The Doctor and Leela find themselves at the edge of a galaxy, near an enormous nebula that could wreak untold damage on the TARDIS. To avoid this, the Doctor forces his ship to materialize on a nearby spacecraft. When he announces himself to the ship’s crew, they regard Leela as a threat (and harmlessly quell her bloodlust with their pacification beam), but they regard the Doctor as a god. He has come aboard a starship crewed by the last of the Minyans, a race who the Time Lords aided and augmented – and who then destroyed themselves with the aid of their new technology, the incident that caused the Time Lords to withdraw into their non-intervention policy. Unlike Time Lords, the Minyans can regenerate thousands of times, with enough control over the process that they seem to simply become younger again when their bodies wear out, and they’ve been on this flight for thousands of years. Their quest is to find the P7E, a lost Minyan sister ship whose cargo of genetic material could revitalize the species. Their obstacle is that they can’t seem to find the P7E, until the Doctor discovers that the missing ship is now the core of a forming planetoid – and that the descendants of its crew have taken on a new form entirely, a society that the Minyan searchers can’t even recognize – a society that could kill them all before they reach their goal.
written by Bob Baker & Dave Martin
directed by Norman Stewart
music by Dudley Simpson
Guest Cast: James Maxwell (Jackson), Alan Lake (Herrick), Imogen Bickford-Smith (Tala), Jonathan Newth (Orfe), Jimmy Gardner (Idmon), Norman Tipton (Idas), Godfrey James (Tarn), James Marcus (Rask), Jay Neill (Klimt), Frank Jarvis (Ankh), Richard Shaw (Lakh), Stacey Tendeter (Naia), Christine Pollon (voice of the Oracle)
Broadcast from January 7 through 28, 1978
LogBook entry & review by Earl Green
Review: Okay, go ahead, laugh if you like. Underworld has accumulated a less-than-stellar reputation in fan circles for featuring tons of dodgy bluescreen shots as a substitute for real sets or locations. But considering that numerous scenes of the new series have featured entirely virtual or mostly virtual sets, perhaps all that Underworld is truly guilty of is being nearly 30 years ahead of its time.
As legend would have it, the money for this episode simply ran out, leaving the production crew to shoot huge chunks of the action against bluescreen, which would later be used to show elaborately-built scale model backgrounds. As cheesy as this may sound, there was obviously some thought put into it – many of these early virtual sets include exits that characters duck into, obstacles that the characters must navigate, and so on; all of this requires careful planning and coordination from the pre-production stage straight through post-production. Conspicuous in the end credits is A.J. Mitchell, a BBC visual effects wiz who is also credited with single-handedly inventing the complex animated teleport effect for Blake’s 7. The Beeb’s best and brightest were in on this – but the technology to really build a set around an actor performing in front of a blank well just wasn’t there yet. So while it has been a laughing stock for many years, Underworld isn’t that risible in the present context; it’s a noble attempt and a flawed experiment, and the first tentative step toward the kind of elaborate effects that we now see in the tenth Doctor’s adventures. Little did anyone know this four-parter was, in fact, pointing the way forward.
The acting is above par for this point in the series’ history, as this was when things were descending firmly into constantly tongue-in-cheek territory. There are a few of what I’d describe as unfortunate costuming choices when it comes to the story’s antagonists – namely some laughably almost-phallic robot heads that it’s incredibly difficult not to find a double meaning for (and spacesuit helmets to match, for our Minyan heroes), but even though they provide a hearty (if unintended) laugh, they don’t detract from the story much. And as for that whole “thousands of regenerations” thing…I’d put smart money on the Minyans, or something like them, eventually putting in an appearance in the new series, say, if it lasts long enough on the air for two or three actors to succeed David Tennant in the role.
Give it a shot if you get the chance. In the present context of Doctor Who, Underworld is long overdue for a reassessment.