“To raise Atlantis from the sea was only the dream of a madman after all.” – Thous
This is the story that establishes Troughton’s Doctor as the one we know. He is mischievous and cheeky throughout, pausing for moments of reflective muttering before springing into comic action. It’s also the start of a rather campy approach to costumes and sets for the show as well as a light-touch on the dialogue. The story itself is quite an odd mishmash too—we’re introduced to the ancient lost culture of Atlantis which a mad scientist has discovered and turned into his personal dictatorship which he uses to capture shipwrecked sailors to turn them and others into fish-people slaves for farming while he secretly develops a plot to destroy the world.
Despite all that going on, the action of the plot really just boils down to the TARDIS crew getting captured and escaping multiple times whilst trying to sabotage Zaroff’s ultimate plans. The Second Doctor is known for fomenting revolution and this story shows how he does it in several ways. He gets the Sean to use his blarney to inspire the fish people to strike. He encourages Ramo to follow his gut. (“You distrust Zaroff out of instinct, I distrust him because I know the truth.”). And through a simple suggestion about Zaroff (“Have you noticed his eyes lately?”), we see the important moment later when Thous actually does this and has a first moment of doubt in Zaroff’s sanity that ultimately undermines his support for him. In the end, however, it boils down to a giddy Doctor and a raving mad Zaroff facing off on opposite banks of controls in what must have been a rather wild scene. (Unfortunately, we can’t see it now—nor the spectacular flooding of the temple—due to the episode being lost.)
Our companions continue to shine bright in terms of being active and figuring out solutions on their own—although Polly is back to being a bit weaker and weepier. (It does allow for a tender moment between her and Jaime thinking the Doctor and Ben are lost.) Jamie is not yet the best buddy of the Doctor that we will see him be later; instead we see him growing closer to Ben and Polly here. There is interestingly an emphasis at both ends of the story on his accepting and adapting to strange things despite not having the background to understand. Ben does get some funny camaraderie pretending to escort the Doctor as a guard: “How do I know he’s a wanted man?” challenges the commander. “Well, blimey, look at him. He ain’t normal, is he?”, replies Ben with the commander’s complete agreement!
There’s a theme of science versus religion woven throughout the story that though referenced several times doesn’t really seem like the main conflict given Zaroff’s insanity. Though they get lost in the campy costumes of fish masks, tentacle hats, and shell caps, there are actually some nice flowery lines in the story: “Life is a stream of water that drains away even as time does, and cannot be reclaimed” and, as the sea finally breaks through and starts to flood Atlantis, “The great enemy, which we held at bay for so many centuries, the ever-lasting nightmare, is here at last.” There are also several funny off-the-cuff remarks: “And just what part are we to play in this festival of the vernal equinox?” “A very important part, I regret to say. Guards!”
There’s a long slow sequence I think is intended to be otherworldly, almost like a ballet, as the fish people spread the message of revolt. Looking at it today, it’s impossible to overlook the kitschy costumes, wonky synthesizer, and wires supporting the actors ‘swimming’ across the set. I’m not sure how it would have been on the smaller and fuzzier screens of the day—perhaps it came across a bit more arty. Ultimately, the over-the-top acting and costumes of The Underwater Menace undermine any seriousness it does have, so most people viewing it will not have a good impression.
Best (or worst) unsettling moments:
I always finds scenes with young women (in this case Polly) being strapped to a table by doctors while whimpering in fear to be rather unsettling. Though out of camera sight (or perhaps because of that) the stabbing of Roma is quite greuseome, especially before it’s tempered a bit by showing him initially survive it. It’s especially sad as it’s just as he found his confidence in himself. The shooting of Thous (and everyone else in the room) should also have seemed equally sudden and gruesome but it’s undercut by bad sounds effects and horrible acting. (“Nothing in ze world can shtop me now!”)
- Atlantis story (first of three – though they are not as conflicting as some suggest)
There are a lot of plot points that just don’t make sense—if the Atlanteans can get to the surface to capture people then why are they “stuck” and needing to raise Atlantis? [It may be that the access to outside is a more recent innovation by Zaroff and they are staying out of loyalty, but even after it’s largely flooded they still remain down there?] How does Zaroff train up so many scientists from Atlantis in such a short time? Where does all the scientific equipment come from? They can’t get food but they can get computers? The whole Atlantis culture doesn’t make sense and is really just a hodgepodge of ideas. (And then the Doctor signs his note ‘Dr. W’ – eek.)