23 March 2014

TV: Underworld

Preconceptions: A few years ago, I tried to watch Underworld when I got the 'Myths and Legends' set. I know I watched some of it, but I suspect I didn't make it through the first episode. I can't remember anything at all about this from watching it. I know something of it from fandom, of course. This omnipresent wisdom informs me that it's dire shite, with awful effects and no plot. Nevertheless, I intend to go into it unbiased, and come to my own conclusions. I know it's based on some myth or legend (thanks 2|Entertain!), but since I know extremely little about them, this makes no difference to me. I'm kind of looking to this, but mostly not. The cover doesn't inspire much confidence. Sorry, Clay.

OK, I'll be honest. Underworld was terrible. The CSO is actually one of the better aspects of the production, and technically this is a highly impressive story. It's let down by the script, a plodding rebellion story that looks like it has potential for a while before it descends into meaningless jeopardy. Tom Baker and Louise Jameson are very good, but there's not a lot for them to work with. Leela in particular suffers a dull four episodes.

It all starts quite promisingly with Part One. The crew of a spaceship are tracking another spaceship to recover the race banks in order that they can colonise a new world with their own people. The main flight deck set is really impressive - it's huge and filled with interesting bits of scenery. There's also a raised control level, with comfy sofas and everything. It's just a shame it's lit so brightly. It's one that would benefit from being a little darker - especially given the crew (lead by Jackson) keep moaning about how little power they have left. Why invest so much power in lighting then? It also seems an awfully big ship for just four people. I understand they left Minyos in a hurry, but was there nothing more 'budget-conscious' (both in and out of the show) available? The other rooms on the ship (including a cupboard that we see once in Part One, and that's it) are nothing to write home about, consisting mainly of white walls and floors. One thing I do appreciate though is the fact that they're curved. It's a nice little touch, and well used given that all these sets double for the P7E. It's just a shame they're so bright. It could justifiably be argued that this is the ultimate 'running down corridors' story.

Think about the plot though. Even in essence, it's lacking. It doesn't sound like it can stretch four episodes, no matter how much sub-plotting you incorporate. Much more interesting would be to have the race banks being stolen in the first episode, the establishment of a new world (against some native monsters) in Parts Two and Three, only for the owners of the race banks to show up in the final installment, so that the Minyans end up working together against the common enemy. I don't know about you, but that sounds more enjoyable to me, even in concept. I realise it would then diverge from the myth (or legend) it's based on - but is that such a bad thing?

The ship then enters a spiral nebula, then K9 pilots it out, then Jackson orders it back in. This is an excusable bit of time-wasting as the effects shots are (mostly) excellent. I especially like those when the 'sparks' are flying over the R1C as it enters the nebula. In the nebula, as new planets are forming everywhere, the ship exerts a huge gravitational force on the rock around it. In a pretty intriguing concept, the ship becomes the core of a planet. This could be a really enjoyable premise for a 'base under siege' story - trapped on a ship at the heart of a planet with the TARDIS unable to escape and monsters stalking the (overlit) corridors. As Brigadier Bambera would say, "shame". This threat is quickly dispersed when the ship's handy laser cannon gets its first mention and the team blast through the rock. They then crash into another planet (causing relatively little damage, it would seem) which the P7E formed centuries ago. 

We then meet the Trogs - following the Bristol Boys' passion for sticking to names in the original myth (Jason and the Quest for the Golden Fleece, if you're interested, which you're not). These are the slave class on the planet, and mine rock. For what purpose isn't clear. We are then told that we should empathise with them by feeling sorry for Idas, whose father Idmon is captured for trying to incite rebellion. It's a very clumsy introduction for these people. I'm not sure if it's the script or the performers, but somewhere down the line, Idmon just doesn't work as a character. He is purely a plot point and therefore you can never really feel anything towards him. 

There follows a few episodes (I wasn't really paying attention by this point) of running around, capture, escape and explosions. This is very lightly peppered with good ideas though, such as the moving by thought and the Oracle. The latter is poorly realised, especially in the weird spot light that is supposed to represent its voice on the back wall of P7E's flight deck. On the whole though, nothing really happens. It feels like a weak re-peddling of The Sun Makers with the Doctor siding with the downtrodden 'slaves' against the idealistic, unconnected overlords. I really didn't enjoy this, and it's unusual that I really don't like a script from Baker and Martin. It's true that none of theirs will exactly set your socks on fire (with the exception of The Sontaran Experiment), but they're usually pretty reliable. It's interesting to make the comparison between their two efforts for the season with the departure of Robert Holmes coming in between. The nosedive in quality reaffirms what a standout script editor he was. Antony Read was good once he found his stride, but in this - the first story which Holmes wasn't associated with since Planet of the Spiders - I think it's fair to say that the pressures of production may have diverted his attention from the actual concept and content of the story. In Series 16, he would assert his authority more.

The lack of plot does have one advantage though; each episode only contains about 19 or 20 minutes of new footage. They're blissfully short. Technically, this could have been squeezed into three episodes. Moving on from the gaping chasm where the story should be, there's quite a bit to enjoy about Underworld. Watching Ed Stradling's great (aside from a number of typos) 'making of', you really get a feeling of what making this story was like. I was particularly impressed by the co-ordination of the cameras. Every cave shot you see required a minimum of two, usually three, cameras being aligned to exactly the right positions. I thought the blue would've been keyed out after, but they did all the effects live during studio recording, with one camera trained on the cave models. I guess this was due to the fact that they'd already rented out a whole other studio, just so they could use the control room to edit the lasers onto the images. It's amazing that after four passes (just to get the beams on), the film still retains so much quality. I should mention that the visual effects in this are far, far superior to the highly pedestrian affair of previous stories, notably The Invisible Enemy. Comparing K9's laser beam to the guns' emissions is this, they're just light years ahead. They're still not perfect, and it's a shame that they had to be so opaque and that shade of green, but I was still impressed.

Leela gets a pretty run-of-the-mill outing here. She isn't noticeably characterised as Leela - I don't call eliminating contractions characterisation. She doesn't do anything particularly Leela-esque, and doesn't get much to do besides run after the Doctor. I feel this hits its peak in Parts Three and Four, when Leela suddenly has no sense of direction (having lost all her huntress instincts of Image and Sun Makers, it seems) and tries to prevent the Doctor from blowing up the enemy when the situation was directly reversed in Horror of Fang Rock, Image of the Fendahl and probabaly others. The Doctor isn't served well either, but Baker still gives it his best shot - as does Jameson, it should be noted. Their efforts here define the phrase 'making the best of a bad situation'. I loved the stories of Baker trying to boost morale during filming by starting what would now be called a thing - when technical obstructions reared their ugly heads and shooting was delayed he would declare the immortal line 'the Quest is the Quest'. It's things like this that make me love Tom Baker, and forget the infamous darker side of his nature.

With increasing time, budget and cast pressures, I was mightily grateful, and a little impressed, that the reports of Tom from this story are respectable. The footage included in Stradling's documentary shows him being very co-operative, and it's guest star Alan Lake as Herrick who's said to have played up, when technical difficulties arose. Apparently he even tried to coax other cast members into bad behaviour. His bad attitude translates to his performance, which I felt throughout was stiff, unnatural and stilted. After Part One, Tala and Orfe get very little to do at all. This is sad because Imogen Bickford-Smith and Jonathan Newth are much stronger performers than James Maxwell (Jackson) and Lake, and are much more believable. Indeed, it's Tala that we see 'regenerate' in the first episode, although this is just anti-aging, Lazarus-style, rather than proper regeneration.

This brings me onto the missed potential for Underworld. In the opening twenty-five minutes, we get references Time Lords and non-interference and godhood and meddling like there's no tomorrow, but as soon as we arrive on P7E this is totally forgotten. This could've been the story to define Time Lord origins, and why they came to establish the strict society depicted in the Robert Holmes masterpiece that I started this marathon with, The Deadly Assassin. With a return to Gallifrey on the cards for the next story, this could've handled some nice foreshadowing. But no, as soon as it's done its job filling the time with 'suspense' and 'intrigue', it's out the window. The P7E Minyans' evolution is handled similarly. I don't get why the guards where those really, really, really stupid cloak things. They look atrocious and cumbersome - and they don't even seem to provide any sort of shielding to their own weapons. But above the guards are the Seers - domed-headed, three-eyed things that are literally never explored. I quite like the design of them, they remind me of the Vigil from Series 33's The Rings of Akhaten. However, this line of inquiry into the potential evolution into these creatures isn't mentioned. How did this happen? Why did this happen? Are they good? Are they bad? What do they want? How come there's only two of them? Do they have names? How long ago did this happen? What purpose do they serve as an intermediary between the guards and the Oracle? All these questions should be answered in natural dialogue - but they're not. I think the fact that these plot elements are introduced and never even remotely addressed again is more damaging to the story than if they had never been included in the first place. It may have been more boring, but surely that's still better than outright bad? If I was a writer, I'd take average over poor any day. 

Graham Williams did have the option not to make these four episodes. He could have saved the budget for The Invasion of Time. I know how much I've slagged this story off, but I really admire him for giving it a go. Ultimately, the failure isn't directly down to him. It was a coalescence of elements involving heightened production tensions, tiny budget, short time scales and a substandard script. Technically, this story is an absolute masterpiece. It paved the way for extensive use of CSO, and for this designer Dick Coles and director Norman Stewart should be applauded. It's unfortunate that Williams chose the Bristol Boys to return, though understandable, given their 'solid' reputation. I think if Chris Boucher or even left-field choices such as Louis Marks had been given another shot, we would've ended up with something truly special. 

Around the first few stories of Series 15, I began to lack motivation for this marathon. It's a terrible habit of mine, but as I'm sure many of you will testify, I rarely complete any of my long term projects. Image of the Fendahl really picked me up though. That will undoubtedly be a favourite of mine forever now, and that makes me thankful that I'm doing this. My point is that now, after The Sun Makers which I didn't really enjoy, this, and with only The Invasion of Time remaining (six episodes!) I'm kind of back in that place. It took me a record length of time to get through Underworld, and at time of writing, it's three days since I watched Part Four. Normally, I do it on the same night. The main driving force that's keeping me enthusiastic is the thought that once I get through Invasion, I get to begin a Big Finish marathon, with Fanfare for the Common Men (what a sodding awesome title, by the way) first up. I've seen this frequently mentioned on the BF forums as a 'modern classic', so I can't wait to listen. But yeah, I'm really not feeling 'the love' at the moment.

So, Underworld. Shit but impressive. I really admire Graham Williams, Dick Coles, Norman Stewart, Mike Tucker and co, Tom Baker and Louise Jameson for giving it their all. I was less impressed by Dudley Simpson (retreading old plinky-plonk stuff again), Alan Lake, Bob Baker, Dave Martin and Jimmy Gardner (Idmon). A mixed bag that severely lacks the influence of Robert Holmes. In the spirit of the story, the Quest is the Quest and...

In a Nutshell: ... The Budget's the Budget.

You can buy Underworld as part of the 'Myths and Legends' boxset here, and read Joe from Doc Oho's review here.

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