This time the TARDIS lands on a barren volcanic island. The crew except Jamie who remains confused and incredulous (remember, he is from the 1700s) excitedly talk about what they might find, with the Doctor hoping they’ll come across “prehistoric monsters.” Unable to even guess where and when they are, the Doctor scans his diary, while Polly produces a bracelet she found on the beach with an inscription referring to the Olympic Games in Mexico, leading her to suppose they are sometime past when they first left with the Doctor. Just when they get their bearings, they’re captured by men who take them to a complex of caverns under the ocean floor.
At first their welcome looks like a warm one. They’re led to a room where they’re fed a meal made from plankton, which the Doctor enthusiastically eats. This inspires Polly to remark that she’d never seen the Doctor so excited over food before, only hats. Unfortunately, the five-star treatment is just part of a sacrificial ceremony for the goddess Amdo, presided over by a head priest Lolem. The Doctor asks Lolem to see a Professor Zaroff, who the Doctor knows had invented a method to create elaborate foods out of just plankton. Lolem is nonplussed, but the Doctor convinces a servant to smuggle a note to Zaroff himself, claiming that if the Doctor is killed an important secret will die with him. Just when the Doctor and the companions are about to be submerged in a pool of sharks to appease Amdo, Zaroff intervenes. The Doctor is forced to admit he has no secret, but insteead that he hoped that a great scientist “wouldn’t want a modern scientific mind like mine sacrificed to a heathen idol.” Zaroff is amused by the Doctor’s audacity and decides to make him an assistant. The companions are also saved, only for them to be enslaved with Ben and Jamie sent to labor in some mines and Polly condemned to a surgery that would turn her into a “fish person” so she could work on the city’s underwater crops. Luckily the Doctor learns about Polly’s planned fate and manages to shut down the power, enabling Polly to escape and hide.
In Zaroff’s lab, the Doctor explains that he knew about Zaroff’s research into food production and thought like the rest of the world that Zaroff had died 20 years previously. Zaroff explains that he had instead stumbled across this society and leads the Doctor to the conclusion that the underground city is what remains of Atlantis, which the Doctor believed up until then was only a myth, and explains that although the continent of Atlantis was flooded and sunk into the ocean some survivors discovered expansive underground air pockets, in which they were able to rebuild their civilization. The Doctor is surprised that a scientist like Zoroff could be accepted by a society that still practices “ancient temple ritual and idol worship” (geesh, what is up with the Doctor’s anti-pagan bias in this episode?), but Zoroff explains he won not only their respect but political power by promising to lift Atlantis above the ocean. As Zoroff explains his planned techniques for doing so, the Doctor realizes that if Zoroff carries out his plans the Earth’s crust would be deeply damaged and the entire planet potentially destroyed. Here the Doctor comes to the uncomfortable conclusion that Zoroff is insane as he childishly chants “Bang! Bang!” and is thrilled at the prospect of single-handedly destroying the world (see Choice Quotes below).
With two shipwrecked sailors who were enslaved by the Atlanteans, Jamie and Ben manage to escape their captors. Likewise the Doctor flees Zoroff’s lab by “accidentally” mixing some chemicals that create a literal smoke screen. Free, the Doctor overhears a priest name Rolem express skepticism about Zaroff and tries to enlist his aid. Rolem offers to take the Doctor to the king of Atlantis, Thous (and the Doctor is pleased to be given a ceremonial hat for the purpose). The Doctor bluntly tells Thous that Zarloff is “as mad as a hatter,” but Thous is unconvinced since Rolem and the other priests had endorsed Zoroff and his plan to restore Atlantis in the past. Thous and Zaroff hand the Doctor and Rolem over to the tender mercies of Lolem. Luckily Ben, hiding behind a statue of Amno, tricks Lolem and the other congregants by having them bow and convincing them that the “sacrifices” have been snatched away into thin air.
Reunited with his companions, the Doctor, exploiting the fact that even Zaroff’s plankton-based food cannot be stored for long, sends the two sailors to convince the fish people to revolt and refuse to provide the city with food while he and the companions capture Zaroff. Disguised in the marketplace as a performer, the Doctor and Polly trick Zaroff into thinking he’s “discovered” the Doctor and lures him into a trap. While the Doctor, Jamie, and Ben go to Zaroff’s lab to disable the equipment he needs to literally shatter the Earth, Zaroff tricks Polly and Rolem and kills the latter while escaping. Zaroff tries to get Thous to have both the Doctor and the rebellious fish people executed, but Thous refuses, finally realizing Zaroff’s madness. It is, as one might expect, too late; Zaroff has gained the loyalty of some of Thous’ guards who turn against the king and stand by while Zaroff shoots him.
The Doctor decides the only way to stop Zaroff now is to flood the lower caverns of Atlantis, including Zaroff’s lab, and evacuate the people in that area to the higher areas. However, the encroaching flooding and the fish people’s strikes only delay Zaroff. The Doctor goes to confront Zaroff and convinces Zaroff’s technicians and guards to abandon him. Undeterred Zaroff tries to activate the device that will penetrate the Earth’s crust anyway, but the Doctor and Ben trick him into moving away from the controls and trap him behind a barrier. The Doctor tries to save Zaroff from being drowned, but a fallen rock blocks access to the lab, and he and Ben scramble to reach the higher reaches of the cave complex. Thous has survived and reached higher ground. He becomes convinced that Atlantis can be revived even after the disaster “without gods and without fish people.”
The Doctor, the companions, and the sailors escape back to the volcanic island on the surface. As they leave (without the sailors) in the TARDIS, the Doctor boasts that he can pilot the TARDIS to wherever and whenever he wants, he just always chose not to. To prove it the Doctor says he’ll fly the TARDIS to Mars, but suddenly something causes the TARDIS to go out of control.
On the note he sends to Dr. Zaroff, the Doctor signs his name “Dr. W.” It’s shades of when WOTAN called the Doctor “Doctor Who” in The War Machines, even though that was the only time in the whole series where the Doctor is actually called “Doctor Who.”
This is just the first of several Atlantises that will show up through the show’s run. Needless to say, they don’t exactly gel together.
It’s perhaps also worth noting that this is the first “Doctor Who” episode with a pretty explicit anti-religion message. It won’t really be the last.
Sign of the Times
Polly takes the reference to the Olympics in Mexico as a sign that they are somewhen in the future (Polly and Ben having boarded the TARDIS in 1966, by which point there had never been an Olympics competition in Mexico). For the serial’s 1967 audience it would have been a somewhat contemporary reference, since it had been announced that the 1968 Olympics would take place in Mexico City, placing this series (as Polly guesses) sometime in the 1970s.
This one’s a doozy:
Doctor: Just one small question: why do you want to blow up the world?
Zaroff: Why? You, a scientist, ask me why? The achievement, my dear Doctor. The destruction of the world. The scientist’s dream of supreme power!
There’s not too much to say about this one. It’s pretty fun and well-paced, especially compared to some of the serials from the last couple of seasons, but it’s definitely not one of the better Second Doctor adventures. The real selling point of this series is Joseph Fürst’s performance as Dr. Zoroff in all his cheese-and-ham, scene-chewing glory. In hindsight it’s just amazing to see a mad scientist villain who makes Davros appear reasonable. The sets are as always low, low budget, but they do convey the sense of a foreign society and the “fish people” look somewhat horrific, even though they are the subject of a long series of dull scenes that just show them swimming around. Still, if you want to go out of your way to watch the four episodes of this series (three of which are lost but available as reconstructions), it might be worth it to see the glorious Dr. Zaroff – but little else.