Sunday, 4 October 2015

DOCTOR WHO, 9.3 - 'Under the Lake'

Sunday, 4 October 2015


One of the mainstays of Doctor Who is the 'base under siege' plot, probably because they're useful when it comes to saving money (no troublesome outdoor location shoots) and naturally evoke a feeling of tension and claustrophobia. The revived series has done many such stories since it began, but they can be of mixed success, and sometimes my patience wears thin because they feel so similar.

For every "The Impossible Planet" or "Waters of Mars", there's "The Rebel Flesh" or "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship". Thankfully, Toby Whithouse's "Under the Lake" was in the former camp.

There's a certain degree of comfort with episodes like this, as in broad terms we know how they're going to develop. "Under the Lake" wasn't any different, for awhile, as The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) found themselves under Caithness in Scotland, in the year 2119 A.D, before coming face-to-face with two hollow-eyed ghosts speaking mutely. It soon became clear they're dead crew men of 'The Drum' underwater mining facility, and their terrified colleagues—Lunn (Zaqi Ismail), Cass (Sophie Stone), O'Donnell (Morven Christie), Bennet (Arsher Ali)—have taken refuge in a Faraday cage, which provides them with protection during the hours of artificial daylight.

So what are these ghosts up to? Why do they want to kill others? Why does their appearance coincide with the discovery of a mysterious black spaceship with four glyphs scratches onto the inside of its hull? Why is said ship missing a power cell and a stasis chamber? And why do the ghosts only come out at "night", in an environment when time has to be faked?

One of the best things about "Under the Lake" was the feeling that you were in safe hands with Whithouse's writing. As much as I enjoy the zaniness of Steven Moffat's instalments, they often feel like the result of someone having to deliver epic scenarios for the sake of them; lacking subtlety and logic in favour of bombast and pace. Moffat has and does do better, but I have a feeling he doesn't get the time to sit down and refine a story over many months these days. It's often the writers commissioned to write just one or two episodes each year who Doctor Who stories that have more patience and cleverness woven into them. And that certainly appears true of Whithouse's spooky underwater tale.

It was a real pleasure watching The Doctor calmly unpack this mystery, and start to piece the motives of the ghosts together. A lot of it made sense in the context of a sci-fantasy drama, too. The only real downsides were a few jokes that missed the spot (although I quite liked The Doctor's cue cards Clara's prepared to calm distressed people), and a pop-culture reference to Peter Andre I could've done without, but the lack of jokiness definitely worked in the show's favour when it came to developing and maintaining its unnerving tone. I especially loved the design of the ghosts; with their blurred features and hazy outlines, silently mouthing words as they calmly approach.

One thing that caught me off-guard was this episode ending on a cliffhanger, as I was beginning to sense the story was coming to a close, but there's evidently a lot more to be told in "Before the Flood". And it's great this will involve The Doctor travelling back in time, to effectively tackle the mystery in the past. For a time-travel show, there are actually very few episodes where the TARDIS is used as a device to solve mysteries. It's too often just a way to plonk The Doctor and his companion somewhere and when.

The creepy final shot of The Doctor himself floating through water, himself transformed into a black-eyed ghost, was also of the better ways Who's managed to secure your commitment to seeing the final part, too. How on earth can Clara save The Doctor from that fate, without the benefit of a TARDIS to go back and undo whatever happened to him?


  • Did you recognise the Tivolian ghost Prentis? It was comic actor Paul Kaye, these days best-known for his character acting on shows like Game of Thrones and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The Tovolian race was created by this episode's writer Toby Whithouse, and they first appeared in his Series 6 episode "The God Complex".
  • You may also have recognised Colin McFarlane as Moran, who was a semi-regular on The Fast Show and occasionally appears in big Hollywood movies like The Dark Knight. More bizarrely, he's the voice of ITV gameshow The Cube.
  • Sticking with the 'hey, it's him!' trivia this week, Arsher Ali is known for starring in the Chris Morris film Four Lions and E4 sitcom Beaver Falls as Adil.
written by Toby Whithouse | directed by Daniel O'Hara | 3 October 2015 | BBC1

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