The Underwater Menace (TV)

Airdates: January/February 1967 (4 episodes)
Written by: Geoffrey Orme and Gerry Davis
Screen Credit to: Geoffrey Orme
Directed by: Julia Smith
The Story So Far: In the ruins of Atlantis, the faith of one priest is severely tested when the Savior of Atlantis turns out to be a false prophet. … also, Fish People, ludicrous accents, and some very trippy headgear.
Novelization by: Nigel Robinson (July 1988)

Remarkably, I was more excited about the recovery of Episode 2 of this story, when it was announced exactly two years ago, than I was about the return of Galaxy 4‘s Episode 3.  Meanwhile, the latter episode has been restored, released on DVD, and it’s terrific. This one, meanwhile, is still only available as a low-grade leaked copy and… come to find out, the best thing about it is the one-minute scene officially released on-line.  The Underwater Menace already had a fearsome reputation as one of the Worst Episodes Ever.  I have in the past expressed love for the more ludicrous bits of the surviving Episode 3, because  it’s Bad, and Doctor Who actually does Bad very well, taking it over the top to create something memorably ludicrous.  Unfortunately, Episode 2 commits the even worse sin of being Boring.

How can Boring and Bad exist side-by-side in the same story?  Here’s a trivia quiz to prove it.  Name this Doctor Who story: a sincere, devout priest loses his faith upon realizing that the core of his religion is an empty nothing, and, when he attempts to redeem his enemy in Episode 3, by gathering together the shattered remnants of his faith, he is quickly killed for his efforts.

If you guessed The Curse of Fenric… you’re half-right.  Come to find out, The Underwater Menace told the exact same story 22 years earlier.  Only, much more clumsily.  Fenric was about Reverend Wainwright’s tragic journey.  Menace floods Ramo’s path, from believer to unbeliever to brutally-murdered corpse, in a sea of bizarre acting, costuming, and musical choices.  So that’s the problem with The Underwater Menace — it’s focusing on the wrong story!

Tom Watson (Ramo) must have been a very good actor, to be able to act in a hat like that.

Tom Watson (Ramo) must have been a very good actor, to be able to act in a hat like that.

So that’s The Underwater Menace in a nutshell: the most interesting, mature beats are practically invisible.  The bulk of the script is just … bonkers.  As with The Highlanders, the guest cast is all over the place, and nobody seems quite sure whether this is comedy, horror, or B-movie. The Discontinuity Guide called this as the Doctor Who equivalent of Plan 9 From Outer Space .  It takes a special mixture of bad acting and plot illogic to merit such an illustrious comparison.

Oddly, the story doesn’t start that way.  The first 10 or 11 minutes of Episode 1 are charmingly straightforward; the TARDIS arrives on a volcanic island which Polly mis-identifies as Cornwall — a callback to Julia Smith’s previous story, which was set (and filmed) in Cornwall.  Because only the four regulars are involved, we have time for quiet character moments: the first shot of the episode (per the telesnaps) is the Doctor’s stovepipe hat, which Polly is later seen (adorably) to wear.  There’s a nice montage of the regulars looking hopefully up at the scanner screen, wondering where they’re going to land next.  Ben: “Hope it’s the Daleks — I don’t think!”; the Doctor: “Prehistoric monsters?”.   Ben also refers to Jamie as “me old haggis,” a nifty way of reminding the audience that Jamie is Scottish (I don’t think).

And speaking of ethnic stereotypes...

And speaking of ethnic stereotypes…

But soon, the travelers are abducted and brought down to the ruins of Atlantis, where the descendants of the survivors of Episodes Five and Six of The Time Monster are eking out a hardscrabble existence, and worshiping a giant fish.  All of a sudden we’ve gone from Hartnell-era methodical examination of the sets (the Doctor studying volcanic rock, Polly sounding out the natives’ language), to lines like “The living goddess Amdo sees and hears all!”  Gerry Davis, who famously hired physician and polymath Kit Pedler to inject more hard science into the series, actually tried to kill this story from ever being made, and I suspect his decision came after he found that line in the script.

Amdo is essentially an enormous fish head.  Her priests wear hats made of rubber tubing, and a frontspiece, which in Ramo’s case is a giant shell and, in the case of one the Doctor tries on later, an actual fish head.  The set design looks insane, with fish motifs everywhere, and the costume design is on the same overly-literal page.  Soon we have stock footage of sharks (at least as per the Loose Cannon realization), grown men wearing fish hats, and a human-sacrifice ceremony that is so over-the-top that it goes beyond tongue-in-cheek to, oh, good Lord, Geoffrey Orme actually meant this story to be taken seriously…

Fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads.

Fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads.

The Doctor, in what will soon be a characteristic bit of deduction, figures out that this post-1968 Atlantis (the story includes a shout-out to the then-pending Mexico City Summer Olympics) is kept alive only through the scientific genius of Professor Zaroff. Zaroff, played by Austrian actor Joseph Furst, doesn’t turn up until late in Episode 1, and it’s possible that Orme meant him to be a serious character.  The original script actually contained motivation for Zaroff’s actions, with his wife & child having been killed in a car accident.  Zaroff was thus a mad scientist out to destroy the world, but not a parody or satiric figure.  Bless him, Joseph Furst had different ideas for the role than that.

Robert Smith?, co-author of Who’s 50, once wrote that “Doctor Who can survive being bad, but it can never survive being boring.”  Joseph Furst must have had something similar in mind when rehearsing Zaroff.  There’s a featurette on the Glengarry Glen Ross DVD showing acting students trying to recite Alec Baldwin’s monologue from that film.  But I posit that it’s just as hard to mimic bad acting.  Try this experiment now, at home.  Go to your nearest mirror (I’ll be here when you get back) and try to recite Zaroff’s lines in a non-over-the-top fashion, like “Blast! Blast! Blast!!” and, who could forget, “I could feed you to my pet octopus, yes?”.  And try the Episode 3 cliffhanger. You’ll have a hard time matching Joseph Furst’s intensity.  When a script is this bonkers, over-the-top crazy is the only way to play it.  The end result might be laugh-out-loud bad, but at least people will watch, just to see how much crazier it’ll get.  This is intentionally bad acting, but it works.

"A.B.C.  Always be crazypants.  Always.  Be.  Crazypants!"

“A.B.C. Always be crazypants. Always. Be. Crazypants!”

Wonderfully, when Joseph Furst participated in the Loose Cannon reconstruction 38 years later — about three months before he died — he filmed an in-character epilogue. You just can’t say a bad word about the lead villain when he’s willing to come back (a few weeks after The Parting of the Ways aired) and do that.

What’s interesting about Troughton’s performance here is that, after The Highlanders, you could be forgiven for thinking that he was going to sail right over the edge of subtlety, and match Joseph Furst note for manic note.  Instead, he’s… almost restrained. There is the bit where he dresses up as a gypsy woman, and uses his recorder to blast a cloud of powder into Zaroff’s face.  I also love this exchange with the somber Ramo, who’s given him the aforementioned crazy-hat to wear:

The Doctor: How do I look?
Ramo: What?
The Doctor: Never mind…

But he also silently lurks around Zaroff’s lab, wreaking havoc while Zaroff is busy arguing with his protege Damon.  Those are the best parts of Episode 2, with Troughton being interesting around the margins, but not overwhelming (what passes for) the plot.

Um, where was I... I was saying something about... subtlety, I think?

Um, where was I… I was saying something about… subtlety, I think?

The bit where he and Zaroff exclaim “BANG!” at each other, in reference to Zaroff’s destroy-the-world scheme, is a new bit of characterization for the Doctor; once he understands his enemy’s scheme, he doesn’t go all William Hartnell and immediately start blustering, but instead looks for a less visible counterattack.  There’s a moment in Episode 1 where the two of them both break down into uncontrollable laughter.  I’d love to see this bit; I’d suspect it ends with the Doctor casting a nervous glance at Zaroff, but given Troughton’s penchant for injecting ambiguity into the role, it might just look as if the Doctor is pretending to be the crazier of the two…

The resolution of the plot, however, doesn’t make the Doctor appear all that much saner than Zaroff.  First, in Episode 3, he convinces fellow-prisoners Sean and Jacko to instigate a strike amongst the food-gathering Atlantean Fish People slaves (um, yeah, don’t think too hard about that one).  When asked why he’s doing this, he has no clear answer, the implication being that it’s just a bit of chaos to distract Zaroff and provide more time to formulate a better solution.  And his ultimate plan is… to flood Atlantis; in order to save the city, he destroys it.  This is similar to how he thwarted The Power of the Daleks, and shows a Doctor who seems to revel in destruction as much as he does saving the oppressed and enslaved… in other words, in switching over from Hartnell to Troughton, we’ve gone from Captain Picard to Captain Kirk.

The result of this flooding is that Zaroff appears to commit suicide by intentionally drowning himself.  Because, crazypants.

The result of this flooding is that Zaroff appears to commit suicide by intentionally drowning himself. Because, crazypants.

There’s so much meshugas going on here that it’s best to just get caught up in the ride, and not worry about the plot resolution, or why the Atlanteans had to turn shipwreck survivors into Fish People in order to harvest their food, or why Damon, the chief Fish People surgeon, switches sides so quickly in Episode 4 after his lab is flooded.  Doctor Who is pretty good about showing nominal bad-guys who are turned good by the Doctor’s moral uprightness (as in The Smugglers), but here, there’s nothing earned about Damon’s sudden change of heart.  This would have made more sense plot-wise, coming from Ramo — or from Lolem, Ramo’s absolutely out-of-his-mind fellow priest. But Ramo was killed, and Lolem (played by Peter Stephens, who was so memorably creepy in The Celestial Toymaker) is barely in the thing, featuring only in short sequences in Episodes 1 and 3 and having no displacement on the plot whatsoever.

Another schizophrenic bit is the dialogue, which is half genius and half awful.  The worst lines are reserved for Sean, the imprisoned Irish sailor, whose nationality is expressed by lines like “It isn’t closing time at Betty Murphy’s pub!” or “It’ll take a great gift of the gab to win over the fish people, you know?” (to which the Doctor promptly responds, in case you’d missed the point by now: “But you are Irish…”).  Some of the Doctor’s other lines are either genius, or awful, or, more likely, both at the same time:  “Slaves, like worms, can be made to turn”; or “Perhaps the distant roaring that we can hear is just the goddess Amdo with the indigestion?”

Speaking of meshugas, a lot of different people looked at the Fish People design with satfisfaction, and complimented themselves upon a job well done.

Speaking of meshugas, the production team must have looked at the Fish People design with satisfaction, and complimented themselves upon a job well done.  Indeed…

This would be as good a place as any to note that this story was not supposed to have ever been made in the first place.  We haven’t talked as much about the behind-the-scenes travails of Season 4, but in many respects they were even worse than those that plagued Season 3.  In short, Geoffrey Orme’s scripts were thought to be unfilmable, to the point where Hugh David, the originally assigned director, refused to work on them, and took over The Highlanders instead.  Then the story was actually canceled, in favor of William Emms’ The Imps, but when Emms fell too ill to do rewrites, and with time running very short, this was pulled out of the trashcan and rushed to air.

When I say “rushed to air”, I mean that literally.  Each episode was filmed just one week prior to airtime.  While 7.1 million viewer were wondering just how the TARDIS crew were going to get out of “Nothing in the vorld can shtop me now!”… so were the production team, who were still a few hours away from taping the cliffhanger resolution.  This was the tightest turnaround in Doctor Who history (well, this, and the next serial).  So that’s the real reason why The Underwater Menace got made; because the only, and I do mean only, alternative, was to air a test pattern in its place.

Colin Jeavons probably thinks the test-pattern idea would have been the better alternative.

Colin Jeavons (Damon) probably thinks the test-pattern idea would have been the better alternative.

Because half this story exists, we have a pretty good idea of the ulcers that director Julia Smith must have given herself.  The costumes and sets were ludicrous, and getting all the actors on the same page was like herding cats, what with someone like Noel Johnson acting as if he were in a highbrow stage play, and yet sharing just about all of his scenes with either Troughton or Furst.  Maybe if there had been more time, Smith could have gotten a more unified set of performances.  The only honest performance comes from Anneke Wills, who (based upon a particularly harrowing bit in her autobiography) didn’t have to feign horror while lying on Damon’s operating table.

When faced with a script requiring a montage of Fish People going on strike in Episode 3, Smith gives us… well, basically something out of 1920s German expressionist cinema, with Dudley Simpson’s… (looking for a kind word) quirky (yes, that will do) score, acting as silent-film accompaniment.  Looking almost as if they were underwater, the Fish People fly through the air in what appears to be an early attempt at slow-motion, with their Kirby wires occasionally invisible.  This sequence goes on for so long that it’s both mesmerizing and excruciating at the same time.  The fact that there was no possible way Julia Smith could have gotten away with mounting this sequence, but that she does it anyway, is what makes Doctor Who, Doctor Who.  It’s awful, but you can’t turn your eyes and you can’t stop talking about it.  Bad, but most certainly not boring.

Speaking of "getting away with it", Polly's Fish-People surgery scene requires Anneke Wills to don this too-short-for-TV surgical gown.

Speaking of “getting away with it”, Polly’s Fish-People surgery scene requires Anneke Wills to don this too-short-for-TV surgical gown.

[Props are due to Ms. Smith, however, for the Episode 3 marketplace chase.  This is full-on Marx Brothers, with the Doctor playing a gypsy woman, and Ben and Jamie flipping synchronized Nazi salutes to one of Zaroff’s guards.  This bit is way better than Bad, and explains why I like that episode so much.]

Nigel Robinson took on the novelization himself; he clearly decided that The Underwater Menace was beyond redemption, and so over-wrote the story to the point of parody.  Hence a chapter title called “The Prudence of Zaroff”.  On TV, Jamie quite nicely helped a panicking Polly escape from a flooded Atlantis by climbing up the inside of a volcano; in the book, he instead slaps her to calm her down.  Of course, at the same time, the worst excesses of Sean’s Irish dialogue (including the “Betty Murphy’s pub”) line are cut out, and the ending is actually improved by having Lolem and Zaroff fight to the death, instead of Zaroff merely drowning.

The Underwater Menace is, unlike The Web Planet, not a failed experiment that need never be repeated.  Doctor Who would be a poorer place without bizarre stories like this to kick around.  Had there been more time, all the “straight” bits (like the first 10 minutes, or the acting of Tom Watson and Noel Johnson) could have been brought in line, and made properly absurd.  But this one was actually remade, kind of, as The Vampires of Venice, in 2010, and, you know what?  Compared to that, Underwater Menace still holds up pretty well…

About drwhonovels

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

  1. Yes, indeed, Gerry Davis tried his utmost to prevent this serial from being produced, but Geoffrey Orme defiantly decreed “Nothing in the world can stop me now!”

    Seriously, the fact that the people involved in this, such as Julia Smith, knew it was a going to turn out to be a train wreck and still gave it their best, instead of merely shrugging their shoulders & phoning it in, is one of the reasons why Doctor Who lasted so many years. There have been numerous serials over the show’s original 26 year run where the productions should have simply imploded, but the script editor or the actors or the director or someone managed to salvage something out of it, because they cared about doing they best work they could.

    For example, jumping ahead about a decade, one can look at “The Nightmare of Eden” which is kind of a mess, and experienced numerous behind-the-scenes problems. But the finished serial is still, despite all its flaws, entertaining in a bonkers, so-bad-it’s-good manner, and it is certainly seldom boring.

  2. drwhonovels says:

    Well put! Baker and Troughton definitely had a knack for surpassing their weaker material and still grabbing the screen… the jury is still out on Matt Smith for me, though.

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  5. Aaron says:

    Excellent take on this one. This serial is simultaneously the worst and the greatest (much like Plan 9).

    • drwhonovels says:

      Now that I’m much further in to the Troughton era (“Ice Warriors” THREE), it’s hard to recall the time when THIS was what the Troughton era was like. Fortunately, this gloriously failed experiments was gotten out of the way early, freeing Troughton up to be in much better stuff! (until Season 6, that is…)

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