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You’re not turning me into a fish!

Television

Doctor Who
The Underwater Menace: Episode One

 

A much-maligned story, and one look at the design of the Fish People – in particular their water ballet – seems to confirm that its lowly reputation is justified. The premise, too, is seemingly brazenly pulp sci-fi, so it really requires the viewer to be on board with its absurdity to get the most out of it.

TUM was originally intended to be the second Trout story, swapped around because Hugh David didn’t fancy directing. He thought it couldn’t be realised convincingly (astute man) and it fell to Julia Smith to take up the reins. She, by all accounts, had a wretched time directing it, both in terms of the logistics involved and in dealing with a cast who made no secret of their contempt for the story and for her approach. Apparently, it went £2,200 over budget (a couple of hundred being the most that would generally occur), so we’re not dealing with a cheap and cheerful little number that might occur with a Graham Williams era clunker.

It would be difficult to make an argument for an underlying serious intent behind the script; it betrays a haphazard mash-up of elements that you might expect from a Saturday matinee serial. There’s some tension between the crazed scientific principles of Zaroff and the superstitious devotion of the Amdo worshippers, but the identification a message underpinning this seems more of an afterthought (at the end of Episode Four) than a driving force.

Indeed, the overt insanity of Zaroff, THE mad scientist, seems almost metatextual. It’s not just Joseph Furst’s marvellously cracked performance that telegraphs this, it’s all over his dialogue and (anti-) motivation like an (his) octopus. Apparently, in the original script he wants to destroy the world following the death of his wife in a car crash. Which is rather anti-climactic motivation; much better that we have the Bond villain-on-steroids desire to go through with it for “the achievement”.

The Doctor: Prehistoric monsters!

Episode One, as with other introductory stories this season (The Smugglers and The Power of the Daleks), gives us a fair bit of time with the crew and their new recruit.  I’m not too struck with Ben’s cockernee overkill. Too often what is designed to be endearing chirpiness translates as gratingly broad. Jamie’s called “my old haggis”, while later he observes to Polly “you speak foreign. Go and talk to him. Ask him where we are”.

The voicing of the thoughts of the crew as they speculate where they may be is the kind of experimentation of form that the series wouldn’t dabble in much beyond this story.

PollyPlease, let it be Chelsea 1966.
BenI hope it’s the Daleks. I don’t think.
The DoctorPrehistoric monsters!
JamieWhat have I come upon?

Why Polly is now the one who wants to get back home (since it’s been consistently Ben harping on) is probably an indication of how the ball is being dropped character-wise. Certainly, this is where we really start to identify her as a screamer. Trout’s childlike expectation of what they might encounter is delightful.

The exploration of the coast line sees the companions head off without the Doctor, although they all end up together and captured deep beneath the ground soon enough. We see the first use in the series of Winspit Quarry in Dorset (later used in Destiny of the Daleks and Blake’s 7). Given the lack of subtlety of the rest of the story, the exploring section is quite open to any adventure/ tone.

The DoctorTroglodytes.
BenWhat?
The DoctorAncient tribes from North Africa who lived in caves. Possibly, possibly. Where’s me diary?
BenCavemen? Jamie, you better watch it. With that kilt someone might mistake you for a bird.
JamieWhat?

With this and The Highlanders there’s a playfulness with gender roles that would have been inconceivable during the Hartnell era.

Polly realising the date based on a coin commemorating the Mexico Olympics is a nice leisurely way of giving her an upper hand, and this kind of topicality was still relatively unusual for the series. Setting stories several years in the future tends to see the period they were made in become a great leveller (the UNIT era) in retrospect; TUM becomes loosely a present-day story in terms of how we see Troughton’s era. At least it doesn’t – ahem – run with the Olympics reference like the shitty Fear Her. With regard to Polly “speaking foreign”, it’s one of those occasions where drawing attention to the issue only highlights the question of why no one has asked this before (as in The Masque of Mandragora).

Given the reliance on physical performance in this episode, it might have been more rewarding to have this returned to the archive than Episode Two. The Doctor gets in the way of a guard who is about to chastise Ara (canny, as she proves to be a useful ally), then tucking into Zaroff’s plankton.

The DoctorDelicious! This is excellent! This is ambrosia! Sit down! Sit down!
BenWhat’s got into him?
PollyI don’t know. I’ve never seen him go for food like this before. It’s usually hats.

I’m not sure that the legitimacy of the prophecy concerning the TARDIS crew is ever questioned, but there are certainly some inconsistencies in the presentation of Ramo. In the next episode he refers to the priest as superstitious, but he’s happy to go along with sacrificing the crew to Amdo here.

RamoThe living goddess Amdo sees and hears all.
The DoctorAnd she had a message about us? For you?
RamoYes. She told us you would fall from the sky in time for our festival of the vernal equinox.

He also gives the Doctor “five minutes to make his point” which is a very modern phrasing. Sloppy scripting or a result of hanging out with Zaroff?

The Doctor’s extensive (omniscient?) knowledge has been evident so far this season both in his encounters with Cybermen and Daleks, and he is quick to identify Zaroff as the plankton propagator (I suppose not too many scientists are interested in that field, so they stand out).  He sends Ara with a message for Zaroff while the crew are trussed up to fall down a well as sacrifices. This is a pacy episode, wasting no time in throwing the companions into danger and revealing the main supporting cast.

Vital secret will die with me. Dr W.

More playfulness with the “Who” of the series’ title. With The War Machines, von Wer and now this, the series isn’t exactly leaping through the Fourth Wall, but it’s far more willing to nudge up against its own boundaries and artifice. It will pull back from that as the season progresses, but it’s an appealing take while it lasts.

Furst’s entrance as Zaroff’s is as OTT as he will be throughout, his mangled English proving a delight (“I do not interfere with your sacrifice but I must first speak with that man”). His backstory is slightly impenetrable (he was believed dead, and the world believed he had been kidnapped with the East and West blaming each other). Trout’s admission that he had no secret is trumped by Zaroff completely not giving a toss; you’ve got to love him.

The DoctorNow, here you are, the greatest scientific genius since Leonardo, under the sea. You must have a fantastic story to tell.
ZaroffPerhaps I tell you some day. If you will live long enough to hear. Now this vital secret. What is it?
The Doctor:  I haven’t got one!
ZaroffHow dare you!
The DoctorBut I’m sure a great man like you wouldn’t want a modern scientific brain like mine to be sacrificed to a heathen idol.
ZaroffYou know I could have you torn to bits by my guards, yes?
The DoctorYes.
ZaroffI could feed you to my pet octopus, yes?
The DoctorYes.
ZaroffBut you have sense of humour. I too have sense of humour! I need men like you! (Laughter from both) You come with me, aye?
The DoctorI come with you.

That sense of humour is probably the last word in getting the most out of this story. We get a location on Atlantis (left of Gibraltar, south of the Azores, the Atlantic Ridge) which doesn’t fit with The Time Monster (clearly this is just one part of the vast submerged continent…) and learn that the professor has promised to lift Atlantis out of the sea, a “sugar-coated pill” ensuring that he is accepted by the Atlanteans despite their antithetical attitude to his scientific principles.

With Ben and Jamie sent to the mines, Polly seems quite okay with the genetic modification of workers until she’s told she will go under the knife. Colin Jeavons (Lestrade in the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes), equipped with massively bushy eyebrows like all the male Atlanteans (the designer was just taking the piss with this and the Fish People), does good work as Damon (a bit Peter Miles).

PollyIt’s breath-taking. Sorry, that wasn’t supposed to be a pun.
DamonSome people get most upset when they find they’re going to have the operation.
PollyYou’re not turning me into a fish!

The climax involving Polly, about to be stuck with a great hypodermic, exists as censor footage. It’s a reasonable cliffhanger, I suppose; I certainly don’t want to see – or smell – a fishy Polly.

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