Tuesday, August 26, 2008


As a Doctor Who obsessed boy there were a handful of Target novels that I adored. They weren't necessarily the best or the cleverest books, nor were they the most fully-realised nor the most fabulously well written. What they had though was a sense of huge scale; an epic feeling caused by massive distances in time and space. Chief amongst these was Doctor Who and the Underworld, a story which was not only set at the very edge of space where galaxies were created, but which featured a planet which had formed around a spaceship. What a great idea*, I thought at the time - I bet the TV version is utterly brilliant!

Foolish, idealistic boy that I was.

And yet, on the basis of the first episode at least, my recent viewing of Underworld wasn't a complete disappointment. It may just be that the CSO had yet to intrude, but I enjoyed episode one immensely.

Possibly a residual fondness for the novel meant that where others saw lack of interest and laziness in the acting performances, I thought the flat, emotionless speech of the crew simply reflected their 100,000 years of tedious life.

There's no need to look for excuses for others positives though - from minor things like MinYANS being pronounced differently from the MinYINS I expected, through the nicely underplayed links between the Time Lords and the Minyans (the fact that the TARDIS is recognised not by some computer analysis or by sight but by the wheezing of its materialisation sound is excellent) to the happiness gun and the regeneration machines.

I particularly liked K9 being used to run the ship (presumably the Minyans use something similar to Time Lord technology, hence the Doctor knows enough detail to hook him up on the spot, otherwise they could do that for every dodgy ship) and the Doctor figuring out the hull was getting thicker, like House diagnosing a disease from a oddly coloured fingernail and fondness for blue cheese.

It's not perfect and it certainly doesn't fulfil the promise of brilliance I expected from the novelisation, but generally at this early stage it doesn't fall down due to script or acting issues. There are some odd directorial decisions, which might explain why the director, Norman Stewart, helmed only one more Who and then asked to be moved back to non-directorial duties. Most glaringly, when the crew force the Doctor at gun point to order K9 to fly into the nebula the Doctor is standing right behind the robot dog and so K9 presumably heard all of the threatening dialogue. All that was needed was to have K9 slightly further away or out of earshot/sight line - presumably it's this kind of elementary mistake that critics of Stewart's direction have in mind.

Still, for all that I'd heard Underworld as 'utterly woeful' it had started pretty well (did I mention the excellent model work?) and I was looking forward to watching episode two.

Fool that I am.

Even allowing for CSO so bad as
to distract even me, the second episode is abysmal. Did Tom Baker fall out with someone just before filming started, because his performance is miles worse than in part one? It's still miles better than most of the Trog acting though, but as the story goes nowhere and looks so bad, it doesn't really matter. Twenty two minutes of apparently half-pissed performers droning out the contents of a leaden script, as their heads appear and disappear into the background. Really, who decided that the BBC could do CSO well enough to construct half of the sets out of blue screened photos?

In short, this is an episode of Who where
the best thing in it is the guards' hoods.

All the great stuff I remembered from the book - 'the sky is falling', the old guy trying and failing to dig his family out, then his grief turning to suicidal anger -turns out to be awful on screen. The Trog's resignation to their fates is accurately conveyed it's true, but only because resigned Trogs and listless and uninterested actors are harder to differentiate than you'd think.

And so onto episode three, where I found myself pondering on just how bad episode two must be when the inclusion of some lift muzac in episode three marks a major upturn in quality. It's a big enough upturn, in fact, to move Underworld back into the very low reaches of what are the majority of ordinary Who stories.

By this point I was clutching at straws and desperately casting about for something to cling onto - the Gravity Lift music is funny
, and there are a handful ok, one decent line: 'the Doctor has saved many fathers'.

Added to these two tiny straws, I'm willing to suggest that the Trog son's performance is really quite good - semi-comic at times and non-realistic, but it at least feels like a deliberate decision to play the part in that manner, which is fair enough imo. I could even point out that the use of CSO means a lot of the shots the director has to use are the same longish shots from either straight ahead or at a slight angle to the action, which is hardly his fault.

So much for the positives. The negatives still do win the day by quite a margin. Chief annoynace for me is the characterisation of the Doctor. First off he seems quite happy to see Alan Lake et al kill any number of guards. Possibly they're only stunned, since the weapons of the P7E crew and the Guards seem to fire the same rays (for obvious reasons) and multiple hits on Herrick don't kill or even wound him particularly badly, but that's never made clear.

Worse though is the Doctor's lack of
urgency in getting to the scene of the Trog Dad's execution and then, once there. standing back and preparing to watch the man being executed by way of the world's slowest burning material. Bad enough having no plan whatsoever, but doing nothing and leaving it to the son to save his father and then settling for grabbing a sword and waving it self-importantly around in the aftermath?

Other less jarring minus points are awarded for the other Trogs acting (again) and the laughably bad design of the Seers heads, which have something of the look of a metal Mr Blobby about them I thought. As for the slow and poorly shot 'running' battle through the corridors as the Trogs make their escape - well there's no way to ameliorate the culpability of the director here, sadly. It's just a very poorly realised series of shots.

God, there's another episode to go. In the interests of sanity I'll skim over it quickly. The Orcale features a bit, there's a couple of fission grenades which can't be defused and which the Oracle (fortunately) doesn't recognise, all the Trogs (about 35 of them in total) escape in the Minyans ship and the Doctor - the bloodthirsty git - is delighted to see all the guards and their families getting blown to pieces. It's one of those episodes where the holes in the plot, society and characterisation are so obvious even Russell T Davies would be embarrassed.

Thinking back the other Target novel I really, really loved was The Sun Makers which comes right before this. I still haven't seen that and on the basis of Underworld I'm not sure I should...

* Later nicked by Rusty in The Runaway Bride.

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Blogger SAF said...

IIRC, Sun Makers was a fair bit better than Underworld, but this is working from a memory of a long time ago and may be at least as unreliable as fond recollections of a story based on the reading of a Target novelisation :)

Needless to say, I will be sparing myself the experience of a rewatch of Underworld!

11:43 am  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

On your (admittedly grudging) recommendation, I'm going to risk The Sun Makers - but only after watching the nice new dvd of The War Machines first to cleanse the palette :)

1:06 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

Sruart: "the nice new dvd of The War Machines"

Damn it, do I need to go and spend money on Amazon again?

(one advantage of being on a certain mailing list was that at least I was usually aware of Who releases!) :)

1:56 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Well it's either buy it from Amazon or...ahem...get it from elsewhere ;)

1:58 pm  
Blogger IZP said...

Now, I'm fairly convinced one of the kids in the final episode of Underworld is a dwarf actor masquerading as a kid (possibly cheaper or able to work longer hours), am I entirely deluded? No one else ever seem to have seen said dwarf actor.

PS. This post contains no spoilers for the rather unsettling ending of Don't Look Now, which if you've never seen it has NOTHING to do with this post, at all. Not even a bit.

8:52 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Has anyone *ever* gotten to the end of Don't Look Now? Surely running gibbering from the room in terror is the general experience?

8:57 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

Stuart: "it's either buy it from Amazon or...ahem...get it from elsewhere ;)"

Oh, I always do the decent thing when it comes to DW. War Machines sounds like it's worth spending my hard earned credit card on. :)

Of course, I'd better not order it, then revisit your blog to discover a damning review of same. ;)

10:08 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

Stuart: "Has anyone *ever* gotten to the end of Don't Look Now?"

Actually, I don't think I have. I think it's one of those films on my list of movies I ought to get around to seeing.

10:09 pm  
Blogger SK said...

I find that if you can wait a few months, the price on Amazon and/or Play usually drops by at least a third -- and if you're anything like me, DVDs generally sit around for at least six months before you get around to watching them anyway.

10:36 pm  
Blogger SK said...

(Unless it's The Sandbaggers, which I have just finished series one of. Mr Douglas, you are no liar.)

10:37 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

"Of course, I'd better not order it, then revisit your blog to discover a damning review of same. ;)"

If the excellent first episode is anything to go by, then you're safe spending your cash in it.

SK: "Mr Douglas, you are no liar."

Finally, someone realises that...

7:58 am  
Blogger SAF said...

SK: "if you're anything like me, DVDs generally sit around for at least six months before you get around to watching them anyway."

That's often the case with me, but with DW DVDs, somehow I generally find the time fairly swiftly. (Sad, but true!)(It's like I'm a fan or something.)

SK: "Unless it's The Sandbaggers,"

Oooh yes, the Sandbaggers... I am still very keen to find out what all the fuss is about on that one.

Stuart: "If the excellent first episode is anything to go by, then you're safe spending your cash in it."

It'll have the added benefit of keeping me from squandering my money on certain Classic DW action figures. :)

12:01 pm  
Blogger IZP said...

"Has anyone *ever* gotten to the end of Don't Look Now? Surely running gibbering from the room in terror is the general experience?"

Julie Christie? With him, possibly for real? No!!!!!!!

Is that what you mean.

Simon AF- chance upon 'Don't Look Now' next time it's on late night telly and you're at a loose end, Don't seek it out, don't tape it. You'll be in the wrong mood.

12:53 am  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

That's a fair point - like 'Damien: Omen II' and 'Picnic at Hanging Rock', 'Don't Look Now' is a film most savoured when stumbled upon by chance, late at night.

7:50 am  
Blogger SAF said...

Ian: "chance upon 'Don't Look Now' next time it's on late night telly and you're at a loose end,"

Cheers, I'll do that. I often find myself channel-hopping late at night, so if the kid in the red hoodie turns up, I'll know to stop hopping and start watching. :)

11:09 am  

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