Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Doctor Who – Underworld: “The Quest Is The Quest”

Underworld is not the most highly regarded of Doctor Who stories. You’ll know this if you’ve read my critique of it in the Myths and Legends DVD set, or watched it yourself and thought, ‘Oh.’ Despite starring the bloke in the scarf, the woman in the leather bikini and the tin dog, despite pirating Greek myths, despite its starting point of a hundred-thousand-year Quest, it’s all just a bit dull. So I may be pushing my luck to return to it so soon (particularly after more of The Time Monster), but here’s a look at how it might have been so much better.
“Whatever blows – can be sucked!”
It’s customary when talking about Underworld to say how cheap it was, how feebly acted, how the groundbreaking but limited effects drove the inexperienced director to drink and left him no time to give the show much pace and energy… And all of that’s true. But, as I argued a couple of weeks ago, the central fault is the script. Relatively small changes might have salvaged it up to a point: giving Leela back her character rather than reducing her to a stupid, infantile savage; realising that the Doctor’s confrontation with the big villain should either be scornful of rank of any kind, or perhaps deliberately needling in a way that only he can; having a proper dragon or, if they couldn’t afford a monster, not promising one.

What Underworld really needed, though, was for the script editor to seize it, look at the elements that work – and some of it does – and demand a rewrite to bring out the elements that fire the imagination and push the rest of it back down to the underworld. Even if you still have to set most of it either on the ship or in the caves. And when we settled down to watch the DVD last year, Richard and I threw some ideas back and forth about how they might have done just that. So here’s a rough map of what they could have done with the story, and there are two reasons you should take a deep breath and watch the TV version first – not only will the reimagined outline make more sense if you can fill in the bits, but while ‘Here Be Dragons’ may have needed more buried treasure, it’s definitely marked ‘Here Be Spoilers’…

Going Under

It takes a bit of whittling to get to any ideas that deserved to be set on a pedestal, but one simple realisation helps: the first episode is far from thrilling, but the idea of the Quest is the bit of the story that has something interesting to say; the three episodes set in the Underworld itself are the ones that wander about aimlessly with nowhere near enough plot to sustain them and piddle away great myths into something very much smaller; so the answer isn’t to try and find more incident to liven up the final three episodes – from the interminable fight scenes, you can see that’s exactly what they tried – but to swap the focus of the story round entirely, so that the dull cliché is livened up by being tautly tied up in the final episode and the Quest of a hundred thousand years instead has room to breathe over the bulk of the story.

Bob Baker and Dave Martin came up with at least one really evocative idea that suited the epic feel they were after – that the characters’ story should stretch across a huge expanse of time. Where their earlier The Hand of Fear and The Three Doctors had antagonists cast away millions of years before, in Underworld it’s the protagonists who’ve been on a Quest for a hundred thousand years, and we’re drawn into their story long before we realise that their main antagonist (again) has also been cast away for all that time. Unfortunately, while putting your big idea up front sounds like a clever thing to do, using it as the story’s starting point has two major drawbacks. Firstly, feeling like you enter the story half-way through is an intriguing narrative device, but unfortunately it means most of the story’s gone when there are still three episodes to drag out with nowhere near enough to justify them. And secondly, while it’s a brave decision to open your story at a point when all your characters have become bored to the point of suicide, stepping back for a moment should tell you the fatal flaw there for audience engagement.

The solution is surely not just to give lip-service to the TARDIS as “a timeship of the gods,” but to treat it as exactly that. On screen the Doctor acts as if he’s merely a traveller in space, with the destruction of Minyos as much a hundred thousand years earlier for him as it is for the Questors, yet the story briefly comes alive when the Time Lords’ most tragic mistake is not just ancient history but something that shaped the real lives of the ROC’s crew. We should see more of those lives and what changes them over those hundred thousand years – and the Doctor should use his godlike power in time not just to meet up with them as if one ordinary starship bumping into another but skipping along their timeline at will, while they’re condemned to take the slow path. Not meeting them at the end and then going backwards, though; not only has that become its own timey-wimey Moffat cliché, but putting that into the rewrite would leave us exactly where we started – hey, kids, tune in for the boredom that makes you want to die! And unlike the surprise return in one of this year’s Doctor Who DVD releases, the Doctor’s several visits to this starship are entirely deliberate.

Focusing on the Quest through the millennia rather than jumping straight to the end of it offers two obvious ways to start Underworld – or, perhaps, simply The Quest – anew. One is to have the TARDIS land on Minyos itself before the fall; either, with typically brilliant timing, just as the other TARDISes flee the revolution against the Gods, or more appropriately in the midst of the civil war that results in the planet’s destruction and launches the Quest to try and track down their inheritance, lost en route to creating a new world – which would underline the irony that it does literally that, but to no-one’s benefit, and offer the symmetry of a story both beginning and ending with a world destroyed. A thrilling opening episode with a cast of thousands and calling for stupendous special effects, I can see the saga of a Star Atlantis in my mind’s eye… But I can also see that the budget of millions is so far beyond Doctor Who’s resources that even Bob and Dave at their most bonkers wouldn’t have proposed it. So where else would you start The Quest?

Reimagining Doctor Who – The Quest

Richard and I thought about how two of Doctor Who’s greatest ‘lead writers’ would have approached it: Bob Holmes would have got over the problem of a cast of thousands and the sets of DW Griffith’s Babylon falling by setting the story on the fringes of great events, painting in the wider story with words and the effects they’ve had on the characters fleeing them; and those characters would have been the starting point for Russell T Davies, who’d surely look at the interpersonal relationships and say, ‘Well, they’ve all had each other every which way fifty thousand times and are bored to death’. So we’d take Bob and Dave’s opening, seeing the TARDIS materialise on the Quest ship ROC and be recognised, then add a dash of Proper Bob and Russell: rather than make that just a prologue to the main story, surely for a quest to come to life, the vignettes in the Questors’ never-ending lives are the whole point of the story.

Part One of Doctor Who – The Quest opens with the TARDIS materialising on the ROC and dividing the questors, fresh from their civil war, once again into those who loved and who hated the Gods – but rather than the thin, exhausted cast that opens the story on television, this early in the quest the ROC has a full complement of hardy, dedicated heroes who are able to pull together, remembering that this very ideological / theological fight doomed their world, that they’re now its only hope and that they must succeed. ‘Well, the quest is the quest,’ says the Doctor, offhand. He helps save them from the Scylla-like space whirlpool and send them on their way, still full of hope; put in danger together, Orfe and Tala are drawn tentatively towards young love. Eager to be off rather than compound the Time Lords’ meddling, the Doctor takes the TARDIS away instead of staying to complete the quest. But Leela, drawn to these fighters, wants to know what becomes of them and the Doctor lets the TARDIS search time and space – only to find the ROC ten thousand years later, under attack from another ship…

The middle episodes of The Quest see the Doctor make another couple of visits to the ROC: from their point of view an irregularly helpful intervening god like Athena who drifts in and out of their lives on rare occasions; from his and Leela’s (and the audience’s) point of view seeing the Questors’ lives compressed from millennia to tiny snapshots. Like A Bit of A Do in time and space. Orfe and Tala are now an old married couple, happy with each other over the longest time while the crew’s other relationships chop and change around them. The crewmember who most loved the old Gods has taken up the Doctor’s “The quest is the quest” as a comforting expression when things get tough, while ferociously anti-Time Lord Herrick has been mollified by the Doctor providing a little help and then leaving without trying to dictate their lives. Part Two sees Herrick in his element in their first space battles, lusting after excitement to break thousands of years of watching the stars and knowing that most injuries can be healed by the regenerators that give them eternal life – but other questors are horrified when they suffer their first real casualties, blown away into space beyond the reach of regeneration. These battles are against ‘the Talos’, bronze machine men* into whose territory the ROC has strayed, and while they’re defeated with the ship still in one piece, this encounter has a lasting effect. The ROC’s computer succeeds in communicating with the Talos, enabling it to interface with and drain them… But it can do more than that, as the questers find when the inert Talos suddenly reanimate and turn on them. It seems the ship’s computer would be happier directing the quest with a shiny bronze crew that doesn’t ask questions or get tired**. While the rival crews – each repeatedly ‘dying’ and then getting up again – fight to a standstill, it’s the Doctor who breaks through to take the ship’s computer offline.

By Part Three and the Doctor’s next visit, the Minyans are no longer talking. The Captain*** answers every complaint with a peremptory “The Quest is the Quest” to silence all argument; some of the Questors we’ve got to know along the way are now missing, and there are only glares and sullen silences when Leela asks about them; Orfe and Tala are long-estranged and bitter, because no-one should be together for fifty thousand years; and Herrick is increasingly a loose cannon, arguing that they divert to anywhere that looks like it might give him a fight but seeing no contradiction in blaming the Time Lords for their still not having found the P7E because the Doctor disabled the computer, meaning their search and the state of the ship are becoming increasingly erratic. Although Orfe testily argues the faint transmissions from station**** Fini-S aren’t of Minyan origin, Herrick shouts them into changing course and, spoiling for a fight, is delighted to find it plagued by space raiders in their RP fighters. While signals from Fini-S are then able to guide the battered ship through the local asteroid belt without terminal damage, the overall Quest has lost direction and they’re not interested in the departing Doctor’s advice. Grumpily, he accedes to Leela’s plea to return to them one last time… When, at the end of the penultimate episode, they find the Questors exactly where they are in the transmitted Part One – at the end of their tethers. The few remaining crew tiredly treat it as just another in a long line when Tala makes her hauntingly effective (to the Doctor, Leela and the rest of us who haven’t seen it before) attempt at suicide; the Captain’s visionary optimism has long since turned to intolerant jobsworthery; and Herrick’s drive and enthusiasm become the edge of mania to keep himself going, tipping over the edge when the Doctor turns up again in berserk rage both that it was the Doctor’s meddling that put the Quest off-course, and that he could have helped them throughout the Quest, but merely appears to play with them for his sport. He’s stopped from killing the Doctor by the crewmember who once loved the old Gods and now worships our Time Lord as the wise father god who manifests divinely whenever they really need his help and guidance – and, sick of his pieties, Herrick guns him down. But before he turns his shield gun on the Doctor, at last they hear the signal: after a hundred thousand years, they’ve found the P7E…

And you can’t tell me that the transmitted Parts Two, Three and Four wouldn’t be better telescoped into one thrilling mini-adventure, the climax where we finally open out from the ship to some, er, hopefully more exciting caves. Let’s make the Underworld a real place of living death in need of liberation, while the Captain’s tunnel vision can only see the race banks he’s sought so long. Minyos’ last war was bacteriological as well as nuclear, leaving most of the population sterile: the race bank was created to let them breed true again, but while none of the ROC’s wounded generation could have children and so only regenerated to infinity, some children were born in the new planet among the much wider group of settlers – ignored by the Captain, their descendants have become the real heirs of the Minyan race, reduced to a life of servitude deep in the rock: ‘digging their own graves,’ as the Doctor puts it, and only he has the vision to see that both the entombed New Minyans and the ship of ghosts that the Quest has become are different types of living death that must work together to find new life elsewhere. Instead of Herrick dying the glorious death he’s longed for, he’s jolted from blaming everyone else after killing one of his own and at last takes responsibility, joining in the finale with the Doctor and Leela when they must defeat the Captain’s cold obsession just as much as the mad Oracle. The Quest ends in a journey towards peace, when the surviving crew take the new Minyans to a world full of life where they can settle and the Questors can at last fade away.
“That’s intensely interesting.”
Alternatively, someone might rewrite Underworld not by focusing on the personal stories, but by taking the notion of the Promethean Time Lords and making it bigger, more serious, and more terribly, terribly up itself so that the rest of us needn’t follow the plot but just sit in silent awe at how very important and majestic the ‘Gods’ are. That story was called Death Comes To Time, and it was a horrible mess that makes the transmitted Underworld seem fresh and inviting.

* Anything would make a better use of that bit of the myth than the Seers.
** Explaining why one of the identical twin ships in the TV story has a computer that goes bonkers and takes over while the other, er, forgot to have theirs installed.
*** I refuse to call him “Jackson” (Richard suggested “Diomedes,” but a Bob and Dave-style ‘space’ version of that comes out as ‘Diodes’).
**** Named in Bob and Dave ‘space’ style.

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