“Nothing in zee world can stop me now…..”
Funny how expectations change in just a couple of years. After the emergence of `Web of Fear` and `Enemy of the World` we were anticipating a huge haul of new old Doctor Who if the rumours were to be believed. Now we’re just happy to welcome the extant `Underwater Menace`. Whereas we could be fairly sure of the calibre of 2013’s releases most of us have seen enough of this story to know it is not going to be reborn as a classic. Fans of a certain vintage will remember a particularly garish Doctor Who Magazine feature about it and we are all well acquainted with the notorious accent of Professor Zaroff and the garish appearance of the Fish People so it would be fair to say anticipation is hovering somewhat South of fever pitch.
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Nonetheless the story’s position in the series’ history is significant enough to surely stoke some anticipation. Unless Philip Morris really is sitting on a stack of surprises, Part 2 could be the earliest second Doctor performance we’ll get to see. Also the story includes those most undervalued companions Polly and Ben and any more of them is a bonus. As for the Fish People no less an artist than Kate Bush called her own record label by that name; was she paying tribute to this story? It’s nice to think so. This week’s release of the two available complete episodes with patched together photo versions of the other two is probably our best opportunity to view `The Underwater Menace` and see whether, underneath it’s somewhat sloppy exterior, something more is lurking.
The first thing to note is that while not being quite as interesting as the animated versions that were done of previous missing episodes the photo versions of parts 1 and 4 just about work. However there are several moments when the picture remains the same, there is no dialogue and something is happening but it’s not clear what. I’ve still no idea for example what contraption it is that gets the Doctor and co from ground level down to Atlantis. It’s a particular shame that part one doesn’t exist as that seems like it would be the best produced episode featuring some breezy coastal location work leading into the interiors of nearby caves. What the soundtrack tells us is how lively the four person Tardis crew are at this point.
Though it is interesting to pay attention to Patrick Troughton in only his third story, the companions are just as prominent. Troughton at this stage still seems to be formulating his approach to the role and moves from child -like observer to full blown agitator as developments progress. In a story not exactly filled with grounded performances his acting certainly matches the mood especially when he dons a costume and shades and messes around in the market in part 3. It is Ben though who anchors matters with a particularly assured turn from Michael Craze; likeable, proactive and relaxed he gives one of his best performances here. Interestingly it is Ben who is most enthusiastic about going outside when the ship lands and he guides Jamie through the adventure. The newly arrived highlander is still finding his feet and there are several occasions when it feels as if there is one companion too many. As both Michael Craze and Anneke Wills are such strong performers it would have been better for them to have had more time with this new Doctor before Jamie came along.
It’s a shame that writer Geoffrey Orme treats Polly with far less attention than the male companions relegating her to the archetypal screaming girl who needs to be rescued. He’d obviously not seen recent stories in which she and Ben make a formidable duo supporting the Doctor. It stands out even more as Orme has created Ara (Catherine Howe, excellent) an adventurous girl who does the sort of things you’d normally expect Polly to do.
The Atlanteans are unfortunately forced to don a collection of large bushy eyebrows and ridiculous headpieces which considerably reduce our chances of taking them seriously. Joseph Furst just settles for big hair and an even bigger delivery as he shouts most of his lines in his Austrian accent. You can certainly see Zaroff’s zeal for his work and you can’t fault the actor for effort but he frequently goes too far.
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The story itself is somewhat sloppy. Set in the sunken city of Atlantis where everyone still seems to be living the ambitious but unhinged Professor Zaroff plans to raise the city though why is less clear. Obviously as the Doctor spots as early as part 2 by lowering the sea level the resulting excess water will end up causing the whole world to explode. Bizarrely Zaroff seems unperturbed by this boasting of the scientific achievement; to say he is deluded would be understating it. Geoffrey Orme has clearly not thought this through at all. There’s quite a lot of brutality in the story surprisingly. Though sensitively handled for the most part sundry injections, stabbings and shootings give an edge to what would otherwise be very light material.
Director Julia Smith does the best she can with limited sets. This is a very crowded story with characters sometimes talking into each other’s faces because of the lack of space. Yet the design work is consistent and other worldly enough to convey something of the Atlantis we might imagine. in grainy black and white the sea shells, seaweed and other aquatic accoutrements don’t look too much like the material they are really made of. Though unfeasibly cramped for a public gathering place, Amdo’s temple is also well designed. The infamous sequence of Fish People balletically swimming around works rather well; there are only one or two moments when you notice the wires and there are some excellent sound effects. Close up the Fish People resemble something from the much later Mighty Boosh tv series but somehow the combination of really cheap looking but quite grotesque design is better than you imagine. For all their prominence in photos of the story though the Fish People play a relatively supporting role.
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In all it’s not the best story but is more involving than some of the duller drawn out episodes that would follow through the late Sixties. It fits in with a group of Doctor Who stories like `Horns of Nimon` or `Claws of Axos` that are overly ambitious, over played, visually alarming yet if you’re in the right mood rather fun.
(The DVD comes complete with a documentary called `Fishy Tales` in which some of the participants grimly recall making the story nearly fifty years on. It is accompanied though by some excellently shot monochrome images of a Fish Person swanning about the cove where part of the story was filmed. The reminiscences are fresh and sometimes pointed especially from Anneke Wills who has good reason to complain.)