|The Doctor enjoys the wonders of things he can’t|
arbitrarily walk through.
It’s January 7th, 1978. Wings remain at number one with “Mull of Kintyre,” and, as mentioned, stay there for the whole story. Bonnie Tyler, Donna Summer and The Bee Gees also chart. So that’s not entirely exciting.
Since Doctor Who went on its Christmas break, the Copyright Act of 1976 took effect in the United States, changing American copyright law to be based on the life of the author instead of the date of publication. A referendum in Chile supported Augusto Pinochet’s policies, which is a less impressive electoral feat than it sounds given Pinochet’s overt fondness for the mass slaughter of his political opponents. And the United States returned the Holy Crown of Hungary to Hungary, having been keeping it safe in Fort Knox since World War II.
While during this story, riots erupt in Nicaragua after the assassination of a leading critic of the government. Rose Dugdale and Eddie Gallagher become the first people to marry in prison in the Republic of Ireland. And speaking of Ireland, the European Court of Human Rights acquits the United Kingdom of torturing prisoners in Northern Ireland, but does find that they mistreated prisoners.
While on television, it’s one of the great punching bags of Doctor Who: Underworld. A story that I could simply and cavalierly lay into for a myriad of faults and get absolutely no comments from anybody suggesting that I was being too hard on the story or being unfair. This is the one Tom Baker story to slot in the bottom ten on the Doctor Who Magazine Mighty 200 poll. Lawrence Miles declares it the worst story of the 1970s. It’s crap. it’s garbage. I kinda liked it.
I mean, it wasn’t good by any measure, but it’s not even the worst Baker and Martin script of Season Fifteen, little yet the worst Doctor Who story of the 1970s. (I’m not through the 1970s yet, but I’m pretty sure The Monster of Peladon is the single worst.) For the most part, on this story at least, Tat Wood’s review in About Time is spot on – there’s nothing bad that you can say about this that can’t also be said about The Time Monster, and unlike The Time Monster there are at least some valid production reasons for why their backs were so up against the wall.
Star Wars was a mixed blessing for Doctor Who. This is an altogether more positive interpretation than most people would give you. The more common view would have to be that Star Wars was a disaster for Doctor Who because Doctor Who could never hope to match its effects and so looked cheap and silly after Star Wars. This, at least, is clearly nonsense – The Invisible Enemy looked cheap and silly just fine on its own.
All of which said… Underworld is horrendously cheap and silly. Amusingly, one aspect of the story manages to simultaneously be the most appallingly cheap looking and the part of the story that served as a road map for future stories, which is the CSO work. Nobody, not even Barry Letts, has managed to cross the line of what 1970s CSO technology was capable to quite this gratuitous an extent. There are, of course, background reasons. Graham Williams, aware that Star Wars was going to be out before this story aired and that it would be unfavorably compared, decided to try to economize and redo the script so that it only required two sets, both of which he could then spend on. One set was to be the Minyan spaceship, which would serve double duty. The other was to be the cavern set.
Unfortunately, upon returning from vacation he discovered that Underworld was on track for an overspend to the tune of three times what it was supposed to spend. With the Minyan spaceship set already in production, and faced with the option of either pulling the plug on the final story of the season (which was tempting, as the intended finale was turning out to be completely unfilmable) or of getting exceedingly creative. The latter option was chosen, in part because abandoning episodes was going to be a disaster in its own right, and in part because they had an idea, which was to build models for the cavern sets and shoot them with CSO. This idea was appealing in particular because it would finally give Williams reason to force through a production decision (the first major change to how stories were made since Barry Letts) he’d been lobbying for all season – a gallery only day in which effects work could be done.
The only problem is that it didn’t work. I mean, the gallery-only day was a winner. So that was nice. But the actual CSO use has to go down as the most spectacularly ill-advised attempt to beat Star Wars at its own game until at least Galactica 1980. Particularly great are any of the moments in which K-9, motors running at appallingly high volume, walks through walls, although the sequence of the Trogs running around in a rockfall at the start of episode two manages to capture the visual aesthetic of Monty Python and the Holy Grail with an uncanny accuracy sullied only by the fact that it’s not meant to be funny.
But let’s face it, the whole production is cheap looking even by the recent standards of Doctor Who. Perhaps the most telling moment is when K-9 is hooked into the Minyan computer via what is very obviously a pair of binder clips at the end of telephone wires. What’s striking about this isn’t the use of cheap and everyday materials in Doctor Who – that’s been going on for ages, with condom maggots and bubble wrap alien arms appearing in highly acclaimed stories. It’s the fact that no effort whatsoever is made to disguise the fact that it’s phone wire and binder clips. They’re not spray-painted gold or anything. They’re using phone wire and binder clips that are obviously being phone wire and binder clips. It’s a stunning moment in which it’s clear that the production department has simply given up all hope that this will ever look good.
To be fair, at this point we should probably return to the old joke about the guy who came upon an old man playing checkers with his dog. The guy watched the two of them for a while, and finally said “you know, this is incredible. You trained your dog to play checkers. I mean, that’s got to be the smartest dog I’ve ever seen.” And the old man shrugged and said “Nah. He only wins about forty percent of the time.” Yes, the BBC is unable to make it look good when they turn out six film-length science fiction stories a year on a BBC television budget without relying on standing sets or even on a sizable regular cast. But unless you’re just willing to say that the BBC shouldn’t be doing science fiction in the first place, it’s tough to complain too much. The impressive thing is that the BBC can do six film-length sci-fi stories a year, not how good they look. And reasonable people, at least, understood that in 1978 and were willing to just accept that Doctor Who wasn’t supposed to be Star Wars. This story tests the limits of that, certainly, especially since it’s only the worst of the season and not the only misstep, but the fact of the matter is that the show can fall on its face occasionally in the effects department with no ill effects.
Unfortunately, the visual effects aren’t the only bad thing in this story. I mentioned the terrible rockfall scene at the start of episode two, which is one of the single worst shots in all of Doctor Who. But its low quality is as much the fault of the actors playing the Trogs, whose style of running from rockfalls more resembles rushing to the bathroom than fleeing for one’s life, as it is the bad CSO cave they’re running through. And they don’t even manage to occupy all the slots for “worst actors,” with the Minyans and, for that matter, almost every other guest star flopping badly. This is somewhat more surprising. Even granting that this is Norman Stewart’s first directorial effort, it is difficult to understand how so much went wrong in terms of casting.
That said, there’s a general problem with the series’ acting that starts to set in around now, and it’s one that’s worth understanding as a general case instead of as a lengthy series of specific bad performances. To some extent it’s easiest to go back and look at this in terms of the previous Baker and Martin story and the appallingly bad performance of Frederick Jaeger as Professor Marius. The thing about that performance is that Jaeger is a good actor. He’s even been good on Doctor Who, having played Professor Sorenson in Planet of Evil and Jano way back in The Savages. And yet in The Invisible Enemy, he’s terrible. What about that story would make someone we know is a good actor be that bad?
There’s a viewpoint you can find from a sizable number of writers. Douglas Adams has a version of it he said about City of Death, for instance, and Steven Moffat has said it about Coupling. Usually the viewpoint comes in some form of telling actors who are appearing in something that’s very funny to stop being so funny. In Moffat’s telling, the single most common direction given to actors appearing in Coupling was “You know that funny thing you’re doing? Stop doing it.” In Adams’s version, it was frequently necessary to pull actors aside and tell them not to do funny walks or funny voices when playing parts but to play it straight.
In a way this is just a version of taking your bubble wrap seriously, but not entirely. It’s not as though Frederick Jaeger’s acting changed particularly in The Invisible Enemy when he was face to face with a poor effect. Instead this is a point about overall aesthetics. When the show is forced to look cheap and silly, a large number of actors instinctively respond by hamming up their performances. The logic behind it is sensible enough – given that the show isn’t serious, clearly one should act non-serious as well. So everyone slips into panto mode. The only problem is that it completely sandbags the approach that worked in The Sun Makers. The Sun Makers worked because the story was in on it’s own joke – it knew it was ridiculous, and that freed it up to be serious. But that only works if the story is a mix of the serious and the ridiculous. If everybody is in on the joke and openly acknowledges that everything is ridiculous then there’s no joke anymore. The approach works only when the show gains the ability to turn on a dime between serious and ridiculous and requires a delicate balancing of both.
Unfortunately, in this story everyone is in on the joke. And the effects are the worst they’ve been. And the whole thing comes off terribly. But despite this, under the hood, there are some real reasons to be optimistic about the direction the series is going. And this is where the good bits of what Star Wars meant for Doctor Who come in. But first of all, let’s use this story to shoot one more gaping hole in the idea that Star Wars was coming up with anything new. The plot of this story is basically the myth of Jason and the Argonauts retold with sci-fi concepts. So, in other words, myth redone as science fiction. i.e. the thing that everyone acts like Star Wars was so clever for figuring out. And it was firmly written before Star Wars came out. So yeah. Good job, George Lucas. You’re almost as clever and as good a writer as Bob Baker and David Martin. Enjoy a golf clap, mate.
Admittedly Star Wars just goes and does mythic science fiction instead of having an irritating coda in which it its itself on the back for how clever it is. And perhaps more to the point, it’s not like this is the first retelling Doctor Who has done lately. It retold Quatermass and the Pit two times ago, has redone Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, and various mummy movies, and was going to open the season with a redo of Dracula except a BBC production that was actually of Dracula scuppered that and Terrance Dicks hurriedly wrote Horror of Fang Rock instead. In this regard there’s not actually anything all that new in using Jason and the Argonauts other than the fact that it’s an idea that everybody has now and so isn’t innovative so much as trendy.
On the other hand, as formulaic structures go, “take the Doctor and shove him into someone else’s story” isn’t a bad one. There are, after all, rather a lot of other stories, and the Doctor’s anarchic tendencies contrast well with most of them. Even in this story, hidden behind the bad effects, is the Doctor’s line about how “the more ritual and mumbo-jumbo, the greater deterrent. That’s the whole point of official sadism,” which is one of the most cuttingly antiauthoritarian lines in the whole series.
The only problem, and even Tat Wood, who comes close to defending this story, ends up admitting to it, is that there’s not actually a reason for this story to exist beyond the cleverness of its own existence. Jason and the Argonauts is not a story with immense cultural relevance. There’s not a lot of cutting or innovative commentary to be made on Britain of 1978 via Jason and the Argonauts. This is Doctor Who adapting existing literature with no real point behind it, just for the sake of doing it. And doing a myth because myths are big, so it makes for more epic Doctor Who. With no attention paid to whether there’s a good story or a good set of images.
Which is the basic problem with Baker and Martin at this point, and something I’ve criticized them for before. They’re long on ideas and short on interest in developing them. In their early stories this worked because the production team stepped up and made uncanny and impressive visuals to go along with the ideas. The Claws of Axos was just the story of the Trojan Horse glammed up to the point of utter and spectacular brilliance, but it worked because the visuals were so fun. Here the visuals are as crappy as the show has ever managed, and suddenly the facile nature of Baker and Martin’s ideas is revealed. As with The Invisible Enemy’s failure to do anything with its cloning, Underworld fails spectacularly to do anything with the idea that the Time Lords were worshipped as gods by the Minyans. Which is a great idea, if really just a slightly new spin on Chris Boucher’s main good idea in The Face of Evil. But Baker and Martin leave it there, blowing the biggest opportunity to do anything with this story. Similarly, the idea of the Minyans endlessly and torturously regenerating themselves isn’t really touched. The villain is just another crazy computer, and that’s not done as well as Boucher did it a year previously either. Much like The Invisible Enemy, there’s a good story to be written with these ideas, and this just isn’t it.
Still, this isn’t nearly as bad as people suggest. The effects are wretched, but for understandable reasons. The plot is above average for the writers. And it’s the debut script of a new script editor whose time was rapidly being hovered up by the next train wreck he was going to have to fix. For all its flaws, it is a story that continues to move towards a workable model for the series. The basic idea is here – have the writing be complex and full of big ideas and then produce it with a knowing camp glee at the limitations of the medium. Increasingly there is the sense that if the production team could catch their breath and straighten out their budgets, this could actually work. In some ways, one wishes this were the end of the season so we could just move on.