The Underwater Menace: Episode Four
It’s probably not too surprising that Thous survives being shot, as Zaroff wasn’t exactly taking careful aim.
Ben: He doesn’t look too good, though.
The Doctor: Neither would you, with a bullet in you.
Episode Four, even though it suffers as most of the season so far does from being action-orientated and missing from the archives, works well as a fast-moving mini-disaster movie told over 25 minutes.
One which is initiated by the Doctor, another in a run of extreme measures the new incarnation has enacted in order to resolve what he considers to be a greater threat. This Doctor has no qualms about making fairly brutal utilitarian decisions (using Bragen’s guards as Dalek fodder, arming highlanders) and his decision to flood (the lower levels of) Atlantis is ostensibly to prevent the destruction of the world. About Time points out the loss of life this probably causes, but far more worrying is the nuclear catastrophe he’s most likely set off. Wouldn’t he have been better to brandish a gun and attempt to blow Zaroff’s brains out?
Jacko: Yes, but the people here.
The Doctor: Well, they’ll have to be warned and moved to a higher level. That’s your job and Sean’s. 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?
All very well to make light of it, but causing a meltdown is as extreme as it gets. On the other hand, splitting the atom seems to have properties in the Doctor Who universe very different to the ones of the real world; just ask Bob Baker and Dave Martin. It’s difficult to see that Sean and Jacko had much time to inform everyone, and it’s clear later that people have been injured and not everyone made it to higher levels.
There are precious few Fish People in this episode, adding to feeling that they were shoehorned into the script. Their strike has been surprisingly effective though (protest does work!) with workers deserting their stations and Zaroff increasingly frustrated (“Blast! Blast! Blast!”). Later he confirms that the Doctor’s tampering with the reactor has “worked”.
Zaroff: That’s all we need now. A radiation leak! Where the devil is it coming from?
On this subject, the radiation causes a wall to glow and crumble. At least, that’s what Polly tells an uncomprehending Jamie it is.
The instigator of this radioactive carnage is given an amusing sequence where he and Ben gain access to the generator section. This is a good episode for Ben, which serves to draw attention to Jamie being very much a late addition to the script. Ben impersonates a guard, with the Doctor as his prisoner, protesting that he’s in a hurry and doesn’t have the password.
Guard: How do I know he’s a wanted man?
Ben: Blimey, look at him. He ain’t normal, is he?
Guard: Yes, I see what you mean.
The Doctor: You don’t know the password either.
Guard: Hah, it’s “Oscar” …. Get him out of here!
It’s a lovely bit of comic interplay that they then bump into another guard and Ben fires off the password.
The Doctor: Well done, Ben, very well done! I’m not quite sure about that “not being normal” bit, but very well done! I couldn’t have done it better myself!
Ben asks the Doctor if he knows what he’s doing in adjusting the controls and he replies “Of course I don’t. There’s no rule against trying, is there!” This may just be bluff, of course (as this Doctor is so good at), but he’s certainly not taken fully into account the consequences of his actions (as with The Power of the Daleks, he doesn’t hang around to help the survivors – maybe because they’ll all succumb to radiation poisoning in a matter of weeks).
It’s certainly evident that a fair bit of money went on the flooding sequences in this episode, with the idol toppling over in the temple and later Zaroff’s lab.
Damon joins Sean, Jacko and Thous in an escape to higher ground, while Polly and Jamie get a filler plotline of trying to escape the rising waters. Unfortunately, Polly continues to be completely useless, moaning that she can’t go on until Jamie persuades her. There’s some attempt to write a “safe” solution for the survivors but it doesn’t really wash. Thous is told that lower city has already been flooded.
Thous: The great enemy, which we held at bay for so many centuries. The everlasting nightmare. Here at last.
Damon: Rescue parties have been organised. All passageways have been blocked, except the main shaft. We’re keeping that open until last to give the stragglers a chance.
The Doctor makes short work of persuading Zaroff’s scientists (acolytes?) to abandon ship (“They must be devoted to you to allow you to blow them all to pieces!”) and has a nice line in sarcasm when greeted with disbelief at the news of the sea breaking through.
The Doctor: Then perhaps the distant roaring we can hear is just the goddess Amdo with indigestion?
Then we reach the showdown with Zaroff, as he locks himself behind a grill with his controls (he will press the plunger when the dial of the needle is over 1000). It’s unclear if Ben actually intended to leave the Doctor and had second thoughts, or if it was a ruse to catch Zaroff off-guard. It plays well not knowing for sure (after all, Ben’s been a fairly vocal critic of his new persona), and the Doctor gets Zaroff to raise the grill by putting the lights out (a back-up kicks in when he does so), giving Ben a chance to nip in and re-close it, then rolling out again and trapping Zaroff on the outside (this all rather emphasises that flooding the city is a touch of excessive).
Notably, the Doctor doesn’t want to leave the professor to drown, and Ben pulls him away. The survivors think the Doctor has perished.
Thous: We’ll raise a stone to him in the temple.
Damon: No. No more temples. It was temples and priests and superstition that made us follow Zaroff in the first place.
Nice of Damon to confirm what the moral of the tale was, although thanks to Furst the emblazoned message is “Don’t trust scientists, they’ll be the end of you”. Which might go for the Doctor too. Damon comments that the temple will be buried forever, but they will have enough to build a new Atlantis, “without gods, and without Fish People”. Aw, poor Fish People. No remedy for them. I suppose they can outswim the fall-out, at least. Implicit in this statement is a rejection of both religion and science, so I wonder where that leaves the society.
On the shore, a dejected Jamie and Polly reunite with the Doctor and Ben while Jack and Sean (“A flaming English police box!”) are just in time to see them off. Polly looks rather cute in the Doctor’s hat (its last appearance?) while Jamie gets the first sign of being written from Hines’ chemistry with the rest of the cast.
Ben: Phwarr, Jamie. You don’t half whiff of fish.
Jamie: Och, you want to take a wee whiff of yourself, Benjamin. You’re not exactly a bonny bunch of heather.
We also learn that he feels safe in the TARDIS, it’s only the “wee things outside that are, well, alarming”. It’s another cliffhanger end of story, with the Doctor attempting to prove to his disbelieving companions that he can control the TARDIS when he wants to (“I know! Let’s go to Mars!”) but instead he renders it out of control (“It’s all your fault!”)
An exciting finale that largely eschews the more comedic elements of earlier episodes. The big question is; did the Doctor bang the final nail in Atlantis coffin, and did he actually need to take such drastic measures?
Overall: Definitely not in the same class as the two stories preceding it, this is nevertheless very watchable (listenable). Its reputation as a disaster is probably a mixture of the reaction to it from those who worked on it, the rotten costume design, the foregrounded comedic elements (I can’t see anyone who rates the story doing so purely on dramatic grounds) and a script that doesn’t have much interest in coherence (scientific, dramatic or character).
It also raises further questions regarding the lengths Trout’s Doctor is willing to go to in favour of resolving the situations he comes across. One might suggest this is a continuance of the anarchic streak differentiating him from his predecessor, or lay it at the door of lazy script editing that is more interested in “big bang” conclusions than thinking through the moral minefield such choices may create for the character.
(Episode rating is the same as for the overall story.)