The Underwater Menace

Posted in Episode by - September 26, 2016
The Underwater Menace

Aired 14 January – 4 February 1967

With the surprising recovery and return of episode two in 2011 to the BBC video archives to sit alongside episode three, ‘The Underwater Menace’ completed the classic range of Doctor Who DVD releases in 2016 with the earliest existing footage of Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor, the remaining two missing episodes presented as telesnap reconstructions. Unfortunately, with its extravagant Atlantean setting that could never have adequately been realized with a BBC budget, lack of characterization, and ridiculous villain Zaroff, this is sadly less a celebration of the best of the classic range and more a showcase of tumultuous road to production and of an absurd whimsy only occasionally explored, a case of ambition trumping practicality.

‘The Underwater Menace’ is Patrick Troughton’s third story, and yet there is distinct shift in how he portrays the character within the confines of these events, shifting from a more manic and comic interpretation to one much more in line with the shrewder and more calculating Doctor he would make so popular and famous. There is the argument that Joseph Furst’s unbelievably cheesy performance as Zaroff provided the impetus for this tactical shift, but seeing Troughton actively adapt his performance to one much better suited for the long run rather than to escalate his own manic energy to match his enemy’s is fascinating to watch.

On the surface, it seems as though Zaroff’s plan is to help the Atlanteans raise their city from the depths of the sea. However, he truthfully plans to drain the planet’s oceans into its core, destroying the planet and everything on it. While his motivations are never adequately explained, his tendency to shout and to repeatedly proclaim his own brilliance devolve the character into a parody of the very worst of villainous stereotypes. There is simply no depth or backstory to this character to make him relatable in any way, and his clichéd lines keep him a two-dimensional character from beginning to end.

Unfortunately, Zaroff is simply the most extreme example of a walking cliché, but the production is full of them. The Atlanteans and the miners alike also suffer from a lack of development, Catherine Howe’s servant girl Ara the only redeeming character in all of Atlantis. Even the companions are not immune to flat characterization, though at least they carry the likability and weight of their previous performances as context. Polly and Ben both get a few key moments, though Polly is more reduced to the damsel in distress role for a significant portion of the story, but the script was not written for three companions. With Jamie’s last-minute addition at the end of the previous serial, his inclusion in ‘The Underwater Menace’ means that he either says lines originally intended for Ben or else repeats Ben as necessary for emphasis. At least his acclimatization to the TARDIS is handled quite well at the beginning.

With sloppy dialogue, tense buildup with no real payoff, and a lot of running around with fake identities and bluffs, ‘The Underwater Menace’ tries to be a big-budget action adventure but fails to deliver on almost every level. There was a tremendously difficult road to production for this serial, and unfortunately that translated to a tumultuous and uneven result on screen. There is some atmospheric music and Troughton’s mid-story transformation into the more familiar Second Doctor is fascinating, but otherwise ‘The Underwater Menace’ is certainly not a highlight of the classic era, a shallow story with a clichéd villain leading a largely unrounded cast.

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