March 15: The Underwater Menace Episodes 1 & 2

There's a scene early in the first episode of The Underwater Menace where, after the Doctor announces that the TARDIS is landing, we get a peek into each of the four main characters' thoughts via voiceover: Jamie doesn't know what he's gotten himself into, Polly wants it to be Chelsea 1966, Ben hopes it isn't the Daleks, while the Doctor, with childlike glee, is looking forward to prehistoric monsters.  It's very different from the style of the show so far, and then you realize: this is a comic strip adventure that they actually filmed.

It's not just comics influencing this story though; as the story progresses it becomes clear that, as guides like The Discontinuity Guide and About Time 2 have pointed out, this is the Doctor Who equivalent of a '30s adventure serial like Flash Gordon or (more pertinently, given that it, like The Underwater Menace, takes place in the sunken ruins of Atlantis) Undersea Kingdom.  The dangers the TARDIS crew encounters in episode 1 (such as passing out from the increased pressure -- the Doctor calls it "caisson disease", but that's actually decompression sickness, the opposite effect) feel like the cliffhangers of an old-style serial.  It's particularly hard not to make the comparison when our heroes are being slowly tilted into a well as a sacrifice to the fish goddess Amdo, and only the Doctor's note to a mad scientist (which he signs "Dr W" -- fortunately this is the last time this occurs) saves them from sacrificial death by shark.  And then we see the Fish People, and...well, we'll talk more about them tomorrow, when episode 3 comes around.  This episode ends with Polly being prepped to be turned into one of these Fish People, which is actually quite horrific in general but particularly so given the style this story has adopted (and we know this because it survives as a censor clip) -- watching Polly cry out and struggle in desperation while two white-coated assistants hold her down is quite disturbing.

Episode 2 of The Underwater Menace was, until October 2013, one of the most recent recoveries, having been returned in 2011.31  This means that The Underwater Menace is now 50% complete, and thus a ripe candidate for animating the missing two episodes.  The downside is that there have been delays with the animation (and the current word is that it won't be completed at all), which means that episode 2 still isn't available commercially.  However, an unrestored copy (with the censor clips inserted back in) is available online, so that's what I've ended up watching -- the first time I've ever seen this episode.

The Doctor demonstrates to Ramo how Zaroff intends to
destroy the world. (The Underwater Menace Episode 2) ©BBC
I have to admit, it certainly makes a difference being able to actually see what's going on.  Episode 1 seemed like an old school film serial, but this is a more sedate affair.  Once Polly escapes from the operating theatre (thanks to a power cut orchestrated by the Doctor), the focus is less on jeopardy here and more on exploration, both of the plot and Atlantis itself.  But being able to see the mad gleam in Professor Zaroff's eyes as he cheerfully admits to the Doctor that he fully intends to destroy the world ("Why?  You, a scientist, ask me why?  The achievement, my dear Doctor!  The destruction of the world.  The scientist's dream of supreme power!") is wonderful, as is the chance to finally see Troughton in action (this is, after all, his earliest surviving episode).  Troughton (or the script) has reined in some of the worst excesses, with this version of the Doctor somewhat less interested in trouble for trouble's sake, as he was in The Highlanders -- and the ability to see his mind working through the implications of events is also a previously unknown delight.  And it's Jamie's first story as a companion, but this episode gives him some fine material, as he works with Ben to escape from the mines they've been sent to work in.  As I said before, it's a fairly workman-like episode, as it's more concerned with setting up the plot and subplots than anything else, but fortunately it does so in an entertaining way.

31 Along with "Air Lock" (Galaxy 4 episode 3).  Honestly, pay attention.