The Underwater Menace

The Underwater MenaceDVDThe last ever Doctor Who DVD release… maybe. So it was terrific to get to write about it. Perhaps I could have played on that element a little more, but this was one of those reviews where I seemed to reach my word count fairly swiftly.

It appeared in DWM #493.

DWM #493

We asked for this. You can almost hear BBC Worldwide saying similar: “You asked for it.”

Ever since realisation dawned four-parter The Underwater Menace wasn’t to be speedily whisked onto DVD following Episode 2 resurfacing in 2011, we fans have been steadily increasing the stridency of our foot stomping. When is it coming out? When is it coming out? As history has shown, we shall not be denied.

Earlier this year, in DWM 488, Charles Norton’s account of Doctor Who in the home video market reported that, some time around 2014, plans for a release were cancelled. That was despite the fact additional material had been produced in 2012. But, nope, with DVD Svengali Dan Hall having left Worldwide, and Qurios – the preferred company to animate the two (still) missing episodes – in liquidation, the intention had faded.

Well, almost as if to prove DWM wrong (and I’m not being at all serious when I say that), an announcement followed stating, yes, The Underwater Menace is coming out. Ha! Whoever said it wasn’t? Now, please stop contacting us.

An unlikely coda to a range that began in 1999, the package coughed up feels like something put together with as minimal effort as possible – the main work having been completed three years ago. Although… that is a slight simplification on my part, because the excellent sound restoration was undertaken by Mark Ayres only a few months back. However, I think it’s fair to say the impetus still came from a time when Worldwide had more regard for ‘the old show’.

In terms of the basic assets, you couldn’t hope for better visual and audio refurbishment. And, as you’re probably aware, the missing episodes (the first and the fourth) are represented by telesnaps over soundtrack recordings, which is an entirely serviceable way to do it, providing a sport of additional help is offered in the context of what’s on screen.

But there is none.

The result is, Episode 1 and 4 of The Underwater Menace are only truly possible to follow if you’ve had prior exposure to Episode 1 and 4 of The Underwater Menace. Granted, the likelihood of anyone coming to this tale completely cold is miniscule, but it’s still unacceptable to put the onus on your customer to somehow know what’s going on when, for example, against a 35-second still of Polly crouching in a cave, we hear the sounds of a scuffle and her terrified scream. What just happened? Plus, how do all the TARDIS team end up transported to an undersea kingdom? BBC Worldwide, please come around to my house and tell me. If you’re charging money for a story, then you must provide a version of it that is possible to follow. Seriously, it’s not our fault the moving images are missing. In fact, it’s kind of yours. So would it have been such a push to include captions to describe what we can’t possibly ascertain? Particularly at a recommended retail price of £20.42?

The upside of all this is, even in such an underprivileged state, The Underwater Menace doesn’t take much to enjoy, even though it’s paddling in the intellectual shallow-end of Doctor Who. It wouldn’t past muster with audiences today – it barely did in 1967! – but it’s in that fortunate position where we’re just happy to see it.

The story – and retain this info if you are going to try watching on disc – sees the Second Doctor, Ben, Polly and new crewmember Jamie arrive on a volcanic island where they’re captured and taken in a lift (ah, that’s what’s going on!) down to the city of Atlantis. Here the populace worships the goddess Amdo, and plan to sacrifice the travellers in her name. Meanwhile, a Professor Zaroff has promised to raise the metropolis to the surface, even though they already have elevator access. In truth his real intent is to drain the ocean into the Earth’s molten core so that he may bring about the planet’s destruction.

Written by Geoffrey Orme, who’d been scripting British films since the 1930s, it would not just turn out to be his only Doctor Who credit, but, according to IMDb, the last solo screenplay he ever crafted. Just as Zaroff lusted for destruction, perhaps Orme did too. The money wasn’t available to send Toby Hadoke into the field so we can only speculate, but maybe there was something about this experience that made him shriek a vow to the effect he was going to stop. Stop now.

Contributing to the show at its peak moment of ambiguity – a new Doctor, uncharted waters – one can observe Orme’s tale trying to cling to the certainties. But those rocks are the sort of truisms the popular press would trot out about the show. It’s a ‘Mac’ cartoon of Dr Who. Monsters are conceived by a simplistic twist (Fish People), a ‘mad scientist’ with an Eastern European name threatens to end the world (for no other reason than that’s what he’s for), and the plot boasts a cheap novelty (Atlantis) at its centre.

On the commentary track and accompanying ‘making of’, Anneke Wills (Polly) talks of how Patrick Troughton was concerned his third story was looking like an absolute duffer and began concocting ways to save it – he and his colleagues expanding to fill the vacuum. There’s a superb moment at the top of the tale, when the TARDIS crew are exiting the ship. “Wait!” yells the Doctor with utmost urgency, before his voice warms up into a chuckle. “For me,” he adds. Additional joshing that, I bet, was found in rehearsal. Similarly, in Episode 2, as Ben and Jamie discuss possible escape routes with mandatory rebels Jacko and Sean, the Highlander declares he and Jacko will “take the high road.” “Which leaves us with…” says Ben, and then he and Sean both hoot together, “the low road!” As written, there’s no comedy, but as performed, it raises a smile.

That isn’t to say Orme’s own words abrogate all wit. It’s not entirely in keeping with the conventions of Doctor Who, but the little insight he gives us into each character’s inner monologue, when stood at the precipice of a new adventure, is perfect. Polly ruminates: “Please let it be Chelsea, 1966.” Ben: “I hope it’s the Daleks – I don’t think!” The Doctor: “Prehistoric monsters!” Jamie: “What have I come upon?” Those same notions slosh around the time ship today as the doors begin to part. It’s no stretch to imagine Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is still rooting for dinosaurs.

Although there is discussion on this disc of how the 11th hour addition of Frazer Hines’ Jamie diluted the roles of the other two companions, it’s not obvious. Instead, the main impression is of a quartet who thoroughly enjoy each other’s company. There’s a precious bit in Episode 4 where the Doctor and Ben discuss how to get by one of Zaroff’s guards. The time traveller suggests just brazening it out: “We’ll walk past him”. “What?” replies Ben, “In those trousers?” The mickey-taking draws from fondness and familiarity. And at the very end of the adventure, on the threshold of their next, everyone’s back on board the TARDIS, nattering away. Polly’s popped the Doctor’s hat on for a little laugh. It’s all very easy, very agreeable.

There will never be a tone meeting where ‘affability’ is proposed as the watchword for a Doctor Who, and yet that’s my impression of this. It extends from the central quartet, a pulse of pleasantness washing over everything. Meaning, as cleric Lolem intones, “Mighty Amdo, goddess of land and sea, has accepted the sacrifice of the priest – and the little Doctor,” it’s that last unlikely clause which converts a solemn utterance into something unexpectedly quaint.

The main exponents of pleasure are, as you would expect, the Doctor and Zaroff. In the former, we see Troughton playing as a delighted child, thrilled to be given opportunities for dress-up, particularly going undercover at the Atlantean market as… Well what is that? The dialogue makes reference to him as a sailor, but with dark glasses and tootling around on his instrument for the umpteenth time, he unexpectedly calls to mind his current TV incarnation. After that, there’s more fun when his gang abduct the scientist. The Doctor emerges from behind a pillar in casual fashion to blow dust into the baddy’s face and is then visibly thrilled by how well it’s all going, scurrying off to perform more naughtiness – with that sailor’s earring still dangling from his left lobe.

But no one’s enjoying themselves quite as much as Joseph Furst in the role of Zaroff, and it’s entirely to his credit his performance has become one of the most derided, but also fondly recalled, in the show’s history. My reading of it is he does a superb job, and faced with a character who’s given not a shred of motivation (he wants to blow up the world for “the achievement”) he concluded there’s no point looking for nuance. Instead, it’s a full-tilt turn, but unlike Graham Crowden – who’d give us a similarly OTT creation as Soldeed in 1979’s The Horns of Nimon – he believes in Zaroff until the bitter end. I know there’s footage of his demise elsewhere on this disc (two snippets excised, but also preserved, by Australian censors appear on the extras), but his final telesnap tells it all. He’s depicted hanging out of a cage as the water level rises. Arm outstretched, head tilted, his hair hanging like spaniel’s ears. He looks like a pup leaning out of a car window, greedily imbibing the fast air.

This faith in the character means Zaroff’s barely present in his interactions. Instead he’s looking off into a middle distance, Furst envisaging the glory of the mad man’s imaginings. It gives him an aura of near-divinity, and you can understand how he’s managed to overwhelm King Thous for so long. One telling sequence has Zaroff blustering, “Have I not sworn to you that Atlantis shall rise again from the sea? Haven’t I? Haven’t I?” The monarch pulls away, a little intimidated but mostly embarrassed by this show.

During their early encounters, the Doctor is also bewitched. But rather than being awed by Zaroff’s personality, their exchanges are underpinned by a flirtation. It’s two originals, thrilled to recognise that in each other. The chemistry is so delightful, Zaroff can’t even get angry when he realises the note from ‘Dr W’ – which claimed he held a “vital secret” – was a complete fib. “I too have a sense of humour”, chuckles the villain. A rare quality. Then he gets busy courting approval, showing off his lair, keen to get confirmation his visitor finds it impressive. “No, not a bit, not a bit,” teases the Doctor, letting it hang for a moment before adding: “I expected nothing less from the great Professor Zaroff!”

I could go on. I’ve tons of notes on this man. Because there’s something beguiling about a person who builds a display model of Atlantis – like a museum installation to illustrate ‘erosion’ – who feeds no one to his killer octopus, and who strides out of Episode 3 with the most epic, most epically delivered, pronouncement ever. Incidentally, it’s worth pointing out that the cliffhangers are all restaged in the adventure, rather than repeated. It means Episode 4 features a comparatively composed alternate take on this zinger. You can imagine Furst choking a little. Here is an actor challenged with recapturing the previous night’s performance where the consensus had been he’d completely slayed it.

All this, and we’ve barely mentioned the Fish People. The surprise is how little they have to do, other than prompt one of the Doctor’s more regrettable lines: “Slaves, like worms, can be made to turn.” In regard to their physicality, they’re no worse than a Voord or a Vardan, and it’s genuinely novel to see variants in their appearance. The sequence in Episode 3, which has them indolently hanging out on the ocean floor, is profoundly odd, though. One of them is taking a nap, another is fanning itself, and it all goes on for ages. Technically, it’s up there, so you can forgive the indulgence. As if director Julia Smith is telling all those doubters, “Look at this! We did it!”

Critically, I’m giving this story a bye. I admit it. As a production, it emits only kindness, and should receive that in return. It comes from a time in Doctor Who’s life when the show was particularly ripe with possibility, but made no promises. There were no arcs, and stories were to be enjoyed and then forgotten – which makes my earlier carping (no pun) all the more petulant. If there was no trace left today of The Underwater Menace, it would still have completed its original mission.

Nonetheless I remain a little grumpy with BBC Worldwide, who I continue to feel have put very little into this product. But it’s ameliorated by the bubbles of fun still surfacing from Atlantis nearly five decades on.

DVD extras

Star of ‘making of’ documentary A Fishy Tale has to be Rosie Knott, who looks quite haunting dressed up as a lonely Fish Person mooning around the beautifully widescreen Winspit beach in Dorset. It’s a nice conceit, cleverly highlighting the profound weirdness of the story.

The piece is narrated in quizzical fashion by Peter Davison, and is notable for offering a photograph of Geoffrey Orme, looking remarkably like Lord Charles. Meanwhile, Dalek writer Robert Shearman points out – in his pleasant a-sideways-look-at tone of voice – that Orme’s career had featured a remarkable mix of genre, much of which he’d mashed up into this production. He also makes the observation that Episode 2 sees Patrick Troughton truly find his performance as he realises Joseph Furst’s had expanded to encompass all of the zaniness frequencies. “From that point on,” says Shearman, “he actually invents his own Doctor”.

In a kind of rounding-off exercise, the other documentary, The Television Centre of the Universe – Part Two, is the completion of an item initiated on The Visitation Special Edition DVD from 2013. The opening shot utilises deep focus on an aerial view of TVC, which makes it look like a train set. As we know, the big boot of commerce kicked that over soon after. But in these final days, Yvette Fielding led a survey group of Peter Davison, Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson on a tour of the building, wheedling out their memories of working there in the 1980s.

Peter and Mark, as ever, are keen to talk irreverently about the production of Doctor Who back then, the Fifth Doctor actor often looking into camera with a kind of wearisome ‘wasn’t it all crap?’ expression. But when Yvette takes them up into the galleries, you get a real feel for the literal and political geography of those studio sessions, helped by an outtake of Beryl Reid moaning on the set of Earthshock (“Oh, darling, I’m fed up!”).

As it must, it all ends in the BBC bar, with Peter revealing it was here Tom Baker offered him the only piece of advice he would ever give about playing the Doctor…

Alas there are no production notes on this disc – although DWM understands some were prepared – but the commentary tracks are unusually rich.

The one accompanying the opening episode has little to do with The Underwater Menace. Instead it’s Toby Hadoke nattering to Michael Troughton about his dad. Some lovely insights emerge, such as the fact Troughton sr had a “big bee in his bonnet about the Church of England”, so much so, he didn’t attend son David’s wedding service.

Episodes 2 and 3 are less candid and more conventional, with cast and crew nattering away about the action on screen. Frazer Hines is, as ever, keen to jump in with gags, but also betrays his latter day conversion from Doctor Who man to Doctor Who fan by commenting Colin Jeavons’ Damon looks like “an Androgum”.
The final episode track is the very best, a collection of audio interviews with folks about whom Hadoke says, in wonderfully mangled prose, “This mortal coil has sadly proved a barrier to contributing to this DVD”. First there’s Julia Smith talking to Patrick Mulkern in 1987. Then Hugh David – who turned down the chance to direct this story – with Mulkern in ’86. From 1983, we hear the faraway voice of Innes Lloyd chatting with Jeremy Bentham. And then, best of all, Richard Marson’s 1984 conversation with Patrick Troughton, recording during rehearsals for The Two Doctors, the west London traffic providing a slow rumble in the background. None of the insights offered are new, per se, but to hear the man himself saying things like, “I watched every one of Billy’s” and declaring a fondness for the Zarbi remains utterly, utterly thrilling.

 

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