Tuesday, 30 April 2013
The Underwater Menace written by Geoffrey Orme and directed by Julia Smith
This story in a nutshell: The Doctor and friends discover the lost city of Atlantis…
Lovely Lashes & Able Seaman: Trust Polly to go wandering off at the beginning of this adventure and follow her nose for danger right to where the adventure is. Mind you at least she is using her intelligence, trying to guess where they are with the evidence of her own eyes. Turns out she can turn a phrase in French, Spanish and German. As absurd as the idea of turning her into a fish might be, the realisation that dawns on Polly when they approach her with a tranquilizer is actually pretty frightening. Polly needs a massive slap in the last episode when she starts shrieking and moaning ‘I can’t!’ over and over – it’s a moment of hysteria that I wouldn't expect from the woman who criticised Kirsty for such behaviour in the last story. Ben is such a lovely bit of rough, even when he gets little to do he still makes me smile (mostly for aesthetic reasons). I love it when he calls the Doctor a berk! ‘Blimey look at ‘im! He aint normal, is ‘ee?’ It is painfully clear that with three companions on board the TARDIS the dialogue is stretched pretty thin and I wished they could have found a way of dealing with that problem (nobody dealt with the Doctor and three companions set up better than the first two TARDIS line ups) because this is a highly engaging team.
Who’s the Yahoos: So let me get this straight Jamie has been wrenched from his own time by a device that he cannot comprehend and thrown into a situation which even to somebody who is a dab hand at this lark finds baffling and he takes the whole lot in his stride? We never really got to get to grips with Jamie’s culture shock. Once Ben and Polly leave he has seen enough to make anything the rest of his time in the TARDIS throws at him a pretty shoulder-shrugging experience. Ben tells Jamie that the TARDIS has taken him away from Scotland forever and understandably he is terrified of the prospect. It's rather easy to mock Jamie at this point as Ben does telling him that people will mistake him for a bird in his kilt!
'You are a fool!': Of course the madly OTT Zaroff deserves his own section and I am sure the great man himself would expect no less of me. After all he is the greatest scientist since Leonardo! He admits that he does have a sense of humour and proves it by giggling maniacally throughout the story even when he is in the greatest of danger. It must be the thought of feeding people to his deadly giant octopus that keeps him so amused. His ego know no bounds, raising people like Damon in status just so he can have the pleasing of breaking them just as dramatically. He is such a genius he has turned the dreams of the Atlantians to his own means, in his own way exploiting them just as the Daleks exploited the colonists in Troughton's debut. Zaroff is not above having psychotic little tantrums when his loyalty is questioned – ‘Have I not sworn to you that Atlantis will once again rise from the sea! Haven’t I, haven’t I?’ Nobody is above his disdain, he tosses the High Priest aside when he informs them that the ‘little Doctor’ has disappeared and he even makes fatuous comments about the Great Amdo himself! Once kidnapped, Zaroff is full of bluster and lies that the Doctor can see right through, he knows that whatever he says to the contrary the madcap Professor would have to be the one to set off the explosion that brings down the world. His fake heart attack is so awful it is astonishing that anybody could ever fall for it. ‘Let me stand at your side so that I may feel the aura of your goodness!’ – frankly Ramo deserves a painful death for falling for Zaroff’s hyperbole! His lunacy bursts free as he fights with Jamie, brandishes a sword and tosses Polly into a load of men before fleeing down the tunnel and laughing insanely. How can you not love this guy? ‘Your people?’ he spits at Thous, ‘Your people? They are my people now!’ ‘You are a fool! You are a fool! Now I will send you to your beloved Goddess Amdo!’ – don’t cross this guy, he’s completely wicker basket! He’s one of the few villains that can get away with laughing his head off as the whole world crumbles around him – the tremors are almost a metaphor for his cracking personality! His death scene as the waters close over his head is so deliciously grandiose it is the only way he could satisfactorily be written out. What a guy.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It would take a great gift of the gab to win over the Fish People!’ ‘But you are Irish…’
‘Nothing in ze world can stop me now!’
The Good and the Bad: The Underwater Menace is another of those shows which is absolutely dreadful when looked at objectively but I happen to love for its kookiness and melodrama in the same way as The Chase and Time and the Rani. As such it has its positives and its negatives thrown into one mixing bowl of lunacy. The opening scenes with the regulars’ thoughts being fed directly to the audience is a good indication of the kind of adventure this is going to be – comic strip, and not to be taken too seriously. The TARDIS looks gorgeous nestled in a little cove by the seaside – being a seaside boy it would be the biggest thrill to discover that battered blue box on my travels. The ideas are so outrageously camp you can’t help but fall in love with them totally - a lift that descends into an extinct volcano that leads to the lost city of Atlantis! With the campest high priest on record, a soundtrack that sounds like monks trying not to burst out laughing, hyper dramatic electronic music and threat of deadly sharks in the temple, this might be the most enchantingly outré Doctor Who opening episode ever. At least it doesn’t try and pretend otherwise. The designers have clearly decided to go a bit nuts with the marine theme and decked Ramo out in a hilarious head gear exploding with flora and fauna and arm him with a giant fish on a stick to wave about! The theme continues on through to the guard with their plastic tridents and Lolem who sports a glorious headdress that when placed upon his head makes him look like a giant grinning trout. To be fair to Julia Smith she does no how to set up her shots and the high camera angle of the four travellers bound at compass points and being dropped into shark infested waters is very impressive. Although it is absolute madness the first cliffhanger manages to generate some suspense as the screaming face of the Fish Person fills the porthole whilst Polly is menaced by a surgeon wielding a needle! For all it's campery, The Underwater Menace does manage to generate these moments of tension sometimes despite itself. Like a Bond villain before his time, Zaroff's great scheme is to make a drain so big that he will reduce the ocean to such an extent that Atlantis will rise. You can't accuse him of not being ambitious. Doctor Who has often exploited stereotypes (for good or for ill) but Jacko and Sean are something else, literal embodiments of their nationalities and displaying little else of what could be called character. Isn’t it hilarious how the story feels the need to explain everything to the audience in such childish detail – the whopping great close up on Thous' face when he finally realises that Zaroff is a complete fruitloop and the Doctor’s comment ‘I know that voice’ as a cockney accent comes booming out of the Amdo’s mouth at the point of its execution. It is a story that doesn't trust us to work out the simplest of things for ourselves. This really is a naive civilisation, Thous admitting that he never guessed Amdo's secret simply because he never bothered to take a look round behind the idol. Smith tries to make the market scenes as vibrant as possible by filling the set with shell clad extras and shooting through the stalls – it’s a brave effort to try and suggest that there is a civilisation in Atlantis that is let down by an ailing budget. The Fish People have come in for some flack over the years but the design is no worse than any other monster from this period and the scenes featuring them are filmed expensively at Ealing with great vats of water for them to splash about in. The ballet of the Fish People looks pretty good considering the sort of money the show had to play with. Yes, you can see the odd wire holding an actor up but if you are willing to suspend your belief these scenes are clearly the most impressive looking of the whole production. Although what somebody is doing fanning themselves in the ocean is a mystery to me. I always laugh my head off when Zaroff stabs Ramo with the spear and you can see it wobbling precariously in front of the camera – for what threatened to be a nasty moment once against descends into farce. Water gushes through the statue of Amdo as it fills the temple – much like The Myth Makers this story takes a sudden turn towards high drama at the climax. It's a shame that Zaroff couldn't have survived to fight another day (with a parting riposte, of course) but if he had to go, it is at least a memorably nasty death.
The Shallow Bit: Don’t get me started on the sight of Ben and Jamie dressed up in skin tight wet suits or this review might take a turn towards the x rated. Polly decked out in little more than shells will probably please a large portion of the audience too. Jamie in the wet suit in the last episode is one of the horniest things in Doctor Who over its fifty year life span. If you happen to be me.
Result: What can you say about The Underwater Menace? It's bollocks, isn’t it? But it's our bollocks and it refuses to take itself seriously and provides four episodes of ridiculous high jinks and camp madness. If you were going to be particularly vicious you could take every aspect of this production (except, oddly, how expensive it looks on occasion) and rip it to shreds but that would be to deprive yourself of the giddy insanity and giggles to be had. Professor Zaroff is up there with the Great Soldeed and the Rani as the campest, nuttiest villain of all time and there are no depths of cliché and melodrama he wont sink to. I love him to pieces because every line he utters makes me grin from ear to ear. Joseph Furst delivers one of the most stratospheric performances ever seen on television, so deranged that he even succeeds in turning Troughton into the straight man as a consequence. Where else can you see deadly sharks, a Fish Person ballet, Jamie is rubber and Atlantis fall? Oddly it is amongst the madness of The Underwater Menace that Troughton delivers his most commanding performance to date and he is backed up by the horniest trio of companions in living memory. Long considered one of Doctor Who’s greatest embarrassments by those who take the show far too seriously, The Underwater Menace is firecracker fun from beginning to end and I find it easier to go with the tide rather than fight against it: 7/10