Doctor Who: Underworld
(4 episodes, s15e17-e20, 1978)
There’s so much blue screen that, after this, the Star Wars prequels are gold.
The TARDIS is putzing about in deep space. The Doctor channels his inner da Vinci as Leela plays with the control console. We still haven’t answered the question as to whether or not she can actually pilot the blue box, but she flips a switch and the TARDIS stops. Coincidence? Fate? Sixth sense? Whatever the cause, she thinks she broke something, but the Doctor says that the TARDIS stopped because it reached the edge of the cosmos. K9 chimes in that they are not alone, which is accurate since a ship is falling into a nearby spiral nebula. The Doctor sets a course and they materialize inside the wayward craft.
At this point, I have seen so much Doctor Who that sets are starting to blend together. I know that I’ve seen this bridge before, but I can’t exactly place it.
The crew of the ship, the R1C, recognize the materialization sound as the technology of the gods. The TARDIS and her crew are in the ship’s cargo hold, and the Doctor determines that this is a ship from Minyos, a planet from the other side of the universe. The Time Lords once tried to help the Minyan society, but were rejected when the Minyans destroyed their world 100,000 years before this story. This led to the Time Lords developing their non-interference policy – the source of much Gallifreyan hypocrisy – and the Minyan survivors revile them for the catastrophe.
I’m trying really hard to avoid a Despicable Me franchise reference here. If there were bananas in this story, however, I’d be over the top.
The travelers escape the cargo bay and head for the bridge. Their arrival upsets the crew, and a “pacifier” is used to quell the hostility. Captain Jackson explains to the Doctor that the R1C has been searching for a missing ship that holds their genetic banks, the P7E, for 100 centuries. They have been surviving by regenerating like the Time Lords, but their ship is failing after so long underway. The Minyans ask if the Doctor understands how that feels, and he remarks that it is unpleasant.
Did the Time Lords alter the Minyan people somehow to give them regeneration? There was a technological component to it, almost like an impulse to start it, but the last time the Doctor regenerated, he needed the same push from K’anpo. Either the Time Lords gifted them the power, or I’m seriously beginning to wonder if the Gallifreyans are a future evolution of humanity. Not canon, I know, but still.
The Doctor hooks K9 into the helm, and the robot dog pilots them out of the spiral nebula. The detect the P7E and follow her track back into the nebula. They survive the journey, but become buried as the ship attracts a large amount of debris. They use the ship’s weapons to punch through the accumulating rock, but it damages their own ship.
And this makes no sense. But that doesn’t stop the plot (as it is) from moving on.
They break free and follow the signal to a soft planet that is forming from the debris. They crash into the planet and the shock causes a tunnel to collapse, disrupting some slave workers called Trogs. Guards are dispatched to pacify the slaves, lording over them with claims of heresy. The accused heretic’s son, Idas, runs from the guards.
Have I mentioned how much blue screen work there is in this one?
The Minyans open the airlock and blast through the rock into the tunnels, detecting signs of intelligent life. The crew leaves the ship after telling the travelers to stay behind, so the Doctor and Leela naturally follow and explore. They find Idas and lead the guards away before doubling back to find the boy inside the R1C‘s airlock. The ship’s crew explore the tunnels, and one of them, Herrick, encounters a guard. The guard shoots, but the crewman reflects it with his shield and kills the guard. The overseer blocks the tunnel and fumigates it, effectively reducing the Trogs to the level of cockroaches.
The Doctor learns about the Trog myths from Idas, including legends of the Sky Gods (the Minyans have those too!) and the Seers who rule on behalf of the Oracle. They soon detect the fumigation gas, and the Doctor goes out to stop it, but he is overcome in short order. Nevertheless, he was successful as the gas recedes and back-flushes the system, overcoming the guards at the brig. Meanwhile, the crew frees Herrick.
When the Doctor returns, Idas tells him about sacrifices at the Citadel, which is the punishment his father Idmon will endure for heresy. The Doctor tells K9 to find Captain Jackson while they save Idmon. Idas warns them of dragons at the entrance, but Leela makes short work of these automated defenses. They enter the planet’s core, which has null gravity, and descend to the Citadel. They are soon captured.
The sacrifice is to be accomplished by using the flame from the (ironically named) Lamp of Life to burn a rope and drop a sword (of Damocles, despite the incorrect usage) onto the victim. The Oracle, a disembodied mechanical voice, begins the ceremony. The Doctor’s group is brought to the sacrificial altar and are sentenced to death, but Idas sparks a rebellion by moving his father at the last second. Jackson and the crew arrive as the Doctor’s group flees. Herrick remains to guard their escape and is captured.
So. Much. Blue. Screen.
Such. Terrible. Special. Effects.
The free slaves explain their lives of labor, and the Doctor determines that the Trogs are really the descendants of the P7E‘s crew. They decide to seek out the Oracle by hiding in mine carts, but they accidentally fall into a rock crusher. The Doctor and Leela hold on to the edge by their fingertips – a literal cliffhanger look how clever – and the R1C crew rescues them, holding back the guards while the travelers continue their quest.
The Seers torture Herrick, but do not believe his story despite the scanners indicating that he is telling the truth. They remove their masks, revealing mechanical faces. The Seers determine that the Oracle is worth more than the genetic bank, and offer them to the R1C crew if they agree to leave. Captain Jackson concurs.
The Doctor, Leela, and Idas locate the Oracle, which is yet another megalomaniacal computer (which sounds like Gozer from Ghostbusters). The Doctor deduces that the Oracle is programmed to protect the genetic banks at all costs, so he steals them, which brings the might of the Oracle’s guards upon them as they flee. They are trapped in a deliberate “skyfall” cave-in, but are rescued by K9.
“Gratitude is unnecessary. Speed is vital.” Nice.
K9 stops the R1C‘s departure as he detects the trap: Herrick’s prize is really a pair of fission grenades capable of destroying a small planet. It’s a bit late for Chekhov’s gun, but there it is. The Doctor takes the grenades back into the tunnels and hands them over to the guards. After Leela frees the Doctor, the travelers return to the R1C with all of the Trogs in tow. As the ship departs, the grenades explode and destroy the planet, causing a shockwave that pushes the ship out of the nebula. The ship sets course for the new Minyan homeworld as the TARDIS departs for the next adventure.
Doctor, if I may: Speaking from an era where pop culture references permeate pretty much everything, if you have to explain the reference, the effect is ruined.
The story’s premise is decent enough – it should be since it’s effectively a rehash of The Face of Evil – but the execution is terrible. The Oracle computer was a lackluster and impotent villain (particularly when compared to WOTAN, BOSS, and Xoanan), the villain’s mechanical minions (sorry) were never explained, and the plethora of parallels to the Greek myths (mostly Jason and the Argonauts) was a bit (or a lot, really) heavy-handed. At least it gave the writers a reason to reach way back into Doctor Who history with the Trojan Horse. Finally, all of that badly executed blue-screening was painful on the eyes. It was probably a great technical achievement for the time and the budget, but it was hard to watch because there was just so much of it.
Louise Jameson added a little bit of saving grace with her humorous recovery from the pacifier ray — “Who did it? I’ll kill them!” — but, sadly, it was really the only humor to be found in this story. The rest of the jokes and gags fell flat.
I give the dodgy science a pass because, over the duration of the Timestamps Project, the science in Doctor Who has been dodgy more times than I can count. It’s a hallmark of science-fiction in this era.
Though not by much.
Thank Louise Jameson.
Rating: 2/5 – “Mm? What’s that, my boy?”
UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Invasion of Time
The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.