I used to regularly write reviews for the ciao.co.uk shopping comparison website and earn some pin money, but sadly the company has now folded. A shame because for a period there was a good community of writers there. It definitely helped me practise and hone the craft of review writing, since earning were dependent on good feedback. Over the next few months I am going to republish my favourite of the articles I wrote. Hope you enjoy them.
I’ll confess I had slightly mixed feelings receiving this DVD from the BBC Shop. For this is the end, the last remaining unreleased Twentieth Century story of Doctor Who and the end of over fifteen years of DVD releases. Of course there’s always the happy possibility of more discoveries of lost episodes in foreign countries*, and the current television series will carry on releasing box sets until we’ve started streaming everything in the world. So until then, we can finally re-watch this lost story, the earliest existing one to feature Patrick Troughton as the Doctor. It’s a purest pulp Thirties comic strip adventure featuring Atlantis, a really mad scientist and industrial action from sequined Fish People.
The TARDIS lands on a nameless beach somewhere on Earth. The Doctor, Ben, Polly and new recruit Jamie explore and are soon captured and taken into the bowels of the Earth. Here they excitingly find the lost city of Atlantis, and less excitingly are offered as sacrifices to the sharks swimming in the temple of Amdo. Their execution is halted in the nick of time by Professor Zaroff, “the greatest scientific genius since Leonardo Da Vinci!” according to the Doctor. Soon Ben and Jamie have become slaves in the mines, Polly is scheduled to be transformed into a Fish Person, and the Doctor discovers that Zaroff has gone utterly mad and is about to undertake his greatest ever experiment – the destruction of the whole world!
There really isn’t another Doctor Who story quite like The Underwater Menace and that is the kindest claim I can make for it. These four episodes are branch of science fiction straight out of the Saturday Morning Matinee serials like King of the Rocket Men. Logic is frequently thrown to the winds, and the emphasis is firmly on action, with each cartoonish idea quickly followed by another daring escape. Caves lined with traps, pagan human sacrifice, disguises, a prison escape, Frankenstein-style operations creating half men/ half fish people and a cackling villain in a swirling cape. And I’ve not even reached midway through the story yet. Approached in the right campy mood it can be quite entertaining. There are some hilarious dramatic lines: “You’re not turning ME into a FISH!” “Why do you want to blow up the world? / Why else? For the achievement!” “So you’re just a little man after all. You disappoint me!” Plus one that has entered into fan folklore – Professor Zaroff’s cliffhanger exclamation “Nothing in the world can stop me now!”
In the accompanying documentary, writer Rob Shearman wonders if Geoffrey Orme, the television journeyman writer behind this tale, was trying to fit in every idea he had ever had for a Doctor Who story. There are virtually no layers or deeper meanings to this tale. It is pure hokum that merely asks, “How will our heroes escape?”
This was Troughton’s third story as the Doctor and his persona had not quite settled down yet. He is still being deliberately eccentric, with his large stove pipe hat, wearing zany disguises and acting in a slightly childlike manner in places, such as his scenes with Zaroff in the professor’s laboratory. It is fascinating to watch him still finding his acting feet in the part. Zaroff was played by Joseph Furst, a respected character actor with a successful career in film and television already behind him and much more to come, including the James Bond movie Diamonds are Forever, and historical drama 55 Days in Peking. Faced with such a melodramatic villain, he seems to have decided to go all out, exaggerating his Austrian accent even more and talking fast and bombastically. I don’t blame him because most Zaroff is clearly an egotistical larger than life character in the first place. “Your people? They’re MY people!” he boasts to the King of Atlantis. Colin Jeavons, a thin faced actor best known for playing unsympathetic characters, does however make the most of Damon, a young science acolyte of Zaroff who clearly burns with ambition to succeed him.
The TARDIS was becoming a bit cramped at this stage with three companions. It is even more of a problem in this story because Frazer Hines as Jamie was a late addition to the story, having been cast on the strength of his appearance in the preceding, sadly lost story The Highlanders. Consequently his lines were most borrowed from Ben and Polly, aka Michael Craze and Anneke Wills. The result is that none of the characters are served well, beyond what charm and energy the actors muster themselves. Polly in particular seems to disappear from the story for quite a while, and when she is there, it is mostly to be menaced by others.
The Fish People are some of the show’s least loved monsters. They wear leotards with sequins glued on and tied with strips of cellophane. Some have sequins on their faces and black felt eyes. Others have to make do with swimming goggles. Clearly the BBC wardrobe department tried their best on the low budget, but these creatures inspire neither fear nor pity, resembling something put together by Year Four for a school play, probably with Disney’s song Under the Sea playing tinnily in the background. Their underwater ballet in episode three may be well-realised considering the limitations of the studio, but at the same time it feels more like a pointless pause in the action rather than a blockade.
Due to managerial decisions beyond their control, the BBC’s unofficial Restoration Team have only be allowed to put bare bones telesnap versions of the missing episodes 1 and 4, accompanied by the restored soundtrack from a fan’s recording. This is a shame because it does not do the team’s abilities justice. Telesnaps are photographs taken from a live television broadcast by an enterprising photographer called John Cura back in the 1960’s. He used to offer his services to television directors who wanted a permanent record of their programme in the pre-domestic video era. Compared to the previous telesnap versions which have been enhanced with Photoshop, stills from other sources, and descriptive subtitles for wordless scenes, this basic slideshow only conveys the episodes in the most crude way. I don’t blame anyone who finds the climax hopelessly confusing when all they can hear is bumps, cries and rushing water, set against a couple of grainy images.
Despite the low budget for this final release, the extras are relatively generous. A Fishy Tale is an entertaining Making Of documentary, interesting because this is a fairly obscure story. We learn about its formidable director Julia Smith, who would go on to create produce Eastenders. Doctor Who Fan and author Rob Shearman has some observant points to make and argues his defence for the story well. The Television Centre of the Universe – Part Two continues the documentary begun on the DVD Doctor Who The Visitation – Special Edition. Peter Davison, Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson carry on their tour of the old BBC Television Centre in the company of Yvette (Most Haunted) Fielding. Along the way they meet a few old faces from the production team in the Eighties. There are some good anecdotes about the art of making drama in the old multi-camera environment, a practice now almost extinct as today’s television dramas are made much more like films. However the documentary does teeter on the edge of indulgence and dare I say a certain smugness from the actors? Including an outtake where Yvette Fielding gets her facts wrong much to the others amusement seems unfair too. However the highlight are some rare behind the scenes clips from Davison’s Cyberman story Earthshock.
We see the two brief clips which were cut from the missing episodes 1 and 4 by Australian television censors. Ironically this means they’ve survived whilst the episodes haven’t. In the first Polly is dragged screaming to the operating table, whilst the second shows Zaroff’s fate. There’s a photo gallery, as good as ever. The rest of the extras are contained in the commentary track. The existing episodes have a lively commentary from Anneke Wills, Frazer Hines, Catherine Howe and special sound creator Brian Hodgson, moderated by Toby Hadoke. Episode one has an interview with Patrick Troughton’s son Michael, who has recently published a frank biography of his father, whilst episode four has a montage of archive interview clips from other participants, including Patrick Troughton and director Julia Smith.
For a year or more it looked as though this DVD would never be released. BBC Worldwide apparently felt that there would not be enough fans willing to pay for one unreleased episode. Episode Three having already been included on the Lost in Time DVD set. So I am delighted that the lobbying of fans and Doctor Who Magazine has had an influence. Whilst The Underwater Menace is nowhere near a good story, it is a fascinating window into an era of the programme which is largely lost. It has incidental pleasures in the acting and the restoration team have done an excellent job making the film prints look as good as they can. This is one for the completests, but at least it is now possible to own every existing episode of Doctor Who in one uniform collection.
* Since this review was written BBC Worldwide has released DVD’s of an animated Power of the Daleks, a part-animated Shada and a special edition of Enemy of the World.