Tuesday, 13 September 2016

032. The Underwater Menace by Geoffrey Orme: Episode 4 (4 February 1967)

You can read my take on the third episode here.

In my review of Episode Three I compared the sheer strangeness of this story’s visuals to The Web Planet, to its Zarbi and Menoptera and Vaseline-smeared camera lenses; of course, where the two stories differ is that this one only has 4 episodes instead of 6, and as such doesn’t spend anywhere near as long revelling in the sheer oddness of its imagery. This means that there isn’t quite the same protracted basking in the weird that you get in the former story, as Orme also has to juggle exciting/suspenseful race-against-time-to-stop-the-Bond-villain shenanigans, and the two aesthetics are rather at odds. The action-packed finale to this story actually works rather well, mind, given that the political power struggle - which is mostly rather daft - is laid to one side, and the characters have to focus on the unstoppable and imminent destruction of Atlantis. It helps that Julia Smith makes the most out of this “apocalypse” tone and sells it with some rather good visuals, being sure to keep up the pace. The sets (as I’ve said before) are rather nice - right down to the little hieroglyphic figures on the walls - and shots such as seawater pouring through the eye of the huge idol to flood the ancient temple feel rather Indiana Jones before Indiana Jones was even a glimmer in Steven Spielberg’s mind.

And, weirdly, after all this B-movie shlock, Orme manages to inject into the fall of the noble civilisation of Atlantis a certain tragic quality. It’s not overstated, sure, but it’s there: Damon mourning the loss of his laboratory and his “life’s work, washed away”, Thous lamenting the fate of the High Priest Lolem and intoning, “the great enemy, which we held at bay for so many centuries, the ever-lasting nightmare is here at last” - Orme almost gets close to selling this world for a moment, for rendering it a place of poetic imagination at least that is harmonious and coherent within itself. You get this little glimpse of a beautiful, ancient civilisation, and though Orme doesn’t succeed at doing it the rest of the time, these glimpses are tantalising. And even if Damon’s moral is a tad trite, there’s something interesting about “no more temples. It was temples and priests and superstition that made us all follow Zaroff in the first place…” - as though religion was to blame for the science-caused disaster which engulfed them. I can see both sides of the argument, but it’s an unexpectedly complex one for such a pulpy story.

Even Zaroff’s ultimate fate in the waves fits this rubric; I couldn’t in all honesty call it properly moving, but it gets halfway there, which is a damn sight better than simply comically inept. And in facing down Zaroff - and in expressing a certain regret over his demise - this incarnation of the Doctor gets his first equal and opposite force to tussle with, an early echo of the Master; all too often Troughton goes up against lumbering monsters or irritatingly stupid base commanders, rather than with another human figure who’s as electric a screen presence as he is. Zaroff isn’t the Doctor’s equal but he’s closer than some others get.

Somehow, The Underwater Menace is both amazing and crap at the same time. But it’s not normally dull: it’s so mad that, for the most part, it entertains. Try it.

Other things:
“Ben and I will try and get into the generating station…we’ll turn up the power on the reactor, break down the sea walls, and flood the laboratory! There’s only one thing that’s worrying me: can we all swim?”
Ben’s brilliant response to a guard asking whether or not the Doctor is a wanted man: “Well, blimey, look at him; he ain’t normal, is he?” (The Doctor, later: “Not very sure about that not being normal bit, but very well done, couldn’t have done better myself!”)
Polly: “Radiation, it’s - oh, well, it’s too difficult to explain!”
“To raise Atlantis from the sea was the dream of a madman after all.” You don’t say!
“Zaroff, I think you ought to know that the sea has broken through and is about to overwhelm us here.”/“Don’t listen to him! The man lies!”/“Then perhaps the distant roaring we can hear is just the goddess Amdo with indigestion!”
Why on Earth does Zaroff have a metal grille/castle trellis in the middle of his laboratory? Why on Atlantis, even?
Especially after the hoo-hah over Bragen’s guards in The Power of the Daleks, it’s interesting to see the Doctor here as the one who wants to save Zaroff’s bacon and Ben as the one who pragmatically insists they have to flee. Slowly, Troughton’s Doctor is becoming more compassionate, less unknowable.
One key negative is Polly breaks out into full-on Whining Female Companion here, with little regard for the way - as Anneke Wills relates - the other writers portrayed her as a cool 60s chick. Here she comes off very poorly indeed.
“We will build a new Atlantis, without Gods…and without Fish People.” I cracked up.
“Right! Off we go into the wild blue yonder!” - from the official song of the US Air Force.
Jamie on the TARDIS and his new life: “It’s great. All this! I’ll never know what makes it go, mind ye, but at least I feel safe in here. It’s only the wee things outside that are alarming.” And the cosy TARDIS scene between the crew at the end, followed by a charming lead-in to The Moonbase, is the icing on the cake.

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