The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Friday, June 22, 2018

"Roly-Poly Fish Heads": The Underwater Menace



The Troughton Era is getting well under way with The Underwater Menace, and it's clearly going to be a pretty mixed bag. On the positive side, there's a lovely opening scene when, as the TARDIS is landing, we hear each of the traveler's hopes:
BEN: We're just beginning to land.
DOCTOR: Hold tight, everyone.
JAMIE: Land?
POLLY: Don't be scared, Jamie, it's all right really.
BEN: I get a sort of queer feeling. See we never know what we're going to find, do we?
DOCTOR: Ah, that's the fun. Stand by, here we go.
POLLY: Please let it be Chelsea 1966.
BEN: Hope it's the Daleks, I don't think.
DOCTOR: Prehistoric monsters.
That's our Doctor,and he'll be this way all the way through Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and Deep Breath.

Some of the character beats are spot on--Ben is sarcastic, assured, and resigned; Jamie confused, and Polly--well, here's the thing. Polly, who was so brash, resourceful, and funny in The Highlanders, is afraid, hoping anxiously for home. And that's pretty much how Polly is used in this episode. Our stroppy, smart "Duchess" (as Ben often calls her) is reduced to screaming, panicked, damsel-in-distress for far too much of this story. Annette Wills tries, and finds a few moments when Polly is her more feisty self, but she's fighting the script and the director here.

(Although, fair dos, Polly gets to demonstrate her powers of deduction at the start of the adventure with what is, basically, a sherlockomito, based on her having found a bracelet in the sand:
DOCTOR: Yes, it's difficult to put a precise date on these people.
POLLY: I don't think it is.
DOCTOR: All right then, when?
POLLY: Oh, I'd say about 1970.
DOCTOR: Can you prove it?
BEN: Yeah, go on, prove it.
JAMIE: How d'you know, Polly?
BEN: Ah, she's been studying her crystal ball.
POLLY: Abracadabra.
(Polly produces the bracelet she found.)
DOCTOR: Oh, how interesting, yes. Hmm. It's Aztec. Fake of course.
BEN: Mexico Olympiad.
POLLY: When we first left Earth it hadn't happened yet.
BEN: No, that's right, it wasn't due till 1968.
POLLY: Right, so now is any time later than that.
So it isn't all bad for Polly.)

The basic plot is unpromising: The travelers land in Atlantis, are about be sacrificed to the Atlantean deity, the Goddess Amdo. The Doctor bluffs his way to a meeting with the scientist who has promised to raise Atlantis out of the sea, Professor Zaroff (a strong, mad performance by Joseph F├╝rst). Zaroff quickly discovers that the Doctor's claim that "vital secret will die with me" (signed "Dr. W", so further supporting the argument that the character is in fact named Doctor Who.) is a bluff, but is amused at the Doctor's effrontery. But then the Doctor discovers Zaroff's intentions are to raise Atlantis, but also to destroy the world, as scientists so often wont to do:
DOCTOR: Even supposing you succeeded, you know what will happen, don't you?
ZAROFF: You tell me, Doctor.
DOCTOR: Well, the water will be converted into superheated steam, the pressure will grow, and crack the crust of the Earth. Destroy all life, maybe even blow the planet apart.
ZAROFF: Yes. And I shall have redeemed my promise to lift Atlantis from the sea. Lift it to the sky! It will be magnificent.
DOCTOR: Yes.
ZAROFF: Bang! Bang! Bang, bang! That's all.
DOCTOR: Yes. Just one small question. Why do you want to blow up the world?
Meanwhile, the Atlanteans are planning to make Polly one of their "fish people"--former human beings converted into fish/human hybrids, and treated as food gathering slaves.

The three succeeding episodes are a bit of a run-around: The Doctor recruits a priestly ally, then the political leader, but Zaroff outwits him. Ben and Jamie effectively recruit some miners to help take down Zaroff, Polly screams a lot, but also plays a constructive part, the Doctor and Ben thwart Zaroff at the very end,and the TARDIS team takes off--who knows where?--while their Atlantean friends, who have seen their temple and lower levels flooded--grieve for them, and plan a new, more fair, Atlantis as their memorial.

Troughton is mercurial and charming, and Jamie is beginning to adjust. The design range from the silly--fish head masks for the temple ceremonies--to the sublime. There's an extended sequence among the fish people that doesn't advance the plot, but brings us back to the sheer demented weird spectacle of Auntie Verity's Pandemonium Shadow Show, best exemplified by The Web Planet. The show's not quite sure what it is yet, with Troughton but it's coalescing, and still determined to be Doctor Who.

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