“He’s a ghost!”
An underwater base? Mysterious goings on? The crew in mortal danger? You couldn’t get more old-school Doctor Who than ‘Under The Lake!’ After the uneven first two episodes of Doctor Who, this was a straight-forward lark. No complications, no flitting between planets for the sake of padding out the story, no nonsense. The Doctor and Clara land in an underwater base. Of course, there’s something not quite right. The crew are being haunted by ghosts after finding a “craft of unknown origin” with strange marking on the inside. The Doctor and Clara investigate after witnessing the ‘ghosts’ shortly after arriving. There’s mystery, danger and intrigue…all in a rather good episode! It suffered from an over-stuffed cast, but only a little.
Over the Moffat era of Doctor Who, the ‘scariness’ level of the show has been bumped up, especially relative to the RTD era. Think of The Silence, ‘Night Terrors,’ etc. It’s almost as if Moffat wants to terrify the poor children watching the show! Could that account for lost viewers? Maybe…However, ‘Under The Lake,’ whilst not especially scary, had a great claustrophobic vice about it. It reminded me a little of Super Metroid’s Maridia section (and the music did as well). Playing that section, you feel the pressure on your chest underwater, and it was almost the same here. Expertly directed by Daniel O’Hara, we were stuck inside the underwater base. We only left the base on a video screen; nobody actually left the base on screen. It created an oppressive atmosphere. The ‘ghosts’ weren’t scary, but as part of that claustrophobic environment, they worked fairly well.
“Don’t go native”
An atmosphere can only get a TV episode so far. Fortunately, the story kept me intrigued and constantly asking questions (the good kind!) of what was going on. Rather than laughing at obvious nonsense (which happened more than a few times in the past two episodes), the plot sucked me in, slowly but surely. Clues are strewn plentifully throughout the episode. Theories are proposed and abandoned. Very few distractions interfere with the growing mystery, which was a refreshing change! There’s a mystery, and the episode was all about exploring the mystery. What’s easier to follow that a simple mystery?!?!?
Capaldi’s work here was masterful; for once he seemed actually bewildered! This is a side of The Doctor that isn’t explored enough; the side that doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. Usually, he knows who the enemy is almost straight away. In ‘Under The Lake,’ The Doctor’s lack of knowledge (and the TARDIS being unable to decipher the writing on the unknown craft) complemented the sense of danger and unease. Of course, towards the end, he dives straight into the face of danger. His concern for Clara after landing was a little out of character. It seemed he had taken her on adventures that lacked danger…does The Doctor fear Clara being hurt or killed? Does he know something that we don’t? I noticed his concern for Clara in last week’s episode as well…
“I want you to go”
My only real criticism was the largely expendable cast. We barely go to know Moran before he was killed (only minutes into the episode!). He returned as a ghost, but we learned little about him. We learned little about the rest of the crew. Pritchard, the typical corporate bad guy, only wanted ‘assets’ for his company, Vector Petroleum. He was loathsome and irritating, but a character merely written as a critique on big corporations (i.e. he cares more about the corporation than human lives!). The only real stand out was Cass, the deaf person who could only communicate by sign language. It was handled very well. Apart from her, the rest of the crew felt like a sketch on a piece of paper. A few lines about their background were all we needed to know about them, apparently…
It’s easy to say this, three episodes into Series 9, but ‘Under The Lake’ has set a high standard for the following episodes. Compared to the previous two episodes, it was simple and straight-forward. All of the focus was on the story, rather than the characters. The downside was a lack of a fully developed cast. The crew of the base were largely relegated to exposition-spewers. However, that was the only noticeable negative. A gripping mystery that dragged the viewer in, with a relentlessly hostile feel to proceedings, it was a really rather good episode of Doctor Who!
VERDICT: 8/10. See what Doctor Who can achieve when its story is focused? A great horror for the children, and a thrilling ride of for the adults!
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(Click here for my review of Doctor Who, Series 9, Episode 2: The Witch’s Familiar)