The Underwater Menace ★★★

The Tardis team encounter Fish People and mad Professor Zaroff on Atlantis in this camp misfire

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Season 4 – Story 32

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“You’re not turning me into a fish!” – Polly

Storyline
The Doctor, Polly, Ben and newcomer Jamie arrive on a volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Deep below the surface they discover the lost civilisation of Atlantis, whose inhabitants worship the goddess Amdo. They’ve been transforming shipwrecked mariners into Fish People, a slave force that supplies them with fresh seafood. Under the guidance of Professor Zaroff – a scientific genius from 20th-century Europe – the Atlanteans believe their city can once again rise from the sea, but the Doctor realises the professor is insane and that his plan will destroy the world…

First transmissions
Episode 1 – Saturday 14 January 1967
Episode 2 – Saturday 21 January 1967
Episode 3 – Saturday 28 January 1967
Episode 4 – Saturday 4 February 1967

Production
Location filming: December 1966 at Winspit quarry, Worth Matravers, Dorset
Filming: December 1966 at Ealing Studios
Studio recording: January 1967 in Riverside 1

Cast
Doctor Who – Patrick Troughton
Polly – Anneke Wills
Ben Jackson – Michael Craze
Jamie McCrimmon – Frazer Hines
Professor Zaroff – Joseph Furst
Thous – Noel Johnson
Damon – Colin Jeavons
Ara – Catherine Howe
Ramo – Tom Watson
Lolem – Peter Stephens
Sean – PG Stephens
Jacko – Paul Anil
Nola – Roma Woodnutt
Damon’s assistant – Gerald Taylor
Overseer – Graham Ashley
Zaroff’s guard – Tony Handy

Crew
Writer – Geoffrey Orme
Incidental music – Dudley Simpson
Designer – Jack Robinson
Story editor – Gerry Davis
Producer – Innes Lloyd
Director – Julia Smith

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern (revised in 2012)
The Underwater Menace has always been held in low esteem, even by those who worked on it – and deservedly so. It’s clearly one of the weakest outings for Patrick Troughton’s Doctor. The narrative sloshes around in B-movie shallows and the production is shoddy. Yet there are still morsels to enjoy in this peculiar little adventure. If you sift through the bilge, you may even find one or two pearls…

Luscious Anneke Wills restrained on a bed, whimpering while a surgeon with bushy eyebrows (Colin Jeavons) advances with a syringe, determined to turn her into a fish… Fit duo Michael Craze and Frazer Hines cavorting around in tight wetsuits… Temple acolytes wearing seaweed-and-shell garments, conch hats and fish masks… An effete high priest prancing about baring his blubber-gut… Or, the pièce de résistance, a mittel-European madman sneering at the Doctor, “So you’re just a little man after all, like all the rest. You disappoint me” (Ooh, err)…

Indeed, if you have any appreciation at all for High or Low Camp, then this is the story for you. It’s far camper than anything put out by later producers John Nathan-Turner or Russell T Davies. So put your flippers up, flush your gills and gurgle.

The serial is awash with bizarre notions. For starters, “raising” Atlantis by draining the ocean – why don’t the locals simply ascend to the island above? The ludicrous Fish People – are they a new species? Or is it just the cheapo “half-Fish People” who are the result of Damon’s experiments? And why are the Atlanteans solely dependent on plankton? Go fishing!

Strangest of all is Professor Zaroff, the series’ first properly “insane” villain. Scenery-chewing Austrian actor Joseph Furst clearly relishes a glut of OTT lines: “I could feed you to my pet octopus” and the immortal “Nothing in the world can stop me now!”

Geoffrey Orme’s script was, if not a hot potato, perhaps a soggy biscuit. Story editor Gerry Davis had rejected it once, but it went into production when another commission collapsed. Back in the 1980s I interviewed the two directors involved (for Doctor Who Magazine). Hugh David: “You couldn’t take a tiny tank at Ealing and pretend you were in the middle of the Atlantic indefinitely. So I told Innes [Lloyd] I couldn’t do it.” So the baton was handed to Julia Smith: “All the underwater sequences were a problem,” she said, “but we got by with trickery.” And despite being unpopular with the regular cast, Smith managed a fair job.

After a run of serials using old scores, library tracks or no music at all, maestro Dudley Simpson was rehired. He delivered a fabulous score – reverberating chant for the Temple of Amdo and, in his first collaboration with the Radiophonic Workshop, synthesised organ music. The track underscoring the Fish People’s revolt (a risible “underwater ballet”) in part three is wildly inappropriate but utterly wonderful.

Recovered in 2011 by RT’s Ralph Montagu, part two is in fact Troughton’s earliest surviving episode. That’s 12 weeks into his run. Shameful! It’s like first being able to view Christopher Eccleston in Bad Wolf or Matt Smith in The Pandorica Opens. By this stage the outré second Doctor is bedding down, although he does still dress up and lark about. His three cute-as-buttons companions, however, are poorly served. Ben’s role is shared with Jamie (a late addition to the cast) and Polly, so resourceful in The Highlanders, suddenly becomes a bleating nit.

Tellingly, the two best scenes in the whole serial – the top and tail in the Tardis – were written by Gerry Davis. Here the regulars shine. First, Jamie is formally introduced to the wonders of time travel and viewers hear the foursome’s private thoughts. Then, at the end, the youngsters tease the Doctor about his piloting skills – and all hell breaks loose. “I’m very sorry everybody but the Tardis is out of control!” Variations on this mayhem, echoing the new Doctor’s erratic persona, would recur throughout his tenure. And, of course, there would be far superior adventures ahead.

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Radio Times archive material

A small introductory feature introducing the Fish People. By this stage in its production Doctor Who was going into the recording studio a week before transmission and after RT went to press, so RT could usually only send a photographer to earlier filming dates on location or at Ealing Studios.

RT billings
Episode 1
Episode 2
Episode 3
Episode 4

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Annekedote
“Patrick was mean to Julia Smith. He didn’t love her. He made her life a misery by being argumentative. He could do that. And I had the line, ‘You’re not turning me into a fish!’ I love it. I haven’t seen the episode they found last year yet but that’s the first time we see what Pat was doing with the character, how he was playing with the part. That’s the earliest version we have.” (Talking to RT, March 2012)

Anneke Wills 2012

RT’s Patrick Mulkern interviews Anneke Wills

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[Episodes 2 and 3 available on DVD. Complete soundtrack available on BBC Audio CD]