Friday, 31 July 2009

The Underwater Menace

Previous viewings - one (missing episodes), many (Episode 3)

And the award for "most absurd story ever" goes to....

The lesser qualities of The Underwater Menace took my by surprise, but I'm not sure why as I've seen Episode 3 lots of times and thought it was just entertainingly camp. I expect it's because when I watch a single episode I don't care much about the plot because I know I'm not going to see it to its conclusion anyway. Laughing at how bad something is for 25 minutes can be diverting, but for 100 minutes - you're just wasting your time.

The story opens on another beach, volcanic this time so we're not in the UK. Jamie is along for the ride, but is still in his early phase: Frazer Hines hasn't yet developed the chemistry with Patrick Troughton that makes Jamie and the Doctor such a great character, in fact hardly anything at all is done with the character in this story beyond helping out his friends and asking the occasional question. He shows a remarkable ability to adjust to his new lifestyle, I suspect due to his inclusion at short notice than any deliberate characterisation, which is why I'll be kind and not blame the writer for his poorly written first TARDIS scene, where he immediately accepts the dimensional transcendentalism and gets ready for the next adventure.

To say The Underwater Menace's plot doesn't stand up to scrutiny is an understatement. It has more holes than a golf course. At times it's total lack of logic is jaw-dropping, almost making it hard to accept this as a genuine Doctor Who story and not a spoof. It ends up coming off as a sendup of the show, which is odd because it's ranting madman plotting to destroy the world plot is more James Bond-esque than Who (You Only Live Twice, also released in 1967, had an underground volcano lair).

Professor Zaroff intends to raise the lost city of Atlantis from beneath the sea. His plan will destroy Atlantis and in fact the whole planet, but he's insane so he doesn't care. While he finalises his project, the TARDISeers are brought down to Atlantis, where Zaroff saves them from being eaten by sharks as sacrifices to the goddess Amdo because of a false claim by the Doctor to hold crucial information. Glossing over the odd detail that the Doctor knew in advance that he would be able to find Zaroff in this presumably isolated and unknown community, Zaroff's attitude towards the Doctor makes little sense. He asks him to help him with his project because he is a scientist - the Doctor, being the good scientist we know him to be, quickly realises that Zaroff's plan will destroy the world, and sets out to stop him. Run that past me again?

The Atlantisans sure are keen on their sacrifices. Having just escaped being shark food, Polly is taken to be turned into a fish, as the Atlantisans do to strangers, who become fish people and slaves, who are responsible for maintaining the Atlantisans food supplies. Polly escapes and teams up with Ara. In a different story, the threat of Polly being turned into a fish would be a definite WTF moment, but here it barely raises an eyebrow. In the context of the rest of the story, good cliffhanger though.

At this point, Zaroff believes the Doctor will help him. Ben and Jamie have been sent to work in the mines, far too normal a punishment for a story like this. The Doctor finds an ally in Ramo, a priest who opposes Zaroff, but Thous, leader of Atlantis, supports Zaroff and hands the Doctor and Ramo over to him.

What's this - moving images! If there's one good thing about this being the earliest surviving Troughton episode, it's that I have visual evidence to support my opinion that the story is utter tosh. The set design and costuming resembled that of The Aztecs, but The Underwater Menace is nowhere near as well directed and has some rather odd mechanical electronic music permeating it, which in any other story would be got very annoying but somehow it worked here.

Zaroff decides to have the Doctor and Ramo sacrificed, but Ben, Polly, Jamie and some stranded sailors have found a passageway behind an Amdo statue in quite an unlikely turn of events, which provides the Doctor and Ramo with somewhere to hide when everybody else is bowing. Their movements aren't exactly discreet, and ultimately for the Atlantisans to assume their vanishing is a miracle from Amdo only shows them up as morons. If I was taking the story seriously, that would ruin it, but I'm not, so it didn't.

Perhaps that's a great strength of this story. Okay, so it makes no sense, but it's never boring. If you're watching it with someone else, you can make a game of it - see who can count the most plot holes, under the assumption that everything is supposed to make sense and the characters are supposed to have normal motivations and agendas. Episode 3 is rubbish - having met up with his friends, the Doctor decides to kidnap Zaroff, while the others convince the fish people to strike so the Atlantisans food will go bad. The fish people are slaves with total control over the food of those who have enslaved them. See what the problem there is? At least we get a funky underwater fish people sequence, although quite what it's supposed to mean is anyone's guess. The Doctor, meanwhile, makes Zaroff chase him so that he can incapacitate him. Zaroff tells him it's too late to stop his plan, then fakes a heart attack, which everyone believes despite it being very poorly acted. Of course he easily escapes and accelerates his plans.

Until this point, I was willing to overlook many of the story's flaws, because despite the absurdities, including the questionable acting of Joseph Furst, easily the most over-the-top villain Doctor Who villain ever, the poorly realised Atlantisan culture, who seem to live in a series of very small rooms, and the ruining of Polly, who has degenerated into screamer and a wimp, it was still entertaining, and none of this was so bad that I couldn't enjoy it. However the last episode is the worst of the lot. The Doctor floods the lower levels of Atlantis, which includes Zaroff's laboratory. Despite the depth, and presumably pressure, the water kindly takes its time to destroy the city while the surviving inhabitants (all the good guys, none of the bad guys) swim to safety and reach ground level. Zaroff is of course still determined to carry out his plan but is trapped behind a grille and drowns. Back above ground, the Doctor and his companions return to the TARDIS.

If you're in the right mood, The Underwater Menace is loads of fun. Entertainment doesn't have to be 100% realistic. The Underwater Menace takes it to the other extreme. Asking the viewers to accept the science in this story is an insult to their intelligence. Add the other flaws I mentioned and you have one of the poorest stories yet.

Horror quotient - With a story like this, who knows what's supposed to be scary. The fish people are possibility.
Comedy quotient - "Nothing in the world can stop me now!" The line is poor already, but the delivery makes it the most memorable line of the story, for all the wrong reasons.
Drama quotient - Drama? Who needs drama.

There are laughs to be had if you're revelling in how awful it is, but to give it a high score would be a disservice to stories which at least tried to be good, even if they failed in the realisation.


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