The contrast between Sarcophagus and Ultraworld is immense – in one fell swoop we move from the sublime to the ridiculous. It’s interesting that both writers (Tanith Lee previously, Trevor Hoyle here) were novelists with no previous scriptwriting experience (and Ultraworld turned out to be Hoyle’s only work for television). The difference between their stories couldn’t be greater though – Lee offered up a lyrical fantasy whilst Hoyle’s effort is little more than a pulp-sf runaround.
This wasn’t Hoyle’s first brush with the series as he’d penned two novelisations based on episodes from series one and would follow this up with a third novelisation adapted from selected series four episodes. If you’ve never read them then they’re worth tracking down, especially the first one, since it looks like it was adapted from Nation’s draft scripts (there are numerous small differences).
Ultraworld is an artificial world run by the three Ultras – who are blue-skinned aliens of varying baldness. One looks to be completely bald, one is wearing a rather ill-fitting bald cap whilst the third clearly didn’t get the memo as he proudly sports hair at the sides and back. So if the intention was to make them into a gestalt entity, someone wasn’t on the same page. The Ultras are humourless, logical and, no surprise, not great conversationalists.
They exist to gather information (Ultraworld is nothing more than a massive computer) and it’ll come as no shock to learn that the Ultras plan to drain Avon and the others of all their knowledge and then take the Liberator for good measure.
There’s the odd nice moment. Cally disappears from the Liberator and the others hear her crying for help from Ultraworld. But it’s not her voice – it’s an artificial construct and this revelation is a disturbing reveal. The location filming (at the Camden Town Deep Level Shelter) is impressive. Previously used for the Doctor Who story The Sunmakers, it once again effectively doubles as a strange, alien environment.
But on the debit side, what has happened to Vila? He spends the episode attempting to teach Orac jokes. I think once example will suffice. “Where do space pilots leave their ships? At parking meteors.” Alas, there’s many more where that came from, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that this was rumoured to be Michael Keating’s least favourite episode (the proactive hero from City at the Edge of the World seems a long time ago). It’s worth noting that Vila’s jokes do play an important part in the conclusion of the story, but that doesn’t make me any more disposed to enjoy them.
With Vila acting the fool and Cally and Avon sidelined, it falls to Dayna and Tarrant to carry the brunt of the action. Although it’s not the greatest story ever, they make an attractive pair (and for once Tarrant isn’t particularly annoying). They have to suffer the oddest part of the episode though, as the Ultras suddenly realise that Danya and Tarrant are girl/boy and decide that a bonding ceremony is in order. It beggars belief that whilst they’ve accumulated masses of knowledge they know nothing of the ways of, ahem, human love. So they’re keen for Danya and Tarrant to get it on, whilst they watch (yes, really!) They do dangle a carrot – hinting they might let them go if they agree.
DAYNA: Tarrant, I think we should accept the offer. Then we can return to the Liberator.
TARRANT: You can’t be serious. You don’t believe what they say.
DAYNA: We have to believe if we hope to survive. Kiss me.
DAYNA: I said, kiss me. Come on. I can’t be all that repulsive
It’s hard to take any of this seriously, especially when one of the Ultras pops up on the screen, asking “has the bonding ceremony begun?”, as soon as they start kissing – which rather puts a damper on things.
Complete with a giant pulsating brain, Ultraworld is pretty stupid sci-fi schlock, but it’s impossible not to derive some entertainment from it. I’m glad it was more the exception than the norm though.