Wednesday, 17 June 2009

The Underwater Menace

Re: Day by Day


The Underwater Menace 1:

Thanks to the assistance of the great ianzpotter (where have you got to mate?), I'm able to listen to this one. As can be told from the rather obvious fear the BBC have of actually releasing this on audio, it isn't exactly the most popular missing story going. But from my marrying of the soundtrack to the telesnaps this doesn't, on the basis of this episode, seem the best idea in the world.

You see, the problem with this episode - not necessarily the rest, but this one very much so - is that it looks ridiculous. Listen to the soundtrack alone and you get a relatively good episode of Who - nothing particularly amazing, but not poor. But look at the telesnaps and you have to put up with a bunch of actors in daft hats and silly eyebrows. It's usually quite easy to ignore the design of stories, and it sholdn't really be the deal breaker - but it is hard to forget when it is this monumentally atrocious. An official radio collection release would obviously gloss over this kind of stuff, and allow us to concentrate on the story. It's such a shame that the story gets in good actors like Colin Jeavons and then just layers them with this mess.

Jamie's first episode as a companion isn't terribly promising. It's rather clear that he's a late addition, as practically all he does for the episode is hang around Ben and agree with him. Also he doesn't seem to be all that put out by the revelation's offered to him - suddenly he's travelling through time and space in a police box bigger inside than out... and he doesn't seem all that bothered. No queries, no disbelief. When Polly starts talking about it being about 1970 he doesn't say a word. What would they have to do to shock him, exactly?

There's no good reason for everyone to split up at the beginning as they all get captured individually and reunited in a cell straight away. Hardly seemed worth the effort of contriving the split. Still, you could argue it's a nice subversion of the format.

The Doctor is on rather good form here - exploring and deducing this that and the other, and saving the TARDIS crew's lives through sheer gall. I'm beginning to warm to him properly now. He's feeling Doctorish, without being a copy of Hartnell. It's a more erratic, odd, dangerous, dark figure. Less immediately cuddly, but utterly engaging and fun.

Plotwise... well, it feels like a prelude. It isn't entirely clear yet where we're aiming, and the whole sacrifice thing is a sideshow whilst we wait for the plot to turn up. It's quite a nice sideshow, there's always something creepy about human sacrifice, slightly undercut by the daft outfits of course, but never mind. Zaroff's eventual arrival hints at a new direction. The legendarily ott performance seems quite under control here, right up until the end when he goes a little mad laughing... but I have a feeling he's supposed to go a little mad.

It's an enjoyable enough episode, not really going anywhere, but with some nice ideas. The alien culture within the earth itself is quite a nice concept, and we get a proper sense of how this culture works, how they live, how they worship and how they are unlike to ourselves. Just a shame it all looks so daft really.


#13 15 May 2004, 12:06 am

The Underwater Menace 2:

Have we had an explanation for the Olympic bracelet yet? Not sure we have. What exactly is it doing in Atlantis of all places? Did a swimmer stop by for a breather en route? OK, the shipwrecks thing is a good try, but it doesn't really justify the contrivance.

This episode is very strange. To all intents and purposes, it feels like a third episode. It's in this episode that we learn the villain's plan, the companions escape from their various trials and reunite, seemingly ready to win the day and escape. But there's still two episodes to go.

The result is it all seems a bit sudden. We've barely met Zaroff, he was in no more than a couple of minutes of part one, but within six minutes he has explained his entire plan to the Doctor and us. We now know pretty much the entire premise, and as a result we're immediately less interested. This is exacerbated by the fact that the explanation is given, pretty much unprompted, in a big dollop of expository dialogue (and the whole thing is explained again about ten minutes later). Did we really need to know this this early? If the entire plot is announced within half an hour, where have we got to go? (It's Ian Stuart Black syndrome - show your cards straight away - it just loses direction for the story, turning it into a series of scrapes).

The problems derived from this, and the speedy feel (and part and parcel of the episode 3 quality to the episode) are blatant in the companion threads. It's almost as if Orme has run out of plot for them already. Ben and Jamie have this most obviously - they have a basically circular route for this episode. My dad always talked about a 'ten minute nowhere', I may have mentioned this before in the thread. This is where you travel for five minutes, remember something you've forgotten, go back and get it. You've been travelling five minutes. You've gone nowhere. For all the appearances of the mine escape sequence, it leaves Ben and Jamie pretty much where theY were an episode ago. They just been strolling round a narrative cul-de-sac. Further to this, we spot the rushed feel as they've barely been there a minute before they're trusted enough to come in on an escape plan. And then... and this is where the 'oh god we've run out of plot' feel really kicks in - even when their third or so of the episode is them being caught, and escaping - they still have to throw in an utterly superfluous Jamie falls down a pit subplot. This early on, he's filling in time.

Likewise Polly. For all the fuss made about the fish people last time, they don't appear here. And Polly too, the moment she is released, doesn't really go anywhere or do anything....

Performances - ok. No-one leaps out much either way (though they may be disguised by the costumes). For the most part Furst is remarkably sedate. It's kind of nice that he isn't an evil character, and is just barking mad... but it does seem lazy writing, and some explanation for his psychosis would be worth while (and ultimately, the plan of a madman is going to be less engaging than a carefully thought out piece). Troughton is much more relaxed here too. He's still eccentric, but he's noticeably less strange this time.

Can't think of owt else frankly. Inoffensive so far, but kind of childish in a tv action obvious sort of a way. Who as a cartoon. An ok one, not a great one.


#14 17 May 2004, 12:20 am

The Underwater Menace 3:

What a relief. It's been such a bare patch without episodes, finally one exists. Watching the stories in order really rams home how devestating those gaps are. The gap from Galaxy 4 to early DMP was appaling. This last break is almost bearable, thanks to the telesnaps. They're hardly a proper substitute for the episodes themselves, but at least it goes some way to putting a sticking plaster over the scar.

It's a shame that the earliest Troughton episode to properly exist is so weak. Let's get one myth out of the way right now, though. Furst isn't a rampant ham. For all the information in the Companion, etc. and their reliance on received fan wisdom, he's usually quite restrained. Ironically, this is perhaps a less successful take - he's supposed to be barking mad, that's the only justification he has for his scheme. So the fairly relaxed Furst comes across as a bit sedate for a loon. It's only really in the final scene that he begins to chew the scenery, but even then there's something gloriously fun about it (he's an inch away from corpsing too - which makes me think he knows what he's doing, he knows it's ott, but he just wants it to be entertaining).

Apart from that... well it's crap. There's no plot. At all. It remains a series of capture and escapes... but not even that really, it's a lot of circular plotlines, loads of tiny filler scenes. Watch how many times something happens and then gets nullified almost instantly - the execution of the Doctor, the kidnapping of Zaroff, and his subsequent hostage taking, Polly getting chased through a bazaar. The story isn't really going anywhere at all - and it even has the gall to admit this, with Polly asking the Doctor what his plan will achieve and his admission he has no idea. Watch how little carries over from the previous episode - the mine has vanished, for example. We're just watching the plot go round and round in circles. Orme is just desperately filling in time.

But it wouldn't matter so much if the whole thing wasn't so dumb. Zaroff's faint is accepted pathetically quickly, for a start. But this pales into insignificance compared to the sheer stupidity of the look of the episode. Silly outfits, beards, eyebrows. The Doctor dressed as a gypsy, general crappy mess. The offstage 'gunshots' at the climax. Zaroff's remarkable inability not to recognise Jamie and Ben. The costumes again. It looks cheap, it looks tacky. And we haven't even got to the Fish People yet (convinced by an Irishman with a weak accent who's just been rude to them - they indulge in their padding dance sequence... which could have been impressive shorter). You really do feel like you're watching a kiddies show again, with that sort of join the dots plotting. It is hard to comprehend how a script of this inanity could have sat in the same show as sophisticated pieces like Power of the Daleks.

The most interesting thing here though is that the Doctor has really defined himself now. He's no longer this mildly scary figure - he's warm and fun, a little bit naughty, like an Intergalactic William Brown. Even if he does fall for Zaroff's faint, he's still the smartest most engaging figure here. The companions just run around a bit meaninglessly, Jamie still showing no particular personality or purpose. It's not over the top. It's just dumb.

As well as watching this episode I watched the missing years doco - it's very pleasant to see all these little clips from stories I've covered, mini tasters. Shame Frazer Hines isn't the sole host though...



#15 17 May 2004, 10:31 am

The Underwater Menace 4:

Well, less than twelve hours after episode 3, time for part 4.

The dumbness really doesn't stop with this story does it? It feels like a loose collection of set pieces thrown together in the vague hope they'll make a coherent story. Take the fish people, for example. They only really appear in two episodes, and then they have so little impact it's any wonder they even feature. (It's weird rewatching the story, and realising that the image we tend to have - black eyes, scaled face, gills - isn't universal to them. Some are just humans in goggles. Good grief). The strike of the fish people, given so much emphasis in part three, is barely mentioned here, and doesn't affect the resolution one iota. In fact, if you want, you can recount loads of elements that are there briefly for a cheap thrill and then never return - the sacrifice of the crew in part one, the Fish-conversion (Jeavons has next to nothing to do in 3 and 4), the mines, the strike, whatever Jamie and Polly are trying to do in this episode. This story is composed of nothing more than side-shows, distractions, designed to keep what passes for a plot ticking over until the whole thing can be wrapped up.

And what a wrap up. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the Doctor's got a plan. A plan that is ludicrously over the top. Flood the entire city? Are you nuts? Sure, the Doctor needs to stop Zaroff, but this plan seems to be predesigned to randomly kill practically everyone, good, bad, whatever. Surely there must have been a simpler way? As it is, it isn't even that successful a concept - but for a moment of barking madness from Zaroff, it would fail (why does Zaroff feel the need to step out from behind his portcullis? He's just asking for it!). Having said all that, the telesnaps would suggest that the flooding sequences look cool - though I wouldn't put it past the makers of this story to have mucked it up. Perhaps we should be glad we don't have the filmed footage.

It is nice that the Doctor doesn't want to leave Zaroff behind though, only forced away by the water (the villains death is caused by his own insanity, rather than any deus ex machina or any specific murderous intent). I think I've really warmed to this Doctor now. He seems braver and smarter than before, less weird and scary. Almost without noticing it, he has become the Doctor.

Ben comes across the best he has in yonks. His improvised blagging his way past the guard is hugely engaging. Polly and Jamie fare less well, trapped in a plot cul de sac for the episode, with it never entirely clear what's going on. (but they shouldn't feel that guilty about it - practically every other character has nothing to do this week. The Atlanteans just get to say 'Ooh, it's a bit wet out there', and the slaves have been redundant since episode 2). Jamie is still just absorbing plot and lines from the other two, but it doesn't really bother you. If we didn't know I doubt we'd notice, after all, the original foursome rarely had totally individual plotlines.

A nice touch is the fact that the Atlanteans think the TARDIS crew are dead and decide to renounce their ways in tribute. It's a poignant little moment. In contrast, when Polly and Jamie think the other two are dead - and get greeted by a cheery 'boo', it's a wonder Jamie doesn't smack him right in the face.

The final TARDIS scene is pleasant enough, but Jamie seems ludicrously comfortable and familiar with the TARDIS and it's workings for someone who's only just arrived. He feels comfortable and safe there already? And worried about what's outside? After one trip? He's a bit clingy isn't he? Get away, the Doctor's got a stalker.


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