Review: The Black Archive #40 – The Underwater Menace by James Cooray Smith

Key Facts:

  • Story No. 32. Written by Geoffrey Orme. Directed by Julia Smith.
  • Episodes 1 and 4 are missing. They are survived by episodes 2 and 3.
  • Key Themes: How does surviving material influence fan perception? Should we even take this story seriously? Is fan wisdom bollocks?
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The Underwater Menace: I’d planned to include more fish puns in this review but later decided to scale back on them.

The Review

There’s no doubt about it – The Underwater Menace (1967) is one of the strangest televised adventures in the entirety of Doctor Who’s 50+ year history. Its setting is mythical, taking place in the lost underwater city of Atlantis. Its science is ropey, with absurd ideas of draining the ocean into the Earth’s core. And its villain is utterly preposterous, a near-contemporary scientist, whom the Doctor is already aware of by reputation I might add, whose ideas of ‘supreme power’ will actually leave no-one in Atlantis alive to see the repercussions of his actions. But it certainly does score highly on originality.

With all that in mind, why should a range like The Black Archive, which delivers thoughtful and serious critiques of any and all Doctor Who stories, dare to even take it seriously? The idea that recurring contributor (and former editor of the range) James Cooray Smith would decide to hang his hat entirely around this premise initially seems a rather silly one, yet it actually achieves remarkable results. Much like his last contribution to the range, which examined The Ultimate Foe (1986), Cooray Smith delivers a sublime blend of analysis, document-based research and behind-the-scenes history, with its 110-or-so pages just flying by.

Given the frivolous nature of the story’s ideas and plotting, it is perhaps unsurprising that each of the book’s nine chapters are fairly short ones (about ten pages each) but what brings it all together is the use of a few key over-arching themes, namely how does missing material affect fan reception, taking full advantage of the rediscovery of Episode 2 back in 2011, as well as how collective fan wisdom can at times be sorely misplaced, which leads not only to some superlative myth-busting but also a few finger wags at the fandom-at-large. This even extends to the author himself who slaps himself on the wrist in a delightfully cheeky footnote.

The questions covered are an eclectic mix that honestly speak for themselves. Just take a look below at some of the questions this book presents well-informed and dutifully researched answers for you:

  • Why does fandom universally hate a story they’ve probably never seen?
  • What exactly happened at the BFI in 2011 when Episode 2 showed up?
  • Why was this story filmed despite being formerly abandoned?
  • Why do fans keep writing badly accented versions of the episode’s third cliffhanger?
  • Whatever happened to the Doctor’s hat in this story?
  • How does this story ultimately shape Troughton’s portrayal of the Doctor?

For me, there were two undisputed highlights during this read and both are towards the very end of the book. First, there’s a substantial appendix based on the Doctor’s note to Professor Zaroff signed “Dr. W”, which looks at whether the main character of the show is called ‘Doctor Who’ and whether the character is referred to as ‘Doctor Who’ both within and outside the fiction itself. The appendix doesn’t so much as cover but utterly annihilate the discourse surrounding these related questions, and with considerable aplomb too. Although, I must say the complete omission of the opening scene from World Enough of Time (2017) is a little baffling. I also sincerely hope his “Dame Shirley Bassey’ argument catches on in general.

The second highlight was the book’s final chapter looking at the life, work and collaborators of its author, Geoffrey Orme. Little is known about the life of Orme as he was never interviewed about his work, not even by a single Doctor Who fan, and he died in 1978. The search into the archives detailed in this chapter in the hope to the reveal hidden depths about the story of The Underwater Menace is commendable and reveals subtle and astute observations. This chapter is the literary equivalent of an astounding new Toby Hadoke documentary, such as those which have looked into the previously shrouded lives of Peter R. Newman (Writer of 60s serial The Sensorites (1964)) and Lennie Mayne (Director of four 70s Who serials). It is truly an excellent capstone to the book itself.

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The Fish People: Far from being background characters, they actually rose up and seized the means of food production.

Concluding Thoughts

Despite perhaps being as utterly mad as Professor Zaroff’s plan, this book manages to be a resounding success. This entry takes full advantage of the story’s poor fan reception and partially missing status as an opportunity to re-examine the serial with fresh eyes. Covering a diverse range of topics surrounding its troubled production, obscure cult status, and its mysteriously disappearing hat, The Underwater Menace by James Cooray Smith comes highly recommended to those who want to discover whether it has hidden depths. But if it should happen that fan historiography isn’t to your literary tastes then don’t worry, because there’s plenty more Fish People in the sea.

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