Written by Geoffrey Orme
Directed by Julia Smith
The TARDIS arrives on an island and discover, in a series of underwater caves, the lost city of Atlantis. But they also discover the lost scientist Zaroff, who has a plan for raising the city above sea-level that would have dire consequences for the planet Earth.
“Perhaps your goddess Ando has indigestion.”
What a wonderful story! Yes, I said it. I rather enjoyed The Underwater Menace, in spite of general fan opinion. I listened to episodes 1, 2, and 4, and watched episode 3 with my wife. She only joined me for episode 3, preferring to watch stories that were written for the screen rather than listen to them. She was quite taken by the sets, costumes, and the choreography of the fish-people, things that fandom generally dismiss as hokey. In truth, they didn’t match what I saw in my head when I listened to the show, but early Doctor Who has always had this problem. In truth, I think they did well with what they had, and it was watching the episode that made me truly appreciate the story.
There was so much imagination put into the script. Forget whether you think the visuals were a failure or not. The basic concept of the story is that the sinking of Atlantis didn’t completely destroy the civilization and that they continued to exist in underwater caverns. The society continued. Occasionally people would end up at Atlantis through shipwrecks or other accidents, and these outsiders would be made into slaves or genetically altered into fish-people. Meanwhile, a brilliant scientist has helped Atlantean society develop and continue to survive. He was proclaimed as the savior of Atlantis by the order of priests, and is thus venerated by the Atlanteans. He has a plan for raising the island again, but it will shake apart the Earth if he does it. This is a great idea for a story. It is very imaginative and truly gives us something new and unique. Based on that alone, I love this story.
It isn’t perfect, however. Professor Zaroff is a mad scientist, and never has this term been more appropriate. His plan for raising Atlantis would involve draining the oceans, so not technically raising the island but lowering the Earth’s water level. To achieve this, he is drilling to the Earth’s core, into which he will drain the waters. This would create large amounts of steam and, having no place to vent the gas, would cause violent earthquakes that would shake the Earth to pieces. Thus, he “raises” Atlantis and completely destroys the world and Atlantis with it. Zaroff knows this will happen and is fine with it because it is the ultimate expression of scientific power: the ability to destroy the world. He is a madman on the level of Davros. In truth, I have a lot of difficulty believing Zaroff. I had trouble believing he would be so excited about the destruction of the world. I could believe it if he didn’t recognize the consequences, or was in denial about them, but the very fact that he is insane makes him less believable as a character. For me, Zaroff is the weak point of the story, not due to his accent or performance, but due to the character’s motivation.
I think the TARDIS is definitely crowded at this point. We are still getting acquainted with the new Doctor, Jamie is now out of his normal time-period, and we still need things for Ben and Polly to do. There are quite a few regulars, and only four episodes to tell the story and flesh out Zaroff and introduce supporting characters such as Ramo (a priest) and the escaped workers Sean and Jacko. It often seems to me that the more companions you have, the more parts the story needs to give them each something to do. Two companions needs a minimum of four parts. Three companions seems to need six. Of course, these are just personal rules of thumb developed from observation. Obviously, there are exceptions. The Underwater Menace, from a story perspective, doesn’t need more than it has, but I think the nuance of the characters get lost in the shuffle. This story does pretty much zoom along, moving from scene to scene frantically, leaving little room for much character development. Granted, part of the character convolution was due to the last-minute addition of Jamie as a companion. The entire script had to be re-worked for this new character. But these are the realities of television. Sometimes it still amazes me that we get anything as good as this.
In the end, the imagination behind the story covers a multitude of sins in The Underwater Menace. It is a lot of fun and it makes you imagine what else might be lurking below the ocean or below the surface of our planet. . . .