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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Doctor Who: The Underwater Menace

Serial Title: The Underwater Menace
Series: 4
Episodes: 4
Doctor: Patrick Troughton
Companions: Ben Jackson (Michael Craze), Polly Wright (Anneke Wills), Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines)

In the early 1970s, an abandoned volcanic island somewhere in Earth’s Atlantic Ocean gains a new feature- a blue police box materializing on the far shore. The crew soon discovers a sort of hidden elevator, and are whisked away to the legendary lost city of Atlantis, submerged deep below. There, they are nearly sacrifices by High Priest Lolem to the Atlantean god, Amdo, by being fed to a pool of sharks… but they receive a last minute reprieve from the patron of the king, a scientist named Zaroff, a genius long-disappeared from the surface world whom the Doctor convinces that he has great value.

While Polly is sent to be converted into a genetically-altered fish person (the slave labor class of Atlantis) and Ben and Jamie sent off to toil in the mines, the Doctor is let in on Zaroff’s project, and the reason for his favor with the king- his plan to raise Atlantis from the sea… a mad plan involving cracking the Earth’s crust and pouring the ocean into it, creating an incredible steam burst beneath the crust that will split the planet and destroy the world- Zaroff is quite mad, and seeks global destruction simply for the accomplishment of being the first (and only) to achieve it (Note from Sarah: Talk about devoted to his cause, no one would even be alive to acknowledge he's the first, not even him!)- but has convinced the Atlanteans that draining away the ocean is harmless and will put them back on the ‘surface’ again- by bringing the surface to them. Yes, this is incredibly stupid, as the Atlanteans depend on the ocean for their life right now and making it go away is not a solution- but they are apparently very dumb people. (NFS: it's supposed to be poetic...they long so much to be people of the air again that they are stuck deep in self denial-the ocean is symbolic of the depth of their self-denial and how much they depend on it....yeah I was making that all up as I go.)

The horrified Doctor cuts the power, and a sympathetic servant girl, Ara, frees Polly before her operation can begin. Jamie and Ben also gain allies in Atlantis- Sean and Jacko, a pair of sailors shipwrecked on the island above and similarly shanghaied down to Atlantis. They escape the mines and join up with Polly and Ara. Lastly, the Doctor gains his own ally, Ramo, a priest of Amdo that believes Zaroff has sinister intent- the king does not agree, and the two are taken away to be executed in Amdo’s temple- but Ben, hiding within the hollow head of the statue of Amdo, speaks forth as its voice and commands them released. The whole group is together, and the Doctor plots to bring revolution to Atlantis- convincing the Fish People to revolt against their enslavement.

Using disguise and slapstick, the group manages to separate Zaroff and capture him, but he fakes a seizure and gets away- killing Ramo. Zaroff, madder than ever, attacks the king, overthrowing the royal gaurds with his own loyal men. The king survives and is taken to safety by the Doctor, who plans to flood the lower portion of Atlantis to destroy Zaroff’s lab, and the equipment with which he will destroy the world. While Sean and Jacko evacuate the populace to higher levels, The Doctor and Ben begin the flooding; the mad Zaroff tries to detonate his bombs early, but is trapped behind a grate by Ben to prevent his reaching the detonation controls. This also leaves him unable to not drown. With Zaroff dead, and the Atlanteans planning to rebuild, the TARDIS crew departs for dryer environs.

This was an interesting adventure story with an unusual tone… very Saturday morning kids-show. It has a hissable villain, an exotic location, death traps, captures and escapes… and Doctor Who’s first contact with that fable of fables, Atlantis. (Here’s an interesting educational note- did you know that, in Timaeus, the work by Plato in which Atlantis is described, he specifically clarifies it as a story he has created? In the very work Atlantis is sourced from, it clarifies that Atlantis isn’t real. That the myth has persisted doesn’t surprise me- it is, after all, in the hands of the same humans who take the Bible which explicitly states that Jesus is the Son of God and the only way to salvation and says “Well, I believe there was a Jesus, but He was just a good person and teacher.” We humans are experts at taking the piece we like out of a work and ignoring the important statements that clarify its nature within the same work.)

I don’t have much to say about this one, either for the story or for the usual breakdown of characters. Perhaps everything they did was simply overshadowed in my mind by the colorful villain.
So let’s talk about him…
Before Crazy: Notice the 'kempt" hair.
Professor Zaroff was not a particularly layered villain- not exactly 3-dimensional… heck, the only reason that I’d call him 
2-dimensional is that a 
1-dimensional being seems like an impossibility to exist in physical space, and I can’t conceptualize what such a life-form would be like. And I’m nothing if not pedantic about my offhand phrases. (NFS: You used a lot of big cool words in that paragraph)

Regardless, Zaroff does seem mad for madness’ sake, with little-to-no motivation, save for being the only one to accomplish such an incredible achievement (destroying the Earth)… though no one would remember him for it, as they’d all be dead. Besides… wouldn’t raising Atlantis for real be achievement enough? Maybe a desire for that acclaim, and constant failure to attain it, is what drove him to such insanity.  (An early draft of the script apparently had his wife and child killed in a car crash, and the grief driving him to madness... but the Zaroff as presented onscreen lacks even THAT amount of characterization.)

After Crazy: Notice the Unkempt hair and evil cape.
He does seem like an amiable and likable fellow at first, but the decent into insanity is quick and decisive- “Nosing in ze vorld can stop me now!” has become legendary among Who fans as a symbol of insane, cartoonish villains who are evil merely to be evil, and more than a little over-the-top… like a chibi anime Hitler whose head grows to three times as large with fangs when he’s shouting (ah, Japanese animated conventions- they make the 60s look positively sedate!), on caffeine, with a ray gun. Zaroff was (arguably) the first (as other villains, from the Voord to the Monk to the Celestial Toymaker have typically had at least some motivation or driving quirk that caused them to do what they did), and certainly the most memorably, scenery-chewingly over-the-top.

There were some funny bits in this serial. The ‘mini-heist’ capture scene is zany and funny, with kooky costumes and the Doctor’s clowning, and is great fun to watch in video. There’s also a very cool James-Bondian death trap at the beginning, the shark pool- it has a very nice, stylized, lethal design- very SPECTRE. (An organization that will soon become very relevant to the Second Doctor era in the forthcoming Evil of the Daleks serial…)

Hilarious for another reason is the scene of dissent spreading among the fish people, as they ‘swim’ by making flailing motions while hung by wires on an ‘underwater’ set. Okay, so it’s not ‘Zarbi’ bad, but it is bad. (NFS: I remember I was kind of impressed with the designs of the fish people actually, they looked kind of freaky and otherworldly-if they weren't flailing I think they could have been quite successful. As it was I still thought they were impressive.)

The Doctor does make use of a clever gambit to save all of their lives from an admittedly cool looking (in the stills) temple death trap. Ben gets a nice (if cliched) hide-behind-the-idol-and-pretend-to-be-its-voice moment, Polly gets a near-genuine bit of tension at nearly being turned into a fish person, and Jamie is… there? I think? (Of course, as someone not originally planned to be a companion, several of these early stories- up through the Macra Terror- don’t give him much to do, as he had to be shoe-horned into scripts written without him.)

There was some irritating “can’t-you-see-that-coming?” stupidity with Zaroff’s faking of illness and escape, which could be seen coming a mile off… and in the end, he is only defeated by his monumental ego and stupidity at stepping away from the controls. He’s Mavic Chen without the depth, more or less… though the Doctor’s nobly wanting to save him, despite everything, was a nice touch.

The reconstruction quality was decent, but very muddy- the shock of going to actual video and seeing how clear it was (3 out of 4 were reconstructed, while episode 3 was video) was incredible. Another tolerable-but-forgettable reconstruction.

All in all, this was a fun story that felt like it belonged to another show… say, the German Flash Gordon TV series (with ze thick accent, ze villain would haf been right at home, Gorrrr-don! Plus, you’d get Zaroff-meets-Zarkoff…), and, while large parts of it were meaningless meandering, it sure had a memorable foe.

Note: Late-breaking wonderful news! As of just before the posting of this blog (December 11th, 2011), a new episode of this serial has been recovered! Where previously only episode 3 existed for this serial, with the other 3 being reconstructions, episode 2 has now been found as well (supplanting #3 as the earliest surviving Troughton episode)- making this serial half complete! Not only that, this missing episode recovery- the first in 7 years, since a 2004 recovery of a Daleks Master Plan episode- was a dual recovery, in tandem with episode 3 of Galaxy 4, the only known episode of that serial! 

…Well, you can’t win ‘em all. Even so, thrilling news! While these episodes have not yet been released to the public and I have yet to see them, I am psyched beyond measure, just to know they exist!

Great moments:
The shark pool sacrifice and the slapstick kidnapping.

Overall, this serial gets 2 out of 5 Deadman’s Keys… I’d like to give it more, but I honestly can’t remember much more about it than the paltry descriptions from this review- I even had to look up Zaroff’s name- making this one of the most forgettable (if fun and silly) serials to date. That, combined with the ultra-kid-y tonal shift to Saturday morning cartoon plot, simply languishes this one to mediocrity… though a different flavor of mediocrity than the simply dull Smugglers or Savages… more of an “Its quality does not equal its premise” mediocrity. (NFS: It's a shame because most of them SOUND like they'd be phenomenal...but they really sometimes...aren't.)

Likewise for the relatively bland (a pattern seems to be forming) but serviceable reconstruction. Some excellent imagery bumps it up to a 2.5 out of 5, but there just doesn’t seem to be any extra effort here.

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