A bit like The Gunfighters, the next story has a bad reputation.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest that The Underwater Menace is one of the best stories, because it’s not. But neither do I think it’s the benchmark for bad that people say it is. Because in spite of – or perhaps because of – the sheer stupidity of it, it’s fun.
Doctor Who – The Underwater Menace Review: What’s This One About?
It’s Doctor Who Under the Sea (believe it or not, that was a working title for the story, along with ‘Dr Who & The Fish People’)
In one of the more ridiculous Dr Who storylines, this is about a Mad Scientist (and he really is mad) called Professor Zaroff who has gone into hiding from the world and is living in the lost continent of Atlantis. He has convinced the people of Atlantis that he will raise it to sea level, but really he just wants to blow up the world. Just for the glory of it. Eh?!
Oh, and he has a giant pet Octopus.
And Polly nearly gets turned into a Fish.
Yup, this one’s a classic.
Thoughts – Ridiculous Plans
Ok, so the plot for this one is absolutely ridiculous – there’s no question of that.
Take some of the things that happen in Episode 1. The Doctor doesn’t know exactly where or when he is – Polly made a guess based upon a badge from the 1968 Olympic Games, but that’s not exactly concrete evidence – and yet when the four of them are about to be sacrificed having been brought down to Atlantis, his gamble to save them all is to shout words to the effect of ‘Wait…before you kill me you’d best give this note to Professor Zaroff”. Based purely on some food he was given, he’s worked out that a missing scientist from a very specific period in Earth’s history is nearby. Well that was some guess.
Then when the note is given to Zaroff – a note which says “Vital Secret Will Die With Me. Dr W” – the sacrifice is stopped. Zaroff asks the Doctor what the secret is, and he says “I don’t have one”. Logically Zaroff should have said ‘Well sod you then‘ and told them to carry on with the sacrifice, but logic doesn’t really apply to Zaroff.
No, instead of letting the Atlantians sacrifice the Doctor, Zaroff instead confides in the Doctor all his intentions.
That plan was a longshot and shouldn’t have worked but did.
And then in episode 3, a similarly ridiculous plan – the one to capture Zaroff – succeeds.
Basically they plan to capture Zaroff in an attempt to stop him from blowing up the world. The plan involves the Doctor dressing up in disguise again, Ben & Jamie dressed as guards, Polly pretending to be a servant girl, Zaroff stumbling across the Doctor is, running after him when the Doctor makes his escape taking only Ben & Jamie with him thinking they are his guards (even though he has his own guards with him), Polly pointing out the direction for Zaroff to go in and then, when they have him alone, taking him prisoner.
A lot had to go right for that plan to work, and once again, it did.
Then there’s the method by which Zaroff dies. In episode 4, just as he’s about to press the big red button that will blow up the world (and let’s not forget to ask how his team of fellow scientists couldn’t work out what his plans were) he traps himself in a part of the room sectioned off by bars which descend from the roof. Why is that even there? Why would you create a small prison area in a laboratory?
In the random observations section, I’ll raise a few other nonsensical issues, but I think you’re getting the point by now – this story is utterly stupid.
But I’d rather watch a stupid story that I can laugh at than a boring story with nothing going for it at all, so really, I can forgive it.
The Acting of Joseph Furst
Whenever anyone talks about the Underwater Menace, the acting ability of Joseph Furst (Zaroff) is called into question. He’s considered to be one of the very worst actors to ever appear in the show.
So what is a bad actor? If your idea of a bad actor is someone who misses cues, struggles to get the right words out and is very clearly ‘remembering’ his lines to the point where he doesn’t speak them in the intended tone, then yes, Joseph Furst is a bad actor.
Similarly, if your idea of a bad actor is someone who ‘chews the scenery’ then once again, he’s a bad actor (but by that ideal, Paul Darrow is a bad actor. And he’s great!)
But if your idea of a GOOD actor is someone who can embrace the part he’s given to make him believable, is colourful in his portrayal and gets your attention for the right reason, then Furst is a GREAT actor.
In truth he has his good points and bad points, but when I watch him I believe that he’s a mad scientist. That’s the role he has and he ramps it up to the absolute maximum.
It’s lucky that episode three survives in the archives because we get to see Furst in all his ‘glory’. There are so many moments that made me laugh. His response of “I’ll take my chance. Get Out!” to Lolem raises a chuckle every time. His fake heart attack is wonderfully pathetic. His fight scene with Jamie and Polly is a sight to see and the way he runs off ‘maniacally laughing’ just reeks of ‘villain’. He also manages to deliver the words “Heven’t I? Heven’t I?” in a way so bad it’s almost inexplicable.
But best of all is the scene at the end of Episode 3 where he reveals him to be bent on destroying the world to King Thous. Much like my review of the Space Museum, I feel I have to provide a transcript, picking up from the point where Thous has just ordered his two guards to take Zaroff and his own two guards prisoner.
Zaroff: “You’re a Fool! You ARE a FOOOOL, and I weel send you to youwer beloved Goddess Amdo to discuss the future of the universe weeth her”
Thous: “I demand…”
Zaroff (interrupting with a wooden, put on ‘incredulous tone”): You…you demand. You dema.a.and! Well seence your….seeence your beloved Goddess has developed…eh…a…such an enchanting appetite for peepel, it is
only feetting that the Great Thous should offer heeemself. No…no…I shell offer him!
Then Zaroff struggles to bring his hidden right arm from under his cloak where he holds a gun for a good two seconds before an added on sound effect of gunfire plays and Thous limply falls to the floor.
Zaroff (to his guards): Keel those two men!
More pausing before two more shots are heard and Zaroff looks to the camera with the eyes of a madman…
Zaroff: NOTHING IN ZEE WORLD CAN STOP ME NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (x infinity)
Absolutely brilliant. One of my favourite ever cliffhangers in Doctor Who history. It’s so bad and yet so good at the same time.
Of course, let’s not even bother to ask why killing Thous and the two guards means nothing in the world can stop him now, that would just ruin it.
What does ruin it though, and the reason why it’s far better that episode 3 survives rather than episode 4 is that in the reprise in Episode 4, Furst delivers that same line with absolute apathy. Clearly he couldn’t muster up the same level of excitement the next week.
So yes, Furst is a bad actor in many ways, but his ability to engage the audience means that in less conventional ways, he’s actually really good. And that’s why he had such a long career with roles in many high profile shows
- Episode 3 was famously spared from being wiped because the BBC wanted to keep the ‘Ballet of the Fish People’ scene. It’s alright, but it’s hardly a defining moment or anything. Still, I’m glad it was saved.
- Speaking of the Fish People, they are the first thing most people think of when they think of the Underwater Menace. They are in the publicity photos, on the cover of the book etc but they are barely relevant to the plot at all.
- And on that note, how come some of them have far nicer outfits than others? Some genuinely look like fish people, while one is clearly just a woman with a goggle mask and a wetsuit. I can accept that some might bemore ‘advanced’ than others, but it would be nice if the plot specified as much.
- We’ve accepted that the writing isn’t up to much and there’s no greater evidence than a scene in episode three where Ben, Polly & Jamie are sitting in the secret room in the temple. Polly says “The point is, where do we go from here”, then Ben says “Yeah, where” and Jamie says “Aye, tell us Doctor”, before the Doctor explains his plan. Apart from being very basic ‘setup’ writing, it’s clearly just a case of the writer wanting each companion to have a line.
- The guy who plays Sean – P.G. Stephens – does the worst impersonation of an Irishman I’ve ever seen. What makes it worse is that he’s actually Irish. Explain
- How would Lolem, the High Priest of Atlantis, not know that there was a secret room in the Temple where the voice of Amdo came from? If he as the High Priest doesn’t know, then who does? Who built it and why?
- For all my praise of Polly, she’s written for pretty poorly in this story. How she could believe that Zaroff was really having a heart attack is ridiculous, and by Episode Four, she’s turned into the ‘Pathetic Woman’ type companion that I hate.
- Why does the woman in the marketplace in Atlantis play her role with the English ‘country’ accent she chooses? Bizarre.
- Here’s one that really troubles me – why do Ben & Polly not change their clothes after the events of the Highlanders? Surely Polly especially – wearing an 17th century dress that must be pretty dirty from falling intoditches and being worn for days on end – must be desperate for a bath?
- Zaroff appears to no-sell getting smashed in the back of the head by a rock. He’s hardcore.
- The music in this story is unique. I’m not sure how, but the odd instruments that they use somehow manage to capture the essence of ‘Under the Sea’ pretty well.
- I found Ben’s line “Well look at him…he ain’t normal is he” when trying to convice a guard that he’s escorting the Doctor as as wanted prisoner, to be amusing. It’s more the sort of thing I’d expect Rory to say about the 11th Doctor.
- Unlike the Power of the Daleks, where the Doctor has no problems sending Bragen’s guards to their deaths, his conscience troubles him when he realises Zaroff is going to drown. This time it’s left to Ben to be cold-hearted as he tells the Doctor that Zaroff is being left down
there, whether he likes it or not.
- Why is it when sneaking up behind Zaroff while he’s fighting with Jamie, Sean decides to scream at the top of his lungs before trying to attack him? Was he trying to fight him or frighten him?
- Peter Stephens returns to the show, but rather than portraying a schoolboy like he did in the Celestial Toymaker, he’s now playing Lolem the Old High Priest. You couldn’t get two parts more different, yet he plays them both the same.
- Rather than waste their time eating Zaroff’s special food supplies that go off almost immediately, why don’t they just eat fish? I thought there was plenty of them in the sea?
- If Atlantis is lost under the sea, how come it’s accessible from an island on the surface. Surely the people of Atlantis could just climb to the surface and live somewhere else?
Doctor Who – The Underwater Menace Review: Should You Watch The Underwater Menace?
Of course you should. It’s wonderful, amazing and absolute crap all rolled into one.
Episode Three is the only one that exists, but really it’s the only one you need to see. The story of the Underwater Menace doesn’t hold water (pardon the pun). It makes no sense and is full of holes.
But in Episode Three you have The Professor Zaroff Show. Whether he’s a great actor or a crap actor, he’ll keep you entertained throughout.