Monday, 21 December 2015

The Underwater Menace

Chapter The Fifteenth, which has bits missing.

Sometime around 1970, the Doctor, Ben, Polly and Jamie arrive in the lost kingdom of Atlantis, now submerged. The Atlantean royalty has taken in and sheltered a renowned but barmy scientist Professor Zaroff for the last twenty years, and now they form a joint reign of terror: any passing shipwrecked mariners are put to work as slaves in the mines, sacrificed to the Atlantean god Amdo by being fed to the sharks, or operated on and turned into fish. Zaroff also plans to drain the ocean into the core of the Earth, blowing up the whole planet. The Doctor thinks things have got too silly, even in this period where he himself is recently regenerated for the first time and is essentially mad and wearing a different hat every week. So, he puts a stop to it, not before time.

This wasn't randomly chosen, but was watched as the DVD had just come out, the final ever original series Doctor Who story to come out on DVD. But delayed, two years after its original scheduled release date, and therein hangs a tale.

Like most of the last few stories that came out before it in 2012-ish, The Underwater Menace has episodes missing. The BBC destroyed the original recordings and all known copies, for reasons, and in circumstances, too involved to detail here. Those previous gap-tooth serials filled the narrative holes with new animation matched to the soundtracks (which the BBC does have, because fans with more foresight than they illegally recorded the audio on reel-to-reel machines at home). No one would have considered The Underwater Menace for the expensive animation treatment, though, as three of its four episodes were missing; but late in 2011 it was announced that a film recording of episode 2 had been found. Animating two out of four was economically viable, and the release would have an additional draw of a previously unseen 25 minutes. Plus, the rest of the story is such a cartoon anyway that people might not even notice the join.

Alas, the animation fell through (at the time it was rumoured that the animators got higher priority work, but the Doctor Who Magazine review in last month's issue suggests that a different company were lined up, but unfortunately went bust). The release date got pushed out, but was still promised for a while. But because the rest of the range was done and dusted, the team that worked on it had dispersed, and no one was around to champion this final release. The title disappeared from the schedules, and Doctor Who fans the world over stoically accepted that all the episodes of the 20th century series were theirs to own. Except one. Which they'd never seen. But which had been restored, and had lovely DVD extras made to accompany it. Which they would also never get to see. They grinned and bore it, and got on with their lives.

No, of course they didn't. They moaned and contacted switchboards and arranged online petitions.  And good on 'em, because it worked. With something of a "Stop calling us, here you go, now shut up" approach, BBC Worldwide tossed The Underwater Menace into the shops at the end of October.  The missing episodes were represented by the soundtrack accompanied by off-screen stills taken at the time of broadcast. This has worked in the past because of clever use of pans, zooms, overlays, text narration and such to make the visuals interesting, and help the viewer know what's going on.  They haven't done that here, and the refresh rate of getting a new image is low; so, sometimes, one is looking at a fuzzy close up of someone's head for two minutes, while various noises off happen, not very clearly.
What's very annoying is that the person who put it together is a fan, and has gone on record that he begged the management to be allowed to do a better job, even offering to do extra work for free. He was denied. Try explaining all this to your kids, mind! Mine sat happily through 50% of this story, but for the other 50% moaned and threw things at me for being so sad as to watch the barely moving monochrome slide-show. Cheers Beeb.

First-time round: 
The at-the-time only known surviving episode (3) was released as part of a box-set on video in 1998. I watched it, but felt it was a bit disposable, really, as the main draw of the set was a complete version of The Ice Warriors, a similarly Swiss Cheese-esque story which has two episodes in the middle missing. The video cleverly used off-screen stills with pans, zooms, overlays, and text narration to bridge the gap. Yes, a video in 1998 was produced to a better standard than a DVD in 2015. Cheers Beeb, again.
The soundtrack with narration was brought out on CD around 2004, and I bought it and listened to it, but it didn't make much of an impression. I do remember first watching the found episode 2 well however. It was May 2013, almost two years after its discovery, and the footage was leaked onto Youtube. No one knew then it would take another two and a half years to stumble out on DVD, so I'm glad I gave in to temptation and watched it then and there.  The trouble was the then and there was a day job working weekend, and I was staying in a Hamburg hotel with the worst wi-fi in the universe.

There was much buffering. Then a bit of footage, then more buffering.  And for every two periods of buffering, it would crash and go back to the beginning.  I'd get a bit further in each time, but overall it took about five times 25 minutes to get to the end, and felt something like punching a diamond wall over and over for four billion years.


One interesting point is that Atlantis is a society where superstition and science rub up against each other in an uneasy truce, which results in a story where superstition and science are both shown to be evil. Doctor Who has depicted similar clashes before and after The Underwater Menace, but it's usually picked a side. I'd love to think that this was deliberate, but likely it's just part of the story's general approach of throwing whatever it can at the viewer without worrying about sense or consistency.

The Atlantean leaders scheme to return Atlantis to the surface at great cost: but they already have a lift that takes them there. Zaroff can turn people into fish and blow up the planet, but can't invent a fridge. Despite having built every kind of machinery imaginable (except for a fridge), no one's considered that automating food gathering on the seabed might be more efficient than stitching gills on disgruntled slaves. And if anything, the Doctor's plans are even crazier and more inconsistent than Zaroff's; he ferments a fishy rebellion and floods Atlantis. Why? Answers on a postcard from the Mexico Olympics.

Does it matter? Steven Moffat just staged a spectacular finale, returning to Gallifrey and presenting a moral quandary about how far one should go to save a friend, but my two boys only remember it because there was a new sonic screwdriver revealed at the end. (You can't buy it in the shops for Christmas, which caused some tears. Cheers Beeb, yet again.) Similarly, nothing stuck with them from The Underwater Menace as much as the different types of fish people on display. This provoked lots of discussion about whether they were males and females or different castes. I didn't want to ruin it by telling them that the production probably just ran out of sequins halfway through.

Both this and Earthshock involve a plan to destroy the Earth that doesn't quite come off. And both contain sequences set in subterranean areas.

Deeper Thoughts:  
Farewell physical format. Poor old Underwater Menace always seems an afterthought: one of the latter stories to be novelised, last missing story CD, last DVD released after years of delays. Even this little blog has taken two months to get round to writing up its post. This has been due to multiple factors making me very busy, not least of which some builders taking the roof off my house and then putting it back on again different.  But I don't want anyone to misunderstand: I did not wait to get the final Classic Who DVD, I preordered it and watched it as soon as it was released - why change the habits of a lifetime.

Now, the collecting is over.  Yes, I'll have a new series of 21st Century Doctor Who every year to buy on Blu-Ray, but that's not the same. I have preordered my last pre-order; I have torn open my last BBC Shop card envelope; I have swapped over my last reversible cover sheet; I have heard the nice lady say "To select audio navigation, press enter now" for the last time (as long as I mute it every time I rewatch a DVD henceforth and it was getting a bit irritating, so I probably will).
I started collecting Doctor Who on home video formats in 1986, so it's the best part of thirty years of my life I've wasted. In that time, the format has gone from VHS to DVD to Blu-Ray to midnight download. In that time, I've gone from buying in high-street stores on the day of release to pre-ordering online. I've seen play247 change to change to Rakuten change to a place I don't purchase from any longer. And I wouldn't change a thing. God bless my collection of shiny discs, every one.

In Summary:
It doesn't matter when stuff doesn't make sense, if you just let yourself be distracted by sequins.