The Underwater Menace: Episode Three
Episode Three is pretty much 25 minutes of filler, revolving around a kidnap attempt on Zaroff and Sean encouraging the fish people to engage in industrial action. But, laughable (intentional or otherwise) as the plot mechanics may be, this is never dull. Smith keeps the action zipping along. She has limited space at her disposal, but ensures the action scenes are tightly shot and well-edited. This means that, even when the staging isn’t especially convincing (the crowded market square, all thirty feet of it, the fight between Jamie and Zaroff), it’s a million times better executed than any comparable studio action set piece from the Davison era that isn’t directed by Graeme Harper.
Being able to actually watch Episode Three, I’ll defend the Doctor’s ceremonial headdress, but that’s about it costume-wise. They’re absolutely dreadful. Later we’ll see a guard in a bank robber mask wearing a bathing cap, with a shell glued to his chest. Then there are the seaweed skirts (do Atlanteans just like to stink?) and the kids in the market place wearing shells on their foreheads and ears. But, despite this and the evidence of Furst fluffing his lines post-cliffhanger, you can see the effort that has gone into the production elsewhere. Most of which I suspect is down to Julia Smith, fighting against the prevailing air of “Sod this!” elicited from a glance at the script.
It’s difficult to get the measure of Ramo. As I noted in previous episodes, he seems to flip-flop between espousing the beliefs of his people (“The Curse of Amdo be on you”) and recognising the sham of their superstitions. There’s perhaps some intentional mirroring of religious artifice used as a device for control with the same in science. Certainly, the Doctor queries Zaroff’s need for thugs (where do they come from anyway, and what’s the carrot that keeps them loyal? Do they have a submarine to return to civilisation as in Lost?)
Additionally, this is the first time outside of a historical where we have a proper religious presence in a story (I think), so it’s interesting to see how pre-formed the series’ take on such an area would be.
Furst is magnificently OTT throughout. Whatever wonders his voice works, the sight of him only adds to the effect. He seems fully conscious of his cartoonishness, displaying undisguised self-amusement and relish or positioning himself unnaturally as if to emphasise his opinion of his own importance. It doesn’t really matter if he’s just a ham giving a dreadful performance, and there’s no self-reflexivity or send-up involved; he’s consistently as entertaining in this story as Troughton, and that’s no small accolade. That said, there’s far too much humour in the script for this to be a case of “laugh at how awful it turned out” An exchange such as the following has an almost Strangeloveian mockery of uber-villainy.
Zaroff: The man is a fool! Haven’t I sworn to you that Atlantis will rise from the sea? Haven’t I? Haven’t I? What are you staring at? (Thaos is looking at his wide eyes)
Thaos: Nothing. Nothing at all.
Not that I think the story turned out terribly (although I do see the argument), just frequently deliriously unable to martial itself in the face of its own limitations. About Time compares it negatively to The Web Planet as a story that displayed utter contempt for its audience (while The Web Planet was trying, but failing), not caring that we know it isn’t trying. But that’s simply not true; as a production it’s clear that it’s trying much, much, harder than The Web Planet (simply by having a director with a clue about how to shoot it). The script is a different matter but, as mentioned, it’s not enough to dismiss it as “something even five-year-olds will think is rubbish” (most they likely would, but because there are no monsters in it – the closest we get, with the Fish People, feels like a bit of an afterthought anyway). This is a story where the whole reason the plot is deranged is because the mad scientist is MAD; the question would better be how confidently it invites the audience to share in that kind of meta-appreciation (because let’s face it, this is not a Williams era story where the tone is consistent).
A mention for the music, which is a dreadful dirge of parping synths. Dudley Simpson was clearly putting in the practice for his aural assault in The Claws of Axos.
Peter Stephens as Lolem the priest (Cyril in The Celestial Toymaker) is basically Christopher Biggins, so it’s no wonder that Ramo finds him unconvincing. But there Ramo is, flip-flopping again on his beliefs as he and the Doctor await execution.
The Doctor: I’m sorry I got you into this, Ramo.
Ramo: We’ve all got to die sometime, Doctor. If it is the will of Amdo it is inevitable.
The rescue by Ben and Polly (speaking through Amdo’s hollow head statue) is quite neat, but it raises the question of who has been manipulating the followers. Ramo notes “So Amdo was made to trick the rest of us”, but Lolem is just as duped as everyone else that Amdo has eaten the Doctor and Ramo. And when the King is told there’s no suggestion he knows about it. It does further underline that the Atlanteans have been sold a lie and; even though the masters change, the lie continues (Ramo sees through both masters).
At this point, there are two days until Atlantis will be raised (“A very great surprise. Perhaps the greatest ever” comments Zaroff, the funny freak). It’s amusing to see Furst dispensing with any pretence and pleasantries as he labels Lolem an idiot and mocks his religion. Lolem comes back with a zinger.
Lolem: May the wrath of Amdo engulf you.
Zaroff: I’ll take my chance. Get out.
Since that’s exactly what “Amdo” does (and don’t forget the prophecy regarding the Doctor), maybe it’s not time yet to completely dismiss the cult. Lolem repeatedly refers to Troughton as “the little doctor” which is quite apt.
The behaviour of the Doctor reflects that the episode doesn’t really know what to do with itself. He he comes up with two schemes intended to put a spoke in Zaroff’s wheels. Polly asks him what good inciting the Fish People to strike will do and he responds “Fair point, but it’s a start”. One might argue that’s his anarchic spirit coming back into play, or that it’s a comment on unions’ propensity for strike action. Either way, it gives Sean the opportunity for some screen time as he and Jacko (“laughing boy” as Sean calls him) are asked to help.
Sean: It’ll take a great gift of the gab to win over the Fish People, you know.
The Doctor: But you are Irish, aren’t you?
When they reach the Fish People, Sean uses wee bit of psychology to get them onside; he insults them (“A flatfish from Galway would have more guts than you”). The design of the Fish People is just plain shit, particularly when they’re mooning about “swimming” gormlessly on wires to Dudley’s seasick synths.
And do some of the surgeries work better than others? Is that why some Fishfolk wear diving masks and look human? The Fishballet is only a couple of minutes but it is hypnotically ridiculous, like some avant-garde theatre workshop making political comment through the medium of dance.
The other plan, to kidnap Zaroff during a market square set piece, is at times rather incoherent so it helps that Smith makes it energetic. Trout gets to dress up again, this time in shades and a bandana. He wouldn’t look too out of place at Glastonbury Festival but I’m not so sure about Atlantis. Polly wears a shell suit, well top anyway, with seaweed undercarriage. It’s a crap outfit, but she looks even more of a saucy girl than usual in it.
Polly: Look what I’ve got on.
The Doctor: You look splendid.
Polly: Better than you do. Couldn’t you find a better disguise than that?
The Doctor: What’s wrong with it?
Polly: You look like a sailor.
The Doctor: That’s what I’m supposed to be.
He looks more like a gypsy. Ben and Jamie seem to be able to pass themselves off as Zaroff’s guards and there’s an exchange between Ben and the Doctor (“Black hat, baggy trousers and a bow tie?”) where it looks like Troughton and Craze are genuinely corpsing. Smith stages the chase through such a small set quite dynamically, to her credit, and likewise the flourish with which, in the caves, the Doctor turns and blows dust in Zaroff’s face works very well.
Jamie calls it right when he suggests Zaroff’s heart attack is a ruse (the Doctor’s medical skills appear to be absent as he fails to confirm he’s faking it after a quick check of the Professor). Ben, Jamie and the Doctor (they should have said “Polly, you stay here with Ramo so that Zaroff can easily overpower both of you”) decide to visit Zaroff’s lab to make sure he hasn’t activated his nuclear reactor (the Doctor calls his bluff saying that Zaroff would want to be there personally, but he’s obviously not entirely convinced) but end up sitting on the other side of the door for five minutes whilst a temple ceremony progresses.
Which gives Zaroff a chance to stick a spear in Ramo (the impalement occurs off-screen, with the spear quivering in the foreground; it is convincingly nasty so it’s a bit of a disappointment there’s no visible gore on him in the next scene – perhaps he was stabbed in the winky?) Polly’s completely ineffective, whimpering in the corner of the cave or weakly trying to wrestle the Professor. How far has her character fallen in the space of a story? Even worse is her sheer gullibility, but I’ve got to give Zaroff props for his hilarious reason to get up close to Ramo in the first place.
Zaroff: At least help me to stand at your side so I may feel the aura of your goodness.
Polly: I think you should. He does look very ill.
I like the visual gag of the Doctor, Ben and Jamie rising in unison with fish masks in front of their faces, but it’s a fairly barefaced plot device to have them basically wait outside so Zaroff can escape. Jamie rescuing Polly back from him in short order is, in one sense, a relief (I’m not sure the story needs more Polly in peril) but it also further underlines that the episode is going nowhere. Again, Smith stages this material energetically; the fighting is clumsy, but it’s well cut and urgent. Ben and the Doctor have “other fish to fry” (YES!)
Damon’s reaction to the news that the Fish People are striking is almost Pythonesque (“They’re just slaves. What can you expect?”) and the King’s inclination to listen to their demands is shot down by a returning Zaroff. Who then (with a gun) shoots down Thous while his guards shoot the King’s guards. It’s readily apparent that the sound effect is dubbed on (Furst can’t even be arsed to recoil when he “fires”) but the callousness here is as jarring as the spear in Ramo. Which leads to the all-time great cliffhanger “Nothing in the world can stop me now!” (that is how he says it, there’s no “Nuzzink in ze verld”).
Treading water, this episode, but still highly enjoyable. Trout gets to don another disguise, Furst is utterly shameless and Smith keeps things moving along at a fair clip.