Aired 7 – 28 January 1978
‘Underworld’ is one of the most scorned and ultimately forgotten episodes in Doctor Who history, its overuse of the dodgy CSO effect giving several portions of the tale an unconvincing cartoony or quasi-virtual feel. Ultimately, though, at a time when the budget was more constrained even by Doctor Who standards, it’s hard to fault the ambition on display as the production team tries to create vast cavernous settings without the luxury of location shooting. Given the troubled production, though, the biggest downfall of ‘Underworld’ is that it’s ultimately a rather flat affair that does little to inspire excitement or interest.
To be fair, there are some enjoyable and clever moments interspersed throughout the tale with some excellent model work in the first episode that ranks among the classic series’s better efforts. The four Minyans’ ability to regenerate as they undertake their eons-long quest for the P7E race banks is also an intriguing plot point that becomes increasingly important as events progress, and its dovetailing with the explanation of the origin of the Time Lords’ policy on non-intervention works very well. With engaging guest performances from Alan Lake and James Maxwell, there is certainly some merit to ‘Underworld.’
Unfortunately, the enjoyable moments are the minority in ‘Underworld,’ and once the R1C crashes onto the planet tedium starts to set in within the caves. As the general workings of the planet are revealed and the increasingly-important slave Trogs, their guards, the Seers, and then the Oracle become known, no real sense of occasion is managed, even once the Oracle finally reveals itself to be yet another machine with delusions of grandeur. This is a plot point that Doctor Who has employed many times and far more successfully before, and it’s a shame that ‘Underworld’ hinges on such a well-trodden development that simply fall flat here as the Trogs awkwardly explain the plot through expository speeches.
Perhaps the biggest issue, though, is that the script is clearly unaware of how to handle Leela, here poking fun at her more primitive and savage ways. Nowhere to be seen is the fiercely intelligent, brave, and independent woman Leela is meant to be, and even the strong abilities of Louise Jameson are unable to save ‘Underworld’ from being Leela’s weakest story so far. While the script certainly does no favours for Tom Baker either, it at least stays tonally in line with how the Doctor should be written and Baker proves adept at making even the most mundane sequences interesting to behold as he flashes through anger, moroseness, and humour in quick succession.
Even if the direction at times seems rather muddled and confused, Dudley Simpson at least manages to offer a very enjoyable score that helps buoy an often listless affair overall. The special effects are an easy target for Doctor Who and ‘Underworld’ in particular, and the complaints are certainly justified here, but the bigger shame is that the imagination and ideas of the script itself are limited to oft-used clichés that make suspension of disbelief that much more difficult. The first episode sets the tone for a rather enjoyable tale, but the story quickly devolves into something altogether less exciting that never manages to regain its initial momentum.