Tuesday, 13 September 2016

032. The Underwater Menace by Geoffrey Orme: Episode 1 (14 January 1967)

In a manner in which The Highlanders conspicuously failed to be, The Underwater Menace serves as Jamie McCrimmon’s “introduction” story - as it must, since Jamie was written into the show as a companion more or less because the production team decided they liked working with Frazer Hines on The Highlanders. This is the first jaunt in time and space for our 18th-century Jacobite, and the first cementing of his rapport with the Doctor, Ben and Polly; he slips into the dynamic with ease as though he’s always been there; not bad considering he had to be written into the serial last-minute! Less impressive is, once again, how the scriptwriters treat Polly. Anneke Wills is so watchable that you almost don’t notice, but it really is incredibly unimaginative that the first three stories of the Troughton era all start with Polly getting herself into danger and getting saved by the men in the first 6 minutes - and then there’s the “peril monkey” cliff-hanger, wherein she’s about to be operated on (it is, however, terrifyingly effective). On the plus side, she gets the rather charming moment of spotting a “Mexico Olympiad” vase and deducing that they must have landed in around 1970, and then speaking to the Atlantean guard in French, German and Spanish, so swings and roundabouts. It is at about this time, though, that Gerry Davis and Innes Lloyd decided that Polly wasn’t really working as a companion, and so decided to write both her and Ben out of the series - as we shall see in a few episodes’ time.

The location filming at Windspit Caverns, Dorset, looks rather nice - establishing our volcanic island of Atlantis from the off - so kudos to one of the most significant female TV directors of the 1960s, Julia Smith (it was her last work on Doctor Who, having previously directed The Smugglers). In the same season as The Smugglers and some scenes of The Highlanders, there’s been rather a maritime theme to Season 4 so far, which isn’t easy to achieve in a BBC studio, so it’s good to see that working out rather nicely. Overall, there’s a pleasing sense of enigma about this opening episode: we remain in archetypal “Hartnell mystery” mode, where the crew land in an utterly unknown location and take a few minutes to unravel its secrets and work out where they are, then get attacked by unknown assailants. This opening chunk is all played immensely straight: even once the high priest with his ludicrous hat turns up, and we are ushered into underground temples with shark-filled pools, there is none of the same bonkersness which characterises later parts of the story (even Zaroff is relatively subdued here). The sequence where the Doctor and friends are nearly lowered into the shark tank is actually rather gripping, and the sets are quite well-done. The supporting characters are varied, and though we don’t see too much of them here, most of them come off reasonably, and Joseph Furst is clearly a force to be reckoned with (more on Zaroff later). The core concept of “Atlantis lives on beneath the waves and is home to an ancient religion” is good, as is “farmers given plastic gills so they can farm food under the water”, however acid-trip-y. As for what's going with Atlantis, we'll talk about that next time, since most of this episode we are still in "real world" territory.

One of the most remarkable (if brief) little segments of Episode One of The Underwater Menace is the sequence, just before landing, where each of the four principal characters wonders what might lie on the other side of the TARDIS doors. Polly hopes for Chelsea, 1966; Ben just prays it isn’t the Daleks; Jamie is in shock about what kind of mess he’s got himself into; and the Doctor, in a revealingly mercurial moment, seems eager to see “prehistoric monsters”, delivered with a chirpy and upbeat grin as though he can’t wait to see such creatures (very Matt Smith). It’s a fun little way to illustrate their different priorities, and rather experimental in that each line is done as an internal monologue in each character’s head rather than spoken out loud. What’s also fun, of course, is that the Doctor gets the control over the narrative, because “prehistoric monsters” is almost certainly the closest guess to “Fish People in Atlantis”: his guess almost magically determines what kind of story they land in. Furthermore, he already knows of Professor Zaroff’s reputation before arriving, and appears to be impressively well clued-in on the man, feigning a secret which might be of interest to him and thus saving them all from death; slowly, the “bumbling” act is crumbling around him and he’s becoming more of a cunning trickster.

You can read my take on the second episode here.

Other things:
Opening with a shot of the Doctor’s strange stovepipe hat is a nice reminder of how quirky the Troughton of early Season 4 is - before he settles down.
Gentle, good-natured ribbing from Ben to Jamie: “It’s a machine, my old haggis, which will take us away from Scotland forever.” (and later on: “Cavemen? Jamie, you’d better watch it; with that kilt, someone might mistake you for a bird!”)
“Well that, as the Doctor would say, is in the lap of the gods.” Charming expression, though I’m not sure the Doctor would say it; it says more about Ben than the Doctor.
“Nae man can tether time nor tide,” the Doctor says, quoting Robert Burns, but that doesn’t put Jamie at his ease, given that Burns wasn’t born until thirteen years after Jamie left in the TARDIS.
Where does Ben get his torch from? That’s the sort of thing you just can’t tell from a recon.
Referring to decompression sickness as “Caisson disease” dates this rather nicely!
So silly is the idea of “fish people” that it gets beautifully mocked in The Caretaker: “they’re fish…but people!”
I love how Jamie tries Gaelic on the Atlantean guard after Polly’s efforts at European languages fall flat and he speaks at them in an unknown dialect instead.
Of course the Doctor would proclaim plankton to be “ambrosia”.
Best line: “I’ve never seen him go for food like this before; it’s usually hats.”
Creepy idol in Amdo’s temple. And cool sharks (even if they are stock footage); that must have scared the kids back in the day. Rather eerie score from Dudley Simpson too.
Hot off the heels of his “Doktor Von Wer” joke in the previous story, here the Doctor signs his name as “Dr W.”
Ooh, that’s rather good: “Life is a stream of water that drains away even as time does, and cannot be reclaimed.”
Interesting little sliver of Cold War politics surrounds Zaroff’s disappearance 20 years ago: “the East blamed the West, the West the East.”
After all the guff about a secret, the Doctor confessing “I haven’t got one” is hilarious - and even better that Zaroff just laughs it off too.
“I could feed you to my pet octopus”: ah yes, now the story is getting a little bit crazier.
“Don’t be afraid, girl. Life is very beautiful under the sea.” Creeeepy.
I wonder if Ara was ever being considered as a possible companion; she and the Doctor seem to get along very well.
Better cliff-hanger than anything in The Highlanders, as Damon prepares to operate on Polly and a Fish Person glides toward the screen menacingly (subject of a complaint, too, from the National Society of Welfare and Hospitals, who thought that the scene would terrify children into thinking they would also wake up as monsters after an operation).

No comments:

Post a Comment