Doctor Who @ 50 Doctor Who: The Underwater Menace

Published on April 21st, 2013 | by Elton Townend Jones

032 The Underwater Menace

A kidnapped highlander joins the Doctor on an adventure west of Gibraltar and south of the Azores in what little remains of lost Atlantis – just in time to be sacrificed to hungry sharks at the Festival of the Vernal Equinox and to witness the end of the world…

Doctor Who: The Underwater Menace

Geoffrey Orme’s The Underwater Menace has a very poor rating amongst Doctor Who fans.  Until very recently only one of its four episodes survived in the BBC archive, so perhaps it failed to penetrate fan consciousness in any significant way.  What did survive was unkindly summed up as ephemeral and silly; a camp-fest with silly costumes and an even sillier villain whose most famous line, delivered in a vibrant Teutonic accent had become a byphrase for all that was stupid about Doctor Who.  Another episode turned up last year, so now fifty per cent of this story available to us (the soundtrack for the other fifty per cent still exists and is scheduled for an animated DVD release in the near future), so do we still think this story is just camp, b-movie silliness?  Well, yes.  But its status as such shouldn’t be interpreted as something negative.  Eclipsed by the stories that precede and follow it, The Underwater Menace is in fact deliciously fabulous.

Its production values are some of the very best this season, with well-directed location sequences (hello, Julia Smith) and dramatic ‘water-tank’ flood sequences, not least of which is that in which the villainous Zaroff drowns in his own laboratory.  Jack Robinson’s sets are vast, creepy and alien, from stylish caves to gleaming laboratories whose vast windows open onto the depths of the sea.  The Atlantean market place is busy and exciting (recalling the historical settings of The Crusade or The Romans), while the Temple of Amdo looks like it’s been hewn from bedrock, with a striking stone idol, part woman/part fish.

[pullquote align="right"]This fusion of silliness and seriousness – dare I suggest black comedy? – provides the series with a blast of psychedelic pop colour that is a step forward from, say, The War Machines’ “Rubber Soul”, sending us off into “Revolver” territory. [/pullquote]There are great ambient vocal chants in the temple (akin to the later Exxilon chants). Dudley Simpson’s temple themes are also beautifully and eerily realised.  In terms of music, this story features some of the ‘60s’ best; mostly electronic, often crunchily discordant, it is undoubtedly strange and psychedelic.  Who couldn’t love the amazing Fish People music (or Brian Hodgson’s special sounds)?  Sonically and visually, the underwater, ‘Chinese whispers’ ballet is a dazzling example of Doctor Who’s ability to impress.

Sandra Reid and Juanita Waterson pull out all the stops on costume duties, doing daring things with the Doctor, realistic/contemporary with Sean and Jacko, outrageous temple costumes, seashell swimwear for Polly and Ara (Catherine Howe) and, of course, the beautifully expressionistic Fish People costumes.  These latter creatures are, essentially, ‘survivors from shipwrecks who would otherwise be corpses’ that have been operated on and given plastic gills – which is what they look like.  So are they zombies?  I ask this because they are clearly distinguished from ‘normal’ people like Sean and Jacko (Paul Anil), who shore up the TARDIS team quite nicely.

P.G. Stephens’ Sean is very colourful, but he’s not the best of the guest cast, as we are treated to quality turns from wonderful Colin Jeavons as Damon; the great Noel Johnson as Thous; and Peter Stephens playing Lolem (just as Stewie from Family Guy might).  ‘May the wrath of Amdo engulf you,’ he curses Zaroff.  ‘I’ll take my chance,’ replies the crazy scientist.  It’s a chance that doesn’t pay off, so – quite poetically – that’s the end of Zaroff.  But where to begin with this villain?  Zaroff is such a mesmerising creation, played to perfection by Joseph Furst (his confrontation with Thous in episode three is perhaps the best scene).

The Doctor chats with Zaroff in The Underwater Menace

Furst plays Zaroff for camp keeps – but scarily so (‘I could feed you to my pet octopus,’ he threatens, amusingly) and he’s a lovely foil for the new Doctor.  Patrick Troughton and Furst clearly have a blast playing off each other.  ‘You come with me, eh?’ asks Zaroff.  ‘I come with you,’ replies the Doctor.  ‘You, ah, like my laboratory, yes?’ asks Zaroff.  ‘You find it all very impressive, no?’  ‘No,’ replies the Doctor.  Zaroff’s crazy scheme is to raise Atlantis from its sunken air pocket existence, by drawing the planet’s oceans into the Earth’s core.  When the Doctor astutely asks him why he wants to blow up the world, Zaroff replies that he wants to achieve ‘the scientist’s dream of supreme power.’ – which is quite a dream for someone who’s failed to invent the fridge…

The regulars are, of course, brilliant.  Ben (Michael Craze) and Polly (Anneke Wills) are always lovely and the addition of Jamie (Frazer Hines) does dilute their efficacy somewhat, but it’s great to have them all together.  Jamie is still new to the TARDIS, wondering ‘What have I come upon?’, but he’s impressed with the Doctor throughout.  Hines still speaks with a soft lilt and his hair is longer than it’ll soon become and, trivia-fans, he speaks Gaelic.

Ben sees himself and Jamie as the muscle of the crew, and is very protective of Polly and the Doctor.  His desperation when Polly is kidnapped by Zaroff is tangibly played by Craze.  His sincerity and loyalty mark him out as one of the series’ best companions, but he’s not without his rougher edges.  He’s lovingly irreverent to the Doctor: ‘Blimey, look at him.  He ain’t normal, is he?’  He’s also cheeky to Jamie, pointing at his kilt and suggesting that he ‘might be mistaken for a bird’.  And he’s less than eloquent, when needing a translator and turning to his oldest companion with the words ‘Polly, you speak foreign…’

Polly does indeed ‘speak foreign’ – three kinds in fact: French, German and Spanish.  We also learn that she’s very keen to return to Chelsea 1966.  Given the tortures she’ll endure in this story, who could blame her?  By the end of the tale – having endured injections and harassment that even hardy Antipodeans balked at – she is practically hysterical as the caves are flooded.  Interestingly, it is Jamie – not Ben – that helps her through this ordeal…

[pullquote align="right"]It’s still early days for the ‘second Doctor’, but Troughton’s performance is busy and rich, making you wonder how manic his work in the previous two stories must be.

The new (perhaps more superficial) aspects of his character are at the fore; this is still the fey pixie-child Doctor that will soon be replaced by an avuncular figure, for ever groping bits of Jamie.[/pullquote]It’s still early days for the ‘second Doctor’, but Troughton’s performance is busy and rich, making you wonder how manic his work in the previous two stories must be.  The new (perhaps more superficial) aspects of his character are at the fore; this is still the fey pixie-child Doctor that will soon be replaced by an avuncular figure, for ever groping bits of Jamie.

Here though, he’s often a little boy, hoping to encounter prehistoric monsters, playing his recorder or fetishizing costumes and hats.  He may wear his stovepipe for the last time, but he still manages to dress up as a guard – whose hat he adores – and also dons a sou’wester which allows him to spend a quarter of the second episode looking like a comedy fisherman.  From here he dives giddily into ceremonial robes and the most outrageous bit of headgear you’ll ever see him in.  ‘How do I look?’ he asks.  ‘I would like a hat like that’, indeed.  However, his most revealing bit of extra-curricular cosplay comes in the third episode’s market place sequence.  In a groovy headscarf and Ray-Bans, with bells on his wrists, it becomes quite clear that this is the first contemporary Doctor to hit our screens.  It’s 1967 and this new Doctor looks like a refugee from Greenwich Village or the Haight – he even has a tambourine for Dylan’s sake!

While he still channels something of the previous Doctor – eyes darting all over the place assessing the strengths and weaknesses of his foes – comedy and capers are ever-present now.   He knocks at his head like it’s a door and looks to see if anyone’s home in order to demonstrate how barmy Zaroff is. When the companions leave the Compression Chamber, he says, ‘Women and children last’.  In arch response, Ben and Jamie leave first.  Another lovely in-joke comes just as Polly is to undergo the fish person operation; the Doctor’s first plan of action is to disconnect the power supply – the basic but radical solution he employed to somewhat anti-climactic effect at the end of his first story.

Doctor Who The Underwater Menace

This new incarnation is not infallible.  He assumes he’s been captured by troglodytes, which is wide of the mark, and that the bracelet Polly finds is ‘Aztec’, when it’s actually a souvenir of the 1968 Mexico Olympics.  Close, perhaps, to one who has all of time and space to choose from, but still no cigar.  When Ben asks him if he knows what he’s doing, he says that of course he doesn’t but there’s no rule against trying.  When Ramo (Tom Watson) asks why he should trust him, he replies with sincerity: ‘That’s a very good question. I wish I could think of a good answer.’  Ultimately he convinces with actions not words.

In the end, the Doctor solves Atlantis’ woes by instigating industrial action and using Sean’s ‘gift of the gab’ to convince the food-farming fish people to go on strike.  He then halts Zaroff’s plans by flooding the already diminished kingdom and leaves, having shocked a complacent, superstitious, immoral society into a new way of living and caring (not that he adequately checks on the success or otherwise of his endeavours).

The Underwater Menace is, on the surface, cartoon, comic strip Doctor Who; very b-movie, full of chases and faces full of pepper, but there are dark undercurrents.  Zaroff’s unfairly maligned ‘Nothing in the world can stop me now’ (and I’m not going to denigrate Furst’s native accent by writing that phonetically) might appear silly or funny, but for the fact that the funny silly man in question has just plunged a spear into another man’s guts, shot a man and overseen the execution of two others.  But this fusion of silliness and seriousness – dare I suggest black comedy? – provides the series with a blast of psychedelic pop colour that is a step forward from, say, The War Machines’ “Rubber Soul”, sending us off into “Revolver” territory. 

The Power of the Daleks and The Highlanders are great stories, but here we touch base with the kind of white heat/psychedelic thinking we last saw in the closing moments of The Tenth Planet, and it’s beautifully refreshing.

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About the Author

Elton Townend-Jones is a journalist, playwright, actor, theatre producer and philosopher. He does ‘80s zeitgeist at www.25yearstoolate.blogspot.com.




5 Responses to 032 The Underwater Menace

  1. gavinio says:

    Looking forward to seeing the recovered episode because it might cause people to view the story in a different light. The audio isn’t that bad to listen to, well aside from episode 3 but luckily we can watch that or unluckily depending on your point of view!

  2. Derek Watson says:

    ‘a blast of psychedelic pop colour that is a step forward from, say, The War Machines’ “Rubber Soul”, sending us off into “Revolver” territory.’ …and onward into Sgt. Pepperland! So of its time, and charming because of that. Groovy review, too!

  3. Howard Railton says:

    If only they would bring the returned ep out on DVD… With 2 eps missing it could be a contender for an animation makeover though I’d prefer Moonbase first.

    • gavinio says:

      This is going to happen.

  4. TonyS says:

    Episode 1 is atmospheric and creepy. The rest is every bit as bad as legend has it to be.

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