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16 September 2012 @ 03:09 pm
The Randomizer: Underworld  
Underworld has a poor reputation among Doctor Who fans and, unlike something like Horns of Nimon, I don't think it really has any defenders. I had vivid memories of bits of the first episode which I recalled, at the tender age of about 7, being very impressed by. I recalled nothing whatsoever about the rest of the story. So I was interested to see if I could reconcile my childhood memories with its mediocre reputation.

Like Horns of Nimon, Underworld takes Greek myth as its starting point, in this case the legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece. However, unlikely as it seems to claim Horns of Nimon does anything with a deft touch, Horns actually handles its relationship with its source material much more elegantly than Underworld does. The Horns of Nimon is content to make a couple of allusions to the source myth within the story and leave the viewers to make the connections themselves. Underworld, on the other hand, all but has the Doctor saying "hey! isn't this just like Jason and the Golden Fleece?" which, in some ways, is far more damaging to the suspension of disbelief than all the pantomimics of Horns of Nimon.

Actually, at the end of episode 1, I was feeling that my childhood self was vindicated. The heavy handed allusions to Greek myth have not yet become over-bearing. Meanwhile the moments I recalled: Tala's "regeneration"; the planet forming around a spaceship; the Time Lord backstory all worked really well. At this point the connection to greek myth is working to add depth to the episode and its characters, and the themes of myths, legends and origin stories is also working to add depth to the Time Lords.

Then we hit episode 2. The dodgy use of Colour Separation Overlay is one of the principle crimes laid against Underworld in the fan community. I would be exaggerating to say there is anything good about the CSO in episodes 2-4. I've no idea of the costs involved but I'm 90% sure that a set depicting caves would have looked much, much better than the characters endlessly "photoshopped" over backgrounds of rocks. However, as my tame layman said, at least they were experimenting with something, even if it didn't really work. Less forgivable, I felt, were the times when shots were repeated, presumably in order to pad out the story. The Doctor and Leela run down a tunnel (in the loosest sense of the word because in fact they run across the screen with a photo of rocks in the background). Then they run down the same tunnel, in the same way, again. There is, in fact, a lot of padding. The entire cliffhanger for episode 3 is incoherent - it isn't at all clear what the Doctor's plan is, or what goes wrong and you have to conclude the whole ten minutes sequence or so is there entirely to fill time and create a cliffhanger. Any pretence at exploring ideas of myths and origins, their truth or otherwise and the way they shape cultures is jettisoned (if, indeed, it was ever there). There is plenty of OK stuff in episodes 2 to 4, but none of it is really better than OK and some of it is actively bad.

So, in summary, I think Underworld probably deserves its reputation as a largely mediocre piece of Doctor Who. I still like episode 1 a lot, but I intend to forget the rest of it as rapidly as my 7 year-old self apparently did.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/76503.html.
daniel_saunders: Eleventh Doctordaniel_saunders on September 16th, 2012 03:03 pm (UTC)
I think there simply wasn't the money to build life-size cave sets!

My eight or nine year old self really liked the novelization, but I have no idea why. Certainly the episodes themselves are terrible - forget the CSO, it's just dull with no interesting characters, plot twists, jokes or (after the first episode) concepts. One of only two stories from the seventies that I find absolutely unwatchable (the other being The Invisible Enemy, which is more or less a companion piece to Underworld).
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on September 16th, 2012 03:50 pm (UTC)
I have fairly fond memories of the novelisation. My memory of it, is that it is slim, I suspect that Underworld is a much better story with some of the obvious padding trimmed, and possibly some explanation for the less coherent action scenes.

And I agree, I don't think the CSO is the problem, it's just there isn't anything else going on to distract you from it.
reggietatereggietate on September 16th, 2012 04:16 pm (UTC)
I have a fondness for the Invisible Enemy because of Frederick Jaeger. Nothing with him in could ever be absolutely without merit, though it tried!
reggietatereggietate on September 16th, 2012 03:14 pm (UTC)
I must admit, I have only the vaguest memories of that adventure, too, though I was a bit older than you when i saw it.

CSO was an odd thing, something of an evolutionary dead end in effects terms. Underworld was probably the worst example of it in Who that I can think of. I wonder, has anyone written at any length about the development of special effects techniques in Doctor Who?
parrot_knight: Pertwee_TVActionparrot_knight on September 16th, 2012 03:20 pm (UTC)
Mat Irvine has said in one of the DVD extras (I think on Planet of the Spiders) that Colour Separation Overlay was devised with news programmes in mind, and that Barry Letts seized on its possibilities for drama was unexpected. I'm not sure how true this is, given its descent from matte effects and the emphasis given to pushing the boundaries of the electronic studio in drama terms in the early years of Television Centre.

Special effects are a neglected area in Doctor Who writing, though until the early 1980s the programme's modelwork and video effects were still widely praised.

Edited at 2012-09-16 03:22 pm (UTC)
reggietatereggietate on September 16th, 2012 03:37 pm (UTC)
Interesting. I must have a bit of a google sometimes and see if anything turns up.

I must admit, I liked much the model work and effects the Beeb could produce on such a miniscule budget, though I found CSO jarring. CGI is marvellous, but in some ways I think it can be restrictive of creativity. All CGI tends to look similar - for example see Primeval's raptors and the recent Who ones. Practically identical, if not in fact absolutely the same. I suppose the thought is, why reinvent the wheel? Particularly if it's expensive, which of course most CGI is. But it can tend to make everything a bit samey.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on September 16th, 2012 03:54 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure that's necessarily CGI's fault. I think, given how little TV SF gets made in the UK that concurrent shows often end up fairly samey, visually, just because they share personnel. It's particularly obvious with 70s Who and Blake's 7, for instance, (of course, they were sharing the same wardrobe, props and set departments) but it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn there is a lot of cross-fertilisation in the behind the scenes people at Impossible Pictures and BBC Wales.
reggietatereggietate on September 16th, 2012 04:06 pm (UTC)
That's true - a lot of dipping into the same well must be going one, when you think about it, which again might lead to saminess. Happens in America too, with Vancouver standing in for lost of US cities. But at least it probably bore more resemblence to them than Dublin does to London, even sans the Wicklow mountains ;-D
parrot_knightparrot_knight on September 16th, 2012 03:54 pm (UTC)
The Mill were responsible for both shows' dinosaurs, though they insisted that they weren't identical, for copyright reasons.
reggietatereggietate on September 16th, 2012 04:01 pm (UTC)
That's interesting - I always thought Framestore did S2 Primeval's creatures and that the Mill came in during S4/5.
parrot_knightparrot_knight on September 16th, 2012 04:03 pm (UTC)
You're right, I think.
reggietatereggietate on September 16th, 2012 04:13 pm (UTC)
Put side by side I'm sure the two shows' raptors aren't identical, though they are certainly very similar (granted a raptor is a raptor is a raptor, but still, more variety in the type would be nice - ours had quill-like feathers, so a more heavily feathered Who raptor would have been very cool indeed!).

To be honest, I thought the Mill was not as good as Framestore with some of the creature CGI, notably some of the hyaenodon in S4 and the worm creature.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on September 16th, 2012 03:51 pm (UTC)
I think the general agreement is that Underworld suffers from overusing the technique. You really don't want at least half your sets to be photographic backdrops.
reggietatereggietate on September 16th, 2012 04:01 pm (UTC)
*nods* Budget reasons, I understand.
parrot_knight: Tomparrot_knight on September 16th, 2012 03:22 pm (UTC)
I agree with you - that first episode is very promising, but afterwards the story becomes lost in caves and mining equipment, and the writers seem more interested in Herrick as a protagonist than the Doctor and/or Leela, a sign that they hadn't really mastered their source material.
reggietatereggietate on September 16th, 2012 03:38 pm (UTC)
Who was the writer?
parrot_knightparrot_knight on September 16th, 2012 03:53 pm (UTC)
Bob Baker and Dave Martin.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on September 16th, 2012 03:58 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure its even Herrick, tbh. The crew of the R1C are mostly kept very separate from the troglodyte plot where the Doctor and Leela are very much leading the show. But it's noticeable that Tala and Orfe really have nothing much to do after the first episode, and you very much have a feeling of writers creating an interesting back story then then really don't know what to do with.