|They’re not fish from space, they’re ballerinas!|
Meanwhile, in news that does not sing, the US is found out for experimenting with germ warfare, the opening strains of the Summer of Love happen in San Francisco with the Human Be-In, which also introduces psychedelic culture to the masses (never mind that Doctor Who did it two months earlier. In a week or so we’ll watch, astonished, as Doctor Who invents steampunk in 1967 and gets no credit for that either). The UK begins negotiating to enter the European Economic Community, pre-human fossils are discovered in Kenya… and we’re so far two days into the four weeks this story ran. Thankfully things slow down, and over the rest of it the major news consists of the UK nationalizing 90% of the steel industry, the Apollo 1 disaster happens, and the US, USSR, and UK (who were apparently still expected to make it to space in 1967 – a fact that may be relevant in 1970 for our purposes) sign the Outer Space Treaty to demilitarize space.
If you have the sense that the 1960s are kicking into high gear very suddenly, you’re not far off. So I am deeply amused to bring you The Underwater Menace, which, according to Doctor Who Magazine’s definitive “Mighty 200” fan poll, is the worst story we’ve yet covered – one of the ten worst Doctor Who stories of all time, in fact. And so, even though its quality is by miles the least interesting thing about The Underwater Menace, I suppose we should start there.
The case for the prosecution is that the script makes no sense, the villain is ludicrous, and the whole thing is an effects-driven wreck of a story assembled under pressure. Wood and Miles take it to task for the fact that “it displays utter contempt for the audience. It’s not so much that it isn’t trying, it’s that it doesn’t think we care that it isn’t trying.” Shearman and Hadoke are kinder, both admitting that they love the story’s barminess.
It’s certainly the case that few of the usual reasons for writing off this story seem to hold up to scrutiny. Yes, the plot revolves around drilling a hole in the bottom of the ocean to drain it into the Earth’s core and explode the planet. Need I remind you that one of the most acclaimed and “classic” Doctor Who stories of all time features hollowing out the Earth’s core to drive the planet around as a spaceship? Yes, the madman wants to blow up the planet because he can. But how can we, as a fandom, praise the scene of Davros contemplating unleashing a deadly plague on the universe and then complain about Zaroff? (That would be in Genesis of the Daleks, not yet blogged, but on DVD if for some reason you’ve never seen it) They are, after all, the same scene.
So we’re left with the fact that episode three ends with the mad scientist villain shouting “Nothing in ze world can stop me now!” Which actually comes very close to identifying the main problem with this story – episode three of it actually exists. As an orphan episode, for a long time its airings would have been at fan conventions. Nothing with so absurd a cliffhanger would have a chance of being anything other than a “so bad its good” experience in such a setting.
I’m tipping my hand here, but ultimately I side pretty strongly with Shearman and Hadoke here. To quote Shearman, “Is it entertaining? Just about, if you hold on tight, and don’t resist where it takes you.” Which is to say, I think anyone failing to have a good time watching The Underwater Menace has made a conscious choice not to enjoy it. It’s a ridiculous story, but it’s fun.
Certainly I’m more sympathetic to the “just go with it and it’s fun” position than Miles and Wood’s frankly bizarre assertion that the story isn’t trying. Although the behind the scenes information lets us know that this was not a story beloved by parts of the production team, the flipside is that they had a hole in their schedule and opted to fill it with this over the other bad choices. They viewed this story, despite the fact that it was obviously going to shatter their budget, as the best choice they had. Which suggests that someone saw some merit in it. All of this is Miles and Wood’s argument, and it’s true. But from this they conclude that “Lloyd seriously thought this was all Doctor Who was capable of being, all the license payers were entitled to expect from the series.”And there we run aground. (It is perhaps worth noting that Lawrence Miles apparently considers Underwater Menace his least favorite story, and the accusation of “contempt” rings strikingly close to his assessments of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who, making this one of the moments in About Time when we can most clearly tell which writer’s viewpoints are most on display.)
The thing is, of the myriad of things that are wrong with this story, a lack of effort is not one of them. I’ll defer to Toby Hadoke for a brilliant and incisive analysis of the genius of Joseph Furst’s acting as Zaroff, but suffice it to say that he makes a compelling argument that Furst made a deliberate choice to play the role as a pastiche, and hit his target with magnificent skill. Any time Zaroff appears to be a hilariously bad villain to you, you are laughing with the actor, not at him. For all the reports that Troughton (and the rest of the cast) were at war with the director throughout this story, his performance is fantastic, and you can see him rapidly learning to rein in the more overtly comedic elements of his performance and to play scenes through understatement. In particular, he has a scene with Zaroff where he clearly recognizes that Furst is going to completely blow him off the screen in terms of charisma and over-the-top antics, and so instead reins it in massively, asking in a very hushed, polite tone why Zaroff wants to destroy the Earth. It’s a fantastic scene, and the start of something Troughton will make much of for the next three years – his skill at dialing back his performance to emphasize things. (I’ll also say that the sequence at the start where we get to hear what each character hopes they’ll find when they open the doors, and Troughton giddily says “Prehistoric monsters!” is, in many ways, the archetypal characterization of the Doctor.)
Beyond that, we get a strong effort from everyone working on the visuals to make Atlantis look strange and alien. There’s an effort put in to building a fascinating setting that we do not always see the show make – one that evokes The Web Planet as much as anything. The Web Planet is one of the great Marmite stories, but as I insisted when I wrote about it and continue to hold, almost everybody who dislikes it does so for the wrong reasons. The entire point of The Web Planet was to put something on the television screen that was unlike anything viewers had ever seen before. Not that was realistic or even entirely sensible, but rather that had a texture unlike anything the viewer had seen. The point was a theater of spectacle – something that is interesting because it is so unlike everything else. In this regard, The Web Planet succeeded, providing us with four beloved characters stumbling around a strange and terrifying landscape.
Since taking over the program, Lloyd has mostly tried to do two things. First, he’s focused heavily on making the series more exciting. Second, he’s worked on making the TARDIS land in more accessible places. The latter may well be grounds for criticism, although doing so means that you’re also offering an indictment of Russell T Davies’s oft-stated distaste for stories without a human element. (This is fine, but as with the difficulties in identifying any difference between Zaroff and Davros, if you complain about Lloyd here, you have to extend the criticism to Davies) The former, on the other hand, seems difficult to complain about unless you want to dismiss virtually every post-Hartnell era of Doctor Who. (And again, there is nothing wrong with doing so. The fact of the matter is, the Hartnell era was different from what we’re looking at now, and the show never went back to most of what was lost in the transition out of Hartnell. If nothing else, Alan Moore, as brilliant a man as ever watched an episode of television, apparently hates all post-Hartnell Doctor Who, and who am I to begrudge Alan Moore his viewpoints of anything. Please, Mr. Moore. Don’t send Glycon to eat me.)
We should also remember that Troughton is still in the trial phase. This is the first time we’ve seen him have a “normal” story, inasmuch as Doctor Who’s norm is science fiction. (And I would argue that, even when it was doing historicals regularly, its norm was science fiction. After all, the historicals were introduced with a screaming and hyper-modern Delia Derbyshire theme, while The Daleks was not introduced with Elizabethan chamber music.) Yes, this story basically serves as the real introduction to Jamie, who was, after all, a bit part in his actual debut. But it’s still a very business-as-usual sort of episode. But the thing is, we’ve had 14 consecutive episodes of business-as-unusual. The last time we had a story that felt “normal” was The Smugglers.
Which is much of why the story takes pains to start off normally. Its opening – the TARDIS crew wanders around trying to figure out where they are – has been all but abandoned in the new series, and that abandonment is the culmination of a long process. But it’s still recognizable as the standard Hartnell-style opening. The arrival in a strange city and exploration of its culture is, in many ways, what Doctor Who has been doing for most of its run, so the return to that is welcome. And unlike, say, The Tenth Planet, where the nature of Snowcap Base is squared away in minutes and we just do a runaround for the rest of the stories, here we learn new things about Atlantean culture for three of the four episodes. Effort is made to show us how strange Atlantis is throughout the story.
But unlike The Web Planet, here the story is stripped down to four episodes and given a proper villain in a real and genuine attempt to wed the Hartnell-style of exploration to the more contemporary thriller style the show has been developing. On top of that, we have a story that tries to bring the strange to Earth. It’s not often commented on, but by all appearances The Underwater Menace is set in 1970 – a near future Earth. In other words, on top of everything else, this is part of the five-minutes-in-the-future vibe of The War Machines and The Tenth Planet.
It’s here that the cracks begin to show in this story. Juggling Hartnell-esque worldbuilding, suspenseful action, and a near future setting is a bridge too far, and does make the episode feel messy. Any two of those is an interesting exploration of the series’ potential. All three together, though, raises the question of whether this is actually a brilliant leap forward for the series or if it’s just people with no clear ideas of what to do gluing bits together.
But on the other hand, it is impossible to overstate how necessary it was to do a story like this. After two stories that are primarily about breaking from the Hartnell era and doing something completely different, a story that makes an effort to combine the Hartnell era with the emerging Troughton era is welcome – especially after a story that is a not entirely friendly parody of the Hartnell era. That it fails with spectacular aplomb makes it all the easier to accept the dawning of a new era.
If you are tragically lacking in Joseph Furst shouting “Nothing in ze world can stop me now!” on DVD, the surviving episode of The Underwater Menace is included on the phenomenal Lost in Time DVD set. Buying it from that link means I get a bit of money too, which is greatly appreciated.