Doctor Who

Starring: Tom Baker
BBC Video
RRP 12.99
BBCV 7264
Certificate: PG
Available now

At the edge of creation, the Doctor, Leela and K-9 land on board a spaceship crewed by Minyans, a race the Doctor had assumed to be long since extinct. The vessel, the R1C, is on a quest to locate the P7E, a ship containing the missing Minyan genetic stock. The quest leads the respective crews of the R1C and the TARDIS into the heart of a newly formed planet...

This four-part tale has two main claims to fame. The first is the copious references by writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin to the mythological Jason's quest to find the Golden Fleece. Just as Jason found the fleece at the edge of the world, the R1C's commander Jackson (James Maxwell) discovers the golden race banks of the Minyans at the edge of the universe.

The story's more dubious claim to fame is its heavy use of CSO (Colour Separation Overlay, or Chromakey). In an experimental attempt to save money on set construction, actors and props are superimposed on to model sets of the planet's cavernous interior. It was an experiment that failed: the composite shots lack depth; props, costumes and actors' hair frequently disintegrate at the edges, especially when moving at speed; and you see the same old bits of model scenery cropping up again and again and again. These are not the worst special effects ever to appear in Doctor Who, not by a long chalk, but the big problem is that they are on screen for such a long time - at least 40 per cent of the story's duration.

A cost-cutting measure that works rather better is the adaptation of the R1C sets to serve as the interior of the P7E. This makes sense, because the two vessels were once part of the same fleet.

Before we are thrust headlong into the centre of the Planet of CSOverkill, the first episode proves fairly entertaining. It offers up several intriguing elements, including a regenerative race - the Minyans - who regard the Time Lords as gods. There's also some semi-educational stuff about the formation of planetary systems (although this is seen to take place rather more rapidly than it would in nature).

Things go downhill once we enter the planet, which is populated by a race of bland slave workers, guards dressed in all-over outfits that look disturbingly like gimp suits, and yet another mad computer (only a year after the one in The Face of Evil). In fact, the only halfway interesting character in the entire story is the R1C crewman Herrick, played with gung-ho enthusiasm by Alan Lake.

Underworld is arguably the weakest story in what I consider to be Tom Baker's weakest season, Doctor Who's fifteenth (though it's up against some pretty stiff competition from The Invisible Enemy). Whereas that other much-maligned Graham Williams-produced season, the seventeenth, can at least boast the excellent rapport between the Doctor and Lalla Ward's Romana, here there is little enjoyable banter between Baker and Louise Jameson as Leela. Outside the influence of her creator, Chris Boucher, or writer/script editor Robert Holmes, Leela comes across as an idiotic savage, rather than the intelligent but uneducated warrior she was intended to be.

This video release therefore represents what is probably the poorest story in Baker's entire seven-year reign. Underworld? Underpants more like.

Richard McGinlay

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