The Underwater Menace

Written by:
Geoffrey Orme
Directed by: Julia Smith
Starring: Patrick Troughton
Year: 1967
Video Availability (Episode Three Only): Try Amazon
Audio Availability: Not Released

I once had a debate with one of the book authors as to whether the Troughton era streamlined the interests of the programme. I love The Mighty Trout, and pound-for-pound it's arguably the strongest run in the series' history - top three definitely - but there's a feeling that it often eschewed creative freedom in favour of playing it safe. "For Heavens' sake!" said the author (he was a bit a rude like that) "there's a high percentage of Troughton stories that don't fit the typical 'base under siege' mould -" and then went on to list them. Other than the odd experiment, like The Mind Robber or The Enemy of the World, all of them came from his first season. I tried to explain that this proved the point, that stories outside of the normal scope of the series were actually phased out during the 1966-1969 run, but he just ignored the point and carried on waffling about "disregarding a percentage". He was a bit thick like that, too, you see.

So this is Troughton's first season - we get satire (The Macra Terror), morally grey aliens whom the Doctor reasons with (The Faceless Ones), an historical (The Highlanders) and a campy, oddball story (The Underwater Menace). After this we got some very good television, but the spontaneity of it was gone in favour of formula.

However, on the strength of The Underwater Menace you can't really blame the production team for discarding such "out there" fancies, as it's crap. Too silly to even be enjoyed as a laugh-in (Such as The Creature from the Pit or The Horns of Nimon) it contains an energy and pace but also, unfortunately, complete stupidity.

An oddity is Who's very first gay joke, something at odds with my earlier assertion that it occurred twenty-three years later in Survival. The Doctor remarks that cavemen might inhabit their landing spot, so Ben tells Jamie that with his kilt they might "mistake you for a bird". A joke about male rape in Who? Surely not.
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The missing episode with the most material remaining, thanks to overseas censors taking out Polly's operation scenes. This gives us 20 seconds of material compared to 14s from episode one or episode four's three seconds of Zaroff drowning. As for the episode, it's more of the same, with Orme's underwritten, slightly patronising dialogue and indulgent silliness. I hate to have a shallow, reactionary attitude towards Who but, while quite a nice idea logically worked out, having Polly being fitted with gills to turn her into a fish is just so daft it's not even worthy of mention. Not dramatic and not funny, the pace has also slowed, the void being filled by repetition of exposition and kid-friendly science lessons. Really quite feeble.
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Was Joseph Furst not giving Troughton his proper cues or something? You could drive a bus through the gaps in their conversations, almost as if they'd been recorded separately and edited together. How must grown men have felt wearing such ridiculous, kiddie panto costumes and spouting such idiotic dialogue? It's very easy to take these stories at face value, but remember that most of these actors probably had kids back home - how did they keep their dignity in front of their children knowing they'd made fools of themselves on national television for the sake of a few pounds? Surely even selling yourself as a rent boy would be more dignified than appearing in The Underwater Menace?

Visually this is bizarre - the Doctor dressed up as a beatnik, people dressed up as fish (including a 1'45m "dance of the fish people" that has to be seen to be believed), an "Irish" aid and Zaroff's famous line, "I don't think there's anything in the Earth that can halt me" or something. It's almost a requirement for every review to mention it, so I've tried to avoid it. Except for the fact that he never does say "ze" instead of "the", it's just a stupid imperialistic myth that fans love to repeat. What does surprise is Troughton's disguise, as it's easy to forget that this was once intended as one of his primary characteristics.

I admit it, though - this one episode, if not the whole story, has won me over. Furst's overacting (which isn't that over the top, particularly in context) and the fish people dance, complete with Dudley Simpson's extraordinary music, give this one a kitsch appeal. Would the rest of the story fare as well if it were found?
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Whoops, I've run out of stuff to say. Largely because I'd stopped paying attention, and largely because there's little to talk about in a story so light on subtext or even general content. For all the silliness that gets quoted about this story, there's an awful lot of slack in there too, with tinfoil fish people just decoration for the formulaic "corridors and megalomaniac" story. There's talk of slavery, but it's so underdeveloped I can't seriously believe Orme intended any social commentary, and it all ends with a silly "scream in the Tardis" cliffhanger.
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The worst story of Troughton's first two years, it's often tempting to reclaim stories like this as campy, postmodern fun. However, don't be fooled by The Underwater Menace, which is really just infantile and stupid.
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