March 16: The Underwater Menace Episodes 3 & 4

So episode 3 of The Underwater Menace is one of those episodes that the BBC always retained, which means that for the longest time this was the main impression people had of this story.  Out of the context of the rest of the serial, episode 3 is a weird affair, with bizarre moments interspersed with the children's television version of melodrama.  In context it's still a strange episode, but at least it makes a little more sense following on from episode 2.

The Fish People listen to Sean and Jacko's exhortation to go on
strike. (The Underwater Menace Episode 3) ©BBC
Actually, for the first few minutes this is still quite good, as Zaroff enters and orders that the Doctor and Ramo be killed.  There's a sense of real tension, and a lovely moment as Thous, having been told by the Doctor that Zaroff's eyes have an insane light when he talks about raising Atlantis, looks intently into Zaroff's eyes: "What are you staring at?" Zaroff demands.  "Nothing at all," Thous replies, but you can tell he's worried.

But once the Doctor announces his intention to kidnap Professor Zaroff, the episode goes to pot.  There's a ludicrous chase through an Atlantean bazaar as the Doctor runs around half-disguised to try and lure Zaroff away so they can kidnap him, which ends in the Doctor blowing some sort of powder through his recorder into Zaroff's face.  Meanwhile Sean and Jacko, two of the miners that Ben and Jamie befriended, convince the Fish People to go on strike, thus providing more chaos in Atlantis as the food supplies run out.  The Fish People are actually a rather good design (although the different "stages" of Fish People are a little odd, as some appear to be wearing diving masks rather than having fish eyes), but then we're treated to a long sequence of Fish People floating through the water, accompanied by a soundtrack that seems to presage the more experimental scores of the early '70s.  Again, it's actually quite an impressive-looking sequence (and allegedly was so expensive to film that it's the reason why episode 3 was never junked) -- it just has nothing to do with the ongoing storyline.

Underwater Menace
Episode 3) ©BBC
But then Zaroff escapes by faking a heart attack and decides to take over Atlantis completely, shooting down Thous in his throne room.  This then leads to one of the most famous lines in Doctor Who fandom, as an exultant Zaroff shouts, "Nothing in the world can stop me now!!!"32  (The reprise of this line in episode 4 is a little less over-the-top.)  One does wonder if Zaroff is feeling all right, given that all he's done is escape from the Doctor's friends and shot Atlantis's beloved leader, but I guess the rush of adrenaline from his fight with Jamie has gone to his head.

Episode 4 is back to the soundtrack and telesnaps, which is a shame since it seems like, after episode 3's efforts to mark time in as outrageous a way as possible, this is concerned with actually wrapping up the storyline.  One does wonder about the Doctor's plan to destroy Atlantis by letting the sea in as a means of stopping Zaroff, which seems a bit like overkill, but desperate times and all that, I suppose.   Even this doesn't seem to slow down Zaroff though, and it's only a bit of trickery from the Doctor and Ben that prevents him from getting to the controls to detonate the explosion that will end the world.  He's still trying until the very end, when he drowns from all the water rushing into Atlantis.  The Doctor, to his credit, does actually try to go back and save Zaroff, but Ben won't let him on account of the rapidly-rising sea.  And thus the world is saved.

Make no mistake: The Underwater Menace is frequently silly and has little in the way of nuance or subtlety.  But because it made it clear from the onset that it was going to be a cheesy old-style film serial, I find that I don't mind it as much as The Highlanders.  That too ended up being a silly and unthreatening romp, but it looked like it might become something more serious; there are no such illusions about The Underwater Menace.  It's set in a stagey-looking Atlantis because that's how these things go, and Zaroff wants to destroy the world simply because he's a mad scientist, with no further explanations necessary.  But crucially, it manages to be entertaining throughout; Jamie is settling in naturally, Ben and Polly are giving fun performances, and the Doctor is becoming the figure we're familiar with from later stories -- and even his awful disguise in episode 3 feels more "right" than the disguises he wore in The Highlanders.  It shouldn't be taken too seriously, and I'm not sure you'd ever want another story like this again, but in its own decidedly B-movie way The Underwater Menace succeeds.

32 Personal anecdote time: when I first started dating my now-wife, I changed the start-up sound on her computer to this line, so every time she turned on her computer Joseph Furst yelled triumphantly at her.