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Of Sequins and Fish: The Underwater Menace

I am about to admit to an opinion that may shock some people: I enjoy “The Underwater Menace.” There, I’ve said it.  When the two lost Doctor Who episodes were discovered in 2011, I was firmly of the opinion that the two recovered episodes came from two of the worst stories from Hartnell and Troughton.  While I still stand by my opinion that “Galaxy 4” is one of Hartnell’s worst stories, I’ve revised my opinion of “The Underwater Menace.”  My first experience with the story was with the only surviving episode (the third of four) and I’ll admit that I came away with a rather negative opinion.  It was difficult to follow what exactly was going on and it was just…strange.  Watching the reconstruction, however, has given me a new perspective on this much maligned story.

The Doctor continues his habit of trying new headgear.

The Doctor continues his habit of trying new headgear.

The story is, admittedly, a strange one.  The Doctor, Polly, Ben, and new companion Jamie have just left the Scottish highlands and Jamie is, understandably, a bit confused by his new surroundings.  He seems to adapt quite quickly however, once the TARDIS materializes on an old volcanic island in the sea sometime after 1968.  One by one, unseen beings apprehend the travelers, and they soon find themselves in an elevator that leads to far below sea level.

A feast of plankton is waiting to greet the travelers, which causes the Doctor to realize that Professor Zaroff, a Russian scientist who was believed to have been kidnapped 20 years previously, must be nearby.  The travelers soon learn why they have been brought down to this undersea civilization: they are sacrifices for the goddess Amdo.  Luckily, the Doctor manages to send a note to Zaroff before being lead off to the sacrifice.  As the travelers are about to be dropped into a shark tank (how James Bond-ish!), Zaroff comes in and stops the sacrifice demanding to speak to the Doctor.  With the sacrifice stopped, Ben and Jamie go to work in the mines, the Doctor goes with Zaroff to his laboratory, and Polly will be converted into a fish person (she will surgically receive plastic gills).  The fish people are the slave labor force who collect the constant supply of plankton that the civilization needs to survive.

The Doctor soon learns that they are in the lost civilization of Atlantis.  Thanks to air pockets in the caves and the shaft of a dormant volcano (seriously, that’s all the explanation you’re going to get in this story) life has continued on the bottom of the sea for the survivors of Atlantis.  Professor Zaroff has promised to raise Atlantis from the bottom of the ocean, but his plan involves draining the ocean into the core of the earth which will result in the entire earth blowing up.  While this is technically keeping his word to raise Atlantis (he never promised that Atlantis would be raised in one piece!), the Doctor can see that he has clearly gone mad.  The remainder of the story consists of the Doctor and his companions, along with a few helpful Atlantians, fighting to stop the mad scientist from blowing up the earth.

Everything in this story is over the top, which is what makes it enjoyable.   The story is always entertaining, since you never really know what to expect from this unusual story.  Does it make sense that the people of Atlantis have been living under the ocean? Not really.  Is Professor Zaroff’s plan a logical one? Not at all.  However, this is hardly new for the series; bizarre plans have been seen before.  Is the plan of the Daleks in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” any better?  People can accept that the Daleks want to drill to the core of the earth and then pilot it like a spaceship, but they can’t accept that a madman might want to destroy the earth, just because he has the power?  I actually have a bigger problem with the Daleks’ plan because that is in a story that is meant to be taken seriously.

"Nothing in the world can stop me now!"

I’ve heard criticisms of Joseph Furst’s performance as Professor Zaroff (and I can’t help but wonder if the name is an allusion to General Zaroff from “The Most Dangerous Game”); some people complain that he is too over the top.  However, he is playing a man who is clearly insane and power crazed.  The part isn’t exactly screaming for subtlety.   He manages to keep his performance interesting, which is important when you are playing a madman.   Additionally, this is hardly the first time a villain has been over the top.  An example that jumps to mind is Tobias Vaughn in “The Invasion.” He however, is a bit out of tune with the rest of the story, since the rest of the story is much more dramatic and serious, while Zaroff is perfectly in tune with the rest of this crazy serial.

Places, everyone! The water ballet is about to start!

Places, everyone! The water ballet is about to start!

Of course the most memorable feature of this story are the fish people themselves.  I would love to know how their costumes were designed because they are quite something to look at.  Patrick Troughton was unhappy with the way they turned out, as he had every right to be if he was hoping for even a slightly believable looking creature.  As I stated before, the fish people are people who have been surgically altered to have plastic gills.  Some of the fish people look pretty much like regular people wearing a snorkeling  mask.  This would make sense (well, maybe not the snorkeling mask), since they started out as human.  However, the most memorable of the fish people, and the most prominent ones, are far more ornate.  Maybe Damon, the surgeon, enjoyed arts and crafts in his spare time, because these fish people are covered in large sequins which I can only assume represent scales.  Instead of having the snorkeling mask, they have large, unusual eyes.  There is also a scene that lasts for a few minutes that shows the fish people communicating underwater.  The combination of the strange moves “underwater” (really in a studio attached to wires) and the sparkly, gaudy costumes give the impression that they are a members of a troop performing a water ballet.  It’s completely bizarre, but I find it a bit mesmerizing.

On a less bizarre note, this story finally shows Troughton settling into the role of the Doctor.  He only wears one disguise, and that only for a short time, so he is himself for most of the episode and his personality is really starting to come through.  He is clearly friendlier than Hartnell’s Doctor and is very quick thinking.  Several times in this serial we see the Doctor come up with a plan without having any idea what the result will be (or is that just what he says?).  The impulsive, fly by the seat of his pants quality that is one of the hallmarks of Troughton’s Doctor is clearly being developed in this story.  Another point of interest is the note that the Doctor sends to Zaroff.  He signs it Dr. W, the only time the Doctor seems to imply that Who is, in fact, his surname.

The Doctor's companions: Jamie, Polly, and Ben.

The Doctor’s companions: Jamie, Polly, and Ben.

This story is not a great one for the companions.  Since it was written before Jamie joined the TARDIS crew, Jamie and Ben don’t have a lot to do.  Jamie receives some of Ben’s lines, so his personality isn’t really developed. Due to losing lines to Jamie, Ben’s part is reduced, so he doesn’t get to do too much either.  The companion with the most to do is Polly, who, unfortunately, regresses after really taking charge in “The Highlanders.”  She is clever enough to figure out how to become the voice of Amdo and save the Doctor at one point, but then she is taken in by Zaroff’s faked illness.  Worst of all, she just stands by and screams as Zaroff kills the priest that has been helping them.  It seems like she could have done something, but she doesn’t even try until it is too late and, of course, she becomes Zaroff’s prisoner.   Is “The Highlanders” the only story in which Polly does not need rescuing?

Polly is apparently wearing the native Atlantian shell costume and the Doctor...well, he's dressed as... something.

Polly is apparently wearing the native Atlantian shell costume and the Doctor…well, he’s dressed as… something.

While this is not a great serial, I think it’s an entertaining one.  It has its flaws, but it was a rather hastily put together script.  Rejected at first for being too costly, it was put back into the schedule when another serial fell through.  So basically it’s a story that required a large budget that they tried to do for less.  For being thrown together on a shoestring, they do manage to create a very distinctive world.  It’s story that definitely benefits a great deal from being seen.  As I stated earlier, everything is over the top in this story, and that includes the costumes.  Besides the fish people, you have the very large and unusual headdresses of the priests, the Doctor’s ridiculous disguise, the interesting garb of the women…It’s not one of Doctor Who‘s best, but I think it’s worth a listen/watch.  I may be alone in this, but I’m looking forward to the release of the recently recovered second episode of this story.

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2 responses to “Of Sequins and Fish: The Underwater Menace

  1. Really great, amusing write-up. I’ve watched The Underwater Menace episode three a few times on the Lost In Time DVD set, and I always found it entertaining in a silly, so-bad-it’s-good sort of way. And when I heard the news that episode two had, appropriately enough, resurfaced, I probably must have thought to myself “At least it isn’t The Space Pirates!” If the complete serial ever does come out on DVD with the two missing parts redone with animation, I’d certainly be interested in purchasing it.

    By the way, I don’t know if the ending of episode three is one of the greatest Doctor Who cliffhangers ever, but it’s certainly one of the most memorable. “Nothing in the world can stop me now!”

    • Thanks! I feel exactly the same way about it. It’s not a story I would hold up as a great example of the show, it’s just fun. And I would definitely buy it if they decide to release the whole serial. “The Space Pirates,” on the other hand…

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