Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...
Day 154: The Underwater Menace, Episode Three
Nothing in the world can stop The Underwater Menace, now! I have to admit that I wasn’t looking forward to the episode today. Until relatively recently, it was the only episode to have survived from the story, and the one on which much of the negative feeling towards this tale seemed to stem from.
Obviously, today’s episode is home to the moment that most fans know of for this story - the last line, as Joseph Furst’s Professor Zaroff stands tall, centre frame, and shouts ‘Nothing in the world can stop me now!’ (You have no idea how hard it was not to type that in the more traditional ‘Nuffink in ze vorld can schtop me nao!’. Oh dear, I just have). It’s usually held up as a good example of why we should be beating The Underwater Menace with a stick.
What I’ve never known, though, is the context to that line. It comes seconds after Zaroff has shot dead the leader of Atlantis, and ordered his guards to kill two other men (the gunshots are heard, bot those two deaths are off-screen). It’s the ultimate climax to a scene in which Zaroff finds his work threatened, and reacts by taking control of the entire city - making sure that, actually, nothing in the world can stop him now! Except the Doctor, who he knows to be a threat, and Who he knows is still running around somewhere. Slight drawback, that.
I sort of crept into this episode a little, waiting for something, anything, to come along and ruin it for me. Waiting for that moment when the penny would drop and I’d suddenly realise why everyone thought so little of it. If I’m being honest, I don’t think the swimming fish people really do the story any favours. I was surprised, when we first see them in the water, when they’re swimming at the surface being stirred into a revolt, just how good they looked. Some on the rocks, some bobbing in the water… I thought we were going to get away with it.
But then we have to go underwater. I guess the clue was in the title of the story, really. The first thirty seconds o so of this swimming sequence surprised me. It actually looked quite good. Sort of. It certainly looked better than I thought it was going to. The problem is that this scene then goes on. And on. And then, just to make sure, it goes on a little further! Ultimately, there are just too many chances to see the wires - and too many chances where they’re simply too obvious to ignore.
Overall, that entire sequence with the fish people swimming around comes across looking like some kind of strange European film from the silent era. The bizarre soundtrack doesn’t do it any favours, and nor does the fact that I still don’t really know what was going on in that bit of the episode. I was just hoping it would be over quickly so that we could get back to something else. Anything else!
Thankfully, there’s plenty of other stuff to love about this one. The scene in the market is another example of the story going more than a little strange on us, but it leads to the sequence in which the Doctor and his friends kidnap Zaroff - and that has to be one of the best things the series has done in a long time.
From the Doctor gleefully bouncing through the market, calling out Zaroff’s name, to the chase through the tunnels and that final moment when the Doctor blows powder into the Professor’s face… it’s a great scene, and another chance to really showcase Troughton. To be honest, we’re at the point now where I’m not even going to bother praising the man. Just take it as read that I really love him, ok?
What does surprise me about this story, though, is just how quickly Jamie has taken to this business of travelling in time. Just a couple of episodes ago, he was wondering what he’d gotten himself into - coming from four episodes where he didn’t really feature all that much. Now, he’s happy to just get on with things and do what the script requires of him. It’s a bit strange, and I was hoping that we’d see a bit more easing him into things, possibly with Ben acting as a kind of older brother, teaching him the ropes.
As it is, he feels like he’s simply there to fill the generic ‘companion’ role in the script, going off to do what the Doctor asks of him because someone has to. I’m hoping that it might just be a temporary lack of characterisation for him, and that we might see this addressed a little better in the final part, as we move back towards the TARDIS again.