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Doctor Who The Underwater Menace

Review by Paul Bowler

The Underwater Menace (Fish People)

The TARDIS materialises on an extinct volcanic island, where the Doctor (Patrick Troughton), Polly (Anneke Wills), Ben (Michael Craze), and Jamie (Frazer Hines) are soon captured and taken below the surface of the Earth, where they discover a hidden civilisation and the lost city of Atlantis! In their culture, the Atlanteans worship the goddess Amdo, they also use Fish People – civilians who have been surgically altered to enable them to breath under the sea and farm their plankton-based food source. The crazed scientist Professor Zaroff (Joseph Furst) has convinced everyone that he can raise Atlantis from the sea, but he also secretly plans to drain the ocean into the Earth’s molten core, where the extreme superheated steam subsequently generated by his cataclysmic scheme will cause the entire world to explode!

The TARDIS crew meet two shipwreck survivors, Sean (P.G. Stephens) and Jacko (Paul Anil), and they get the fish people to revolt and stop working, but can the Doctor find a way to foil Zaroff’s mad plot in time?

The Underwater Menace is the 1967 four-part adventure from Season Four of the classic series, Directed by Julia Smith, it was also the third story to feature Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, together with Anneke Wills as Polly, Michael Craze as Ben Jackson, and Frazer Hines as Jamie as the Doctor’s travelling companions. The last known prints of this story – all save Episode 3 – were destroyed in 1974, but in 2011 the news broke that Episode 2 has been returned to the BBC by a private collector (Terry Burnett), and preparations commenced to release the Under Water Menace on DVD in early 2013. Sadly the Doctor’s old enemy of cancellation struck again – due to a number of circumstances – and the stories release on DVD didn’t take place. But, with fan pressure building, together with a petition of 2,761 signatures, BBC Worldwide eventually reversed its decision and The Underwater Menace is now finally available on DVD, with a wealth of extra features, documentaries, and commentaries to bring the Doctor Who DVD classic range to a close in fine style.

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The opening TARDIS scene is a wonderful moment, where we hear Polly, Ben, and the Doctor “thinking” about where they would like to arrive next – done by prerecording the actors’ voices and playing them back while making the episode. Patrick Troughton, in only his third adventure as the Doctor, is still finding his way in the lead role, some of the early eccentricities of his incarnation, particularly the 2nd Doctor’s initial trait for disguises and hats (He’s also the first to wear Ray Bans too!) feature prominently during this story, he also intriguingly sings himself as “Dr W” on the note he sends to Zaroff, but overall Troughton’s performance is still excellent. Ben and Jamie don’t initially get a great lot to do in this story; perhaps as a result of it having being rewritten because of the last minute inclusion of new companion Jamie who joined the TARDIS crew at the end of The Highlanders (1966-7), and Frazer Hines proves a great addition to the cast as Jamie. Michael Craze and Frazer Hines do have some good scenes, Anneke Wills is also good as Polly, but its a great shame that Polly is reduced to just screaming, crying, and whimpering for much of the story though.

The Underwater Menace was a story originally rejected for Season Four, but then eventually made as an emergency measure because its replacement – The Imps by William Emms – fell though. Geoffrey Orme’s scripts do feel a little cluttered at times, which is probably why the Doctor’s companions don’t get that well served by the story, but he does give the characters in his scripts some fun lines of dialogue. The Underwater Menace had some good location scenes filmed in Winspit on the Dorset coast for the opening and closing scenes of the story, the music by Dudley Simpson is quite effective, the costumes by Sandra Reid, Juanita Waterson, and make up by Gillian Games are also good, and Jack Robinson’s sets are fairly impressive in scale given the budget.

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However, it’s the crazily over-the-top performance of the Austrian born film and TV actor Joseph Furst as Professor Zaroff, that really makes The Underwater Menace so memorable – and Zaroff even has a pet octopus! Zaroff’s madcap scheme is totally bonkers, the Doctor tentatively asks him at one point why he wants to blow up the world, to which the maniac replies: “The achievement my dear Doctor. The destruction of the world! The scientist’s dream of supreme power!” As bizarre as it sounds, Furst’s performance is pitched perfectly, and it’s insanely hilarious as well. The only problem is having such a maniacal pantomime villain causes the stories underlying themes of science vs. religion to be completely overshadowed by Zaroff’s hackneyed dialogue, and even the Doctor’s plan to defeat Zaroff – by flooding the lower levels of Atlantis – seems just as equally OTT when compared to the threat he’s trying to vanquish.

The Fish People are a peculiar monster to say the least. Doctor Who has always done body horror very effectively, the Fish People are civilians that have been operated on to enable them to breath underwater, and the whole idea of people being transformed into one of them is actually quite unsettling. As we see when Polly is taken to the lab where Damon (Colin Jeavons) menacingly approaches her with a syringe to begin her “operation”, and we pan over to a monitor where one of the Fish People slowly drifts into view on the screen. Fortunately, Ara (Catherine Howe) is around to warn the Doctor and help Polly escape. In many ways the Fish People are a tragically horrific creation; their humanity has been stripped away, leaving them condemned to a life of complete servitude. While not the most memorable or exciting monster to ever appear in Doctor Who, the Fish People are relatively well realised on screen, especially considering the shoestring budget, and their strange underwater “ballet” in Episode 3 is quite haunting – if a little superfluous.

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The Underwater Menace also features Colin Jeavons, who is excellent – if somewhat underused – in the role of Damon, Tom Watson appears as Ramo, who has always instinctively mistrusted Professor Zaroff, and King Thous is played by Noel Johnson, also well known as the voice of Dick Barton in the famous radio serial Dick Barton: Special Agent, and he would later play Grover the Season 11 story Invasion of the Dinosaurs.

Of course, it is Episode 2, the oldest surviving episode from Patrick Troughton’s era of Doctor Who that is the star attraction of this release, and what a delight it is to finally enjoy this episode in all its glory on DVD! Nothing, absolutely nothing, can beat the great thrill of seeing a long-lost episode of Doctor Who. The Underwater Menace might not be one of the best adventures from Season Four, but to actually watch Episode 2 at last on DVD is a truly magical moment to savour and enjoy, it’s actually a really good episode as well, and it provides us with the opportunity to form a more rounded impression of the story as a whole.

“Nothing in the world can stop me now!” or you for that matter, enjoying the wealth of extras on this DVD release. Unlike previous incomplete classic Doctor Who releases, The Underwater Menace doesn’t use animation techniques to recreate its missing episodes. Instead Episode 1 and 4 are represented by telesnap montages; together with the restored audio soundtrack, to give us a fair approximation of what these episodes might’ve been like. These reconstructions have been handled by producer John Kelly, a contributor to the Doctor Who DVD’s since 2001, he also used a similar method for the recreation of The Web of Fear Episode 3 for its DVD release in 2014, and his work on The Underwater Menace reconstructed episodes makes them seem every bit as good as if they’d been animated. It is little disappointing there’s no full opening titles or credits for these partial reconstructions of Episodes 1 and 4, as it does spoil the effect somewhat, but at least the brief surviving footage from those episodes – censored clips which were edited out for broadcast in Australia – are still included as part of the extra features on the DVD.

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There are two specially made documentaries as well. A Fishy Tale offers a delightful look back at the making of The Underwater Menace, narrated by Peter Davison, it features actors Frazer Hines, Anneke Wills, and Catherine Howe, assistant floor manager Gareth Gwenlan, production assistant Berry Butler, and Dalek (2005) writer Robert Shearman. The Television Centre of the Universe Part 2 – nostalgically looks back at the studios where Doctor Who was made, and features Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, Mark Strickson, with Sue Hedden (AFM), Jane Ashford (Production Assistant), Alec Wheal (Senior Camera Operator), former Blue Peter producer Richard Marson, Bob Richardson (Exhibitions Assistant), and Simon Anthony (VT Engineer), and is presented by Yvette Fielding.

The audio commentaries are another big highlight of this DVD release: the commentary for Episode 1 features Patrick Troughton’s son Michael, Episodes 2 and 3 are covered by Anneke Wills, Frazer Hines, and Catherine Howe (ARA), Floor Assistant Quentin Mann and Special Sounds Supervisor Brian Hodgson, there’s also a superb archive commentary track featuring the late actor Patrick Troughton on Episode 4, which also features directors Julia Smith and Hugh David, and producer Innes Lloyd. The commentaries are all presented and moderated by Toby Hadoke. These commentaries make The Underwater Menace DVD seem even more special, and they are busting with wonderful anecdotes and nostalgic stories about the series.

The Doctor finally defeats Zaroff, but only after the sea walls have to be broken down and the city flooded. Zaroff drowns in the flood, but everyone else manages to escape. The Doctor, Polly, Ben, and Jamie are reunited on the surface and return to the TARDIS. Later, when Jamie asks the Doctor if its true that he cannot really control the TARDIS, the Doctor says he can, he’s just never wanted to, and as the Doctor attempts to prove it by choosing their next destination – the planet Mars – the TARDIS suddenly goes out of control…

Although its clichéd plot makes it one of the weaker stories from the 2nd Doctor’s era, The Underwater Menace is still a fascinating glimpse into the transitional period of Doctor Who in the 60’s following the change of lead actor from William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, there are glimmers of the greatness to come, and you can see how Troughton is beginning to refine his performance during his early scenes with Furst’s Professor Zaroff – by gradually toning down the 2nd Doctor’s eccentricities. If anything, the unashamedly low-budget B-Movie feel actually feels entirely appropriate for this story. Indeed, while it might be one of the most madcap Doctor Who stories ever made – the whole scene were the Doctor and his companions suspended over a shark pit is unashamedly ludicrous – there’s still a lot to enjoy here, Patrick Troughton, Anneke Wills, Michael Craze, and Frazer Hines make a terrific TARDIS team, it’s wonderful to see Episode 2 at long last, and the great extra features make it a worthy addition to the DVD range.

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Seeing how no more incomplete classic stories are planned for release, The Underwater Menace will indeed bring the Classic Doctor Who DVD range to an end. Although there are still other partially existing stories such as The Crusaders (1965) and The Wheel in Space (1968), it seems doubtful they will get individual releases – especially as their surviving episodes are already available on the Lost In Time DVD (2004). Still, it would have been nice to have seen them released in some form individually; perhaps if The Underwater Menace sells well, maybe those final incomplete stories could get released as well one day?

Well, every surviving Classic Doctor Who episode known to exist has been released, and now we reach the final end… The Underwater Menace has got its well deserved place in our DVD collections at last! With its great cast, the inclusion Episode 2, along with a host of extra features to enjoy, The Underwater Menace concludes the excellent Doctor Who Classic Series DVD range – which itself has become a benchmark in terms of restoration, picture quality, and excellent special features – on a far happier note than we might otherwise have had without it, and we are left with a legacy of classic adventures that we can all enjoy forevermore.