enemy” (Story Production Code 4T) through their invention of K-9, an indestructible robot dog with formidable offensive capabilities and a databank rivaling that of the TARDIS itself. As will become all too common over the next four seasons, the solution here is to have K-9’s batteries run out right when its firepower is needed most. Luckily K-9 has a tow-hook welded on front.

Taking K-9 for a walk.

Which is not to say that this four-part story, focusing on an invasion not from without but from within, lacks for action. Leela racks up her highest body-count to date, K-9 zaps quite a few more, and the Doctor himself even blows up a giant base, all to stop the predations of a long-dormant, sentient virus disturbed from its slumber in deep space by a passing Earth shuttlecraft en route to Titan. Before it lands, all three members of the crew have been “contacted” by the Swarm, and they set about converting the refueling installation on Saturn’s largest moon into a hive that will serve as breeding grounds for future generations of the virus.

Disturbing the Swarm

The TARDIS also stumbles through the viral cloud, and somehow the core intelligence of the virus, the Nucleus, penetrates the shields, interfaces with the TARDIS itself, then passes into the Doctor, who promptly collapses. The virus then attempts to convert with Leela, but for some reason she is immune. With the TARDIS coordinates already set for Titan after the Doctor and Leela received a mayday from the base’s unconverted crew, Leela manages to materialize the ship and awaken the Doctor, who assures her that nothing is wrong. But contact has been made…
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Doctor Who Project: Horror of Fang Rock

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You said I would like Brighton. Well I do not.

Doctor Who may be lovingly needled for its reliance on multiple sequences of people running down corridors. Long-time writer and former script editor Terrance Dicks opens Season Fifteen by slightly altering that formula, with “Horror of Fang Rock” (Story Production Code 4V) featuring multiple sequences of people running up and down a spiral staircase. To his and veteran director Paddy Russell’s credit, it is a very nice staircase.

A very nice staircase

The action of this fear-tinged story takes place almost exclusively on the four levels of an isolated, fog-shrouded lighthouse off the English coast in the Edwardian era, roughly around the turn of the century. Carrying on from the last story, the BBC’s fog machines get quite a workout, with most of the first half of the four episode story shot in low light suffused with haze. Sporadic electrical faults in the lighthouse provide further narrative justification for the omnipresent darkness. Given the lackluster quality of the special effects, the dimness works to the story’s favor, concealing, for instance, the obvious nature of the model ship that provides as the first episode’s cliffhanger—which, in motion, does not so much wreck against the rocks as bounce off them—to say nothing of the actual “horror” that lurks on Fang Rock.

Shipwreck on Fang Rock

The overall effect of the confined space and limited cast of characters (nine total, including the Doctor and Leela) does lend itself to a claustrophobic anxiety. Russell strives to keep the camera close to the action, shrinking the area further, as though the viewer were leaning into the shot; her solid work with blocking and camera angles adds more menace to the proceedings than Dicks’ tale of unseen horror frankly deserves.

As ever in Tom Baker’s era, the Doctor and Leela arrive on the heels of an unexplained murder, this time in the lighthouse. Just prior to the TARDIS materializing on the rocky shore nearby, a purple flash of light streaks through the sky into the surrounding sea. After dismissing the strange occurrence, the three lighthouse keepers spend several minutes debating the relative merits of oil versus electric light sources for lighthouses. The story’s pacing doesn’t pick up markedly from here, at least until the final episode.

The Lighthouse Lads, in happier times

After the pro-electric Ben (Ralph Watson) dies at the hands of an unseen assailant in the boiler room, much of the first episode focuses on keeping those boilers stoked. The electricity goes on and off unexpectedly throughout the story, drawing individuals to the boilers, where more often than not they perish, with no clue as to the assailant’s presence besides a chill in the air and an ominous green glow. Often the audience is granted a wider understanding than the characters in Doctor Who, but here there’s a real resistance to unveiling the culprit, which is only first seen in a blurry long-shot near the end of the second episode. This approach undoubtedly builds tension, but the fact that it’s just a green ball of goo may also have something to do with it…
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Doctor Who Project: The Talons of Weng-Chiang

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I will now ask my eager volunteer kindly to step into the Cabinet of Death!

Take one part Pygmalion, one part The Phantom of the Opera, stir in a healthy dollop of Sherlock Holmes, then rent a fog machine, and you have Robert Holmes’ “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” (Story Production Code 4S), the most interesting story of Tom Baker’s run thus far. Though many a threat from the future has found its way to Earth’s past in Doctor Who, the setting in Victorian London feels fresh; there’s no invasion here, no plan to take over the planet, just individual greed, hubris, and tragedy on a smaller stage. Characters grow and change within the span of six episodes, and Holmes (also the series script editor) and veteran director David Maloney deploy the large cast with skill, slowly unveiling new plot dimensions without the audience being cheated or blindsided by sudden revelations. One even feels charitably inclined to overlook the dodgy giant rat. It’s a shame, then, about the blithe portrayal of the Chinese as a stereotyped other behind which a stranded time traveller works his malevolent plans.

A foggy Victorian night.

The historic verisimilitude of Victorian attitudes towards the Chinese notwithstanding (and, indeed, verisimilitude has often taken a back seat to dramatic necessity on Doctor Who), the overall treatment of the Chinese by the script feels at odds with the ethos of the series; the Silurians, the Ice Warriors, and even the Daleks have come in for more nuanced portrayals than the Chinese in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” with their supposed servility, fanaticism, and lack of individuality serving as plot points. Overbroad pastiches of Victorian England also feature prominently here, but the invocation of Cockney rhyming slang and overwrought fishwives is played for self-knowing humor rather than the slightly meaner presentation of the Chinese. To his credit, Holmes writes the Doctor as being above such beliefs. While not directly countering the prevailing attitudes, the Doctor does display an abiding respect for and interest in Chinese culture and language.

John Bennett as Li Hsen Chang

Casting John Bennett as the key character of Li Hsen Chang requires the use of extensive facial prosthetics, to the extent that the actor could not blink for fear of disrupting the heavy makeup; the overall effect is jarring and likely could have been avoided through casting an actor with a Chinese background. The casting seems stranger still given that many of the other Chinese characters are played by actors who seem to have such a background. This is not to take away from Bennett’s performance, which carries some depth of nobility amidst the stereotyped mannerisms and thick prosthetics, but rather to note that the casting, like the incessant stereotyping, creates an unpleasant dissonance in an otherwise engaging tale.

On the positive side, it does prevent one from spending too much time wondering why there’s an entire sub-plot devoted to giant rats in London’s sewers…
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