During the latter half of the nineteen seventies, the greatest problem facing the Doctor Who production office had been a series of sweeping budget cuts brought on by a period of skyrocketing inflation which had plagued the United Kingdom for most of the decade. In 1977 producer Graham Williams attended a preview of George Lucas’s Star Wars which was due to air in Great Britain early the following year, and although Williams was impressed by the quality of the visual effects techniques used in the film, he was painfully aware that Doctor Who’s production standards would look poor in comparison.
Realising that the shows budget could never hope to sustain the impact of Lucas’s pioneering film, and with episode one of season fifteens Underworld due to transmit eleven days after the UK premiere of Star Wars, it was decided by Williams and director Norman Stewart to invest the shows budget in two impressive sets, the Minyan spacecraft R1C -- which could later be redressed as the P7E -- and the caverns. Construction work had already commenced on the spacecraft set when Williams -- returning from a two week holiday -- discovered that the countries economic instability had trebled the productions construction estimates. Having been informed by BBC bosses that the habitual overspends which had become customary during Philip Hinchcliffe’s era would no longer be tolerated, and that any overspends would instead result in a loss of episodes, Williams instructed Stewart and designer **** Coles to shoot the caverns as a CSO model.
Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s seventh script for Doctor Who was to become the first of many stories over the course of the next three seasons which would explore the realms of folklore and mythology, and although behind the scenes the production was fraught, their storyline tackled some interesting concepts. Based largely upon the legends of Jason and his Argonaughts and their quest to recover the hallowed Golden Fleece, Underworld was an ambitious though frequently unsuccessful attempt to adapt elements of Greek theology into a science fiction setting. Unfortunately despite the wealth of potentially exciting material they had to draw upon, and the fact that the narrative largely wrote itself, Baker and Martin’s homage was doomed never to be able to compete with 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts with its gorgeous location filming, Ray Harryhausen’s ground breaking stop motion animation, and million dollar budget.
Setting aside for the time being Doctor Who’s well documented budgetary shortcomings, and the huge impact it would have on this story, Underworld fails on a further two counts, the second possibly being a symptom of the first. In spite of an encouraging first episode, the remainder of the story is woefully flat, lacking in pace and totally devoid of feeling, and whilst the unique difficulties faced by rooky director Norman Stewart and his team cannot be over emphasised, the storyline itself lacks inspiration and consequently fails to deliver. Despite the quest being the quest -- a mantra which is forced down our throats at every available opportunity -- the arduous task undertaken by the crew of the R1C passes by almost unnoticed, their noble acts of self sacrifice generating little if any impact with the audience. Similarly the persecution of the downtrodden Trog’s -- and in particular the demise of Idmon’s family in the skyfall -- is also glossed over, resulting in a total lack of empathy with the viewer. It’s clear from very early on in the story that Baker and Martin’s concept drew many parallels with the Greek Legend; however the various strands were thrown together in an often very inconsequential manner, with much of the original substance being lost.
The third failure of the production is its dreadfully boring characters, which is surprising as historically Baker and Martin’s protagonists have always been well written and developed. Regrettably in this instance their lack of inspiration and the resultant two dimensional nature of their creations drags the story down greatly. The most obvious example of this is the four members of the R1C crew, who despite some nice performances from James Maxwell and Alan Lake, generally fade into the background after the second episode, their characters having been rendered largely superfluous. In spite of their previous script successes, and having been tutored in the disciplines of story structure by Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes, Baker and Martin appeared to forget that it is the characters who drive the story, in this case however it is neither the crew nor the Trog’s who drive the stories events, instead the action merely revolves around them with the Doctor ultimately assuming the role of Jason.
Most baffling of all considering the nature of the show, was the lack of a substantive villain. The Oracle, which is manifested by a lacklustre light show with a sibilant whispering voice, represented no tangible threat, similarly the mysterious Seers, whose unusual headgear and evolutionary origins (which lamentably are never fully explored) appeared to give up rather easily considering the limited resistance offered by their attackers.