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Fourth Doctor: Underworld
The Fourth Doctor era offers two stories with explicit roots in Greek mythology: Underworld and The Horns of Nimon. Although Underworld was actually broadcast first, an earlier quest of my own to identify the monsters of my childhood means that I've already skipped ahead and seen Horns. I don't think that really matters, as they have no other relationship; but whichever way round they're viewed, the obvious similarity in what they're doing means it's impossible not to compare one with the other.

Alas, Underworld share the same two basic flaws as Horns: 1) it's not actually a particularly sizzling story in its own right and 2) the use of Greek mythology is little more than a thin device for giving it extra 'resonance', and it doesn't even do this particularly well. This time, the main story used is Jason and the Argonauts, though there are also showings from the stories of Persephone, the Trojan Horse and (oddly) the Roman legend of Horatius on the Bridge. This is fine, but, as with Horns, the problem is that we're given nothing beyond direct echoes of those stories. Though the story setting is full of potential for offering exciting new angles on them, it simply doesn't happen.

Take, for instance, the quest at the centre of the story. Like the Argonauts, Underworld's Minyan crew are engaged on a dangerous voyage, which has taken them far away from home. But, even allowing for the shift in setting from the Mediterranean sea to the entire Universe, the scale of the Minyans' quest is far greater. It has vastly outlasted their own life-spans, going on for 100,000 years, and requiring each of them to mechanically regenerate their bodies 1000 times over in order to continue. Now that should offer real room for a fresh perspective. It certainly raises a lot of interesting questions: what sort of people are these, who will doggedly pursue a quest over that length of time? What has the quest actually come to mean to them after so long? Do they even remember why they're doing it any more? And what has one hundred millennia of being confined together on the same small spaceship done to their personalities? Any space given to any of those issues would have made this story much more interesting, and constituted a new perspective on the original myth. But, unfortunately, they're left unexplored - unless, that is, you count the occasional observation from the Doctor that the Minyans' obsession with the quest is 'fascinating', or are prepared to interpret their incredibly bland personalities as the result of their millennia of isolation (rather than, say, a poor script or second-rate acting).

Similarly, there's a lot of wasted potential around the relationship between the Minyans' original society and the Time Lords. The set-up is that the Time Lords had originally tried to help the Minyans by offering them Time Lord technology, to which the Minyans had responded initially by treating them like gods. (Interestingly, the Doctor's comment on this - 'It was all very flattering' - rather implies that he was personally involved). Eventually, though, the Minyans rebelled against the Time Lords and destroyed their own planet in a violent war, giving rise to both the Time Lords' famous policy of non-intervention, and the start of the quest featured in this story. All of which should, of course, mean that when the Doctor shows up on their space-ship, there is every opportunity to explore what happens when people come face to face with their own fallen idols. Would they blame him and his people for their current predicament? Declare scorn for him? Demand some answers about what had happened so long ago? Try to kill him, perhaps? And would he maybe want to try to apologise for what had happened; pass the blame onto the other Time Lords; or maybe make some points about free will vs. mindless supplication? Um, well, no - instead, after a bit of mild disgruntlement, the Minyans just accept his presence in their midst, and the two sides carry on together just like in any other story.

All that might be acceptable if the story itself was strong. Or, indeed, if it at least had Nimons in it. But it's not, and it doesn't. There are no supporting characters of any interest whatsoever, a pretty generic megalomaniacal exploitation plot when they reach their destination planet, and a lot of very claustrophobic and uninteresting sets (and / or blue-screen projections). There's also a really very silly scene in a shaft leading down into the centre of planet, in which the Doctor, Leela and a chap named Idas have to 'float' downwards by flapping their hands in the opposite direction. Now, as it happens their gesturing as they do this does look a tiny bit like the early Church's favoured posture for prayer, so it might be an incredibly clever piece of religious imagery: y'know, along the lines of "They're praying as they descend into the Underworld to face the Forces of Evil" sort of thing. But nothing else in the script suggests anything like that level of carefully-thought-out symbolism, and in all honesty it reminded me rather more of the scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, when Charlie and his Grandpa drink too much of the Fizzy Lifting Drink (with silly music to match).

What are the best things I can say about it? Actually some of the special effects are pretty good - even the blue-screened underground caves are passable enough, while things like meteorites, a nebula and an exploding planet are really rather impressive. Other than that, though, I got nothing. And I shouldn't be surprised at that, since the writers behind it all were Bob Baker and Dave Martin - now secure in my eyes in their status as the worst Doctor Who writers of this era by quite a significant margin. The good news? I've now seen all of their Fourth Doctor 'stories', so I shall never need to watch my favourite Doctor suffer at their clumsy hands again.



Fourth Doctor: The Invasion of Time
Ah, now this one I really enjoyed. In an interesting reversal of my reaction to The Unicorn and the Wasp, I found that although I could see it had a lot of flaws in it, fundamentally it was just bloody good fun that had me alternately squeeing and shrieking with laughter almost the whole way through. The bottom line here is that this story was written in two weeks to plug a last-minute gap in the schedule, and mainly filmed in a hospital. That's not an excuse for making bad television - but I don't think this is bad television, and it does at least explain some of the peculiarities and unresolved threads of the plot, as well as some of the strange sets that were used.

Meanwhile, if you're prepared to overlook those little details, what you do get is some fantastic characterisation, and some delicious new insights into the Whoniverse. The biggest draw of the story is that we get to see Eeeevvviiillll!Doctor - well, not actually evil, of course, but it looks that way at first; and boy, does Tom Baker have fun with it while it lasts. The story opens with him behaving strangely and secretively. He signs a shady deal with mysterious unseen beings, installs himself as a tyrannical president on Gallifrey and then proceeds to open up the planet to an external invasion. It looks like he's got some sort of plan up his sleeve - but we don't actually find this out for sure until the third episode. Meanwhile, his mood is flying about all over the place like a demented rubber ball: he's afraid, angry, boyish, burdened, charming, devious, impotent, magisterial, manic, overwhelmed, resigned, trivial and troubled; and all within moments of one another. And Leela, whom he has dismissed out of hand as an 'alien', is left hurt and confused. We find ourselves wondering with her, 'Can we trust him?' - and that's a great question to be made to ask about the Doctor every now and again.

In fact, it's a question which the Gallifreyan setting allows to be raised particularly effectively. As for The Deadly Assassin, bringing the Doctor face to face with mainstream Time Lord society offers enormous scope for highlighting the rebellious and unconventional side of his character. In most stories we (as viewers) have only his word for what is going on and what should be done about it, so that he necessarily becomes our guru and, effectively, (as RTD has noted) god. But Gallifreyan stories present us with people who have the same knowledge and abilities as the Doctor, and not only question what he is doing, but are actively shocked and angry about it. We're presented with a fantastically enjoyable clash between Establishment and Renegade, and one which also prompts us to stop and re-examine our instinctive trust in the Doctor. And when, of course, we eventually establish that he was on the side of Right and Good all along, then that trust, and our affection for his character, only return all the stronger.

There's also some rather interesting Doctor-as-Jesus stuff going on (and I really do mean 'interesting', not 'completely Tinkerbell-stupid'). RTD's overuse of religious parallels in Doctor Who has rather put people off the idea lately, but that doesn't mean they're actually inherently a bad idea, or that they can't be put to good effect when used more sparingly. What we get here is a scene during the Doctor's inauguration as President of Gallifrey when the Time Lord Matrix (in this story, a medieval-looking circlet) is placed on his head, with this result:





It's all very Crown of Thorns, and judging from the white robes the resonance is meant to be deliberate. Mainly, its effect in this story is to emphasise the risk the Doctor is taking - he's taking on danger and suffering for the ultimate good of people who don't understand his plans, and only see him as a false pretender to the Presidency. And it's perhaps particularly interesting coming after Underworld, in which we were introduced to people who'd seen the Time Lords as space-age equivalents of the Greek gods. If that's kept in mind, then casting the Doctor as Jesus also helps to support the wider theme of the contrast between him and the rest of the Time Lords: he's the lone, renegade god, and a challenge to the established religious order.

But none of it is overdone. After all, this is situated in the middle of a story that's all about being asked to question the Doctor's motives, and he is far from being presented as infallible. In any case, the previous story had made it perfectly clear that Time Lords are not gods - just that they might be mistaken for them by people who didn't know better. Unlike the RTD take on the matter, then, we're not actually being asked here to believe that the Doctor is Jesus - just to enjoy the drawing of a parallel.

Moving away from THE LOVE THAT IS TOM BAKER (if I can bear to), both Leela and K-9 also do unusually well out of this story. In Leela's case, her reaction to the Doctor's behaviour is absolutely essential for conveying what is going on to the viewers. His very out-of-character rejection of her is one of the first signs that something strange is afoot, while her insistence that he must have a good reason for the way he is behaving all the same lets the audience know that it's OK - we can enjoy the Doctor's strangeness for the moment, because everything will turn out all right in the end. Meanwhile, his refusal to let her anywhere near him (for fear she'll accidentally give his plans away to the Vardans) also has the important consequence of freeing her up for her own independent sub-plot. It means we can experience her very human reactions to Time Lord society, without that getting in the way of the Doctor's activities (cf. The Deadly Assassin), and it also means that she has plenty of opportunities to do what she does best - fighting.

K-9, on the other hand, who is safe from the Vardans because he has no thought-wave patterns that can be read, is in on the Doctor's plans from the start. In fact, during the second episode in particular, he is the only character whom the Doctor can talk to safely. This makes him unusually important from a plot point of view, but it also brings out the charm of the Doctor's relationship with him very effectively. They are co-conspirators, both utterly trusting in one another and respectful of each other's abilities - but sparring like a pair of smart-alec schoolboys all the same. K-9 alone has the intelligence and the technical ability for the Doctor to be able to send him off on missions crucial to his plan, such as destroying Gallifrey's induction barrier, while later on it is he who is able to use the Matrix circlet to get the crucial coordinates which the Doctor needs to expel the Vardans from Gallifrey and trap their planet in a time-loop.

Meanwhile, we also at last get to meet our first ever female Time Lord (besides Susan) - Rodan. She's fairly obviously a proto-type for the introduction of Romana in the next season, but nonetheless she does get a decent little developing storyline as she gets expelled from the Time Lord citadel and has to learn (with Leela's help) to cope in the wastelands beyond. The contrast between her conservatism and Leela's pragmatism works to the benefit of both characters. And then there's some interesting new canon fodder about both Rassilon and the Matrix, more insight into the Doctor's past relationship with Borusa, the suggestion that one can 'drop out' of being a Time Lord (like the outcasts in the wasteland), and of course the fun of extended scenes spent running around the interior of the TARDIS.

Yes, I'll admit, there's also a lot that makes almost no sense whatsoever. Like the Doctor building and using a demat gun, the apparent Time Lord preference for buying awful plastic pool-side chairs and then leaving them strewn throughout the corridors of their citadel, the abrupt and out-of-character ending written for Leela (I'd have found it more convincing - not to mention hotter - if she'd hooked up with Rodan), and the 'It was all a dream!' ending which causes the Doctor (though nobody else) to forget the entire story. Bits of the technobabble also seem less convincing than usual, and really, by the sixth episode the plot has descended (or do I mean 'ascended'?) into pure crack. But am I prepared to forgive all that for the evil cackle with which the Doctor introduces the Time Lords to their 'new masters' at the end of the second episode? Oh, yes - yes I am!


That now brings me to the end of both Leela as a companion, and season 15 as a whole (for my reference, write-ups of the other stories from this season are here, here, here and here). I'm still underwhelmed by Leela. She's OK when she gets to do a bit of fighting, but that isn't always the case, and otherwise I still find her to be rather a one-note character (as I originally complained). Still, there are plenty of companions who are far worse, and she does have her moments. Meanwhile, season 15 has a slightly higher quotient of weak stories (The Invisible Enemy, Underworld) than the previous three Baker seasons; but then none of those were perfect either (and often for the same reason).

It also seemed to me to have just slightly more in the way of unifying themes to it than most of the previous seasons (though season 12 is tied together by near-continuous action between all five stories) - perhaps an early step in the same, more structured, direction then taken by season 16 (Key to Time)? It probably wasn't originally planned to start with the Rutans and end with the Sontarans (given the production circumstances of The Invasion of Time), but nonetheless that's how it worked out, and it could well have been done consciously for the sake of structure, once the opportunity presented itself. Meanwhile, The Sun Makers and Underworld both present exploited masses who are eventually liberated by the Doctor's intervention, and the manifestation of the Fendahl Core as a goddess-figure in Image of the Fendahl goes nicely along with the religious themes I've noted in the two stories above. It's not quite as structured as the Key to Time arc, but it's recognisably moving in that direction.

Next - season 17.

Comments

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
swisstone
May. 27th, 2008 08:49 pm (UTC)
She's fairly obviously a proto-type for the introduction of Romana in the next season

As I understand it, Graham Williams was desperately trying to persuade Louise Jameson not to leave right up to the last minute (hence the rubbish exit for her), so Rodan isn't really a try-out for a planned character for the next season. More likely is that, when faced with Jameson's definite departure, Williams and whoever was script-editor round then remembered Rodan, and built a variation on her for the next season.

I still like Invasion of Time for the end of episode 4, which I remember as a real shocker, since there'd been no hint that there were Sontarans in the wings - or, indeed, that the story wasn't about to finish.

Underworld isn't very good though, I agree, though I still think it's vastly superior to Horns of the Nimon.
strange_complex
May. 27th, 2008 09:20 pm (UTC)
Yup, fair enough on Rodan. And I agree about the end of episode four of Invasion! I did know it was coming, because I tend to read the Wikipedia summaries at some point before or early on during my watching of the stories, but it was still a great moment all the same.

I'd love to know what you think Underworld has that Horns doesn't, when it seems so obvious to me that Horns wins purely by dint of having Nimons in it!
swisstone
May. 27th, 2008 09:52 pm (UTC)
To be honest, Underworld scores through the absence of Nimon! But I also think it's a touch more subtle, and at least has a degree of novelty about it - by the time Horns came around it really was 'not this again!'
steer
May. 28th, 2008 08:14 am (UTC)
There seemed to be a whole swathe of "what stories can we retell in a sci-fi way" in the Tom Baker era... Underworld and Horns of the Nimon were the most obvious of them.

I liked Leila's role in "Invasion of Time" but the rest of the episode seemed to lurch about -- your revelation that it was written very much in haste really comes a not much of a surprise. It explains a lot. I quite liked the bits we got to find out about time lords but mainly I felt it was a bit slow paced and flabby as a story.
strange_complex
May. 28th, 2008 09:46 am (UTC)
I kind of wish I'd had the chance to see Invasion without knowing about how it was put together, as obviously I went into it prepared to be very forgiving, which isn't fair really. It should be judged by the same standards as other stories, since that's how it was broadcast. Still, even if I hadn't known, I'm pretty sure I would have thought it was better than Underworld all the same!
chrisvenus
May. 28th, 2008 11:42 am (UTC)
I'd be quite interested in watching the invasion of time. Is there a sensible place to get it from (or is it coming up on UKTVGold or something? I seem to remember you were skipping ahead of them)?
chrisvenus
May. 28th, 2008 12:33 pm (UTC)
Ah, UKDrama in a few days. I shall do that then. Cheers.

Posting just to let you (and anybody else who might want to be helpful) know I got info by e-mail.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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