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14/1/1967: The Underwater Menace – Part 1

Doctor Who

My ongoing mission: to watch classic television fifty years after first broadcast...

“You’re not turning me into a fish!”

The problem I have with this episode is that Atlantis is presented as if it’s a legend (and indeed referred to as such) when it is in fact a fictional island from a MADE-UP STORY by Plato. The confusion arose when people started to speculate that Plato may have been inspired by a real place. But as far as I’m aware there is no evidence for this, and even if there was such inspiration, that’s all it was. There has never been any such place called Atlantis! So for Doctor Who to have a story set there, well the Doctor might as well visit the ‘legendary’ lands of Narnia or Tatooine or Oz or Pokemon.

Anyway, that said, I thought this episode was a lot of fun. So the TARDIS gang have pretty much abducted Jamie, the piper from 1746. Enticed him into the TARDIS with no warning that they are about to whisk him away, and probably get him killed along the way, light years and centuries from his own home, without any preparation or clue as to what he’s likely to face. If that was Thomas Cook you’d sue.

Ben and Polly then taunt Jamie, telling him that they have no idea where or when they are going as the Doctor can’t control the ship. Oh, great, now they tell him. The bit where the three travellers ponder where they might end up is very unusual. The Doctor’s hoping for prehistoric monsters, answering the age old fan question of “what’s your favourite monster?”

It’s always nice to see location work in tv series, especially as there’s so little of it in the sixties, and so the beach scenes in this look great. It’s odd how we’ve had so much coastal stuff lately: The Smugglers set in Cornwall (referred to here by Ben and Polly), the slave ship in the last story, The Highlanders, and now this. Any excuse for a trip to the beach it seems.

They explore and find what Ben identifies as an extinct volcano, which gives the Doctor a clue to their location. They climb up and into the volcano. Polly remains at the top and spots a large cave entrance. Having visited Winspit in Dorset I recognised the cave entrance immediately. Twelve years from now I will see it again in Destiny Of The Daleks

Polly finds a bracelet and is then pounced on by some men who tie her up and drag her away. It’s not long before the other three are captured and bundled in with Polly. It then becomes apparent that the room is a lift and they descend into the mountain/volcano. Polly starts to feel unwell and the Doctor reassures everybody not to worry as it’s Caisson’s Disease. This is decompression sickness – a little bit of scientific education which has been absent from Doctor Who for a long time now it seems to me.

The bracelet Polly found is inscribed ‘Mexico Olympiad’, thus enabling Polly to guess that the date is 1970 (as everyone here in 1967 knows, the Mexico olympics are next year). A man appears in an odd costume. “Polly, you speak foreign” says Ben. I wonder if she’s actually got qualifications in Foreign. She attempts three languages anyway, and Jamie chips in with his own brand of Foreign.

They are ushered into another room where the Doctor tucks into a big spread of food. He had a bit of a nibble a couple of weeks ago but I’m not sure if I’ve seen the Doctor actually eating like this before and his enthusiasm for plankton suggests it’s his first meal in ages. “Good…very good…delicious…excellent…ambrosia”: this appears to be a hungry Doctor. Before he runs out of superlatives Ben and Polly also comment that they’ve never seen the Doctor so enthusiastic about food before (“it’s usually hats”).

A priest in ceremonial robes interrupts the Doctor’s feast, announcing that the travellers’ arrival was expected. Their “living goddess” Amdo predicted it apparently. They are to be taken away for something sinister it seems, but the Doctor mentions a ‘Professor Zaroff’ who he has guessed is there because of the excellent food. He gives one of the serving girls a note to take to Zaroff. The note is signed “Dr W”. I wonder what the ‘W’ stands for…

There’s some very atmospheric and creepy chanting in the sacrificial hall. And footage of circling sharks. The high priest starts the ceremony and puts on a big fish head mask. The travellers are to be fed to the sharks. From what I can make out there is a scene transition from Polly screaming to a tiny little fish swimming in a tank in Zaroff’s laboratory! If so that’s clever and funny. Zaroff gets the Doctor’s note: “Vital secret will die with me”. Incredibly, the professor actually takes this seriously and stops the ceremony. It seems rather far fetched that he would react that way to a vague note about an unspecified secret completely out of the blue like that! The Doctor must know the professor well enough that he absolutely can’t bear an unsolved mystery.

The Doctor is released, and he in turn orders that his friends are also released, before admitting to Zaroff that it was all a bluff. Again, incredibly (although after some ego-stroking flattery from the Doctor), the professor accepts this, saying he appreciates the Doctor’s sense of humour! “I need men like you”, he says before they both exit roaring with laughter.

The companions are taken away by a man called Damon. Ben and Jamie are to be taken to the mines to work (more slavery: so far the second Doctor has encountered ‘servant’ Daleks, slave trading in the Scottish Highlands and now slave miners). Polly meanwhile, because she’s gorgeous, is taken by Damon to see how beautiful life under the sea is, and he shows her his aquarium. Actually it’s a window through which we see people in fish suits swimming around – Damon refers to them as farmers. So that’s where the “good, very good, delicious, excellent, ambrosia” comes from. The fish people look a bit creepy to me but it’s hard to tell from these brief glimpses (the tv picture keeps cutting out you see so I just get a series of what look like brief still shots).

Damon reveals Polly’s fate. The fish people have had plastic gills surgically applied and Polly will join them on the farm: “You’re not turning me into a fish” she cries.

Meanwhile the Doctor has worked out where they are: Pokemon! Sorry, Atlantis! As he points out to Zaroff, there’s usually a conflict between idol-worshipping religious types and scientists…but the professor explains that he has promised them that he will raise Atlantis to the surface. So contrary to what Damon told Polly it can’t be all that amazing under the sea then.

A protesting Polly is strapped down to the operating table. The fish people watching through the observatory looks really creepy!

After appearing such a strong character last story, Polly seems to be back in “weedy frightened lady” mode (as Anneke Wills put it) again this week. I’ll be charitable though and suggest that she’s tougher when on home turf amongst human baddies. And which of us would seriously react any differently when faced with scary fish people and the prospect of new holes in our throats?

Well I’m aware that in the 21st century this story doesn’t have a great reputation, but from my point of view, here in 1967, I rather enjoyed that episode. Wait…what’s this? I swear I just saw a moving picture on my television screen…

I think I’ve got it working again…

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14/1/1967: The Underwater Menace – Part 1
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