If there was ever a comprehensive summation of the disdain the BBC too often displays towards its writers, directors, producers, actors, designers and its audience, it is The Underwater Menace, now finally released on DVD after a lengthy period of prevarication, mixed messages, false hopes and outright denials.
Originally broadcast from 14th January to 4th February 1967, it was only the third story to feature Patrick Troughton as the second incarnation of the Doctor, only eleven weeks after he had inherited the mantle from William Hartnell at the conclusion of The Tenth Planet and also only the second story to feature Frazer Hines as Jamie McCrimmon, though his first as an actual companion aboard the TARDIS.
What makes The Underwater Menace even more significant is that the second episode of the serial is the first to feature Troughton (or Hines) which still exists within the BBC archives with the entirety of his first two serials, The Power of the Daleks and The Highlanders having been wiped during the BBC’s “junking” policy which ran from 1967 to 1978, along with much more from the Hartnell and Troughton era with 97 episodes across twenty six serials considered “lost.”
Until December 2011 episode three had been the only extant recording of The Underwater Menace, but it was the recovery and return of episode two to the archives which made a restored version a viable proposition as audio recordings of the soundtracks made by fans on original broadcast were available, as were telesnaps made by photographer John Cura under an arrangement made with the BBC which was more appreciated by the programme makers than the corporation itself.
Following the pattern set by the releases of The Invasion, The Reign of Terror, The Ice Warriors, The Tenth Planet and The Moonbase, it had been hoped that these telesnaps would provide a visual reference to produce an animated reconstruction of the still missing episodes one and four, but this has not proven to be the case, with instead the crucial establishing and concluding episodes of the DVD being present only as telesnaps.
Given the BBC’s reticence to release the serial at all, publicly stating they regarded classic Doctor Who as a “dead line,” their refusal to fund an animated reconstruction is, if not agreeable to those fans who paid for the original productions via the licence fees down through the decades that the show was aired and then again through purchase of VHS and DVD releases of the show, at least understandable from a financial and commercial consideration for what was likely to be a niche interest product.
What is unforgivable is the utter lack of any attempt to provide linking informational subtitles to supplement the sometimes infrequent dialogue describing the action which is lost between the infrequent photographed stills; also absent are the fascinating production information subtitles which have featured on the majority of the serials released under the 2 Entertain label.
Instead, all that is offered are the standard dialogue subtitles containing such gems as “Polly screams!” in the opening episode. Perhaps the contemporary audience knew why Polly screamed or perhaps it was something seen only by her and concealed from the viewers, but either way they knew whether they knew or not; with a frozen still which may or may not be the lady in question examining a rock, we do not.
Does this make a bad story worse or is it a relief that such a lack of care wasn’t apparent on a better story? Unfortunately, the answer has already been given to fans in the form of the similarly disappointing bare bones release of the otherwise highly regarded Web of Fear, bereft of not even a single special feature though fortunately with only one of the six episodes recreated via telesnaps.
At least The Underwater Menace offers audio commentaries and A Fishy Tale, a documentary livened by the recollections of, among others, the irrepressible Anneke Wills and the twinkly eyed Frazer Hines, both of them as charming, insightful and forthright as has come to be expected as they discuss the production of the serial and their roles as Polly and Jamie.
Despite this being only Hines’ second adventure, and a last minute addition to the lineup having been asked if he wished to join as a companion after he had filmed his farewell scene at the conclusion of The Highlanders which required a rapid reshoot and hasty amendment of the subsequent scripts, both actor and character are already at ease, perhaps a little too much as the Jacobite piper leaps forward from 1746 to a time Polly estimates to be at least 1970.
As good as the amiable Hines is with Troughton and Wills, it is his double act with Michael Craze’s Ben Jackson which is among the highlights of the serial, and if Craze harboured any resentment at being forced to share the limelight with another actor he never shows it. Their next story, The Moonbase, was also a late rewrite with Ben’s dialogue split between the two characters, but here it is Polly who suffers, Wills commenting that she felt writer Geoffrey Orme wasn’t sure how to handle the character she had portrayed as a strong and independent woman, equal to her male companions.
Though The Underwater Menace was Orme’s only contribution to the show, an ambitious concept which challenged the capabilities of the production, it was directed by Julia Smith, later co-creator of EastEnders, who had previously worked with Hartnell, Wills and Craze on the first story of the season, The Smugglers (also regrettably lost in its entirety), the actors speak of her with great warmth and respect though cautioning she was not someone to trifle with.
Materialising on a volcanic island, the travellers are captured and taken deep underground to the submerged city of Atlantis (the first of three stories to touch on that mythical location, as confirmed by Kate Stewart in The Magician’s Apprentice, the others being 1971’s The Dæmons and 1972’s The Time Monster), led by the ineffectual King Thous (Noel Johnson, who had portrayed Dick Barton and Dan Dare on radio and would return to the show in 1974’s Invasion of the Dinosaurs as the villainous Sir Charles Grover).
Within the city are the worshippers of the god Amdo led by High Priest Lolem (Peter Stephens) and the scientist who claims he can raise Atlantis above the waves, the sinister Professor Zaroff (Joseph Fürst, whose “red file” in A Magnum for Schneider was the first assignment for Edward Woodward in the television play which would launch him as Callan; though Fürst was interviewed before his death for a reconstruction of The Underwater Menace, this material has not been included).
Presaging a comment that would be made by Lord Lew Grade thirteen years later on the release of Raise the Titanic! that it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic, Zaroff’s plan does indeed involve lowering the ocean by cracking the crust with a nuclear blast and siphoning the water into hollows in the interior of the Earth, a plan the Doctor immediately decries as dangerously foolish.
With a plot and characterisation straight out of Thunderbirds, Zaroff is unusual in that he makes no bones about the fact that he is a mad scientist determined to destroy the planet as his masterwork, and the story encompasses an attempt to turn Polly into a fish person by surgically implanting plastic gills, a slave revolt, the threat of human sacrifice to the demanding gods and the line “I could feed you to my pet octopus,” and while it treads the line of ridiculous too frequently it is actually considerably better than its reputation would suggest.
While Wills mentions Troughton’s initial excitement at the story proposal (“Patrick loved to do anything with mystical things”), the final product was not to the satisfaction of any of the team (“it was a bit of a dog”), particularly the leading man who felt it would undermine his credibility in a role he had only recently inherited and in which he still felt insecure, though his performance throughout is hugely enjoyable, and that the show survived and thrived following a fundamental change which could have ended it entirely is an enduring testament to him.
Despite the perceived failings of the script and the limitations of the budget, both Wills and Hines specifically praise what the production did achieve, she commenting on the brilliant design and he on the fish people sequences which, unconvincing costumes aside, have no visible wires keeping them afloat, and the digitally restored episodes two and three demonstrate an excellent picture quality inconsistent with their age, making it all the more disappointing that more effort was not made on the first and fourth.
Also featured though tenuously connected to the story but nonetheless hugely entertaining is The Television Centre of the Universe as fifth Doctor Peter Davison reunites with companions Tegan Jovanka and Vislor Turlough in the forms of Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson, revisiting the studios where they filmed during their tenure of the TARDIS and reminiscing over the adventures onscreen and behind the scenes with an unvarnished candour.