Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Serial 32: The Underwater Menace

Doctor: Patrick Troughton (2nd Doctor)
Companions: Jamie, Ben and Polly

Written by: Geoffrey Orme
Directed by: Julia Smith

Background & Significance: One of the things about Doctor Who that I always tend to love is whenever they go for the simple-yet-high-concept story, something so blindingly obvious that you're shocked you didn't think of it, or rather, that it hasn't happened before. This can be anything from "The Doctor hangs out with The TARDIS" to "The Doctor and the O.K. Corral". They're simple choices that fold into larger mythologies or stories and provide "a Doctor Who take" on whatever it is we're talking about.

Enter The Doctor visits Atlantis.

"The Underwater Menace" is only Troughton's third story. It's only Jamie's second. It's only Ben and Polly's sixth. It's still fairly early in Doctor Who lore (comparatively; we're in Doctor Who's fourth season, meaning it's right around the time The Initiative should be showing up to give you a scope of "just how early" we are in the show), but it does give the show the opportunity to touch on rich, unmined material that had previously been untouched. The Doctor and his companions had already been all over time and space, from meeting Marco Polo and Emperor Nero to encountering The Daleks several times to even getting encased as displays in a large space museum. And all this stuff is well and good, but don't you think it's time for The Doctor to touch on something else that's deeply mythological and legendary, that pushes the show into a giant cool direction?

Like I said: enter Atlantis.

It's interesting to think that in Doctor's Who's massive, almost-fifty-year history that he's only ever gone to Atlantis twice. Granted, we here at Classical Gallifrey thought the last time The Doctor visited that legendary lost city it was a complete and total disaster, but there are plenty who disagree. And yet... no one seems to disagree about "The Underwater Menace." That's never a good thing. You'll always find dissenting opinions about plenty of stories. I, for one, actively hate "The Armageddon Factor", but I seem to be in the minority. Not that people say it's terribly good, but it's far from the most consistently loathed of that season, or even of Tom Baker for that matter.

Regardless, there's always discrepancy and there's always argumentation, but when the fandom is pretty universally in agreement on a story's quality, and when that agreement swings negative, you're in a lot of trouble.

The most ironic thing is the fact that Doctor Who can't ever seem to do Atlantis right. Or good. Ever. At all. Maybe it's the fact that Atlantis is too untouchable or difficult to break down to do an interesting or compelling story. It's easy to get bogged down in the fictional mythology of a place that doesn't seem to exist, or to get wrapped up in the only real Atlantis story that can exist if you're giving it a one off (that of its fall; otherwise what's the point?), but surely there can be a better solution than this.

This story also has the reputation for having the first episode of Troughton that exists in its entirety (episode three), but the reason behind that has nothing to do with Troughton and more to do with someone's idea of the biggest practical joke I've ever seen in terms of Doctor Who history. That the first Troughton episode that exists does so for the most abstractly bizarre two minutes of Doctor Who I've ever seen is both blessing and curse, I think. We have to be grateful, I suppose, that the production team sought to poison our eyes and our brains for that two minutes so that this story could at least partly exist, I just wish they'd put something more memorable in, something I'd rather see. Like "Power of the Daleks". But I digress.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

The first time I watched this story, I didn’t think part one was that bad. Now I’ve seen it for a second time, I still can’t say I think it’s that bad. Unfortunately, all the markings that this story are about to get a little too batty are all right in front of me and I… oh dear. It’s coming, isn’t it?
If there is a criticism I can level against this story at this early a time, it’s that the story moves a bit slow and falls into the Doctor Who clich├ęs a bit quickly. By the halfway point in the episode our heroes are captured and five minutes later they’re laid out and prepared as a sacrifice to the god of the Atlanteans. Now, I’m okay with that in theory. I think the set that they’re in musta looked really cool and there is the promise of shark in the water below (way way cool), but to have them strung up and to go to that well and have them escape (the other well) even before the episode’s end is… it’s a bit too much. The Doctor and his companions being captured is a textbook example of wheel spinning no matter what the occasion.

That said, how The Doctor gets out of it is a stroke of genius.

Disregarding the way The Doctor signs the note he sends to Professor Zaroff (“Dr. W”), the note itself is genius. Without even knowing the guy (except by reputation), The Doctor manages to trick Zaroff into setting his friends and him free through what essentially comes out as a giant bluff that plays on Zaroff’s craving for knowledge and such. It’s a genius move by Troughton and wonderfully delivered on his part, especially when he looks around sneakily to make sure that his companions are out of harm’s way before he reveals his little game. Also hilarious is Zaroff’s own appreciation for The Doctor’s gumption, letting The Doctor completely off the hook by essentially saying “Good one, Doctor!”

Zaroff himself, I will save for more discussion later. What I will say for now, though, is that all the problems that we’re going to have for him later on start here. He’s played ridiculously over the top by Joseph Furst from the get go (and only seems to get crazier, as we’ll talk about coming up) and we already introduce the insane things about Zaroff like his pet octopus or the fact that he’s utterly and completely insane in a way that is in no way believable at all. Even his clothes just feel like bad Doctor Frankenstein, which… in a way is not far off from where you’d expect him to be (The Gene Wilder version, I mean; not any other Doctor Frankenstein). And of course he has a plan to raise Atlantis from the sea. What that entails we don’t quite know yet. But we’ll find out soon enough and it’ll be even crazier than anyone could’ve imagined.

The rest of this, though, is fairly strong. I rather like the locale of a lonely beach with mysterious caves and mountains and such. I especially like the moment where The Doctor (or was it Polly?) looks out and sees a ring of islands stretching off into the distance. There’s something mysterious about that image that really sets the stage early on. What used to be here? Why a ring? When I think of rings of land hanging out in a sea, all I think about is the so called “Circle of Fire” (that ring of volcanoes that circle the Pacific Ocean) and that gets me to thinking about where we could possibly be. Sure I know it’s Atlantis, but I knew that going in. The people who don’t wouldn’t know that and it’s certainly gotta be a cool moment when they realize that this place is a little… interesting.

We also end on a really tense moment of Polly about to undergo fish surgery, in which these Atlanteans plan to turn Polly into a fish so she can farm the Atlantean food underwater.

It’s a haunting image, really. With Polly all dolled up in white and the doctors in their labcoats and the whole hospital place exudes a feeling of sterile needles, too-clean sheets, and the horrors of being held down and operated on against your will. It’s a chilling thought and hopefully it’s a situation that Polly will get out of (she will), but it also introduces the fish people (mermaids?) into the story at a fairly early point. I like that, especially because we’ll just have to talk about them later. Unfortunately what we see here is what we get and they never really spend a whole lot of time exploring them. Well… Okay. They spend quite a bit of time exploring them, but none of it is substantial or… insightful into Atlantean culture.

Ah well. It’s a decent first episode. That’s more than I could say about "The Space Pirates". Then again, "The Space Pirates" never really got much worse than its initial offering and stayed at the consistent boring level the whole time. Here, though, it’s about to get worse. Much much worse.

Part 2:


What makes "The Underwater Menace" so unswallowable as a concept is the way it just doesn’t quite work as a full, all-the-way story, or at least one that feels cool or creative or something like that. It’s all very disjointed and is rather boring and rather uninteresting. Nothing really happens in this part except the deepening of Atlantean culture (sort of). That alone is reason for me to dismiss this story. Again. This is Atlantis they’re playing with, so is it really that disinteresting to play with the Atlantean mythology or world building? I mean… Come now…

But even beyond that terribly squandered opportunity it doesn’t help that the story is mad boring in other places. Polly does nothing in this episode. Not a damn thing, and that’s one of the three storylines in it. So… that’s out. All she does is hang out at the idol, hiding out. Ugh.

And then there’s Jamie and Ben, who spend the whole time running around in the mines, trying to work and trying to get involved in other aspects of the mining. But all of this is boring and uninteresting as well. It moves slow and it fails to capture my attention. That’s a failure, isn’t it? I consider it a failure. Nothing happens. Nothing is happening and the very small interest that I had in this story at the end of part one is all... gone. Because it doesn’t matter and it doesn’t accomplish anything, it just helps me lose the story and make me not care.

Sure there’s the funny beat where Jamie and Ben attempt to join up with the most experienced workers as a distraction, but it’s a comedy beat that doesn’t quite work. Or is it comedy? I don’t quite know.

Then there’s The Doctor. And… I love Troughton and he’s doing a fine job (as far as I can tell with a reconstruction), but it’s not… his… best. Neither is it terribly strong. That’s a byproduct of his material, though, which is all fairly lame and uninteresting. Sure he’s with Zaroff at the top and he learns of Zaroff’s plan (ohhhhhhhh more on that in a minute) but then he joins up with Ramo the high priest and the two dress up in ridiculous head garb but it doesn’t end up helping them at all. Again, it’s played for comedy, but it doesn’t feel like that.

And there’s something dramatic about Ramo slowly losing influence to Professor Zaroff, but that dramatic whatever is gone before it’s even explored. So whatever.

And then there’s Zaroff. Oh boy, Zaroff.

Okay. Zaroff is awful. Seriously awful. Nevermind the crazy octopus (which is ludicrous), but what the hell is Zaroff’s plan? Well, he knows he can’t raise Atlantis from the sea, so his realization is that he should bring the sea down to Atlantis’s level. So he plans to drill a hole into the Earth’s crust and drain the oceans into the Earth. It’s preposterously big, so big it can’t even be rationalized. But… okay... fine.

Now. Here’s the problem. As a result of all this, The Doctor theorizes that the heat of the Earth’s innards (core) will superheat the water, boiling it and turning it into steam and the steam, with nowhere to go, will expand and crack the Earth like an egg.

And fine. Okay. That’s the plan. The Daleks want to do that. The Cybermen want to do that. Someone wants to destroy the Earth that’s a way to do it. Feels like a waste. Why waste the earth and its natural resources? I suppose someone feels that bitter about the Earth that they think it should be squandered. Okay, I suppose. Wouldn’t it make more sense for someone to nuke the world? I suppose, but that would get away from “raising Atlantis.”

So this plan sucks. It’s a plan, but it sucks. And The Doctor points out the flaw. And he tells it to Zaroff. So the day is saved?

Except not really because Zaroff knows that this is what will happen to the Earth AND HE’S BLOODY GOING TO DO IT ANYWAYS. And when The Doctor points out this fallacy to him, Zaroff’s like “Well surely you must understand.” No Zaroff, not really. And then Zaroff goes on to say “Well I’m doing it so I can do it.” What, Zaroff? You’re exploding the Earth purely because you CAN explode the earth? Why? What POSSIBLE rationale do you have for that? And I don’t mean any of this “you was driven insane by the car crash death of your wife and children” BECAUSE THAT IS NOT WHAT WE SEE ON SCREEN. WHY DO YOU WANT TO BLOW UP THE EARTH.

And we are not given a reason, and that makes Zaroff lame. At least Davros was megalomaniacal enough to admit that he wanted that level of power. Zaroff has no rationalization so it makes no sense.

Not only that, but WHO AROUND HIM THINKS THIS IS A GOOD IDEA? Does no one else think to stop him at any point in time? Does no one say “maybe this isn’t such a good thing?” Ugh. There’s nothing there. So this becomes stupid and useless. It’s far surpassed any believability and has transcended my ability to suspend disbelief and has become utterly batshit insane. Just like Zaroff. Who is mad simply because he needs to be.

Lame. Totally lame and not good. And there’s still two more episodes to go. Kill me now.

Part 3:

And then… it got… worse…

One of the things about part two that made me not like it is the fact that it was bad. And boring. And bad. But it’s one thing for a story to be boring and poorly done and uninteresting. It’s another thing for that story to throw up its hands, say “fuck it” and become the ungodly, campy, what the fuck sorta mess that this episode is. Because… Holy god. What the hell happened? Now this episode is one hundred percent all over the place and the story has completely gone off the rails.

And no one seems to care.

On the front lines of this not caring is Troughton. By this point, it’s clear in the story that Troughton just does not give a sh*t. At all. That’s why he’s hanging out at the marketplace in the middle of the story in a do-rag and glasses, pretending to be a sailor and peddling his wares. You can tell that he’s just having a blast of a time and just… doesn’t care. He doesn’t. He’s gonna milk the absolute most he can possibly get out of this hammed up, junked out, camped down part. I mean, even outside of the market sequence, there’s the whole part where he comes up with the plan; it feels like that scene in Black Dynamite when the bros start piecing together the conspiracy and it all comes together so contrivedly and makes sense only because they tell us it makes sense.

But more on that in a minute.

Gone even battier, too, is Professor Zaroff. Jesus Christ. Okay, last episode he was like “I’m blowing up the world.” But now he’s gone even insanerer, chasing after The Doctor and chasing Polly and acting like an utter lunatic. Mad props to Joseph Furst for going this insanely over the top on it, especially because the character is so completely unbelievable and so completely utterly insanely bad. But again, instead of attempting to make it make sense, Furst just goes nuts on him, makes him an utter mad man, and embraces the terrible script Geoffrey Orm has written. Zaroff in this is madder than he ever was.

Not only that, but he even removes all ambiguity about why he’s cracking the earth like an egg. He wants it to happen. We don’t know why. All we know is that he does because of the way he keeps trying to convince the King of Atlantis that this is the right thing to do and that the King should trust him (but doesn’t the king see madness in Zaroff’s eyes?). So now Zaroff is completely insane and we need to make sure that everyone knows that the whys are not important. The solution for this? Make him insanerer! Give him a cape. (#wheeeeeeedistractioncape!)

And then there’s The Doctor’s plan, which is to starve the city of Atlantis because… because… wait… why is he doing that? NEVERMIND. Let’s talk about fish people.

So this episode exists (thank god?) and was saved by the BBC junking procedures because of this thing in the middle of the episode in which… the… fish people… dance. Or swim. Honestly, I don’t what the fuck it is they’re doing. All I know is that they’re doing it. And it’s two minutes of insanity. Sorry a hundred and sixteen seconds of insanity. And it has to be seen to be believed. So I’m going to youtube it. Although dear god. Why are you watching this? You can just instead go and watch two minutes of something else and then come back. Then again, I don’t think you’ll believe me if you don’t see it. Oh boy. I dunno.

Anyways. Here’s a one hundred and sixteen second youtube.

Holy. Crap.

I mean right? Holy. Crap.

So that’s a big chunk of this episode. They spend almost ten percent of this episode on that sequence. And why? What does it accomplish? Nothing. Not a damn thing. It doesn’t accomplish anything. It’s just there to be there and to show off fish people swimming around in the ocean because they can swim in the ocean. THEY’RE NOT EVEN DOING ANYTHING. THEY ARE JUST SITTING AND VAGUELY SWIMMING. WHY IS THIS SUCH A WASTE OF EVERYONE’S TIME?! WHO APPROVED THIS.

Honestly, this story is awful. Just truly, truly awful. How I’m still here blogging it I don’t even know. I just… I don’t even know. It’s so off the rails at this point and the fourth episode is left to go.

Part 4:

And then it ends and it ends just as poorly as it’s been going.

This episode is slightly better, but after the complete barrage of insanely bad that’s not really saying that much. It still comes off as bad and “not good” because the whole entirety of this episode is spent escaping Atlantis as the place floods. Ben and Polly spend the WHOLE episode climbing out of the caves (and no, I’m not joking) and this is a really thinly veiled way of Orm telling the viewers “I haven’t the faintest idea what to do with these characters so I’m just going to have them climb”.

But how do you know I’m not making this up? CLIMBING IS BORING. There’s no drama or story to it. It’s like a story in which we spend a lot of time watching people drive to a place. It’s bad. And it’s boring unless it enhances the characters in some way. Nothing like that here.

It’s also telling because Ben and The Doctor spend the whole story down in Atlantis, attempting to stop Professor Zaroff from completing his plan and then spend the last three minutes of the story climbing up the caves (which were already flooding?) So yeah. That happened. And it’s not as though Ben and The Doctor spent the whole time being really constructive. No. Most of it felt like kind of a waste and very much going through the motions and all that. Lots of running around (although less frenetic, certainly, than the last episode) and not really accomplishing much.

We also see the end of Professor Zaroff, who is… no better. Maybe a bit more mad and a bit more insane. He has a GIANT RANDOM GATE installed that can only be opened from the inside so that he can lock himself in his lab and not let anyone else in.

All that, man. All that is just batty. Really batty. Especially the part where Zaroff waits and waits to press the button. Or the part where The Doctor tricks Zaroff out of the cage and Ben manages to lock Zaroff out. It’s nice to see Zaroff left for the rest of the episode trying his best to get back into the lab even to his grizzly, drowning drowning end, but by that point I just kinda don’t care and I’m ready to see him put out of his misery. Because like… Jesus Christ good riddance.

Also interesting to point out the sheer amount of water referenced in this story. Water, for those not familiar with the stuff in terms of production, is a bitch to work with, so everytime I see water on television or anything like that my interest is instantly piqued and there’s a TON of water in this episode. How they managed to do all this water is beyond me because water’s expensive and it means you have to reshoot things and oh it’s such a pain to clean up and set up and all that. But there’s stuff here and I have to at least applaud them for all that, especially giving Zaroff an intense, hard-to-watch death by drowning, as he goes down striving to reach his controls.

Sigh. But I still don’t care.

I mean, why in the world does The Doctor choose to do these things? At the top of episodes three AND four he’s come up with wild departures from the previous episodes. “We have to starve Atlantis!” and then “Now we have to flood Atlantis!” and it’s just like… why? Why are these things happening? Do you have any idea how many people died as a result of all this? How many people probably drowned (the fish people didn’t, obviously, however unfortunate that might be)? And for what? I guess it accomplished what The Doctor wanted it to accomplish, but what was that exactly?

This episode is just the latest mess in this story’s tornado of messes. What a waste.

Final Thoughts?: And I mean... it comes out awful.

Part of what makes a Doctor Who story good is a combination of people being on the same page. If people aren't on the same page, the story suffers. Case in point.

I'm aware that this story was rushed into production, but that doesn't seem to be the problem with this story by the time everyone's done with it. Mostly, everyone's just all over the place. The writing from Geoffrey Orm is wildly uneven to the point where I'm not sure what story he's telling. All signs point to him writing something completely batshit insane and campy, but it never really commits to that. I feel like there are points the director or the actors feel they should take seriously and don't, which end up hurting the story.

And for that argument, the only two actors who end up fully committing to what is Orm's batty insane script are Troughton and Furst for their respective roles, but no one else seems to be on the same page.

That, then, comes down to the direction. The episode that still exists is the best gauge of that, but it doesn't seem to know if it's really taking itself that seriously. I suppose we're supposed to scream and get scared at Zaroff's screaming cliffhanger proclamation of "Nothing in the world can stop me now!", but I have no reason to be scared of Professor Zaroff because I don't find him believable. And while that does work for Furst's interpretation, it doesn't work in that moment. So as a result, the choices made at certain points don't jive with certain choices later, leading to a really uneven story that's just... not good, kids. It's just not good.

Hell, even the fish people aren't consistent in how they look.

Because of all this "The Underwater Menace" is doomed to fail. It's all over the place. It's sloppy. And it's just bad. Bad bad bad across the board. Probably easily the worst of the Troughton era. I mean, up to this point it's been "The Space Pirates" for me, but that story started off boring and bad and just kept up the same mediocre levels until the very bitter end whereas this gets exponentially worse as it goes on. That's worse, I think. By the time that episode three happens this story has just become almost completely unwatchable (stupid blog) and by that point I just don't see how you could care. It's beyond the realm of enjoyability and has entered Manos: Hands of Fate territory. And I don't care what you say. "A bad movie/episode" can be enjoyable because you can just laugh at it and make fun of it with your friends. Sure. I get that. But that doesn't make that thing good and it doesn't mean that you can argue that it's not bad.

And "The Underwater Menace" is absolutely, 100% bad Doctor Who.

Next Time!: 3rd Doctor! Daleks! Invisible things with purple hoodies! Ice! A completely dropped storyline! AND MOAR TERRY NATION BEING TERRY NATION AND RECYCLING IDEAS! "The Planet of the Daleks"! Coming Next Tuesday!


  1. This blog has been nominated for the Versatile Blogger Award!


  2. No idea why you would have a problem with 'Dr. W'!