Tuesday, 13 September 2016

032. The Underwater Menace by Geoffrey Orme: Episode 3 (28 January 1967)

There’s a six-year-long reason why the Brits and Americans have so many German and Austrian villains in films of the 1950s and 1960s, and sometimes it is quite healthy to make genuine points out of that: it really can feel like scaremongering, blaming things on the foreigners, all that sort of claptrap. Here, though, with Joseph Furst playing Zaroff in his natural Austrian accent, you get the sense they thought it was as much about making sure the villain had a funny accent as anything else. Because, yes, it’s here where he really starts to go bananas, where even King Thous starts to notice the megalomaniac gleam in his eyes; where he chuckles to himself over “the greatest surprise ever” and thinks that the population might as well pray because “it will keep [them] happy”; where he even starts talking about himself in the third person. And, of course, Episode Three gives us the immortal cliff-hanger: “NUFFINK IN ZE WORLD CAN SHTOP ME NOW!” which really has to be seen to be believed (the way he keeps gazing in the distance as the credits start to roll makes it). Fundamentally, of course, Zaroff is a Bond movie villain - that’s what his paper-thin motive (he wants to blow up Atlantis - which is where he lives - without an escape plan - because why not), and his evil lair underneath a volcanic island, and his foreign accent all quite clearly signify. But a proclamation that dramatic is practically a pantomimic subversion of the Bond genre; at the same time, it’s so wilfully OTT it quivers between hilarious and downright scary.

Anneke Wills observes in “A Fishy Tale”, a DVD documentary extra on The Underwater Menace, that Patrick Troughton was “a great mystic…[who] loved mystical things”, but that he was deeply disappointed in this, his third story, because he considered it a bit of a dog’s dinner and that he really didn’t need that at this early juncture, before he had the character properly pinned down. Most of the cast seemed pretty down on it as well, with the general view being that Orme had written something far too ambitious for the BBC to possibly attempt. Robert Shearman (always worth a listen) makes the observation that Orme was trying out lots of different styles to see what stuck: espionage thriller, prehistoric religious themes, ridiculously silly farce, odd balletic sequences, bits of tragedy… “As Doctor Who is in a state of flux, so will my story be,” Shearman imagines Orme as saying. And weirdly, he just about gets away with it. Atlantis does, in fact, have a long history of occultism, mysticism and theosophy, which will rear its head far more in the mythical island’s next appearance in the show (The Time Monster in 1973). Here, though, its presentation is…well, what exactly? It’s never quite explained how sailors from as far flung as Ireland and India got down here, although at least it makes the cast a bit more diverse. Seaweed skirts and conch shells, odd religious rituals and altarpieces, shark-tanks, cramped-looking marketplaces, a vast farm for harvesting seaweed, laboratories and operating tables and genetic experiments… the advanced science, religious underpinnings and primitive quasi-feudal monarchy make for a very odd mix, and as above you feel as though Orme has meshed several things together to give us this weird hybrid society. 

For me, Episode Three pushes the story as far as it has yet been pushed in the direction of the weird, explicitly aiming for bizarre, unsettling imagery a la The Web Planet. There’s the sight of bare-chested Atlanteans - adults and children - clad in fish-masks and entering a chamber of flickering torchlight, chanting all the time. There’s a ritual execution being halted by the voice of a goddess pouring fourth from a huge idol. There’s the Doctor in a ridiculous disguise again (betraying the episode’s early placement in his tenure), infiltrating an Atlantean market, and the hilarious moment where he, Ben and Jamie disguise themselves with fish-masks. And then there’s the pièce de résistance: the quite surreal “ballet” the Fish People perform underwater, all to very odd organ music. It’s quite well done - you can’t see many wires - but it’s frankly one of the strangest bits of television you will ever see: those sequin masks; the odd choreography; the entire premise of it. You sure as hell don’t feel like you’re in Kansas anymore: the show is going out of its way to put you out of your comfort zone.

As Shearman says, “Is it entertaining? Just about, if you hold on tight, and don't resist where it takes you.”

You can read my take on the fourth episode here.

Other things:
Gosh, I didn’t know Catherine Howe (Ara) was only 16 when this was made! Amazing. She’s very good too.
Troughton gets a great standoff with Zaroff here: “So you’re just a little man after all, Doctor, like all the rest. You disappoint me.”/“You disappoint me, Professor. I didn’t think a man of science needed the backing of thugs.” He’s pretty gung-ho here, too, determined to “attack Zaroff” and stop his scheme in a way that prefigures his determination to set his face against “the most terrible evil” in the following story.
The bit where Lomel the High Priest thinks Amdo has “eaten up her victims” (and they simply walked out scot free while everyone was bowing down to the floor) is profoundly daft. But quite funny.
I also like that Lomel keeps talking about “the little Doctor” - it makes me think of McCoy as well as Troughton: the diminutive figure who causes mischief.
“We’ll have a go, Doctor, but it’ll take a great gift of the gab to win over the Fish People.”/“But you are Irish, aren’t you?”
I do like the Doctor’s naff disguise - those sunglasses once again offer echoes of future Doctors. And the Doctor makes a good gypsy: again a rather anarchic and mischievous little disguise. But the plan to “kidnap” Zaroff makes absolutely no sense at all - lots of pointless disguises and implausibly good luck. And the Fish People take about 5 seconds to be convinced to go on strike.
Famously, this story was much liked by playwright Joe Orton because he was quite a fan of Jamie and Ben in their tight leather wetsuits; he even said as much in his diary.
Nice to see the recorder used as a weapon: very Doctorish.
Crap dialogue: “At least help me stand at your side so I may feel the aura of your goodness!” And Polly is taken in! Tut tut. In fact, why is the priest even taken in? I thought he’d stopped believing in his goddess? Most of the fight sequences in this episode stink, too: why does Polly hitting Zaroff with a massive boulder not knock him out?

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