The Stinker Swims

Review of The Underwater Menace (#32)
DVD Release Date: 24 May 16 (Region 1/N.America)
Original Air Date: 14 Jan - 04 Feb 1967
Doctor/Companion: Two, Polly Wright, Ben Jackson, Jamie McCrimmon
Stars: Patrick Troughton, Anneke Wills, Frazer Hines
Preceding Story: The Highlanders (Two, Ben, Polly, Jamie)
Succeeding Story: The Moonbase (Two, Ben, Polly, Jamie)

This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the third iteration of CONsole Room, my local Doctor Who convention. I won't be posting a full recap on it this year, as I was only there for a few hours each day for the panels I was on, but among the guests were three early Companions: Anneke Wills (Polly Wright), Frazer Hines (Jamie McCrimmon), and Wendy Padbury (Zoë Heriot). All three worked with Patrick Troughton (though Anneke started with William Hartnell), so there are plenty of each of their episodes that are missing.

Interestingly enough, one of the more recently recovered episodes (found in December 2011) was from early in Season Four (Troughton's first), including Anneke as Polly and Frazer's second outing as Jamie. It was finally released on DVD here in North America about two weeks ago, a week and a half before CONsole Room. I didn't manage to find time to watch it until after the con, which is a shame, because then I might have been able to (a) ask the guests some semi-intelligent questions about the story when I saw them on their main stage panel on Saturday and (b) fully appreciate the cosplay of the (highly embarrassed) young lady who got called out to show off her Polly-as-an-Atlanean costume during said panel. Alas, I did not have that much forethought. With mild regret for missed opportunities, then, I sat down to watch the last release of the home video line (barring any further lost episode recoveries).

The Underwater Menace has a reputation as one of the big stinkers. Until now, it's only been possible to watch one of its four filmed episodes, which in my opinion makes it ridiculously difficult to judge. Even with this release, Episodes One and Four (those still absent from the archives) are terribly difficult to follow, as all we have to go on are the soundtrack and production stills. Thank Prime for closed captioning.

We have now doubled the amount of live video we can watch, though (even if it is still only half the overall story). That makes a huge difference, in my opinion. Just as being able to see all (or nearly all) of the two stories recovered in 2013 (The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear) instead of a single episode of each changed our experience of them, so does even a single additional episode of Menace. By seeing how adjacent episodes were executed, one can more easily imagine what might have been happening in those moments on the soundtrack that have no dialog to clue us in to the accompanying action.

The main complaint I used to hear about this story was how the antagonist, the clearly insane Professor Zaroff, was played so over-the-top; having previously only seen Episode Three, I tended to agree. With a more complete story I found that still to be true to some degree, but it is at least in part called for by the script. In the recovered Episode Two, the Doctor himself emulates the mad look in Zaroff's eyes when trying to warn the Atlantean king Thous about the professor. That performance was completely lost in the audio-only days—as were many other small moments that add nuance to the story.

More importantly, I found that Zaroff actually reminded me of Davros. Again in Ep Two, the Doctor has an exchange with Zaroff that is eerily reminiscent of the later one. See for yourself. First, the Second Doctor and Zaroff:

Doctor: Just one small question. Why do you want to blow up the world?
Zaroff: Why? You, a scientist, ask me why? The achievement, my dear Doctor. The destruction of the world. The scientist's dream of supreme power!

Then, the Fourth Doctor and Davros:

Doctor: If you had created a virus in your laboratory, something contagious and infectious that killed on contact—a virus that would destroy all other forms of life—would you allow its use?
...
Davros: Yes. Yes... To hold in my hand a capsule that contains such power, to know that life and death on such a scale was my choice. ... Yes, I would do it! That power would set me up above the gods!

In both cases, the Doctor is confirming for the record that his adversary is completely off his rocker so the Doctor can proceed to foil some capital-P Plans. (Also, scientists are getting a super bad rap with these representatives.) For me, the comparison helped make the overall story more appealing.

That's not to say that it is a hidden gem, by any means. There are lots of the typical "separate the TARDIS team [which is particularly large at this stage, with three Companions] and bring them back together again" threads throughout, and the story feels unnecessarily long at a mere four episodes. Part of that is undoubtedly due to the absence of half the video, which makes the filler moments feel particularly drawn out. There are often only background noises and vague stills of the set to go on to figure out what actions might have graced the screen.

I'll admit that for me, most of the charm comes from my completionist tendencies; I like having even so imperfect a version of The Underwater Menace to add to my collection. If you're a Troughton fan, or particularly love either Ben and Polly or Jamie, it's probably worth picking up. If, however, you want a really compelling story to draw you in, you can probably slip this one toward the bottom of your list. Whatever the pros and cons of this particular serial, I like the reminder that even fifty years later the occasional prodigal episode can return home. That alone earns it a place of honor on my shelf.

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