The Underwater Menace

Novelization by: Nigel Robinson
TV script by: Geoffrey Orme
Episode aired: January – February 1967
Novelization released: July 1988

Overview: Coming four years after the publication of the novelization of The Dominators, The Underwater Menace was basically the bottom of the Patrick Troughton barrel. The supply of 2nd Doctor stories to get into print was running low. The following month would see the release of The Wheel in Space, following which would come a near two-year gap before the final Target release of a 2nd Doctor novelization (fittingly, the end of the line would come with The Space Pirates). Interestingly for Menace, this was the first non-7th Doctor novelization to feature the use of the Sylvester McCoy-era Doctor Who logo, as the plans for publication of this book coincided with the late 1987 launch of Season 24 on TV.

The original episode: Joyfully proclaimed by the authors of The Discontinuity Guide to be the Doctor Who equivalent of Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Underwater Menace is just plain bonkers.  It’s start off with a very straightforward exploration by the TARDIS crew of a deserted volcanic island.  Fine.  Within minutes, however, our heroes are suspended over a pit of sharks, being sacrificed by the descendants of the sunken city of Atlantis to a fish-goddess named Amdo (all this takes place in the 1970s, by the way).  Atlantis, you see, has been commandeered by wacky European scientist Professor Zaroff, who needs a base for his efforts to destroy the world.  It’s only Patrick Trougton’s third story as the 2nd Doctor and his character’s not quite settled in yet; companion Jamie had only just been added to the TARDIS crew and isn’t much of a factor in the story.  The guest cast is wildly variable, overshadowed  by Joseph Furst (prefiguring his own mad-scientist role in Diamonds are Forever) as Zaroff.  Nothing about this story makes sense.  Half the story is played dead serious and the rest of it is on acid.  The cliffhanger to Episode 1, in which Polly is strapped to a gurney and about to be turned into a Fish Person, is both of those things at the same time.

In Print: When seen in print, the ending to The Underwater Menace is highly cinematic.  The deposed High Priest of Atlantis, Lolem, escapes the flooding of his temple and takes refuge in Zaroff’s laboratory.  After Ben and the Doctor escape execution by repeatedly kicking away Zaroff’s gun, Lolem (distraught over the loss of his world) leaps out of hiding and engages in a struggle — to the death!! — with Zaroff.  This prevents Zaroff from flipping the switch that will end the world, and allows the Doctor and Ben to escape the surging floodwaters.  Religion and science, locked in a death struggle, even as the waters rise… a fitting metaphor for the story.  However, on TV, we get none of this.  It turns out that Lolem actually died off-screen (and thus was never even seen in Episode 4).  Instead, the Doctor escaped by tricking Zaroff out of his lair so that Ben can drop a set of bars between Zaroff and the death switch.  Zaroff spends the last 10 minutes of the episode trying to reach through the bars so he can flip the switch… and drowns in the process.  The greatest scientific mind “in ze vurld”, as Joseph Furst put it, laid low by his failure to just use a broomstick.  This is about as intellectually dissatisfying as that long sequence in Westworld where all the technicians suffocate because they can’t figure out how to open a locked door.  It’s easy to see why Robinson rewrote that part of the ending.  The rest of the novelization is, fortunately (or unfortunately), very faithful to the TV episode, but the stereotypical Irish character’s reference to “closing time at Betty Murphy’s pub” is fortunately (or unfortunately) deleted.

The Regulars: This was only Patrick Troughton’s third story, and Fraser Hines’ second.  It’s a transition piece, as Hines had only just been written into the story and didn’t have much to do.  Robinson uses both a prologue and an epilogue to bookend TARDIS scenes, which serve as Jamie’s major contribution to the story.  Similarly, Troughton’s character was markedly more clownish here than he would be in later stories, dressing as a gypsy, and temporarily overcoming Zaroff by blowing a recorder-full of pepper into his face.  He solves the plot seemingly by accident, flooding Atlantis and thus nearly destroying the civilization, and thus causing nearly as much damage as he averted in the first place.  Robinson in the book plays against type and highlights the Doctor’s obvious buffoonery, especially in a scene where the Doctor is “upset” by his companions’ pointed questions.  So basically the Doctor in this book is characterized quite similarly to the Meddling Monk in Robinson’s own novelization of The Time Meddler.  Meanwhile, companion Polly is inadvertently portrayed as topless, in an early scene where Robinson describes her entire wardrobe except for her shirt.

The Chapter Titles of Death: Obviously one chapter (8) is called “Nothing in the World Can Stop Me Now!”, named after the first and still greatest instance of a Doctor Who Episode 3 ending with a villainous rant.  However, that’s undercut two chapters later by Chapter 10’s clunky “The Prudence of Zaroff”.  One would have to hope that was Nigel Robinson’s way of being drily ironic.

The Cliffhangers: We now know from the censor clips that the end of Episode 1, with Polly about to be surgically turned into a Fish Person, was pretty frightening as presented for TV.  Robinson, however, buries that scene in the middle of a chapter.  The other cliffhangers each properly get placed at the end of a chapter, even Episode 3.

Good prose/bad prose: Robinson, like the TV script from which he worked, was just all over the map here.  Good stuff?  Um, Zaroff’s control center is appropriately dubbed by Robinson “the Power Complex”.  The Doctor, in one of his less competent moments (and in this story that’s saying a lot) “wisely” declines to answer a question because “he wasn’t too sure himself”.  Much less successfully, when Polly is told that the Fish People operation will be painfless, observes that she was told the same thing about her polio vaccine.  Inappropriate, much, Nigel?  The Doctor, when waiting for the King of Atlantis to deliver what turns out to be a death sentence, compares the moment to “rather like waiting for the dentist”.  Or not.  Later on, when the Doctor mentally lists his most fearsome enemies, Nigel rather cheekily sneaks the Drahvins onto the list (which I think Steven Moffat then borrowed for The Pandorica Opens…).  Finally, when Jamie slaps Polly in the face, the author editorially adds: “That shut her up.”

Personal Memories: Very few, fortunately.  I was in between bouts of Who fandom when this was released and bought the novel more out of completist’s habit than anything else.  Apart from the brief plot summary in the Lofficier episode guide I knew virtually nothing about the story.  That probably helped, as all of the bizarre plot occurrences and snarky asides sailed right over my head.  Picking this up again for the first time almost 20 years later, my most vivid memory from the first attempt was Polly exclaiming, “You’re not turning me into a fish!”  Obviously I missed a lot of nuance the first time around.

Final Analysis: On the whole, Robinson seems in turns bored and mortally wounded by having to novelize this particular adventure.  Apart from the sloppy, clumsy prose moments noted above, there are also several moments where characters reflect on the overall lack of logic.  “The Doctor had come up with some strange plans before but this surely was the strangest of them all“, or, when Ben suggests attacking Zaroff with his own pet Octopus, Robinson appends, “he asked in all seriousness.”  It’s hard to know if this is badly written because of the source material, or if it’s just badly written, period.  Based on the bulking up of the climax, I’ll given Nigel the benefit of the doubt and assume he tried as hard as he could as long as he could before, like the script, just plain giving up.

About drwhonovels

An incredibly languid sojourn through the "Doctor Who" canon, with illustrations from the Topps 1979 baseball card set.
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2 Responses to The Underwater Menace

  1. Pingback: The Underwater Menace (TV) | "Doctor Who" Novels

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