The Underwater Menace, by James Cooray Smith (and Geoffrey Orme, and Nigel Robinson)

When I first listened to the audio of The Underwater Menace in 2007, and watched what was then the only remaining episode, I had fully absorbed the fan consensus that it is terrible, and I wrote:

The Underwater Menace, from Patrick Troughton’s first season in early 1967, is notorious – even the normally upbeat Howe and Walker describe it as “undoubtedly the weakest of the second Doctor’s era, if not of the sixties as a whole”. Fortunately, in a way, only episode three (out of four) survives, and today’s fan can buy the soundtrack with narration by Anneke Wills who played Polly (the story featuring her, Ben and new companion Jamie). This means that we are not subjected to the awful production values and can let our imaginations fill in for the cheap-looking sets. As a sound only production it comes close to succeeding, with the main problems being the baffling ballet of the fish people in episode three (which in fact becomes more rather than less confusing when you actually see it) and the utterly clichéd villain, Professor Zaroff, who actually ends the third episode by declaring that nothing in the world can stop him now. The director, Julia Smith, went on to create EastEnders; this cannot have been a high point of her early career.

It does feature the most extensively featured Irish character in any Doctor Who story [arguably until Thaddea Graham as Bel in 2021], P.G. Stephens’ trapped sailor Sean (who is teamed up with Jacko, a trapped Asian sailor played by Paul Anil). As I have previously noted, there is not a lot of competition. It is not fair to say that he has “the least convincing Irish accent in television history”, as he has a long acting career both in Ireland [dead link] and England (playing mainly Irish parts, including a comedy IRA bomber [another dead link]), but he is certainly as wobbly in his acting as any of the rest of the guest cast, especially in the deeply embarrassing scene where he urges the fish people to revolt.

When I came back to it in 2010 for my Great Rewatch, I was no less forgiving.

Ow. The Underwater Menace is the first really bad story for some time, in fact almost as bad as The Sensorites which is my least favourite story so far. The plot is dreadfully padded – the Tardis crew faffing around getting captured in the first episode, wandering around in caves in the second episode, the hideously embarrassing fish-people dance in the surviving third episode, more cave wanderings in the last episode. The plot is fundamentally stupid, and Joseph Furst intensely annoying as Professor Zaroff. (Likewise Peter Stephens, doing a reprise of Cyril the schoolboy as Lolem the high priest; and the risible parts written for Token Irish Guy and Token Black Guy.)

As minor compensation, it looks decent enough, and the early Dudley Simpson score generally works; and some of the supporting cast are good – Ara (played by 16-year-old Catherine Howe who went on to a successful career in music) is clearly deeply in love with Polly, in the most overt gay crush in Who since Ian and Marco Polo. And Troughton carries it well, conveying at least his own confidence in the story (however feigned that may have been). Episode Three is the thirteenth Second Doctor episode, but the earliest to survive. I can’t help feeling that any one of the previous twelve would have been better.

A year later, of course, the missing second episode was recovered, and I watched it for the first time last month in preparation for this post; and you know what? I have revised my opinion of the story substantially upwards. Perhaps it’s that the second episode generally looks good enough; perhaps it’s that the intervening decade since 2011 has seen Moffat and Chibnall stories which were easily as silly in their premises as The Underwater Menace; perhaps my own tastes have matured enough that I am confident in my own judgement without relying on fan wisdom. The fish people are still a bit strange, but we’ve seen similar in New Who. I think my tolerance for what Doctor Who should be like has been broadened by the last two show-runners. You can judge for yourself by getting the DVD with reconstructions here and the audio only narration by Anneke Wills here.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of the novelisation by Nigel Robinson, introducing Dr Zaroff, is:

Lolem stalked angrily up to the figure who had just entered the temple and had evidently given the black uniformed guards their orders. The newcomer was tall and dressed in a high-collared white coat; a short black cloak hung over his shoulders. A shock of prematurely white hair covered his head, and a pencil-thin moustache topped his cruel mouth. The skin of his long aristocratic face was sallow but his large eyes gleamed with an icy-blue brilliance.

When I read it for the first time in 2008, I was also unforgiving:

This is very poor. It’s not quite as bad as Robinson’s novelisation of The Sensorites, and in the earlier chapters I thought it seemed quite promising. But the prose soon descends into his trademark clunkiness, and the story’s most famous line actually manages to come over even worse on the printed page than it does in the original.

Again, I don’t think I was being fair. It’s a perfectly adequate novelisation; a bit of back-story is given to Ara, Sean and Jacko, and even to Zaroff. You can get it here (if you are lucky).

This is the first time in this run of rewatches that I have found myself substantially revising my opinion of a story. Of course, it’s partly that there was a whole new episode here that I had not seen before. I was therefore in an open frame of mind when I started on James Cooray Smith’s Black Archive monograph; he had already done yeoman’s work on The Massacre and The Ultimate Foe, so my expectations were high.

And I was not disappointed. This is a more personal account than some of the Black Archives have been, as Cooray Smith was actually present at the BFI event in 2011 when, without any prior warning, the missing episode was shown to a crowd who had mainly come to the event for other reasons. Several of the Black Archives have made the point that our reception of past Doctor Who episodes is often dynamic rather than static; this is a very good case in point.

The first chapter, “Prehistoric monsters” looks at the reception of The Underwater Menace before 2011, pointing out that it was one of the most obscure of Old Who stories.

It neither introduces or writes out any memorable characters, nor features any popular monsters or villains. There are no references to it in subsequent television Doctor Who. It is one of a vanishingly small number of 20th-century Doctor Who stories to have no substantial sequel or prequel in any medium. With very few photographs taken during production, there was little visual material for use in the various glossy Doctor Who history books produced in the 1980s, whose printing of often striking colour photographs from black-and-white serials did much to shape fandom’s perceptions of the series’ earliest years.

The second chapter, “Hope it’s the Daleks”, describes the event on 11 December 2011 when Mark Gatiss presented both the third episode of Galaxy 4 and the second episode of The Underwater Menace. I remember this vividly too, though I was not there; the news hit Twitter as I was dining in a bistro near the main station in Luxembourg, on my way to a plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, possibly the first time I learned something important from Twitter as a news source. Cooray Smith also points out that the episode’s subsequent DVD release was a bit underwhelming.

The third chapter, “Please let it be… 1966”, briskly recounts the fraught writing and production of the story. Its second paragraph is:

The Tenth Planet (1966) had been rewritten as a swansong for William Hartnell’s Doctor and then its third episode had been hurriedly redrafted1 when Hartnell became unavailable. The Power of the Daleks required the temporary return of former Story Editor Dennis Spooner to the role (in addition to work performed by Davis in that capacity and rewrites by credited writer David Whitaker). The Highlanders (1966-67), made before The Underwater Menace but commissioned and initially intended to be made after it, was written by Davis after the contracted writer, BBC executive Elwyn Jones, failed to deliver any material at all, and was scripted with such urgency that all the necessary paperwork surrounding Davis’ commission was delayed until after most of the story had been made.
1 The original version, the Doctor playing a larger role in events, is retained in Gerry Davis’s novelisation.

The fourth chapter, “What have I come upon?”, looks in depth at Episode 2 and how watching it changes one’s perceptions of the story as a whole, exactly the experience I had had myself a few days before reading the chapter.

What the recovery of episode 2 has gifted us, however, in addition to a whole extra episode of 20th-century Doctor Who to enjoy, is a tremendous real-time demonstration of how any even only partially missing Doctor Who serial cannot ever really be understood as a piece of television, no matter how much secondary and supplementary material exists.

One utterly glorious bit of trivia. For many years, the only surviving segments of Episode 2 were those that had been cut from it by Australian censors for being too scary. The recovered copy of the episode turned out to have been the very one from which the Australian censors had cut the scenes, so they were reinserted into the master copy, half a century later on a different continent.

The fifth chapter, “Science is in opposition to ancient temple ritual”, looks at the tension between science and religion in the story, in the course of which the Doctor allies himself with the High Priest against Professor Zaroff, not the usual way around for these situations in Doctor Who.

The sixth chapter, “Nothing in the world can stop me now!”, offers a redemptive reading of the character of Professor Zaroff. Again, now that we have episode 2 as well, I can see that Joseph Furst’s performance, and the character as written, are much less over the top than fan lore would have had you believe.

The seventh chapter, “I should like a hat like that!”, looks at the question of the Second Doctor’s tall hat, which is seen for the last time in The Underwater Menace. Cooray Smith reckons that it was badly damaged in the filming of the previous story, The Highlanders, and thus quietly abandoned.

The eighth chapter, “Look at him! He’s not normal, is he?”, makes a good case that Troughton’s performance as the Doctor only really settles down after The Underwater Menace.

The ninth chapter, “A New Atlantis”, looks at the very little that is known of the writer, Geoffrey Orme, and examines the socialist elements of the plot – notably the strike of the Fish People as one of the few cases of industrial action in Doctor Who, and speculates that their infamous dance is rooted in the work of Ernst and Lotte Berk, with whom Orme had professional connections. I was convinced.

An appendix, “Vital secret will die with me! Dr. W”, looks in amusing and extensive detail at the question of whether the name of the lead character of the show is “Doctor Who” or not.

A second and final appendix reviews the production schedule of the story, whose studio sessions were recorded only a week before they were broadcast.

It’s all very satisfactory, and after a run of Black Archives which I was less happy with, this is reassuringly back to the usual excellent form.

Having said that, there is one very annoying production glitch. As has sometimes been the case before, it involves the footnotes; in this case, most of them are duplicated. It rather breaks up the reading experience.

Other than that, I really recommend this – after you have seen the recovered second episode. You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Talons of Weng-Chiang (58) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Sun Makers (60) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | Vincent and the Doctor (57) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Kill the Moon (59) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52) | The Haunting of Villa Diodati (56)