The TARDIS materializes at the end of the known universe on the R1C, a ship whose crew is on a quest to find a missing vessel, the P7E, which carries their valuable genetic race bank. The crew of the R1C are Minyans, a race who had received much help from the Time Lords in the past–so much so, they regarded the Time Lords as gods–but grew to resent Time Lord dominion over their planet, Minyos, and expelled them. The Minyans divided, and a civil war broke out that destroyed their world, leaving the two ships to find a new home. But the ships separated, and the crew of the R1C has been pursuing the P7E for thousands of years, using Time Lord technology to rejuvenate themselves when they become too old. Needless to say, as a Time Lord, the Doctor is not welcomed with open arms by the crew. Nevertheless, with the help of Leela and K-9, he proves his good intentions by helping the ship avoid being crushed by rocks when its size causes a gravitational pull that makes it the most attractive thing around. The ship crash lands through the soft surface of a planet in formation. But this is no ordinary planet, and there’s more to its hostile inhabitants than meets the eye…
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
Writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin pull from Greek mythology for their tale, specifically culling from Jason and the Argonauts, and their quest for the golden fleece. Names have been changed to veil the reference (Jason is Jackson, the Minoans are the Minyans, Orpheus is Orfe, the Persephone is the P7E, etc.), but, as with the Gothic horror-based tales of the previous few seasons, it doesn’t really matter. Cast as a space quest, the story stands on its own, which is good for those who don’t know their Greek mythology.
As far as stories go, it’s not bad. I think the use of scientific principles to help explain key story elements, and add to the drama (in particular, the fact that large objects in space have gravitational pull), is well done. It’s certainly not the best Baker-Martin story, but it’s an entertaining four-parter with an engaging plot that doesn’t have a lot of holes (at least that I could find).
Where “Underworld” suffers most, I think, is in its realization. As with “The Invisible Enemy,” Baker and Martin have ideas that stretch even the most generous BBC budget. And at this point in the show’s history, the budget was anything but generous–especially given that this is the penultimate story in the season, and so much of the money had already been spent or allocated. To help cut costs, the production team decided to do something very experimental, and unheard of until that time: use Color Separation Overlay (“green screen”) for over a quarter of the entire story. This way, they wouldn’t have to build sets for certain scenes, instead using scale models of the sets upon which the actors would be superimposed.
Back in 1978, this was extremely risky. Everything was analog, with cameras physically linked to ensure co-ordination, and recording direct to videotape without the modern luxury of post-production computer clean-up. With this in mind, it’s quite an achievement for its time, and credit must be given to the technicians who pulled it off, as well as the actors who do a great job playing against blank walls. However, it’s hard to avoid the fact that, by today’s standards, it’s shy enough of believable to be distracting. There’s one scene in particular where the Doctor, Leela, and Idas float down a gravity lift. They achieve the effect with the actors standing on boxes which are hidden by the CSO. Did they not have wires and harnesses available? Would that have been too expensive? It would have been a lot more credible if they had been hanging rather than standing. As it is, it’s hard for the actors to not look like they are standing on something solid.
But it’s not just the CSO. The props don’t look as slick as one might prefer, and there’s an overall feeling of, well, shabbiness to it. And those tall helmets? And the googly-eyed robot Seers? Even some of the acting by the extras leaves a bit to be desired. Leela would have died in one corridor scene where her gun gives out. Thankfully, the guard chasing her forgot what his weapon was for when he was standing directly in front of her!
As I said, “Underworld” is not a bad story, and certainly watchable. However, I would consider it more a curiosity than must-see. Unless you’re a die-hard Whovian, or a completest, feel free to skip it.