Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...
Day 152: The Underwater Menace, Episode One
Ah, The Underwater Menace. It’s not got the best reputation in Doctor Who history, has it? In the Doctor Who Magazine ‘Mighty 200’ poll in 2009, it came in at #194, just seven from the bottom of the list. Only The Space Pirates is below it from the 1960s, and The Highlanders came in almost 50 places above it! You’ll forgive me if I tip-toe cautiously into this one…
My concern was pretty short-lived, though - because this first episode is really good! We haven’t had TARDIS crew this story is the largest that we’ve had since Ian and Barbara left in The Chase (yes, yes, we technically had Dodo, Polly, and Ben in The War Machines, but Dodo didn’t do a lot, and the others weren’t abducted until the very end), and there’s a real feel of those early episodes present here.
The first ten minutes of the story feature the Doctor doing some experiments on various rock pools to try and establish where - and when - they’ve landed, while the companions excitedly scramble off to explore. It feels reminiscent of anything from Marco Polo, with Susan’s excitement at finding a giant footprint in the snow, to The Chase, with Vicki and Ian tearing off over the sand dunes like giddy teenagers.
And this foursome are all gelling brilliantly together! Right from the early TARDIS scene, where we hear their thoughts about what they’d like to see next (though I only know it’s their thoughts because I’m sure I’ve read it somewhere - the audio makes it seem like they’re just saying things at random. Prehistoric monsters!). The whole opening, with just the four of them carrying the story is great: it feels like such a long time since we’ve had anything quite like that.
As standard, the introduction of a new companion is used as a chance to reintroduce the series for viewers Who might need a top-up. It’s all done rather in brief here, with the main emphasis being that they can go anywhere and everywhere in the TARDIS, and the Doctor comments ‘that’s the fun!’. Troughton’s Doctor is still winning me over somewhat effortlessly, and he’s as fantastic here as I’ve come to expect. There’s a wonderful moment where he saves a slave girl from a spear and absentmindedly apologises, with a wink to her. It’s such a simple scene, but it really made me smile.
He’s perhaps at his best though, when speaking to Professor Zaroff. The professor’s reputation - much like The Underwater Menace as a whole - isn’t a great one. I fail to see why though, as he’s brilliant here. My favourite moment could be when he muses that he could feed the Doctor to his pet octopus (‘yes?’). I think I’ll be saying that more often when people annoy me. On a related note, does anyone know where I can get a pet octopus? He’s nicely set up in this opening episode as being a great scientist, Who was reported dead about twenty years ago. In reality, he’s relocated himself to this unusual civilisation under the sea - Atlantis.
We also get our first introduction to the fish people, Who are one of the defining images from this story. Now, I’m listening to this episode on audio (with the knowledge of how they look), so I can imagine them swimming around nicely in their farms. There’s a very real chance that it didn’t look that slick on screen. They’re often mocked for their design, and while it’s true that we’ve had better in the series, there’s nothing all that wrong with it, I don’t think.
On the whole, I think I’m just full of praise for this episode. There’s a lot more in my notes that I haven’t even mentioned here (From Polly working out what the date could be based upon the Olympics… Speaking several languages, as Jamie chimes in with Gaelic… The intonation Troughton uses when he describes something as being ‘impossible’, which is almost perfectly copied by Matt Smith when describing Clara in a recent episode… The cliffhanger putting a companion in a kind of danger we’ve not really seen in the show before…), but the gist of it is that I’ve really enjoyed this one.
I think it helps that I’ve come to it from a story that just didn’t click with me. Sometimes simply changing to something different that’s more in tone with what I like in the series is enough to really swing my score around. But now, The Underwater Menace is about to get really fun! We’ve now got two episodes in a row that I can actually watch! With moving pictures and everything! Having come from almost two weeks of solid soundtracks (including one target novel…), actually being able to see moving pictures again fees like something of a miracle…