“Just one small question. Why do you want to blow up the world?”
Most great seasons in television have at least one clanger, and Doctor Who’s near-perfect fourth season is no exception to the rule. Of the nine stories that make up Doctor Who’s fourth run, Geoffrey Orme’s “The Underwater Menace” is the worst, and it’s the worst by a mile. Ironically, the earliest surviving Pat Troughton episode is Episode 3 of this serial – hardly the best showcase for his era. To think that survived the fires when so much wonderful stuff was lost…
To be fair to Troughton, there is nothing wrong with his performance, nor that of any of his companions; quite the opposite in fact - even Frazer Hines makes the best of a bad situation, after his character had been hastily pencilled in at the last minute. The newly regenerated Doctor is very entertaining - the problem is that the story isn’t compelling. Take the first episode for example. The TARDIS lands on an extinct volcanic rock surrounded by sea, circa 1970. It turns out to be the lost Kingdom of Atlantis. Living there, is a mad scientist called Zaroff who, for no apparent reason, wants to blow up the world. Okay, so initially Zaroff claims that he wants to raise Atlantis from the depths of the ocean, but as the story progresses and he descends further and further into madness (and Joseph Furst descends further and further into over the top, clichéd acting) it becomes clear that the man has no motive; he’s just completely radio rental.
If anything, “The Underwater Menace” is reminiscent of James Bond… only crap. We have the Doctor signing notes “Doctor W.” (aaaah!!!), Ben and Jamie sent away to work as slave labour (how original), and worst of all we have the absolute worst cliff-hanger of all time. I mean it; it’s dire.
“Nothing in the world can stop me now!”
It’s so bad in fact, that it is the only good thing about the story. At least you can have a laugh at it!
The most surprising thing about The Underwater Menace is its appalling reputation. This is hardly one of the worst Doctor Who stories ever, its not even the worst story of season four (that belongs to the horribly dull The Faceless Ones) and taken as a whole (I listened to the audio of episodes one, two and four with Anekke Wills excellent narration with the aid of telesnaps from DWM and of course I watched the infamous episode three on DVD) it is actually a great deal of fun. Of course it is impossible to take the thing seriously for a million and one reasons but it has some effective moments and the story flows along nicely and (surprisingly considering how cheap this story is known for) there are some lovely visuals too. I kid you not. I put of listening to this BBC audio for quite some time and only surrendered when I was so bored one day there was no other options.
Most terrifying of all is Joseph Furst’s stratospheric performance as the evil and misguided Professor Zarroff. Isn’t he great? Finally a villain who is bad because he just totally around the twist, a Master before his time and just like the Doctor’s arch fiend his motives are just as crazy. He wants to destroy the entire world (and Atlantis)…just because! Why not? It would make him the most amazing scientist in the world to achieve such a feat…although he doesn’t seem to realise he himself will be destroyed along with everyone else because he…is on the Earth himself! Furst plays the part as OTT as it is possible to get, screaming like a loony, brandishing guns in as camp a fashion as possible and laughing like a totally loon even when he is real trouble. His eventual fate is a shame, drowning along with Atlantis as this denies us a re-match with this most memorable of baddies. A mad scientist with a big bad octopus as a pet who wants to blow up the entire world for a laugh…what a guy!
Setting a story in Atlantis is always a dubious idea but they manage to pull it off with a reasonable amount of style, certainly with more effort than the Doctor’s next visit to the esteemed lost city, The Time Monster. I quite like the sets overall even if they are a bit cramped in places. Especially good are the fish people tank which helps to convince this is underwater (whilst they do their crazy underwater ballet you can actually see water bubbles floating towards the surface) and the temple of Amdo, which is full of echo-ey and full of shadows and pretty creepy. Even the market place with its stalls, springs and a host of extras is pretty good.
Most distracting of all is the horrific incidental music, which accompanies the story. It sounds like it has been performed by some mad drunk Australian on a kazoo! It is really distracting in places plink, plink, plonking its way through the marketplace and the fish person dance…you can squeeze your buttocks together and let rip some delicious farts that sound just like it! Hardly good for building up the atmosphere, the music I fear does contribute to this stories silly reputation.
The regulars however all come across very well, including Patrick Troughton who is still clearly finding his feet at this stage. It would be in the next two stories, The Moonbase and The Macra Terror where you would see Troughton finally settle and become the dangerous little imp he would always be known as but there are strong signs of that here too, its just the script doesn’t let him play to all his strengths. He gets to fight the system as always but he is still a little muted, still dressing up in silly costumes (I’m glad this was dropped…although his old woman gypsy persona is probably his best yet!) and still holding back from really letting rip on the bad guys. Still his scenes with Zarroff are a delight, pampering to the nutters ego and then trying to foil his schemes however possible. I love his attempts to go back and save Zarroff at the end, that feels very right and his boasting at the end that of course he can control the TARDIS before to spirals madly out of control is classic Troughton clowning.
In a story packed with companions somebody has to be left out and this time it is Jaime, who was never supposed to be included anyway and was added to the script at a late stage. Who cares, he looks damn hot in divers gear so I’ll forgive him anything. Polly finally succumbs to the helpless screamer state the 60’s demand of its female companions (she has been surprisingly resistant until this point) and wails and moans as scientists surround her attempt to turn her into a fish person. I love it when she dresses up later and gets in on all the fun of chasing around and getting tricked by Zarroff, it is proof of how good the combination of her and Ben was before they were abruptly written out. As for Ben, what can one say. What a babe. If there was ever a TARDIS crew I would like to dive into naked…oh sorry, distracted for a second. Ben is cool, a mouthy cockney years before Rose, a muscle brain who is fiercely loyal…there really isn’t much to not like about Ben. Michael Craze seems to be aware of how absurd the script is but still gives 100% and gets a fab moment when he pretends to be the false God Amdo. He dresses up too, so they are all in the fancy dress mood in this one!
Most of the other guest performances are pretty subdued but then any acting would seem mil mannered next to Fursts! You get a nice turn from Noel Johnson, Tom Watson and Catherine Howe as Leader, High Priest and Slave…all trying their hardest to salvage some dignity from the absurd script and lend some believability to Atlantis. They don’t really succeed but all praise for their efforts.
Did director Julia Smith (creator of Eastenders and this…ooh she’s got a lot to answer for!) fall asleep during the production and let her actors just carry on? There are a number of hilariously bad sequences that never fail to make me chuckle! What about when Zarroff pretends to be dying and asks is he can be helped up by his captor Ramo so he can ‘feel the goodness of his aura!’ and then he subsequently spears him to death! Or Zarroff’s mad laughing through the caves as he drags Polly along to be his hostage? Or best of all…his “You are a fool! You are a fool!” mad man speech at the end of episode three climaxing with (well it had to get mentioned sooner or later) “Nothing in the world can stop me now!” In fact all the rubbishy scenes involve Zarroff in one way or another but considering he is so damn likable because of it I cannot bring upon me to condemn the story.
And the script? Who on Earth would write a story containing Atlantis, an Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman, a cross dressing Doctor, Fish People, a mad sacrificing cult and big camp scheme to blow up the world? What was Geoffrey Orme on and can I have some please?
Ridiculously fun throughout and played mostly tongue in cheek so you don’t die of embarrassment whilst watching/listening, The Underwater Menace is a pretty silly story in a time when Doctor Who was consistently good. Saying that, its never boring and has some scenes in it that you will never forget the rest of your life. Just don’t go into it expecting a masterpiece of drama and you may just have a lot of fun with it.
You’ve got to feel a little sorry for ‘The Underwater Menace’. Here is a story that is never quite hated, but then again it is never really respected. It’s a story that is treated with acceptance rather than anything else: “It’s there, it was made, now deal with it!” Why is it then that I happen to rather enjoy it? Also, why is it that my enjoyment of it is marred by a sense of ‘I know I shouldn’t like you, but I cannot help it…’; why is this a guilty pleasure?
Perhaps it’s the fact that it is shameless in its stupidity, that for the most part it’s never trying to be anything other than fun (only the occasional educational fact popped in changes this), or maybe it’s because I have a secret love for B-movies: this is just that- ‘Doctor Who’ does B-movie.
Taking even a brief look at the plot is surely enough to confirm this. Under the sea in the world of Atlantis, genetically engineered Fish People go about their every day business. Despite being surrounded by salt, food cannot be preserved (silly, I know, but there you have it) and so things are on the unhappy side of things. But all is not lost- the world renowned Professor Zaroff has vowed to raise Atlantis from the seabed onto the surface… but is that really his plan, or does he simply wish to cause a massive explosion that will destroy the planet, thus earning him fame for life? Well, obviously the latter. Thank goodness the Doctor and his merry crew are at hand to save them all, with the help of some Zaroff-hating people and a hefty dose of common sense that seems to have avoided the good people of Atlantis. Throw in a false goddess (Amdo), a fish revolution and the Doctor dressing up as a Sailor (apparently- looks more like a sixties’ groovy Gypsy to me) and there you have ‘The Underwater Menace’ in all its glory.
It’s daft, but at least it’s fun and daft.
As mentioned above, the moments that briefly halt it from being totally silly are when they attempt to inject educational moments into the story. We get a short piece on Robert Burns in Episode 1 and a brief Science Lesson in Episode 2, both of which jar a little with the rest of the story, though the latter is needed to convince people that Zaroff is as ‘mad as a hatter’.
One of the things that makes ‘The Underwater Menace’ as strangely enjoyable as I find it to be is its dialogue. There are so many memorable lines throughout the story, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous:
“I could feed you to my pet Octopus!”
“May the wrath of Amdo engulf you!” / ”I’ll take my chance!”
“Look at him- he ain’t normal is he?”
and then, of course, we have the famous ending to Episode 3: “Nothing in the world can sop me now!”
It’s a line so good, we get it delivered in a different way at the start of Episode 4, but nothing quite matches the insanity of the first time.
Amongst all the madness too, there are some truly nice moments, especially in Episode 3, which at the time of writing is the only one to exist in the BBC archives. A throwaway line concerning the madness in Zaroff’s eyes in Episode 2 is carried on over briefly into Episode 3; there is a nice part where the Doctor, Ben and Jamie pop up from behind a stone, each wearing a Fish Mask to disguise themselves; the Market scene in this Episode also looks great. Considering how poor crowd scenes can sometimes look in ‘Doctor Who’ stories owing to budgetary restraints, poor Directing and lacklustre set design, the Market looks brilliant. Julia Smith brings the Market place to life with lots of talking, animated citizens and a general feeling of claustrophobic busyness. Another visually stunning part of Episode 3 is the sequence with the Fish People swimming to tell one another about a forthcoming rebellion. Again, Smith uses Jack Robinson’s excellent set design to full advantage, making these moments really impressive. There are two things, however, that let this part down: firstly, it is simply too long, which is party forgivable due to how nice it looks but despite this is still a problem; secondly, the Fish People themselves vary in quality. Those in full Fish-garb look brilliant, but they are sadly overshadowed by the fact that several of the actors are blatantly just wearing goggles and some plastic ‘gills’.
There are some other disappointing moments; Zaroff’s escape in Episode 3 for example makes the TARDIS crew look very foolish indeed, especially Polly, fooling as they do for the age old ‘pretend-you’re-ill-and-collapse’ trick. Also, in Episode 3, I’m amazed that the Doctor and Ramo were able to flee the sacrifice, considering how noisy they are when making their escape. Episode 2 suffers from the overlong and rather dull sequences in the mine, with the only value to the overall story being the introduction of Sean and Jacko, two supporting characters that are rather fun but not as likeable as either Ramo or Ara. The worst Episode of them all is the final one; Episode 4 is very slow compared to the rest of the story and also quite dark. The death of Zaroff by drowning is visually impressive but rather at odds with everything else seen in the story; also, the ending is surprisingly dull, with the TARDIS crew leaving without any real farewells to the rest of the cast. In short, it comes across as a bit rushed and boring.
The acting on the whole is good here; the regular cast play everything well. Patrick Troughton is never anything less than great and he plays the Doctor here with a real sense of fun; Michael Craze and Anneke Wills also impress, sustaining the thus far enjoyable pairing of Ben and Polly. Frazer Hines as Jamie is also great; when considering how this is only his second story in the part, it is impressive to see just how comfortable Hines is in the role; there is no sense of him finding his feet or seeming decidedly new. Instead, he comes across as if he has been doing the part for a far longer time than he had been- a sign, if nothing else, of him being a really good actor.
The supporting cast are also quite strong; as Ara and Ramo respectively, Catherine Howe and Tom Watson give their roles everything they’ve got. As Thous, Noel Johnson is also good, as is Peter Stephens as Lolem, though I couldn’t watch him or listen to him without thinking of his performance as Cyril in ‘The Celestial Toymaker’.
However, all of these actors are overshadowed- and rightly so- by Joseph Furst as Professor Zaroff. Taking the script at face value, Furst invests a remarkably large amount of energy into the role, playing it totally over-the-top and exactly as it should be played. He takes the stereotypical Mad Scientist role and plays it with all the eccentricities and craziness that it warrants. He is, easily, the highlight of the story, and it is a pity that he never returned to ‘Doctor Who’.
‘The Underwater Menace’ is not as bad as everyone makes out. Sure, it’s very, very silly indeed and is certainly a little lacking in parts- the ending is out of place compared to the rest of the story for example- but it is on the whole a fun affair. Zaroff is a great creation, and Furst plays the role superbly; everyone seems to having a lot of fun and Julia Smith’s Directing is excellent. Geoffrey Orme’s script is not going to win any awards, but it fulfils the fun-but-flawed category amply.
So daft it encourages you to laugh along with it, and so B-moiveesque that Ed Wood could have written it, ‘The Underwater Menace’ isn’t bad at all. It’s just a bit silly.
‘The Underwater Menace’ is an absurdity. The Discontinuity Guide describes it as Doctor Who’s equivalent of Plan 9 From Outer Space, but fails to note that Plan 9 From Outer Space is a much loved turkey with a cult following, whereas ‘The Underwater Menace’ is a story rarely mentioned and discussed with stunned disbelief on those rare occasions.
The plot of ‘The Underwater Menace’ is ludicrous. Professor Zaroff wants to destroy the world and everyone including himself along with it (for the recognition that this achievement will bring him – no, really) because he is mad. He intends to achieve this aim by drilling a hole through the Earth’s crust and emptying the sea into it magma, producing steam that will make the planet explode. And not in any way simply produce an undersea volcano, which are a common phenomenon. I think this all speaks for itself really; what is most alarming about Zaroff’s plan is that the Doctor believes that it will work, so either he knows something we don’t, or he’s suffering from delayed post-regenerative trauma. It doesn’t help that Zaroff has absolutely no motivation whatsoever that we learn about, he’s merely a clichéd B-movie megalomaniac mad scientist who is obviously a nutter but suffers from no discernable actual convincing mental illness or personality disorder that exists in real life. As preposterous as this plot is, ‘The Underwater Menace’ could save some face by having superb characterisation and marvelous production values. Sadly, it does not.
The Atlanteans are all your basic Superstitious Primitives, one or two of whom Zaroff has trained in scientific disciplines but most of whom are either stupid enough to trust a blatantly raving lunatic (stand up, King Thous), or spend their time sacrificing strangers to a giant fish with rather unsubtle frothing religious mania. Some of the Atlanteans are stupid beyond words, the scene in which Ben and Polly trick Lolem armed only with amateur ventriloquist skills in particular of note. Still, at least it distracts the viewer from the almost terminally wooden acting of Paul Anil and P. G. Stephens as Jacko and Sean, respectively, the latter exhibiting the least convincing Irish accent in television history. Then there’s the costumes and set design. Listening to episodes one and two spares the listener the sight of these until the fully surviving episode three, when it transpires that the costume designer thought that hanging fake clamshell bathroom ornaments on the actors would be a good idea. The Atlanteans look ridiculous, especially Lolem, who appears to have modeled himself on Christopher Biggins in full panto dame mode and is wearing the most preposterous headdress ever seen in the series. At least this extravagance compensates for Zaroff however, who is dressed in a white boiler suit, although his status as a lunatic compels him to don a cloak. The sets on the other hand are rather good, especially the water-filled home of the Fish People.
In the midst of all this twaddle, surely we can turn to the regulars to salvage the story? Only to an extent; Troughton could act in his sleep, and he rises to the challenge of the script of ‘The Underwater Menace’ admirably, although why exactly the Doctor decides that wearing a large pair of shades will make him look inconspicuous in Atlantis in episode three is anyone’s guess. In addition, there is some witty dialogue, including his scene with Ben, when his companion, posing as a guard, argues of his “prisoner”, “blimey, look at him – he ain’t normal, is he?” On the other hand, it stretches credibility that Polly, let alone the Doctor, would fall for Zaroff’s transparent heart attack trick. Another problem is that of Ben and Jamie. Whilst I like both companions, they both vie for the same role in the Doctor/Companion dynamic, a problem of which the production team is clearly aware and for which at least Geoffrey Orme can’t be blamed. Consequently, they spend most of the time paired up here to very little effect, suggesting that Jamie has been crow barred into the script at the last minute and given half of Ben’s action and dialogue. Worse still, they are then teamed up with the functionally equivalent Jacko and Sean, which leaves them with even less to do; had Ben or Jamie been the one to rouse the Fish People to rebellion for example, it would have been a far more appropriate use of their characters. Polly provides the cliffhanger to episode one, but does little else save fall for the line “allow me to stand by your side, so that I may feel ze aura of your goodness”, about which less said the better.
So is ‘The Underwater Menace’ totally unsalvageable? Actually, no: almost in spite of itself it is bizarrely entertaining. Joseph Furst as Zaroff is totally over the top, but given his character’s complete lack of scripted motivation and deranged B-movie plan, he probably realized that this was the only way to play the part, and he seems to be enjoying himself immensely, especially in his scenes with the Doctor. The infamous “Nothing in the world can stop me now!” line at the end of episode three has passed somewhat surprisingly into fan consciousness and is certainly memorable. Troughton too, perhaps recognizing the paucity of the script, throws caution to the wind and acts with mania, as witnessed in the daft chase scene in episode three. The Fish People too are notable, since the fully transformed ones look quite good. The notoriously pointless scene of them swimming about in episode three is indeed superfluous but is well staged.
On the whole, ‘The Underwater Menace’ is rubbish, but it is mildly diverting rubbish.