I first watched this story back in September, shortly after my post on The Highlanders. But I hated it. A lot. So, I didn’t write about it. I started to rethink my approach to the show for the first time. It’s tough to find the motivation to watch when I’m not going to feel like writing about the bad stories. I thought maybe I would just skip ahead. The reconstructions are rough and, let’s face it, the show simply isn’t very good at this point. Then, I got busy and generally forgot about these adventures. When I sat down to finally write my thoughts on the Underwater Menace, I found that I couldn’t really remember much about it. So, I watched it again in a single sitting. And it still sucked. But I’m writing immediately, with plans to move on to the next story right away. So as to not lose momentum.
The travelers land on a deserted beach and are promptly taken prisoner, down an elevator into what turns out to be the lost city of Atlantis. There they are to be sacrificed to the goddess Amdo, but the Doctor has a plan. He has heard of the famous Professor Zaroff and his method for converting plankton to food. It seems that he has promised the Atlantians that he can raise the city from the sea. Now, this bothered me. They had access to the surface, as evidenced by the kidnappers and the elevator. If they wanted to be on the surface, why didn’t they just go there? Later, they mention that they take shipwrecked people, so clearly civilization exists. Polly finds a bracelet from the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. So, why are they eating plankton? This bothered me enough that the entire premise of the story was too lame for me. If this were an alien planet, or there was no life on the surface, cool. But, no….it was near the surface of the apparently normal 20th century. A character even recognizes the police box at the end of the story. At least do SOME work on your story invention, please.
So, the doctor chills with Zaroff, Ben and Jamie are sent to some mines (not sure what was being mined or why — mines are apparently the default punishment for prisoners in this era of the show), while Polly is going to get some surgery to turn her into a fish. Now Zaroff is, outside of the principle actors, the lone bright spot in this story. He is delightfully mad. We don’t quite get the same descent into madness as Chen in the Daleks’ Master Plan, but he is comically loony. He plays the role of the mad scientist perfectly, especially in the final episode. His plan is to drain the oceans into the Earth’s core, turning it to steam and destroying the planet. And at the end, as he attempts to enact his evil plot, he has clearly lost his marbles. His character is a delight, though not really worth the climb of watching the rest of the story.
The fish people, on the other hand, are totally lame. They are essentially a rehash of the Menoptra in the water and they don’t talk. There is a particularly irritating scene during the third episode in which they swim around and wave at each other, causing a strike and depriving the city of food (although the people could have just gone to the surface and got some themselves). They have shiny fake scales all over their bodies and are clearly not swimming, but being dragged around by cables. I honestly felt like I was watching something on the local cable access channel. I know the budget was low and the technology was limited, but really? This is what I get? I’m not sure why I hated them so much. I’ve found the poor effects to be endearing in earlier stories, but they bothered me this time, perhaps because the story itself was too weak to overcome them. Or maybe because the long swimming scene was too long. They let me watch too much of the awfulness with nothing else happening. In any case, they sucked.
In the end, the Doctor manages to play with the power generators and explode a wall, letting the ocean in and flooding Atlantis. A bunch of people escape to the surface like they should have done years before. In the meantime, a classic battle between science and religion was raged, as Zaroff attempts to overcome resistance from the high priests of Amdo. The travelers reveal the goddess to be a sham when they hide behind the statue and impersonate her to save the Doctor and another priest from sacrifice. And, at the end, the Atlantian ruler says that religion is finished because it had caused all of the trouble in the first place. Amdo would remain buried with the city. But it seems to me that it wasn’t religion that had caused the problem, but science and Zaroff’s hubris. It was kind of like the writers forgot what they had actually written and wanted it to be anti-religion, pro-science. But in reality, it was the priests that realized Zaroff’s problems, their belief in Amdo that allowed the Doctor to get away and save the planet (again). If anything, science was to blame for their plight, not religion.
So, I felt that the story’s message was a bit contradictory. Not a big deal, I suppose, but the little things add up. The irritating premise, the stupid fish people, the lackluster plot all made for crappiness. And I’m still not really warming to Patrick Troughton. I will admit that I find him humorous, if not a bit whimsical. But his portrayal lacks any sort of serious appeal. He’s witty, but not clever. He’s smart, but not ingenious. In short, he’s just OK.