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The Underwater Menace. The Maddest of the Mad.

May 17, 2016

atlanteans

The DVD special features attached to this adventure make it clear that this story is perhaps primarily for completists.  An incomplete story for completists.  Patrick Troughton himself does not appear to be particularly fond of it.

It is touching to be told that Frazer Hines briefly dated one of the Atlanteans (Catherine Howe) and bought her a Monkees record.  You also get a more sympathetic sense of the budgetary constraints of the special effects department (as you always do with such special features), and you watch some of the genuinely atmospheric stagings and effects with a proper sense of appreciation.

National stereotyping is of course rife in Doctor Who in the 1960s, though it needs to be compared to comparable stereotyping from mainstream entertainments of the period.  Typical little Englander Ben assumes that the (relatively) posh Polly will be able to communicate with Atlanteans as she “speaks foreign”.  The Doctor meanwhile assumes that an Irishman will be able to persuade the Fish People to engage in industrial action against their employers because he’s naturally eloquent.  (Well, not all stereotypes are negative I suppose.)

The villainy in Underwater Menace is fascinatingly extreme.  In the world of popular science fiction there are mad scientists, madder scientists and then there’s Joseph Furst playing Dr Zaroff.  Some mad scientists threaten to blow up the world for some mysterious higher purpose.  Dr Zaroff deliberately plans to blow up the world just for the sheer merry hell of it.  And he has no escape plan.  For him the destruction of planet Earth represents the apotheosis of science itself – what “every scientist dreams of” apparently.

The Tardis was somewhat congested between Underwater Menace and The Faceless Ones.  Now the Doctor had had three companions before (Ian, Barbara, Susan; Ian, Barbara, Vicki) and would have three companions again (Adric, Nyssa, Tegan; Nyssa, Turlough, Tegan) but Jamie, Ben and Polly were probably the least successful pack of three in the franchise’s history.  It’s clear that writers were torn between giving lines to Ben and giving lines to Jamie.  Having two competitive potential action heroes in the crew was not really a recipe for a happy Tardis.  And let’s face it, Jamie was a much more interesting companion than Ben.  The cheeky 1960s cockney sailor had to go, and the naive eighteenth-century Highland Jacobite had to stay.

There’s a lot that’s silly in this adventure and some stuff that is legitimately funny and a few bits that are genuinely scary.  The Second Doctor himself is a work in process.  He spent much of The Highlanders trying on silly costumes, and there’s a sense in this third adventure that he’s soon to decide which of his various affectations are keepers and which he’s going to discard.  Part of the best of Patrick Troughton’s version of The Doctor was that he was never afraid to show fear.  When the Second Doctor acts heroically (as he often does), you’re always aware of the stakes, and of the internal battle that has been hard fought and won first.

Disguised in unpleasant looking (and undoubtedly uncomfortable) looking eyebrows, as a consolatory pleasure, is Colin Jeavons who has perhaps one of the three or four most delicious voices you’ve ever heard.  I could listen to Colin Jeavons talk all the live long day –  recite the phone book if need be.  Any form of dramatic entertainment you care to mention is greatly enhanced by Colin Jeavons’ slightest involvement.

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2 Comments
  1. Compared to the national stereotyping of shows like the Avengers, I think 1960s Dr Who doesn’t do too badly. People might site Toberman as an example of poor racial stereotyping, but I can’t help but think that is merely because he was played by a black man. Toberman could be played by any actor of any race providing he was substantial enough in build.

  2. I’d tend to agree. Because Doctor Who remains a vibrant franchise its 1960s stories get re-watched more often than other TV drama of the period – and so its political shortcomings are referenced more frequently.

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