Something Fishy This Way Comes: The Underwater Menace Revisited

Patrick Troughton’s first year as the star of Doctor Who is a season of extremes; on the one hand you’ve solid gold classics like Power of the Daleks, The Highlanders and The Moonbase and on the other, you’ve got The Macra Terror, The Faceless Ones and, floating limply at the top of the story pool, The Underwater Menace. It may not be the worst story in the history of Doctor Who, but by jingo, it’s a strong contender!  We’re talking a story which is so bad the BBC wouldn’t even cough up for an animated reconstruction of its 2 missing episodes when they released it on DVD; instead we got a cheap-ass telesnap reconstruction that doesn’t even have audio description to explain what the hell is going on when the cast are clumping around without dialogue.

The Doctor and his three companions Polly, Ben and Jamie arrive in the lost city of Atlantis. Frazer Hines’ Jamie is a new and unexpected addition to the cast, so a lot of his lines sound like they’ve been borrowed from Ben for the day. Can you guess why? Yes, that’s right. Atlantis, a society with its own long-standing religion and system of government, has fallen under the thrall of a scientist called Professor Zaroff, who has promised them that he can raise their ancient kingdom from its watery grave and back to dry-landy glory. But little do they know that the Professor has a secret agenda of his own… he wants to destroy the world! BWAHAHA! BWAHAHA! BWAHAHAHA!!! He’s mad, see? Madder than a matchbox full of tadpoles. He couldn’t be more obviously mad if he was wearing a dayglo green t-shirt with ‘I’m proper mad, me’ written on it.

There’s no explanation of why he’s mad though. “Why do you want to blow up the world?” the Doctor quite reasonably asks him. “Isn’t it every scientist’s dream to destroy ze vorld?” he replies with crazy eyes. Well, no actually, mate; Professor Stephen Hawking achieved many notable things in his scientific career, but world destruction was pretty low on his to-do list. You can tell he’s an evil scientist as well because he’s ‘foreign’… I’m not exactly sure what kind of ‘foreign’ though; his surname is Russian, his forename (Hermann, apparently) is German and his accent is the natural accent of Joseph Fürst, the actor who played him, who is from Austria. So, your guess is as good as mine. The long-standing fan myth was that Zaroff’s accent was ‘put on’, but if you watch Joseph Fürst in A Magnum for Schneider, the play that spawned spy series Callan, he has exactly the same accent (and is excellent, by the way).

If you’re wondering what happens in the rest of the story… well, various combinations of the Doctor and friends get captured, escape, get captured, escape, rinse, dry and repeat. Oh, and the Doctor gets disguised as a gypsy for some reason… well, I say disguised, his particular cosplay consists of a cape, a headscarf, sunglasses and a tambourine. In fairness though, it’s not a lot worse than the rest of the costumes in this story. One can only guess that the costume budget allotted to these for episodes was minimal, as only really the Atlantean slave girls have an interesting costume design. The Fish People, the story’s only ‘monsters’, have a distinctly first form school play look about them, all leotards and sequins. There’s not even any consistency to the design; some of them have weird looking shiny fish-eyes and others wear a common or garden rubber diving mask.

There’s a feeling with the whole production that both the costume and set designers were given a mandate to cut corners and ended up raiding the BBC stores for anything that looked vaguely aquatic. Hence, there are wetsuits and fishing nets and bits of plastic seaweed in places where they don’t belong, just to fill up the screen. Over the years, the classic era of Doctor Who has been unjustly accused of looking cheap, but there are some stories that it’s very hard to defend on that front and The Underwater Menace is most of them. It’s hard to think of another serial that looks quite so rushed and cheaply produced – The Horns of Nimon, maybe? But even that had some nicely designed sets and extravagant costumes; The Underwater Menace just looks thoroughly tatty from beginning to end.

Of the characters other than the regulars, only Colin Jeavons as the Atlanean scientist Ramon and Catherine Howe as the slave girl Ara are really pulling their weight. Noel Johnson underplays King Thous to such an extent that it’s difficult to invest any faith in him and Peter Stephens (last seen as ersatz Billy Bunter Cyril in The Celestial Toymaker) is just camp and shouty. Hats off to whoever decided to make Jacko, one of the two stranded sailors, a character of colour played by Asian actor Paul Anil, although his mate Sean, played by P.G. Stephens, comes dangerously close to being a diddly-diddly Irish stereotype. You can’t blame any of the cast for the shortcomings of The Underwater Menace though, as they have so little to work with.

Geoffrey Orme was a prolific writer of mainly low-budget British feature films and the script for The Underwater Menace was his penultimate work. Allegedly, script editor Gerry Davis tried to ditch the story in favour of a William Emms pitch called The Imps, but when that script could not be delivered on time they had to go back to The Underwater Menace. The fact that it was made because they couldn’t get something to replace it goes a long way towards explaining how this serial ended up the way it did. You’ve got to feel sorry for not only Geoffrey Orme, ending his career on such a stinker, but also director Julia Smith, one of the BBC’s first female staff directors, who managed to carve out a long and successful career in spite of having directed The Underwater Menace.

Nigel Robinson’s 1988 Target Books novelisation (most writers were adapting their own work by the late 80s, but Geoffrey Orme had passed away in 1973) went a little way to redeeming The Underwater Menace, but on the whole it’s pretty irredeemable. Most ‘bad’ Doctor Who stories have their supporters but I’ve never really seen or heard anyone standing up for The Underwater Menace. Because it’s a story that’s half missing (three quarters until a couple of years ago), it’s easy to ignore this serial, whilst other classic stinkers like Timelash and Time and the Rani are more readily available and harder to turn your back on. Everyone was surprised when The Underwater Menace turned up on DVD before other much more worthy incomplete stories, but I’m guessing the reasoning there was that all the others stand at least some chance of being completed using animation.

I’ve been quite harsh on The Underwater Menace and, yes – it’s an easy target (resists some lazy metaphor regarding fish in a barrel), but I’m not the sort of Doctor Who fan who goes round declaring ‘I’ll never watch that again’, because I know that I will. It is entertaining, in much the same way that watching the 1936 Republic serial Undersea Kingdom is entertaining, but if you’re the sort of fan who takes their Doctor Who terribly seriously (and I know there are lots of you out there), then you won’t get a whole lot out of this. You have to take all of 60s Doctor Who as a product of its time and even at its best, it looks a trifle threadbare – so, when it falls, it falls hard… and The Underwater Menace is probably the hardest fall of all. Watch it with a few friends round, a takeaway and a few drinks; you’ll hate yourself for taking the piss, but at least you’ll enjoy it.

‘Doctor Who – The Underwater Menace’ is available to buy on BBC DVD and to view on Britbox.

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