Hasslein Blog: Doctor Who Retro Review: Serial 033—The Underwater Menace


Hasslein Blog

Monday, July 14, 2014

Doctor Who Retro Review: Serial 033—The Underwater Menace

By T. Scott Edwards

The Underwater Menace is something of an oddity. It's utterly bonkers, ridiculous, with some of the most frustrating incidental music ever, and the most madcap and over-the-top villain the show has ever had. And I love it. I don't know why – only one of the four episodes exists for me to see, although episode 2 has since been discovered, but not yet released. The soundtrack is still very engaging, with some cracking dialogue. There are daft bits there too, of course. But I still really enjoy it every time I listen to it and watch episode 3. I just can't help myself. Oh, and it has that line in it – but more on that later!

The recon I'm using is relatively low quality – whilst it's synced up perfectly to my audio, as narrated by Anneke Wills, the telesnaps and existing footage (what little of it there is) are very low resolution, and details are difficult to make out.

Oddly, The Underwater Menace is widely regarded as a dreadful story – but that is probably because only the third episode exists, and whilst the third episode includes that line – which I will come to soon enough! – the majority of the episode is taken up by the prancing balletic sequence involving the fish people, and is hardly gripping TV. The tone of this entire serial is bizarre, and only watching the third episode, without warming to this jarring tone first through the first episode, can somewhat throw a viewer. Listening to the audio track too, though, we are able to gradually acclimatise ourselves to the madness. It's an experience well worth having.

Episode 1 picks up straight after The Highlanders ended, with Jamie being welcomed into the TARDIS. What is lovely about Fraser Hines' performance is how quickly he settled into the TARDIS 'family', and the quirks that his historical origins provide. Until now, every companion has been at the very least contemporary, with the exception of Katarina, who may or may not count. By introducing someone from Earth history, it gives a new and naive element to the TARDIS crew, someone utterly overwhelmed by everything they encounter. Whilst Katarina played this role with a doe-eyed stupidity, Hines' Jamie instead charges willingly, headfirst, into the situation, occasionally asking for some clarification but usually going on instinct. This 'family' idea is probably why I love The Underwater Menace so much. For all of the preposterous plotline, each character is decidedly determined to work together, and the group dynamic is wonderful, almost a nod back to the times of Ian, Barbara and Susan with the Doctor.

There is comedy abound in the opening scenes, with each of the characters hoping for their next locale, with Ben making a wise-crack about the Daleks and the Doctor hoping for prehistoric creatures – something he'll finally meet in his next incarnation – and upon landing, Polly states that she is certain where they are – Cornwall. Again. Of course they aren't, and instead they've landed at the foot of a volcano, somewhere like the Mediterranean, but with a tidal sea. No sooner have the crew left the TARDIS – the Doctor collecting his stove pipe hat first, of course – then the group are split up, and each group are captured and lowered under the sea level on a gigantic platform, succumbing to 'the bends' on their way down.

The comedy continues throughout the following scenes, too, as Ben makes an unintentionally semi-racist comment – "Polly, you speak foreign!" – in his typically East End way. Likewise, once the travellers are fed plankton, Polly makes a reference to the Doctor's fascination – "I've never seen him go for food like this before. It's usually hats." The humour quickly dissipates, though, with the discovery of their fate; the group's arrival was foretold, and they are to be sacrificed to the great goddess Amdo. Upon this discovery, the Doctor saves the group by sending a note – signed Dr. W., incidentally, but I'm not getting into that – to a Professor Zaroff. Zaroff was world renowned for his scientific successes but reported dead some twenty years earlier; in the first mention of the Cold War in the series, the Doctor says that "the East blamed the West, the West, the East".

Zaroff's disdain for the religious ideals of the Atlantean society is set out instantly as he disrupts Lolem's ceremony. Lolem is played with wonderful camp charm by the brilliant Peter Stephens, last seen as the wonderfully camp naughty schoolboy Cyril, amongst others, in The Celestial Toymaker. Although he only appears infrequently throughout the serial, there is a childish and naive charm to the High Priest, whose unwavering faith in Amdo is ultimately his undoing. In fact, this entire serial is something of a critique of religion, albeit thinly veiled. Whilst science is ultimately responsible for all that happens to Atlantis and its inhabitants, it is the fault of religion that science was able to do such things.

Zaroff's saving of the Doctor and his travelling friends is wonderfully delivered – the most magnificent thing about this entire serial is, of course, Joseph Furst, whose portrayal of Zaroff is so ridiculously over-the-top and manic that it is impossible to dislike. Furst's accent and delivery are simply breathtaking, and that he saves the Doctor and company on a whim because the Doctor has "a sense of humour" shows that he is hugely unbalanced. Added to this his threat that, rather than feeding them to the shark, he could feed them to his pet octopus, makes this character something straight out of a James Bond film. In fact, everything about Zaroff and his plans is straight out of a Bond film; in episode two, Zaroff spouts the line "I made you – so I can break you!" and when asked why exactly he wants to destroy the world, in the calmest way possible from Troughton, Furst's response is, simply, because he can. He sees it as being the "scientist's dream of supreme power!"

Episode one ends with Ben and Jamie being sent to the mines, whilst Polly is removed and sent to Damon's surgery. She stands by and admires the elegance of the fish people, before the cliffhanger cuts in, and we are informed that she is due to have the exact same treatment – the final scene moves, and we get to see her pinned to a table, tossing and turning as Damon approaches with a huge syringe.

The Doctor is able to save Polly, of course, by asking a serving girl, Ara, to help her escape as soon as possible, and creating technical breakdowns shorting the lighting. Polly and Ara escape to the temple, hiding behind a gigantic sculpture of Amdo. Fortunately, they are soon joined by Ben and Jamie, having been assisted to their hiding place by rebel miners, and racial stereotypes, Sean and Jacko. The mine scenes seem to go on forever, though, and the dialogue is redundant; sadly, it all seems like filler, with nothing really gained – the group could as easily have left the mines in one scene and then arrived at the temple the next, with no need for the intermittent scenes. The Doctor, meanwhile, has managed to find his way there by wearing yet another disguise, this time as a guard, and bumping into Ara back in the outer chamber where he had been hiding from the searching guards.

The Doctor is able to speak with Ramo, a priest who questions Zaroff's dubious plan and has no faith in the scientist. Fortunately, Ramo is willing to listen to the Doctor's suggestions – the Doctor demonstrates the Professor's plans using a cup of boiling water over a fire. Ramo is willing to believe the Doctor's suggestions, and so agrees to take him to see Thous, the leader of the Atlanteans. Ramo's return allows the Doctor to utilise yet another disguise, and his excitement by the headdress is wonderful – as he pulls on the costume, his "how do I look?" is wasted upon the priest.

The scene in which the Doctor attempts to persuade Thous of the danger to Atlantis is something of an oddity, though; rather than using the same sort of demonstration used with Ramo, he instead simply points out that Zaroff has "eyes – they light up!" whenever he talks about his plans. His argument is that, quite simply, his eyes show that he is "mad as a hatter". It is a strange thing, that he tells a man so filled with devout faith in the scientist that he is mad, rather than providing any proof, and leads to the inevitable betrayal of the cliffhanger for episode 2, with Zaroff striding into the room, filled with arrogance.

Episode 3, thankfully, moves, and allows us to see to some extent how well realised Atlantis, and its inhabitants, are – and the first striking thing about it is Zaroff himself, unquestionably. From his ever-expanding hair, making him look like the insane scientist he is from a schlocky B-Movie, to the subtle twitching of the eyes, he is impossible to look away from, stealing every scene that he is in, a tour-de-force.

The scenes in the temple are rather unnerving, though; as I mentioned earlier, I think that Geoffrey Orme, when he wrote this, was clearly trying to lampoon the fundamental belief systems in place throughout the world, suggesting that religion allows people to do ridiculous and terrible things. Through the presentation of the religious as sycophantic idiots, being tricked into believing anything because they do not try to look beyond these religious ideals, it is unnerving that the Doctor and his companions utilise such a thing to guarantee their freedom, and the booming voice of Amdo calling for all to look away as the goddess feasts on the sacrifice is worrying. The excitement of Lolem and the other believers, too, is awful; as an audience, we know the truth, and Zaroff's anger and ridicule is rightly aimed at the superstitious fool – but even so, seeing Lolem thrown forward, as he collapses daintily onto the plinth in front like Greta Garbo, is hilarious.

The Doctor's suggestions, once reunited with his companions behind the statue, are bizarre – firstly, due to the lack of storage system (Zaroff didn't create a fridge? Seriously?!) by leading the fish people into rebelling against their oppressors, it will halt the Atlantean society, since food will spoil unless constantly caught fresh. Secondly, they will kidnap the most lauded and famed man in all of Atlantis. My bugbear with these plans is less their ridiculous nature, but more to do with just how quickly both are accomplished. Jacko and Sean are sent to lead the fish people to rebel – by questioning their manhood, and mocking their lack of spine, using Sean's Irish charm. Meanwhile, the Doctor, Ben, Jamie and Polly all don new costumes – yes, again – to hide in the market place waiting for their chance to capture Zaroff. Whilst the sight of Ben and Jamie in tight-fitting wetsuits is wonderful, the Doctor's get-up as a gypsy recorder player leaves yet more to be desired.

The "gift of the gab" of the Irish fully utilised, we are then forced to endure almost five minutes of preposterous choreographed nonsense, as fish people swing around, back and forth, to the most dire incidental music as they apparently create a blockade on the food production lines. What frustrates me the most about this – as with The Web Planet – is that if this episode were missing too, it would probably be lauded as elegant and magical. Sadly, as we can see it, we are forced to realise that it is simply over-ambitious and silly.

With the rebellion started, and Zaroff captured by the Doctor and his companions, it seems that all has been achieved, and that the adventure is ready to wind itself up... Only it isn't. There's more still to come, as the Doctor and the boys head off to Zaroff's laboratory to ensure the experiment has been halted with Zaroff dropping to the ground seeming to have suffered a heart attack. Which frustrates me – the trick of faking injury is such an overused cliché, it baffles me that the Doctor and company fall for it. Indeed, one of the most frustrating things about this is the fact that, after Polly appearing to be the powerful, fashionable 60s girl last week, she has reverted to a screamy, shouty and foolish one this week. She is single-handedly responsible for Ramo's death, falling hook, line and sinker for the scientist's claims that he wants to stand by him and prey, where he can "feel the aura of his goodness". The scene of Ramo's murder is, in fact, rather graphic and disturbing – once he throws Polly off his back, Zaroff thrusts a spear downwards into the fallen priest, and the spear remains upright, trembling.

The episode runs to its end with the Doctor, Jamie and Ben discovering Ramo's fatal injury as he stumbles out from behind the face of Amdo, warning the travellers that Polly has been kidnapped. Jamie is sent to save her, a challenge that he gallantly rises to, while Ben and the Doctor – in a dreadful pun – have "other fish to fry". Unfortunately, once Jamie retrieves Polly from Zaroff's grasp, Zaroff escapes and makes it to Thous' chambers before the Doctor, and shows his true face – his hair wild, his eyes rolling madly, he executes Thous in cold blood, ordering his soldiers to kill two others, before wildly proclaiming – and this is that line! – "Nothing in the world can stop me now!", hugely pantomime and over-the-top, and absolutely wonderful for it.

The final episode provides something of a relief – after the insanity of Zaroff's performance and his madcap plan, and the Bond-esque nature of the story, we are suddenly into new territory; the serial becomes a disaster movie, as the inhabitants of Atlantis race against time to avoid the rising water levels. What is more comforting, though, is the way in which Troughton's Doctor takes complete control. Well, as complete as it gets from him; after the last two serials, wherein he has been unreliable and inconsistent, acting on whims and fancies, here instead he declares "I have a plan!", and finally we can be comforted that he is thinking things through. Of course, he follows it up with "it might work", reaffirming the unknowable nature of his character. It is telling that in the last two serials, where the plots have been serious and dangerous, Troughton has played up to them as a clown, fooling around out of character and sticking out like a sore thumb. It is only against an opponent like Furst's Zaroff, though, that he tones his performance down, becoming more grounded and deadpan whilst dealing with the situation. Whilst you could never see Hartnell in a serial like this, against a villain like Zaroff, we see something of Hartnell's character come out in Troughton's response to the situation.

Troughton still gets plenty of good lines, though, with heavy comedic impact; his riposte with Ben, who declares Zaroff is firmly "off his rocker!" is brilliant, as is his declaration of Zaroff's true intentions, as he claims innocence. The Doctor's plan to flood the underground city seems a little extreme, but his retort that the noise could only be "the distant roaring is the goddess Amdo with indigestion" is superbly delivered.

The flooding will not stop Zaroff, though, and he lowers a portcullis to prevent the intervention of any interferers. The Doctor is still determined, though, and thanks to the distraction of Lolem, who is mercilessly shot in cold blood by Zaroff, he is able to separate Zaroff from the plunger needed to cause the natural disaster. The Doctor and Jamie have to leave the mad scientist to his fate, as even after the Doctor speaks of his desire to rescue Zaroff, a rock slide prevents him making it. Sadly, Zaroff's death, which still exists thanks to those nervous Australian censors again, is rather disappointing – there still seems to be an awful lot of air left in the room before he sinks to his death. I can't help wishing that Lolem had at least managed to get a fatal stab in before he'd been shot.

Everyone manages to escape, though, and the group are reunited on the volcanic beaches above ground. The sequences getting above ground are lovely and touching, particularly as we see the way in which the group have bonded – whilst Ben can only utter Polly's name in distraught tones, Polly is more concerned for the Doctor, and Jamie's assurance that if the worst has happened, they will cope together, is lovely. Sean and Jacko, though, get no thanks whatsoever, as the group bustle back into the TARDIS reunited, and there is a beautiful still from the final moments of this episode of the entire TARDIS crew, reunited and having a great time around the TARDIS console, showing the crew laughing and joking, Polly wearing the Doctor's hat, and Jamie's final speech about feeling "safe" in the ship shows he firmly belongs with the group as they head towards their next destination – but as the end credits are poised to roll, a huge tremor works its way through the ship, as the Doctor cries that the ship is "out of control"...

Scott Edwards is a teacher of English and Theatre Studies at Barnard Castle School in the North East of England, with a BAHons in English Literature and Film Studies. He is also a self-professed ‘ming-mong,' and in addition to timelordapprentice.blogspot.co.uk he also runs facebook.com/Classic.Doctor.Who. You can also follow him on Twitter: @TimelordTSE.

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