Doctor Who Reviews: The Underwater Menace

Prefab Sprout once sang about Looking For Atlantis. Well, all they had to do was check out the Doctor Who archives - which unfortunately still has yet to explore the concepts of hot dogs and jumping frogs.

Atlantis - or rather its destruction - seems to crop up quite a bit in the first 10 years of Doctor Who. Azal bellows at The Master (and presumably everyone else on the planet, taking his foghorn voice into account) to RRRREMEMBER ATTTTLAAAANTISSS!!! One season later, The Master’s curiously engineered the destruction of Atlantis by setting an overgrown budgerigar loose. Lots of parallel Atlantises I guess.

To add insult to injury, Atlantis was already a goner in the Season Four adventure The Underwater Menace. This was in the days before The Master did his whole “Look into my eyes, Not around the eyes, You’re back in the room” routine. Instead, it’s down to the villainous actions of hammy loon Professor Zaroff, a man who makes the Batman villains look Shakespearean by comparison.

Zaroff has a fiendishly clever plan: He has managed to dupe the Atlanteans into thinking that he can successfully raise their city from the sea. When in fact, he plans to drain the ocean into the molten core of the planet, causing more fireworks than an average episode of The Jeremy Kyle Show.

Quite why the Atlanteans fall for this guff in the first place is anybody’s guess. Zaroff’s about as reliable as a train service in the middle of a snowy blizzard. Zaroff’s typical B-Movie madman material: He shouts. He kills. He struts around proclaiming his own self-brilliance at the top of his voice, and what’s more seems to be channelling Foghorn Leghorn in that he keeps repeating himself twice. “Haven’t I??!? Haven’t I??!?” “You… you demand? You demand???!?” Only a madman could think that everyone else lost their hearing a long time ago.

The problem is, there’s absolutely no depth to Zaroff, and his own mad scheme makes absolutely no sense. Apparently, earlier drafts indicated that the crazed genius lost his wife and children in a car accident. Which, in context, would have made far more sense in dramatic terms. To leave out this small bit of back story is a classic mistake in that it just reduces Zaroff to a ridiculous panto baddie who chooses to destroy the planet - well, because he can really.

Joseph Furst had a whopping great task to salvage any dignity from this character, and I suppose if anything, it's an enjoyably barmy turn: just one that lacks any semblance of real-world conviction. Not his fault by any means - when you’ve got page after page of stock ranting cliché thrown at you, there’s absolutely nothing you can do. Although the oft-quoted final line of Episode Three isn’t quite as hammy as I expected (He doesn’t actually pronounce the line “Nuzzeeenk in zeee voyld can stop meee naaahhh!!” that way).

Zaroff’s ineptitude sums up The Underwater Menace. A mildly amusing but unconvincing folly, The Underwater Menace is 100 minutes of clichéd tosh, which, nevertheless, has clawed back some semblance of dignity in the last couple of years with the surprise discovery of Episode 2. If the already extant Episode 3 is the most ridiculous of the lot, then the second instalment plays it relatively straight. What raises its game considerably is the brilliance of Patrick Troughton.

Troughton's a joy to behold here, using his talent for facial expressions to bring any sequence involving the Doctor to colourful life. Whether he's knock-knock-ing his head as a sign of Zaroff's madness or innocently causing a diversion like a naughty schoolboy trying to cover up a prank, Troughton is an absolute marvel. The irony is that because a fair number of his episodes are still absent from the archives, we're likely to be missing some more classics from Pat's facial expression repertoire.

One reason for Episode 3’s miraculous survival is that bizarre sequence which comes in the middle of the episode. The Fish People’s dance is a sequence that bypasses the laws of time in that it seems to drag on for about 10 years (when in fact it’s only on for about a minute and a half). The Fish People are basically genetically augmented food harvesters for the natives and resemble a cross between a ballet dancer who’s been in an argument with tin foil and Mr Magoo.

In a story that already has too much padding, we are treated to a sequence in which the Fish People bounce up and down on very obvious Kirby wires in front of what looks like a children’s end-of-term play backdrop - all to the strains of what sounds like an Orang-Utan dunking a Bontempi organ in and out of a full-up bathtub. Not the finest moment for Doctor Who, needless to say.

Not that much of The Underwater Menace actually manages to impress. The characterisation is poor across the board, as stagy actors blunder around the set, uttering hackneyed, unbelievable lines. For example, it only takes until the end of Episode Three for Thous to realise that Zaroff is one sardine short of a tin. “The Doctor was… right about you!” Wow, no kidding - naturally, Thous is shot (but not fatally) on the spot.

It’s actually difficult to pick out the silliest character in Menace. There’s Zaroff naturally. Sean, the stereotypical Irishman. Or Lolem, the High Priest, again played by Peter Stephens (Cyril from The Celestial Toymaker) who now resembles a cross between Christopher Biggins and a sloshed antelope. None of the characters manage to come alive, and what’s worse, the companions aren’t exactly at their best either.

Ben seems to be battling it out with Jamie to see who can get the most lines. Polly does nothing apart from whinge and shriek, like a 5-year-old girl who’s left clutching at the gates on her first day at school.

Luckily The Doctor's in the thick of the action. He's still going through his Leclerc phase, dressing up in ridiculous Atlantean head-dress and robe, and then pretending to be a hobo gypsy with the aid of some of the funkiest shades this side of Ray Charles. Although it’s not the best of stories for the Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton has easily settled into his role.

The return of the second episode of The Underwater Menace has seen an upturn in fortunes, but there are other scattered gems in the other instalments. I like the opening sequence in which the TARDIS crew muses to themselves on where they have landed this time. I bet kids waiting to go into hospital wouldn’t have liked the scenes of Polly struggling on the operating table for Episode 1’s cliffhanger. Plus, Zaroff’s final watery demise looks remarkably well staged too. The interior designs of the temple are quite good as well, and look a lot larger in scale than you might think. Talking of the temple scenes, it sounds like the grandparents of Gold Almighty’s Pompous Choir have been let loose in the recording booth, chanting like constipated madmen in the background.

The Underwater Menace, is a crazy B-movie of a tale with some tatty characterisation and loony villainy. But if anything, it's a good showcase for Patrick Troughton's mighty Doctor, who is already shaping up to be one of the all-time greats. Perhaps if the other two missing episodes come back, maybe the story might receive increased appraisal too.

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