Doctor Who Project: The Underwater Menace

Just one small question. Why do you want to blow up the world?

Thus far in its four seasons, Doctor Who has had its share of evil villains bent on controlling the universe and dastardly foes driven by petty greed and egotism, but not until Geoffrey Orme’s “The Underwater Menace” (Story Production Code GG) do we get a truly mad scientist for the Doctor face off against. And oh, boy, is Zaroff mad.

Zaroff the Mad

In some ways, using a monomaniacal scientist determined to prove his genius by accomplishing that which no other scientist ever has—to wit, blowing up the planet—turns Zaroff (Joseph Fürst) into the kind of monster that the show’s original “no monsters” remit tried to avoid; first season shows in particular featured opponents who were driven by complex and internally consistent, though perhaps misguided, desires, like Tlotoxl and Autloc in “The Aztecs” or the eponymous Sensorites. Zaroff just wants to blow up the planet like some human Dalek, and as such, he provides no real challenge for the Doctor and his trio of companions, wasting the elaborate stage production of “The Underwater Menace” in the process.

With new companion Jamie aboard, the TARDIS shows up on volcanic specks of rock in the Mediterranean, the only above-water vestiges of the Lost Continent of Atlantis. Polly finds a medallion from the 1968 Mexico City Olympics near a cave mouth, to help place the story sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s; it must have been dropped by a shipwreck survivor who was, like the Doctor and friends, captured by the Atlanteans, who use such people as sacrifices to their deity or as labor in their mines or sea farms.

Those sea farms, producing plankton and tended by slaves who have been implanted with plastic gills, cause the Doctor to dive into his Five Hundred Year Diary and come up with a name that saves them from becoming shark food as an offering to Amdo, the Atlantean god. He remembers that a Professor Zaroff, thought to have died in the 1950s, devoted his efforts to feeding the world through plankton, and by brandishing this name, he secures an audience with Zaroff, sparing his companions in the process. As he does so well, the Second Doctor plays to Zaroff’s ego in order to learn all he can, and it transpires that Zaroff has promised to raise Atlantis back above the sea. He just intends to lower the oceans by dumping them into the Earth’s molten core rather than lifting Atlantis itself, though, with the slight side effect of causing the planet to explode. When the Doctor notes this outcome, Zaroff readily acknowledges this result as a feature, rather than a fault, of his plan. Where are the rational Daleks when you need them?

Orme attempts to develop Atlantean culture and succeeds to a fair extent, portraying them as conservative and caught in patterns of thought and belief that are thousands of years old, dating back to the cataclysm that lowered Atlantis below the sea. They worship a stone idol with a religious system that requires human sacrifices. The sets and costumes come off as rather elaborate, calling to mind the flight of the Menoptera in “The Web Planet” in some “underwater” scenes with floating fish people.

Most importantly, they have no technology to speak of, using tridents as weapons and lacking any means of food production besides Zaroff’s plankton—and yet, somehow, Zaroff manages to build a fully functional nuclear reactor down there in twenty years time. Aside from the suggestion that Zaroff faked his own death in order to escape Poland (the Doctor notes that the East thought the West killed Zaroff and vice versa), no time is spent detailing how Zaroff came to arrive in Atlantis, the discovery of which would have more than fulfilled his dreams of egoistical glory. The development of the plastic gills also remains unexplored, though there is some sense that one of Zaroff’s Atlantean protégés, Damon, came up with that procedure.

In short order, as ever, the Doctor and his companions are split up and reunited and split up again over the course of the story’s four episodes, only one of which, the third, exists on film. They acquire several assistants—two captured surface dwellers, Jocko and Sean, and two Atlanteans, Romo and Ara—and manage to destroy the sea walls that keep Atlantis dry and also foment revolution amongst the fish people. Aside from a neatly choreographed scene in an Atlantean market, where the Doctor plays his recorder, Polly dresses up as an Atlantean in a dress made of seashells, and Jamie and Ben dress as guards in black wetsuits, the action mostly consists of people running in tunnels (not for the first, nor for the last, time in the show, to be sure), albeit tunnels that are steadily flooding with water.

The everpresent recorder

With Zaroff as a strictly one-dimensional figure, there’s not much to work with, and at the end of the story, after the Doctor has defeated Zaroff by, um, destroying most of Atlantis, the Atlanteans resolve to abandon their backwards ways, which in this case means ditching their belief system of the last thousand years. For a story in which science and “civilization” nearly result in the planet exploding, this radical rejection of tradition—portrayed throughout the story, it must be said, as foolish, childish, and anti-scientific—comes across as lacking nuance, to say the least. The religious impulse, at least in organized forms, doesn’t often fare well in Doctor Who, with the Doctor almost always championing rationality over faith. And yet, the show seldom comes across as overtly anti-religious like it does here. Orme’s script has Romo, a priest of Amdo, realize that his beliefs are a lie after he ventures into a hidden compartment behind the sacred idol of Amdo, and the Doctor has no compunctions about skewering the Atlantean beliefs throughout the story, referring to Amdo at one point as a “heathen goddess.”

Troughton continues to develop the Second Doctor as his own, and his timings are quite deadpan in this story. He’s seldom without a quip (or his recorder) and is seen to have a fascination with fancy headgear. He also has embraced an air of uncertainty, not letting on that he has a plan (if, indeed, he does) at any given moment, being willing to admit, as Hartnell’s First Doctor never would, that he doesn’t quite know what he’s doing.

Ben: Do you know what you’re doing?

Doctor: Oh, what a question! Of course I don’t. There’s no rule against trying, is there?

The Thousand-Year Diary makes another appearance, serving as a rather handy device for getting the Doctor out of jams; it’s sort of a book version of the Sonic Screwdriver, able to do whatever the writers need at any given moment. And the Second Doctor shows once again, as in “The Power of the Daleks,” the willingness to sacrifice many to save more, almost without a second thought. This time, he floods Atlantis in order to knock out Zaroff’s nuclear reactor, killing an unknown number to save the planet. And this time, it doesn’t really even work, as Zaroff would still have been able to detonate the reactor had the Doctor and Ben not tricked him at the last minute. The fate of the dead Atlanteans, and the overall destruction of Atlantis, is mentioned in the story in passing, but not by the Doctor. Still, the Doctor wants to try to save Zaroff when he is drowning in the flooding control room—the desire to save whatever lives he can still remains, balanced by a pragmatic understanding that some cannot be saved.

Zaroff undone

The three companions sort of have to make room for each other, and Polly suffers the most from the addition of Jamie. Where in “The Highlanders,” she saves the day, in “The Underwater Menace,” she screams and cries and whines and moans and is threatened with bodily harm and is grabbed as a hostage over and over. Even worse, her naïveté allows Zaroff to escape after he is captured, causing the death of Romo and necessitating the flooding of Atlantis to stop him. Jamie, meanwhile, rescues Polly and generally takes care of her throughout, a reversal from the events of the prior story. In all, not the best script Anneke Wills ever received on the show, even if it does reveal that Polly can speak French, German, and Spanish. (This appears to be the first time in the show that language has been potentially an issue for our time travellers, as they try to speak to their captors in a variety of languages, including the Doctor’s Polish, prior to everyone speaking English as usual).

Jamie, Polly, and Ben

Ben remains the action figure, though with Jamie on board, there’s not much to distinguish the two besides the Cockney of one and the Scottish brogue of the other. Despite the fact that the TARDIS is bigger on the inside, it feels altogether too crowded with these three companions and will remain so until three stories hence when Ben and Polly depart.

Happily, the companions are referred to as such in this story, for the first time in several stories. Perhaps having more than two companions triggers the use of the word in the scripts:

Romo: You have five minutes in which to make your point. After that, you will join your companions. The ceremony will proceed.

Special attention must be given to Joseph Fürst, who plays Zaroff with unrestrained, over-the-top, mad scientist glee. Though the script doesn’t give him much, he takes the scenery and just chews. Four years later, he will go on to play another, slightly less mad scientist, Doctor Metz, in the Bond film Diamonds are Forever.

In what is becoming a hallmark of the series, the Doctor and his companions leave without interacting with the people they have saved (and, in this case, whose society they have destroyed for the greater good of the planet). Off they go, to Mars, on a dare. The Doctor fiddles with the TARDIS control settings and the little blue box goes spinning out of control. They don’t quite make it to Mars.

(Previous Story: The Highlanders)

(Next Story: The Moonbase)

Post 33 of the Doctor Who Project

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