Throughout Underworld the crew of a dilapidated space ship from the dead world of Minyos utter a phrase they’ve repeated for 100,000 years: “The quest is the quest.” Their quest is to find and retrieve an elusive ship, the P7E, that contains their race’s only hope of survival, but their mantra is spoken not with conviction but rather with resignation. They’ve been at it for so long that actually completing their mission hardly seems realistic. After so long, the quest itself becomes the quest.
Watching Underworld is also like this. The story of a few survivors of a dead world chasing their genetic inheritance around the universe for a thousand centuries is an intriguing story, maybe even for a series of its own. That these people are able to do this thanks to the regeneration technology of the Time Lords of Gallifrey makes it Doctor Who. The Doctor (Tom Baker) and Leela (Louise Jameson) arrive on the Minyan ship, the R1C, after the TARDIS runs afoul of a spiral nebula. Though the Minyan people distrust the Time Lords, they allow the Doctor to help them repair their ship. After they trace the P7E’s signal to inside the spiral nebula, the Minyans plow their ship inside. Once there they discover the P7E buried amidst rubble and debris and the ancestors of the crew living in the core of a planetoid that formed around the derelict ship.
When the Minyans and the Doctor set out to explore the planetoid, the audience is treated to a chroma key world where everything looks like someone’s playing a trick on the local news’ meteorologist. It looks bad, even for a show notorious for its low budget. Then, something happens. For a while, the actors sell it. There’s enough running about and hiding behind boulders that aren’t really there to distract from the artifice for a few scenes, but the bit wears thin when it becomes obvious how much of the action–or lack of it — is to take place in front of the blue screen.
According to the bonus featurette “Into the Unknown”, the effects were shot simultaneously with the actors using two cameras. One camera filmed the actors against a blue background and the other shot a miniature model. Camera placement and movement had to be precise, creating many awkward pauses in which characters don’t say anything for uncomfortable amounts of time.
Things improve when the scene shifts to the interior of the subterranean society. The Doctor and the Minyans discover a strictly segregated society of slaves, called trogs, Seers and the Oracle that rules them. The Seers wear all black and have masks that cover their entire faces save for several small metallic rings that serve as placeholders for their facial features. The effect is Darth Vader-like, combined with something from an S&M party. Entrusting a good deal of narrative weight to actors whose features are completely covered is something of a specialty on the show. These characters aren’t three-dimensional, but they’re terrifying, which is exactly what they’re supposed to be.
Leela is a different story. Her character, in the Doctor’s words, is “primitive, wild, warlike, aggressive, tempestuous and bad tempered, too.” That’s all very apparent, but in a companion for the Doctor it doesn’t work. Other companions, like Jo and Sarah Jane, aren’t as knowledgeable of the workings of the universe at the Doctor, but they’re street smart, and both incarnations of Romana are viewed as the Doctor’s equal. The Doctor treats Leela as a bratty child, frequently pointing out her lack of intelligence. That she’s attired in a low cut leather shirt and skimpy shirt only serves to point out what the creators must have thought of her.
Underworld owes a debt to the classical story of Jason and the Argonauts, with references to the tale dropped throughout the story in the names of the ship P7E (“Persephone”) to the Minyans (“Minoans”). The classical roots give the story a solid foundation, but not much is built upon it. The clunkiness brought on by the special effects spreads throughout the rest of the story in the form of flubbed lines and actors tripping over themselves.
“Into the Unknown” explains that, because this story was one of the final stories of season 15, much of the budget was gone, leaving almost no money to produce the story. The producers soldiered on, though, creating an ambitious story that’s seriously flawed.
Other bonus features include a series of grainy video out takes from the production that show the actors learning to work with the blue screen and the fun they all seemed to be having despite not knowing exactly what they were doing. It’s more entertaining than the story itself, and certainly a lot more fun.
The story of Underworld, from its production to its original broadcast, is like the quest of the Minyans. There were many obstacles in the way, but the creators continued on despite the odds. The entire work is an apt metaphor for any kind of creative endeavor. You have an idea and you spend time exploring that idea, ways that will make it work and things that will make it better. You look around for inspiration.
Sometimes the end result comes quickly and it’s off to the next project, but other times there are false starts, endless reworkings and second guesses. Sometimes it takes so long it seems the end will never come, and just sitting down to work, even for a few minutes, becomes an accomplishment.