The Underwater Menace
So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish!
By Bruce Robinson
It's funny how a title alone can conjure up different visions of a Doctor Who story. At first glance, the titles The Underwater Menace and Fury from the Deep may seem like almost identical descriptions of a story (which, in fact, they just about are!). However, while one generally succeeds in bringing up positive feelings from the fans, the other only seems to cause a mixture of shuddering, giggling and screwed-up facial expressions...
The Underwater Menace has always had a reputation for being one of the real clangers of Doctor Who. Of course, being stuck in the middle of a strong bunch of stories doesn't help its cause at all. In fact, the majority of Troughton stories from The Power of the Daleks to The Wheel in Space were well-produced and popular serials. But what of Menace - is it fair to place it in the cringe-inducing category of Doctor Who stories?
Well, yes and no.
One's reaction to The Underwater Menace depends largely on how one approaches the story in the first place. In other words, does one adopt the academic / analytical approach, or the “I just want to be entertained and don't give a toss about the shaky sets” approach? Briefly, considering the story from a traditional viewpoint, it has to be said that one could probably moan and groan about the story's shortcomings until the cows come home. However, like most other Doctor Who stories recognised as less than successful, The Underwater Menace as least has a few redeeming features.
We'll get to those in a minute.
Unfortunately, the commencement of the story is a little on the lacklustre side. If it seems like almost half the first episode is over before something happens, it's probably because half the first episode is over before something happens! After a bit of general banter in the TARDIS, mainly to introduce the new character of Jamie, our gang of four then seems to spend an inordinate amount of time wandering around their new surroundings. While the Doctor fills us in on such topics as volcanic rocks and the Mexican Olympics, there isn't a lot of plot development taking place. It's only when the TARDIS crew find themselves in the underwater city that the story start to pick up pace.
Strangely enough, the story improves when the cast suddenly seem to realise, oh hang on, this script is nothing more than a harmless bit of cheddar cheese! In fact, by the time of Episode 3 (and this is evident from the existing episode), it's clear that the cast have abandoned any attempts at serious performances, and are instead, throwing themselves whole-heartedly into the absurdities of the story (Peter Stephens as Lolem deserves a particular mention here). Of course, in just about any other piece of television, one could say that this would detract enormously from the overall effect of the production. However, in The Underwater Menace, it actually works in the story's favour. If saying this makes me sound a bit loony, then just think what would happened if the cast had continued to treat the story as high drama. Now that would have been a sorry state of affairs!
Not surprisingly, with the guest cast deciding that the script should be treated fairly lightly, the performances of the regular actors are ... interesting. Of course, as Patrick Troughton is still a relative newcomer in the role, it would be difficult to expect a true representation of the second Doctor's character as we know it today. However, even at this early stage, the Doctor manages to come out with some classic “Troughton-isms”, such as moving to the back of the TARDIS crew with Polly, and saying “women and children last”.
As for the other regulars, poor old Frazer Hines and Michael Craze are forced to share the action and dialogue between them due to the late addition of Jamie. Fortunately, and this is mainly due to the skill of the script editing performed by Gerry Davis, it's not really that much of a problem. If one wasn't aware of the late rewrites, one could be mistaken for thinking that the story was originally written with both Jamie and Ben in mind (in other words, it's not as if the two come across as Siamese twins throughout the story).
As for the supporting cast ... this may surprise some, but I've always thought one of the better aspects of the story is something that's been criticised heavily in the past. And that is, the performance of Joseph Furst as Professor Zaroff ...which I believe is actually quite engaging and entertaining. Of course, Furst (an accomplished actor) is not helped by some typically clichéd dialogue, epitomised by the now infamous “nothing in the world can stop me now” line at the end of the Episode 3. However, once again, the clichéd lines actually work in the story's favour, as they only succeed in enhancing the “panto-esque” nature of the story.
Let's now turn our attention to the plot. Well OK, if you want to take that boring analytical approach, than the plot really doesn't stand up to any sort of examination. If you thought that the Daleks were a bit fruity with their scheme in The Dalek Invasion of Earth (i.e. wanting to turn the Earth into a space-roving vessel), then you'll probably raise an eyebrow or eye at Zaroff's scheme to raise Atlantis from the ocean. However, if you prefer to take a more relaxed approach to the plot, then it's probably best to just draw a large woolly blanket over it. Once you start to think about what's happening, well, the illusion disappears rather rapidly!
So once all the chat is over and done with, does The Underwater Menace deserve its reputation as one of the worst ever Doctor Who stories? Well, if you're after a quality Troughton serial with strongly written scripts, high production values and tension-packed episodes, then you're probably better off sticking to The Evil of the Daleks or Fury from the Deep. However, if you're prepared to be a little bit more open-minded, and accept the story for the harmless bit of toffee apple that it really is, there are probably worse ways to spend ninety minutes or so.
Oh, there's one other reason why the story should be well remembered. It can lay claim to arguably one of most famous cliffhangers of all time - with the aforementioned “nothing in the world can stop me now” line. Just think ... if it hadn't been for The Underwater Menace, all those fascinating party games at conventions would be just a tad less interesting!
The bottom line is (in the words of Ford Prefect) mostly harmless...
This item appeared in TSV 56 (October 1998).