Tuesday, 13 September 2016

032. The Underwater Menace by Geoffrey Orme: Episode 2 (21 January 1967)

You can read my take on the first episode here.

The Underwater Menace is one of the few really off-beat stories of the Troughton era, with “ballet-dancing fish people” a slightly Web Planet-type adversary, suffused with a similar bizarreness. Coming after Dalek scheming and purely historical hijinks, “Fish People in Atlantis” are the first original antagonists of the Troughton era: this would normally be the point at which we are bedding in, settling down with a new template for the new era, making some effort to be ‘the new normal’. But as we know it’s yet another false start; the true Troughton norm will not be established until the following story where it finally hits upon the “base-under-siege” template which will work such wonders for the ratings over the coming years.

Personally, I go for weird and wacky over base-under-siege. The Underwater Menace is not the most polished production in the world; despite featuring a veteran screenwriter with Ivanhoe to his name (Geoffrey Orme), a solid director (Julia Smith), and a renowned actor (Joseph Furst), the whole thing was made for about 50p and as a last-minute replacement for The Imps by William Emms, and each episode was only filmed the week before it was on TV (even Troughton flubs a few lines here, common for his predecessor but pretty rare for him). Orme is the second veteran writer for Season 4 after Elwyn Jones, a sign perhaps that Lloyd and Davis were looking to hire the big TV names of the day. And yet what Orme turns out probably wasn’t quite the crowd-pleaser they were expecting, but rather a surreal romp under the sea, as a completely mad scientist tries to raise Atlantis above the waves. Orme borrows from Verne, Wells and classic comics (20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Flash Gordon, Journey to the Centre of the Earth and The Island of Dr Moreau) but this is, even looked at charitably, a 50s B-movie. 

Ah yes - we should probably mention that mad scientist: Zaroff, played here with scenery-chewing relish by Joseph Furst. As above, Furst is a solid actor, so the only explanation for his hammy performance is that he realised what kind of show this was and ran with it (rather like Christoph Waltz in SPECTRE). There was originally more motivation for his actions - his wife and child had died in a car crash and this had contributed to his insanity - but with that element taking out, he’s just mad because that’s who he is. He’s meant to be playing a scientist who has completely lost the plot, which is what he does, and he does it well. It works extremely well as a contrast to Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, who has until now been a tad manic (especially playing off against the “straight” types in The Highlanders), but is here forced to tone his performance down and become a more serious figure in response to what Furst is doing. Case in point is his excellent, definitive, and understated line reading of “just one small question: why do you want to blow up the world?” There’s a very real case that The Underwater Menace is where he works out how to play the role, despite his professed dislike for the serial. He’s getting better and better at what one might call his dynamic staring, moments in which he doesn’t actually have anything to do on screen, but always does something fascinating with his eyes, observing the others talking and taking in his surroundings. It’s electrifying to watch - so thank goodness Episode Two is now available for all to view.

It’s also worth discussing the manners in which not just Zaroff, but The Underwater Menace itself, is quite, quite mad. It’s not just the bollocksy science or the Fish People - it’s the fact that this clearly isn’t the real world anymore. No longer just passageways or partitions between Earth and some far-flung oddity like Vortis, no longer just the TARDIS as vessel, but now we are being asked to believe that Atlantis itself, a mythical lost kingdom invented by Plato as an allegory, exists beneath our waves. We are, strictly speaking, in Thomas More’s invented Utopia: we are in a no-place, but a no-place that is also here on Earth rather than projected as existing out there among the stars. It is an explicitly unattainable fictional land, and the Doctor a part of it - right down to wearing silly Atlantean priestly robes. Doctor Who has taken a step into its own fictional universe and left the real world behind it: a huge step, really. From here onward it’s a straight line to The Mind Robber, Carnival of Monsters, and, eventually, “we’re all stories in the end”.

You can read my take on the third episode here.

Other things:
Polly still gets a pretty rough deal (tied up, on the operating table) but I’m going to complain about that less from now on since it’s sadly true of most of her stories.
Love the “naughty child caught” face the Doctor pulls after cutting the power to the lights - and then his little gambit with the test tube.
Zaroff’s scientific tinkering “appeals to all that is base in our people”, claims Ramo the priest. The story could do a bit more on the divide between science v. religion in Atlantean society, but I suppose it is pretty packed already.
“Zaroff wants to raise Atlantis…but in little pieces.”
The prison break is woefully badly planned, isn’t it?

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