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Friday, 24 March 2006 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

Maybe I just have a strong constitution, but there are very few Doctor Who stories that I find really boring. I'd even give The Monster Of Peladon an average rating, and that's usually seen as one of the show's biggest turkeys. Underworld though, like The Leisure Hive, is one of the few stories to really make me want to drop off: so much so that I had to review it in two parts, and the only other occasion I've had to do that is with The War Games which is four hours long [for posterity I should note that at this stage I haven't done The Invasion, The Daleks' Master Plan or anything else like that].

Possibly because I'm just really badly disposed to this story, Tom Baker in his art gear really gets on my nerves. This quirkiness of character is far from rare in the Williams era, but it's so devoid of any relation to anything that happens at any point in the story that you have to wonder what the point was: it's as if Bob Baker wrote the scene while Dave Martin crossed "be Doctorish" off his list with his pencil. Very quickly though we get to see the story's one selling point: its superb model work, also a common feature of the Williams era. The nebula is pretty enough and the R1C is a good model but it's the set design that lets the show down, all flat mud browns and blank spaces. You'd think that with so much of the story set in dank caves they'd have put a bit of colour in where they could, but no. The acting is poor too, with only Alan Lake as Herrick making any effort. When we first meet them they are going over what the TARDIS materialisation sound could have been which is fine up to a point, because it's what they conceivably would be talking about, but since the audience knows the answer to their questions there's really no need to dwell on the subject as much as the episode does.

Baker immediately explains why the Time Lords are thought by the Minyans to be gods, so that any sense of mystery that could be generated fizzles out. The Minyans' catch phrase of "the quest is the quest" isn't exactly spine tingling either, as well as not making much sense.

All is not a total loss on the design front as the shield guns are a nice idea, although Leela fires one without even knowing what it is. The happy guns, a sort of valium in energy form, are another nice idea but let down by Louise Jameson's poor acting (although she has improved since season fourteen). The initial set up of the plot is then given to the audience: it's a good one (hey, those ancient Greeks knew how to tell a story) but poorly delivered by the maudlin James Maxwell as Jackson. I'm annoyed as well to see K9 yet again being used to solve a plot point.

Imogen Bickford-Smith as Tala doesn't liven up for her regeneration, but it's nice to see that Tom Baker is still capable of serious moments among the clowning. The meteors outside the ship look fantastic, leading to the story's best cliffhanger. The fact that they escape only to crash again shows how much of a lazy excuse for an episode ending, but the crash itself looks great.

Now we see the caves of the P7E planet. The models, while well made, don't exactly hold the viewer after three episodes of nothing but brown and, while the CSO is much better than average, the lack of shadow or any interaction with the environment means that it never looks really real. However, I am pleased to hear that they at least made an effort with the sound effects, and the echoes work well.

The guards look ridiculous in their KKK / '70s bell bottom uniforms, but at least they tried here (veiled reference to The Long Game? Surely not!). However, no thought has gone into what separates them from the miners: it's as if the Oracle simply arbitrarily made some of the Minyan descendants slavers and others slaves. That, frankly, is not a wholly satisfying explanation.

It shows how uninspired the story is when something as pedestrian as poison gas is held off for ages to make a cliffhanger (how many times has Doctor Who featured poison gas? As many times as laser guns, okay, but how many people would put "Klieg pulls laser gun on Doctor" in their top ten cliffhangers? Right then). The moment becomes even worse when you consider that the Doctor explains how he's going to get out of it before the credits roll. Halfway through and I'm struck with how hopeless and pointless it all feels: the references to Jason And The Argonauts, potentially a good idea, now feel like a way of avoiding coming up with a proper plot.

Why does it take the guard leaders so long to notice there's gas pumping into the control room, when everyone around them has collapsed and they can't see their hands in front of their faces? Their threats to Idas's (another plank) father (and another) are delivered with a similar lack of enthusiasm, which undermines their menace ("I'd kill you now, but I'm on my lunch").

The 'centre of gravity' scenes make no sense at all. I'm not going into the physics of it, but shouldn't there be some sort of gradual decline rather than just walking through a door and finding yourself floating about? Dudley Simpson doesn't help either; I can't work out if putting lift music into the scene where the Doctor, Leela and Idas float downwards is a really good joke or just really stupid: either way, it lets down an OK special effects scene. The sword of Damocles scene is just about interesting, maybe because the colour scheme of the room it takes place in is something other than mud brown.

Herrick's sacrifice is stupid and pointless: he does it to set up the narrative for later rather than for any reason appropriate to the time. The fact that Norman Stewart's handling of action scenes is so inept doesn't help either. However, the idea that the Oracle is using "sky-falls" to systematically cull the population of the planet is a very unsettling one, and injects a bit of life into the story for an all-too-brief period.

The Seers look utterly ridiculous, possibly the most unintentionally funny monsters of all time. There are just so many jokes…the jumping bean analogy isn't a new one, but if you combine that description with a cross between the ghosts from Pac Man and a whack-a-mole game you could be getting close. The cliffhanger is another useless one, as the direction is so poor that it's unclear what's going on. Don't they want to get tipped into the machine? Why else are they in the cart?

The fourth episode is more of the same really. The Oracle sounds good (a bit like the baddie from Ghostbusters actually) and isn't exactly original, but if it ain't broke…

Why doesn't K9 spot that the race banks are really grenades sooner? The planet escape sequence is well done, with more excellent model work, particularly the destruction of the planet. The Oracle states that it deserves death, which is an original twist on the megalomaniac idea, but the fact that she is consigning all her people to death makes this seems slightly less magnanimous. Even when they are facing destruction though, the Seers just don't give a monkeys. The exploding planet kills every single baddie, pushing up the story's mortality rate to just over 46%.

The final mistake is for the Doctor to directly talk about Jason And The Argonauts, as what starts out as a (relatively) subtle reference now becomes part of the plot itself leading to questions such as "why?" and "how?". I don't even want to think about it to be honest; I'm just glad it's over.

Underworld is a poor, poor story but I wouldn't put it as low as some: the 2003 Outpost Gallifrey poll puts it in the bottom three episodes of all time, but for me it's too lifeless and dull to reach the levels of obnoxiousness needed to get a bottom of the barrel rating. It comes to something when an episode's mediocrity works in its favour like this, but that about sums up Underworld: it is a hard story to sit through and is a low point of Tom Baker's tenure.

FILTER: - Television - Fourth Doctor - Series 15