Every so often a Doctor Who story is so incredibly ahead of its time that it ends up being widely misunderstood, and these tend to also be the moments where ambitions far outreach the capabilities of the budget. The Underwater Menace is mythpunk, long before the genre existed elsewhere, with the Atlantis story retold as an underwater cult turning people cybernetically into fish.
This is one of those last-minute-replacement stories that pepper the Classic series. It’s obvious why it was rejected initially: it asks too much in terms of effects. It’s not difficult to see why a script that called for an underground Atlantis with humans being converted into fish people and swimming around, plus a huge mining operation, might be considered impractical. But equally, it is not difficult to see why it would be selected as the best of a bad bunch when a quick replacement story was needed. It was always going to struggle to be a visual success but at least it was an interesting story, and crucially had a chance at recapturing the success of The Tenth Planet. So the story goes big on the body horror, almost showing what The Tenth Planet only talked about: a conversion process, and what’s more Polly is the intended victim. It’s easy to miss the brilliance of this, because the end results of conversion clearly lack the visual impact of a Cyberman.
In all the rush to get this one made at the last minute, there obviously wasn’t much time to hone the scripts to perfection, so the regulars don’t fare particularly well. Polly gets the worst deal, and after The Highlanders, in which she was mean and lacking in empathy, here she is little more than a damsel in distress. The comparison between Jamie and Ben and Polly is also starting to paint the contemporary companions in a poor light. We are still re-running the Ian and Barbara problem (that will later be the Tegan problem) with companions who don’t want to be travelling with the Doctor:
Please let it be Chelsea 1966.
If Polly is so keen to get home, why did she want to put Jamie through the ordeal of TARDIS travel without even explaining it to him first? Jamie’s reaction to time travel is a far cry from Ben’s and Polly’s. He thinks the TARDIS is great and he feels safe there, whilst his joyless friends just want to go home. As for the Doctor, his character development largely grinds to a halt, making it even more extraordinary when the familiar Second Doctor as we know and love him suddenly turns up fully formed in the next story. But there are some moments when you can see the trajectory he is on, most notably when he interacts with Zaroff and we see for the first time how he deals with a ranting villain, with a quiet calmness that pulls the rug out from under the feet of all that ham acting.
Speaking of Zaroff, the first draft of the script provided him with some motivation: he had lost his family in a car crash. Instead we get this:
DOCTOR: Yes. Just one small question. Why do you want to blow up the world?
ZAROFF: Why? You, a scientist, ask me why? The achievement, my dear Doctor. The destruction of the world. The scientist’s dream of supreme power!
…which is somewhat less satisfying in terms of a reason to destroy everything, but every so often it’s a lot of fun to just have the Doctor meet somebody who is a moustache-twirling villain for the sake of it. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to slate the story on that account, and praise up the Doctor’s encounters with Davros or the Master. In fact, just about every aspect of this story that could be considered overly silly can be found in another story that is thought of as a classic. But there is one aspect of The Underwater Menace that really doesn’t work, and that’s when this happens:
DAMON: Any sign of the Doctor?
ARA: No. He must have died saving us.
THOUS: We’ll raise a stone to him in the temple.
DAMON: No. No more temples. It was temples and priests and superstition that made us follow Zaroff in the first place. When the water’s found it’s own level, the temple will be buried forever. We shall never return to it. But we will have enough left to build a new Atlantis, without gods and without fish people.
THOUS: Yes. That shall be his memorial.
I don’t know much about the writer Geoffrey Orme, but he seems to have an anti-religion agenda here. I don’t think that’s necessarily always going to be a problem, but it needs to flow from the rest of the story rather than be a thrown-in diatribe. It is science, not religion, that destroys Atlantis here, with little interaction between Zaroff and the Atlanteans. If Damon had been the one rational voice throughout the story, arguing against superstition and against trusting Zaroff, then this would have been a perfect scene, but he remains his loyal henchman. Instead it is Ramo who distrusts Zaroff and is willing to help the Doctor, so opposition to Zaroff eventually comes from within the organised religion rather than external to it. The Underwater Menace therefore turns out to be a fable, but not the one the writer seemed to be shooting for. This is not a story about the dangers of superstition, but the horror of imposing science on an ancient civilisation, with the inevitable destruction that ensues. But if a Doctor Who story is going to considered a failure because it is an overambitious mythpunk dramatic clash, then I’ll take that failure over a lot of its successes any day. RP
The view from across the pond:
“That is not dead which can eternal lie. And with strange aeons even death may die.” And so the underwater menace sleeps in the sunken city of R’Lyeh… oh, sorry, wrong underwater menace. The Underwater Menace is a bit less frightening and a lot more campy. I want to sing the praises of this story, but how? Yes, Patrick Troughton is still marvelous as the Doctor and watching him antagonize Zaroff is a highlight of the story. But there’s so much more wrong with it, it’s like kicking up silt in the water; we can’t see the positive with much clarity.
Well, let me turn on a filter for a moment to see if we can clear the murky water. Most important to remember is that Doctor Who has never had a budget to speak of and that shouldn’t be overlooked lightly. The idea of doing an underwater episode complete with sea people is remarkably ambitious. To set it in Atlantis is brilliant, brave and maybe slightly barmy. But you can’t knock them for trying. Some of those scenes where actors are wired up to “swim” come off surprisingly well, regardless of how the creatures themselves look. And you know what? There’s really nothing wrong with the creatures just looking grotesque. They don’t need to be more than that. Another unusual distinction for this story was the notion to have internal monologue be “heard” by the viewer with prerecorded bits for each of the actors played over their scenes. Again, Doctor Who defies being one thing for very long without adding something new. (Sadly, “new” doesn’t last and we eventually end up with multiple destruction-of-Atlantis stories but hey, no one’s perfect! Although this is the only one that wants to make it fly! More on that below…)
Now, the filter can only do so much and it starts to clog pretty quickly. For instance signing “Doctor W”. to a note to Zaroff, the Doctor is once again opening a can of worms that would easily be overlooked coming off his “Doctor von Wer” one story earlier, but in conjunction with so many other issues, it’s just another thorn in the side of a fairly weak story. Then there’s Polly, who has to wear a seaweed suit with an overturned ashtray on her head that looks like a shell. Considering how lovely Polly was, this nightmare monstrosity ruins her image while not adding to the sea-theme. Just because it looks like a shell, does not make it work as a piece of costume! Why not wear jelly fish on your head at that point? The local girl, Ara, who seems to have all the trappings of a companion, does not fare any better with the aquatic accoutrement. And Jamie and Ben seem to be sharing lines probably originally designed for one, so there’s an odd mashup of who is saying what. The cast struggle with a lackluster script and it shows. But I’ll still remind you: the ambition was inspired!
Then there are the eyebrows. Peter Capaldi has nothing on these guys. Why would all the water people have these ridiculously bushy eyebrows? It doesn’t… make… NO! I refuse to say it. Nothing in the world can make me say it!
Which leads me to Zaroff, the gold medal winner of the Sunken Story award. “Nothing in ze world can stop me now!” Take a breath… this man wants to … no, you know what, you see it for yourselves; you wouldn’t believe me if I said it myself:
Doctor: Even supposing you succeeded, you know what will happen, don’t you? … Well, the water will be converted into superheated steam, the pressure will grow, and crack the crust of the Earth. Destroy all life, maybe even blow the planet apart.
Zaroff: Yes. And I shall have redeemed my promise to lift Atlantis from the sea. Lift it to the sky! It will be magnificent.
Zaroff: Bang! Bang! Bang, bang! That’s all.
Doctor: Yes. Just one small question. Why do you want to blow up the world?
Zaroff: Why? You, a scientist, ask me why? The achievement, my dear Doctor. The destruction of the world. The scientists’ dream of supreme power!
Yes, Professor Zaroff wants the achievement points so when he completes the grand game of life, he can log onto those servers in heaven and see what downloadable content it made available! I can just see it now: as the Earth blows up, there’s a little popup that says “you’ve completed the destruction of everything achievement”. He’ll also probably get one for making an undersea city “lift to the sky”. Don’t get me wrong, Joseph Furst plays Zaroff as the ultimate in camp villains and he does it brilliantly, but not as lovably as Soldeed (long live Soldeed). The Underwater Menace will go down in history as that one Doctor Who story that everyone can agree upon one thing, and it makes me very happy…
It doesn’t make any sense! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Moonbase