“The Underwater Menace” is very odd. It’s often characterized as a poor story, which I suppose it is in any objective sense. However, I’m rarely objective when it comes to Doctor Who and I find that I’m inclined to be kind to this story for all its faults, and just enjoy the cliches and zaniness.
TUM presents us with an ancient civilization hidden away from the world and ruled by a weak king. The religion is one that, of course, practices human sacrifice since that’s what primitive religions do, right? Naturally our heroes are perfect sacrifice material, and are about to become shark bait when the Doctor’s rather desperate gambit with the real villain of the story, Professor Zaroff, pays off.
Zaroff is nuts. Pure and simple. There’s no real depth to him at all. He’s the classic ‘mad scientist’ who has grand plans for world destruction. Joseph Furst plays him with tremendous energy and enthusiasm, so he’s certainly entertaining as he pursues his mad plan. In the meantime he is engaged in dark experiments that tamper with human physiology. It’s all classic stuff. Hapless Atlanteans are turned into silly looking fish people to collect food for the inhabitants of Atlantis, which seems to be a fate worse than death to judge by Polly’s reaction, though who can blame her? At least it frees the victims from having odd bushy eyebrows like Damon and Thous.
Then there’s the grand plan for world destruction: to drill a hole in the crust of the Earth and let the seawater pour in. Hmmm… I somehow don’t think that would destroy the Earth, and it’s disturbing that both Zaroff and the Doctor believe that it will. Zaroff’s excusable since he’s mad as a hatter, but the Doctor ought to know better… maybe he skipped planetary geology at school. Or maybe the idea is just silly, which undermines the whole story if one has a mind to take it seriously. But then if you’re trying to take Doctor Who seriously you’re probably constantly disappointed anyway. If I go with the flow and ignore the crazy plan that Zaroff has and just pretend that it’s a genuine threat, does the story still work?
Eh… mostly. A lot of it comes down to the regulars and how the main characters fare. I love the combination of the Doctor, Ben, Polly and Jamie. They make up a great TARDIS crew, and it’s worth watching this story just to see them interact with each other and deal with events that are going on around them. It’s pretty obvious that Jamie was added at the last minute, but he does get some good action, and he’s the only one not to fall for Zaroff’s fake heart attack. He and Ben have fun dressed up as Zaroff’s guards, and his confusion in the story’s opening scenes is also fun as he wonders just what he’s gotten himself into. Ben teams up with Sean and Jacko and is instrumental in finding the hidden room behind the statue of Amdo, as well as helping the Doctor get into Zaroff’s lab in part four. Polly of course almost ends up as a fish person, as seen in some of the existing clips from part one and two, but she doesn’t accomplish much more. After a strong showing last story, here’s she’s back to screaming and being somewhat helpless.
The sets and sound design are good, as best I can judge from the soundtrack and the existing episode three. In yet another reason to be kind to this story, part 3 is the earliest existing Troughton episode, and one of only four that exist with the Doctor, Jamie, Ben and Polly combination. The temple set looks outstanding, and the chanting of the Atlantean religious ceremonies sounds great, even if the priest costumes look somewhat lame. The marketplace set looks a bit cramped, but it’s an effective crowd scene.
Is it just me, or does the executioner in part three look like Don Knotts? Barney Fife with a sword?
In short, if you’re looking for deep or serious, avoid “The Underwater Menace”. If you want a fun runaround with a crazy plot, this story might be your cup of tea. It’ll never be among my favorites, but it is certainly a story that I enjoy and thus I’d recommend.