‘The Black Archive #40: The Underwater Menace’

❉ With its fortieth title, nothing in ze world can stop Obverse Books’ Black Archive series now!

“Without indulging in revisionist history, Cooray-Smith places The Underwater Menace in the context of a particularly tricky period for Doctor Who. His analysis walks the fine line of acknowledging the serial’s flaws while still recognising its ambition”

Sparacus, yesterday.

Obverse Books’ Black Archive series embodies the boldest notion of any range of books related to Doctor Who. It presumes that, not only is every televised story worth watching (or listening to in the case of many missing episodes), they’re all deserving of serious discussion. Rather than just leaning on consensus classics like Carnival of Monsters and Heaven Sent, the range has offered excellent volumes on polarising stories like Ghost Light and also examined profoundly unloved stories such Timelash. Following on from excellent books about The Silurians and Battlefield, the latest volume, about 1967’s The Underwater Menace, continues their winning streak.

The Underwater Menace routinely ranks among the least favourite of all televised Doctor Who stories. In Doctor Who Magazine’s first comprehensive survey in 1998, it ranked 157th among 160 stories and retained a comparable rank of 194 in their 2009 Mighty 200 survey. Its standing improved somewhat in the 2014 survey where it came in at 224 out of 241 stories. This modest improvement coincides with the 2011 recovery of the previously missing second episode, which hadn’t yet been commercially released by the BBC but started to make its way into fan circles (A DVD release of the two surviving episodes alongside reconstructions of the missing episodes eventually appeared in 2015).

Fan opinion and the factors that influence it are one of author James Cooray Smith’s primary topics in this volume. As in his 2017 Black Archive on The Ultimate Foe, Smith is dealing with a story where perceptions have been driven by the myth surrounding something largely unseen as much as the episodes that actually aired on Saturday afternoons. The difference is that, however much the ghost of Eric Saward’s withdrawn script haunts The Ultimate Foe, the broadcast version remains readily available to be evaluated on its own merits (and shortcomings). In contrast, The Underwater Menace only had one complete showing in 1967 before most of it was wiped from the BBC’s archives, depriving it of the chance for revaluation that’s benefited other stories with mixed reputations.

Writing about the BBC and other British broadcasters’ practice of wiping material from the archives is virtually a cottage industry among fans of British television, especially where Doctor Who is concerned. This book’s early chapters go into great detail about the loss of all but the third episode and eventual recovery of the second but with very different aims than most. Instead of focusing on Equity rules and shaky communication between BBC departments, Smith thoughtfully explores how the reputations of older Doctor Who episodes coalesced in an environment where the presence of any given episode in the archives was largely beside the point. His observations about how factors other than the episodes themselves influenced fans’ early hierarchy of stories offers one of the strongest testaments ever to the importance of the Target novelisations.

Smith’s insight also extends to the production itself, both what made it onscreen and the behind-the-scenes process that shaped that end result. Without indulging in revisionist history, he places The Underwater Menace in the context of a particularly tricky period for Doctor Who. His analysis walks the fine line of acknowledging the serial’s flaws while still recognising its ambition. By taking this set of episodes seriously rather than casually dismissing it, he also captures the uncertainty that surrounded the series following the very first changeover of lead actors.

With the hindsight of a dozen regenerations, it’s easy to forget that in 1967, Doctor Who’s future was anything but certain. For all that The Underwater Menace is derided, it remains part of that larger story. By separating fact from myth – and delving into how the myths took hold – this book captures a truly unique chapter in the show’s ongoing story. That it does so using what many fans would consider the basest of materials speaks to the genuine alchemy of the Black Archive books.

‘The Black Archive #40: The Underwater Menace’ is out now from Obverse Books, RRP £3.99 – £7.99. Buy Black Archive books from the Obverse Books website!

❉ Don Klees has spent many years in the video business. This continues to enrich his life in many ways, chief among them being able to tell people he watches television for a living. An avid consumer of pop – and sometimes not-so-popular – culture,  Don is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

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