While I was writing this piece, the news came through that Bob Baker, co-writer of Underworld, Invisible Enemy and numerous other Doctor Who stories had died at the age of 81.
I have left the piece unchanged: I don't think that Underworld or Invisible Enemy were very good; but I don't imagine Bob Baker intended people to be doing close-readings of his scripts forty years down the time line. And they were very much part of the series I loved at the time I loved it most.
When I started this retrospective, I said that his Sontaran Experiment was a classic example of the kind of thing Doctor Who does well. Everyone loves the Three Doctors, and my eleven year old self adored K-9.
More to the point, I saw some episodes of the 1975 HTV series "Sky" when I was a kid, and saw the whole thing on DVD in the last couple of years. It is one of the strangest, most surreal, trippy, Electric Eden-esque pieces of children's TV ever made. It's about a group of school kids protecting an alien who has arrived on earth; but with its weird religious overtones and New Age sensibilities, it is more Whistle Down The Wind than E.T. The image of the boy wiping the starscape off his hand in the final episode has stayed with me my whole life.
"We're on the edge of the cosmos, the frontiers of creation, the boundary between what is and isn't, or isn't yet, anyway. Don't you think that's interesting?"
Leela is having a go at piloting the TARDIS. The Doctor is teaching himself to paint. He is wearing a smock and a beret and has paint on his face. The paint disappears when he leaves the TARDIS, but it reappears when he gets back on board in Episode Four.
The TARDIS stalls, possibly because of something Leela did and possibly not. It has taken them to the very edge of the universe, for some reason. But they are not alone: they encounter a spaceship, the R1C which has been travelling for a hundred thousand years. The Doctor asks Leela if she has heard of the Flying Dutchman. Not surprisingly, she has not.
The crew are Minions from the planet Minios; their captain has the disappointingly mundane name Jackson. They are searching for a sister ship, the P7E, which is the only other remnant of their long dead civilisation. The lost ship is carrying Race Banks which would allow them to recreate their near extinct species.
"Ah" you say "I suppose it is a generation star ship and none of the crew can even remember why they originally set out?" On the contrary: the Minions are immortals. Like the Time Lords, they can regenerate when their bodies wear out. They used to worship Time Lords as gods, and presumably learned regeneration from them. They are a bit sad because the power supply is finally running down and their long voyage may be coming to an end.
This is heady stuff. Wandering, world-weary immortals. An endless voyage through space. People who need the Doctor to be a god but think of him as the devil. Yet another skeleton in the Time Lord's closet.
Don't get too excited. They turn out to be just one more ship full of thick, slightly bellicose militaristic space-men in silly tin-foil suits, who initially treat the Doctor with suspicion, but end up accepting his help. In Episode Two they arrive on One Of Those Planets and find a population of slave-workers ruled over by an oppressive boss-caste. The boss-caste take their orders from a mad computer, who thinks it is a god. Doctor Who has gone beyond being formulaic. It has become a series of variations on a theme.
"Shut up, K-9! Shut up! I can tell K-9 to shut up if I want to!"
Tom Baker's Doctor gets nastier by the episode.
Manners change; my family may have been exceptionally sensitive, but saying "shut up" was one of the things guaranteed to make Mum and Dad genuinely angry. I suppose it was a playground rudery that they didn't want me to use in front of Grandad. I didn't learn "piss off" until I got to secondary school.
So maybe the Doctor is playing linguistic anarchist, using the bad words and waiting for the walls of censorship to come tumbling down, like Johnny Rotten saying "fuck" to Bill Grundy. Or maybe he's less a Time Lord, more a very naughty boy: saying and doing the stuff that we would never get away with. I adored him as a kid; but he's increasingly hard to take now.
The wonderful comic improvisation that Baker brought to his first seasons is dwindling, and the jokes aren't very funny. When he turns up on the flight deck of the R1C one of the crew asks "How did you get here?" and he replies "Through that door." This is slender class-comedian stuff. He tells Leela that they are the first intelligent "and semi-intelligent" life forms to see the edge of the universe -- a pointless snipe which goes well beyond teasing her about being a savage. He talks about things people couldn't possibly know about, and gets annoyed when they don't. He off-handedly tells everyone that The Planet is probably going to be destroyed with a sort of ironic contempt for the universe.
Tom wants the Doctor to be alien; to look down on humans with ironic detachment from a higher plane; and the script is more and more playing up to that characterisation. But sneery arrogance has become the low-rent replacement for that divine condescension which he did so impressively in, say, Ark in Space.
"Then they went to war with each other, learnt how to split the atom, discovered the toothbrush and finally split the planet."
Last season Robert Holmes established a mythology and backstory for the Time Lords.
And it seems to have made absolutely no difference. The Time Lords are referenced in every story: "But I'm a Time Lord!" has become a cliche, if not actually a catch phrase. (Tom Baker parodies it slightly in Episode Two: when he is told that there is no time to stop a goodie being executed, he replies "Don't talk to me about time, I'm a Time Lord.") But none of the scripts pay the slightest attention to the mythology that Deadly Assassin went to such a lot of trouble to create. The day will come when writers requiring plot devices will reach for the "trumpet of Rassilon" or the "razor of Omega" but it has not come yet.
Scripts shed bits of backstory with gay abandon, safe in the knowledge that they will never be mentioned again. In Invisible Enemy, the Doctor and Leela are exploring that part of the Doctor's brain which makes memories and dreams and nightmares. In the next story we meet a creature that the Doctor has nightmares about. Are the two connected? Why would they be? In Image of the Fendahl, we discover that the Time Lords once broke their non-intervention vows, and took some trouble to cover it up. In Underworld, we find out why they took those vows to begin with. Are the two stories related? Of course not. And the final story of the season is going to take us back to Gallifrey. Will it draw all the hints and foreshadowing together and show how the Fendahl and the Time Lord Intelligentsia and the Minions are connected?
It seems that when the Time Lords were first learning to travel in time and space, they shared their technology with the Minions: and of course the Minions promptly kicked the Time Lords out and had a genocidal civil war. Jackson's ship, and the one he has been chasing for the past hundred millennia are the only survivors of the cataclysm.
This is the exact same origin story that Stan Lee made up for the Watcher in a back up strip in an Iron Man comic in 1964. The Watcher was a supporting character in the Fantastic Four; he sits on the Moon and never interferes in human affairs (except when he does). It turns out that "aeons" ago, his people taught the Proscillicons about atomic power, were rather surprised when they blew themselves up and promised never to do it again. The United Federation of Planets seems to have come up with the Prime Directive all by themselves, without the trauma of original sin.
In 1963, when Doctor Who was just a TV show, series creator Sydney Newman said that the origin of the Doctor ought not to be revealed. Writers could drop hints about it, but they should leave enough wiggle room that the next writer could drop hints of his own. It seems that Williams is adopting this approach to the Time Lords. Anyone can say any shit they like about them and no-one is expected to pay the slightest attention to it.
"A ship of ghosts, going on and on and unable to remember why."
The Doctor says that the Time Lords inadvertently destroyed the Minions by giving them better weapons and communications but the only unusual technology we see them using is Cellular Regeneration. There are no shortage of races in the universe who have space-ships and ray-guns, with or without Time Lord intervention. The Minions do have a natty weapon called a pacifier which calms the target down and makes him temporarily love everyone, but they use it once on Leela and then forget about it.
The Minions Cellular Regeneration is definitely meant to be the same kind of thing as Time Lord Regeneration: the Doctor says that he has been through it "two or three times" (instantly decanonizing the Mobius Doctors.) The crew of the R1C say that they have regenerated thousands of times each; suggesting that Bob Baker and Dave Martin don't know about the twelve body limit imposed by Robert Holmes.
You would expect this to be the main thrust of the story: how a race of immortals recklessly shared their deathlessness with some mortals who were not ready for it. But it's pretty much just a one-use plot device to explain how the same crew can have been in space for a thousand centuries.
Nothing in the story would fall out differently if the Minions did not have Previous with the Time Lords, but were just some humanoids trying to get their Race Banks back. Nothing would be different if they had been elderly people who had been questing for fifty years, as opposed to immortals who had been at it for a hundred thousand. Nothing would be different if the Planet were a few hundred light years away rather than at the very edge of existence.
I was going to say that these concepts have been crowbarred in to give a painfully generic story a spurious significance and gravitas. But they don't even do that. They feel more like space fillers, improvisations, twiddly bits that briefly embellish an otherwise rather bland melody.
Some people are going to a certain place to do a certain thing.
Why? Because Time Lords.
"Revolution. Has no-one thought of revolution? Has no-one ever rebelled?"
It seems that Jackson's ship exerts a gravitational pull strong enough to attract all the asteroids and space debris in the vicinity: Episode One ends with the ship very nearly being buried by small rocks. The quest ship, the P7E, has been sitting in the asteroid field for centuries; a whole planet has formed around it. Descendants of the crew live in the tunnels and caves they have excavated. They have never seen the outside world and don't even believe it exists.
This seems to be quite a lot of narrative trouble to go to to establish the basic conceit of the story; that the race-banks which Jackson is searching for are at the heart of a labyrinthine network of caves and tunnels. The central metaphor is advertised in the story's title: Jackson is going down into the underworld. He is going to retrieve the golden life pods from P7E. (Persephone. Geddit?)
Most of the population of P7E dress in ragged nightshirts and look like extras from Life of Brian. They are, inevitably, called the Trogs and spend their whole lives digging rock "for reprocessing into food so that we can go on working to get more rock." (Leela is surprised that it is possible to eat rock. "Did I ever tell you about the time I went to Blackpool?" ripostes the Doctor. Ha-ha.) They are ruled by the Guards, who are ruled by the Seers, who answer to the Oracle who (to no-one's great surprise) turns out to be the computer that ran the original starship.
Dig rock so we can make food so we can dig more rock; work so we can pay for drugs that can keep us awake to work longer hours so we can pay our taxes. A casual viewer who had zoned out during Sunmakers and rejoined the action part way through Underworld could be forgiven for thinking he was watching the same story.
"What else? We can make your brain boil in you skull! What else?"
Graham Williams is making a concerted effort to appeal to the neglected torture-and-execution demographic (largely neglected since Deadly Assassin.) Last time he had Leela being steamed to death while the Gatherer drooled. This time one of Jackson's crew is strapped into a device somewhere between a particularly unwieldy stereo system and the electric chair; while the Seers demand he tells them things that he obviously doesn't know. Meanwhile, an elderly Trog becomes a human sacrifice because he has publicly stated that the sky is not made of rock and there are stars above it. "The Trogs always work harder after a good sacrifice" say the Seers.
The black and white William Hartnell story, the Aztecs, may not be the most culturally sensitive piece of TV ever filmed: but it did show some awareness that human sacrifice was a religious rite, albeit a cruel and bloodthirsty one. Underworld depicts it purely as a form of execution. It doesn't seem to be about deterring specific heretics; it's merely a show of strength pour encourager les autres. The Doctor sees it as "official sadism". For a show which is meant to be toning down the violence for the sake of the Whitehouse, the episode spends a lot of time dwelling on the process of killing. A sword is suspended over the victim, tied by an elaborate strip of cloth, and an oil lamp is lit underneath to burn through it. It is presumably supposed to evoke the Sword of Damocles; but it feels more like an Adam West Batman cliffhanger: an over-complex trap the sole purpose of which is to give the hero a chance to escape from it.
"You're just another machine with megalomania. Another insane object, another self-aggrandising artefact. You're nothing. Nothing but a mass of superheated junk with delusions of grandeur."
The Seers think that preserving the Oracle is the most important thing; so they agree to hand over the Race Banks if Jackson's crew will go away. But the Oracle thinks that holding onto the Race Banks is the most important thing, so it hands over two Race Bank shaped atomic bombs that it prepared earlier. The Doctor takes the real Race Banks by force; and tries to dispose of the Bombs safely; but the Guards take them off him thinking they are real Race Banks. The Trogs escape on board the ship, the planet blows up, and everyone lives relatively happily ever after.
("The prophecy's being fulfilled. Our god has come to save us. We can escape to the stars" exclaims one of the Trogs. Tom resists the temptation to say "I think this is becoming needlessly Messianic".)
Once again, the climactic scene involves the Doctor confronting the main villain and over-acting a lot. Tom Baker is now the defining feature of Doctor Who; so it makes perfect sense to allow him to grandstand once in each story. The showdown with the Oracle is considerably more shouty than the one with the Gatherer last week: the Doctor appears to be angry, not because it is especially evil, but because it is such a cliche. It is fairly hard not to read this as Tom Baker's contempt for the material; or perhaps even knowing self-deprecation on the part of Bob Baker and Dave Martin. After four episodes, a hundred thousand years and a ground-up re-write of Time Lord history, it all comes down to yet another nasty computer and a very powerful hand-grenade.
"Perhaps those myths are not just old stories of the past, you see, but prophecies of the future."
There was a three-week gap between the Sunmakers (which concluded on December 17th 1977) and Underworld (which began on January 7th 1978.) There was no Doctor Who on Christmas Eve, even though it fell on a Saturday; and only a repeat of Robots of Death on New Years Eve.
And during that hiatus, on the day-after-Boxing Day, Star Wars finally arrived in the UK. (The day-after-New Years day also saw the launch of Blakes' Seven.)
So: that really-quite-good BBC special effect of space-ships flying overhead and getting swallowed by meteors in Episode One happened at the same time most of us were having our first encounter with Star Wars. Very many of us saw the Planet blow up (split down the middle like a giant easter egg) in the same week we first saw Alderaan (and then the Death Star) explode. Leela shouts "revolution!" at the Trogs at the same time that brave rebels, striking from a hidden base, won their first victory over the evil galactic empire.... Her names sounds a bit like Princess Leia's, come to think of it.
Had anyone in the Doctor Who production office seen Star Wars? Had they (like me) read the comic book and the novel? Did they know it by reputation? Or, as the Doctor said last week, it might just have been coincidence.
Did Underworld -- and by degrees Doctor Who itself -- develop its reputation for shoddiness because it appeared in the same time-frame as the massively spectacular and ground-breaking effects in Star Wars? Was our perception of the awesomeness of Star Wars effected by the mediocrity of Doctor Who?
Did we look at the spaceships in Underworld and say "Oh dear, the BBC is trying to do Star Wars, badly." Or did we see Star Wars for the first time and think "Oh my giddy aunt, it's like Doctor Who, only less crap."
The first thing the world noticed about Star Wars is that it was kind of like a fairy tale, only in space. The second thing it noticed was that it was kind of a collage of everything that George Lucas loved about cinema. But we very quickly spotted that the really important thing about Star Wars was that it had something to do with Joseph Campbell.
Let's not revisit the question of whether Lucas used Hero With a Thousand Faces as a template; whether the mighty power of the collective unconscious caused him to make a movie that was shaped like the Monomyth; or if Campbell's Monomyth is merely a convoluted way of saying that most stories are about people who go from some place to some other place in order to do a thing. What matters is that for a while, we all believed that Star Wars was not just a great Hollywood adventure movie. It was a modern embodiment of the One True Story, and therefore Very Important Indeed.
And it is more or less at that cultural moment that the Doctor chooses to assert that Underworld, the most formulaic and derivative of all Doctor Who stories had, in fact, been the recapitulation of an ancient myth.
"Jason was another captain on a long quest. He was looking for the Golden Fleece. He found it hanging on a tree at the end of the world..."
The whole point of Image of the Fendahl is that myths and religions are garbled memories of things which really happened in the remote past. The Doctor now proposes that they are prophecies of things which will happen in the far future. Joseph Campbell, of course, says that they are the forms in which deep mystical and psychological truths penetrate our conscious minds. All three say that myths are not true, but are nevertheless really important. It is possible to bite through the chocolate shell of legend and get to the Kinder toy of truth buried within.
The connections between the story of Jackson and the story of Jason are actually pretty tenuous. One of Jackson's crew is called Herrick, which is obviously supposed to make us think of Heracles: there are also characters called Orfe and Talis. Herrick is a bit heroic and gung-ho; but Orfe doesn't sing and Talis isn't made of bronze. Their ship is nearly destroyed by asteroids, which is a bit like crashing rocks. P7E sounds like Persephone (who Jason never encountered) and if you try really hard you can make R1C rhyme with Argosy. They are not looking for a fleece, but for Race Banks; but their pods are certainly gold in colour. The P7E is concealed in a kind of labyrinth which the Trogs call the Tree; it is defended by automatic lasers which the Trogs call dragons. Going down into a series of caves to retrieve the very thing which will save your people is unquestionably pretty mythic.
Joseph Campbell gave it a big important name. George Lucas injected it into a movie. But if you are inclined to believe in the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, it is very interesting that in the exact same week Luke Skywalker arrived in England, Doctor Who was telling a story about a band of heroes who go an a long journey and descend into the underworld to bring back the golden boon which will restore their race.
The Quest, they keep on saying, Is The Quest.