Doctor Who: 903 “Under the Lake” Review
Reviewed by John Hussey.
Despite the somewhat shaky start to the new series, I feel it has found its footing with its second story. Sometimes a straightforward, traditional narrative can be more appreciated than an over-ambitious one filled with special effects and blockbuster elements. “Base-under-siege” has been a reoccurring story blueprint since the Patrick Troughton era and still provides an excellent starting point for development. Cross this with Toby Whithouse and, well, ‘Under the Lake’ is born.
I have to give credit to Whithouse. He is an exceptional writer and a great contributor to Doctor Who. Every single one of his episodes have been superb, and have all brought some interesting ideas to the table. ‘The God Complex’ is a particular favourite of mine. I loved the idea of faith being turned against you, leading to the Doctor having to destroy Amy’s own faith in the Time Lord. The episode was both cinematic in design as well as creepy due to its claustrophobic feel and evil nature.
‘Under the Lake’ takes on some of those aspects, mostly through the claustrophobic environment and the creepiness. It’s interesting that ghosts haven’t been a part of Doctor Who more often. The supernatural is a wonderful and surreal area to play with. It plays on all of our minds, regardless whether we are sceptical or not. We all wonder from time to time what death holds. Whithouse doesn’t exactly approach this idea entirely, that was left to Steven Moffat and his horrific, but brilliant, take on it last year, but he does play around with the idea of how death can be manipulated.
The design of the ghosts were amazing, and creepy. I know I keep using this word but ‘Under the Lake’ did have that vibe. I wasn’t scared myself but I feel younger viewers may have found this scary, or indeed frightening. The ghosts were threatening, made worst through most of them once being allies. They had a vicious and unearthly look to them. The fact their eyes were blackened out showcases a sense of identity lose. We can no longer relate with them. Their dark design is similar to the Flood from ‘The Waters of Mars’. They retain a sense of humanity but the simplistic tweaks of prosthetics created an unnerving appearance. Like the Flood the ghosts do not speak, making them even more unsettling.
They were made even more threatening through their ability to travel through walls and even pick up objects, such as axes and wrenches, to attack with. It is interesting also that we saw the return of the Tivolian race, yet another call-back to ‘The God Complex’. Gibbis was the first member of the race we saw and it was through him we learnt that they were cowardly, wishing to be oppressed by any given invader and thereby being the slyest race in the known universe. This time the Tivolian are seen as the lead ghost, dressed in Victorian wear. It was by far the creepiest of the ghosts and I’m interested to see how this creature fits into the “why” of the narrative.
If it’s one thing I like about Whithouse it’s his ability to write for the Doctor. He has a gift in being able to understand him and in many ways bring out his demons. This time it would seem the Doctor’s demons are his worries towards Clara becoming like him. Clara has now become an adrenaline junky, per-say, through her addictiveness towards journeying into adventure and danger. It’s almost like her sense of fear has left her behind, making me worry for her wellbeing. How much has Danny’s death affected her?
Hopefully the Doctor can help her out prior to her doing something foolish but it might come too late. We already know the wonderful Jenna Coleman is leaving this series so maybe, as a piece of speculation, her thirst for adventure in order to escape reality pushes her too far and into danger she cannot escape. As we saw this week Clara didn’t seem to take in what the Doctor was trying to tell her. She was aware of his words but didn’t seem to take them seriously. Wasn’t aware of her changed persona. She no longer thought rationally or gave the dangers surrounding the Doctor’s life any consideration. Compare this to Series Eight Clara and you have yourself a complete change in character. Without anything to ground her Clara is slowly running away from the world and becoming an exile in eternity, like the Doctor.
The Twelfth Doctor has certainly had a lot of development. You can feel it through Peter Capaldi’s presence onscreen. In Series Eight he was cold, alien, dismissive to lower people, and even unaware of his actions, causing tons of friction in his friendship with Clara. Now he is more bouncy, fun even, and showcasing signs of humanity. Though he still likes to use the “idiot” card on people he dislikes, or finds stupid through their ideas. The Twelfth Doctor is now one with the room and doesn’t always try to stand above people. He is a true adventurer again and his wonder and excitement towards the universe has grown. His moment of realising he was actually confronting real ghosts was a great moment in showcasing his development.
I also really enjoyed the notecards. This is one of the enjoyable factors of the Twelfth Doctor and Clara dynamic. Clara has always been his translator. Now, it would seem, she has prepared statements in order to apologise for his alien nature, and frank misunderstanding towards thinking about others before speaking. It simply shows they care for one another and that they have a great understanding of each other. Like Missy has stated before, Clara is the Doctor’s match; the perfect companionship. It will be sad to see her go really.
It was nice to see some interesting characters this week, something the opener was lacking. The nice thing about two-parters is the ability to take it steady and build upon the narrative and its respective characters. We then gain a greater understanding of the world the writer is trying to create. Pacing is also another benefit. We don’t get a rushed resolution, or at least you’d hope not. And we get cliff-hangers. We need cliff- hangers, Doctor Who thrives off them. It’s almost like a core component and it’s nice to see them back in abundance this year.
Back to characters. We had some great characters that you enjoyed following throughout. We had the devoted captain, the selfish businessman, the courageous fan-girl, the doubtful scientist and the signer. I especially loved the incorporation of a deaf character. It made her stand out in a completely different way and showcased a new direction within the show. Despite not having a voice her words were powerful and delivered with passion and authority. This was shown perfectly when she confronted the Doctor. We didn’t need to hear the words because we felt them. That is true acting.
Characters are one of the core aspects of the “base-under-siege” storylines and Whithouse gave us some good characters for this particular two-parter. I wouldn’t say they were the best in Who history but they are certainly worth investing in. Also you didn’t want them to die, and death is a big part of this narrative. That is another reason why the story could become tenser at times because you feared for the characters. A scene that comes to mind was when Lunn was cornered by a ghost.
The narrative did well at holding a mysterious meaning throughout as it slowly revealed itself but it did it in a way that was clever. By which I mean the clues were right under our noses. The reason the ghosts manifested was because of the writing aboard the alien spacecraft, which we saw at the very beginning of the episode. Throughout the narrative the characters that looked at the writing, getting it embedded into their very soul, were targeted and killed to become a further beacon for the unknown transmission.
It was clever that the Doctor came to the conclusion that he had to go back in time in order to discover the truth behind the mystery. Time travel is a core aspect of the show and Whithouse took advantage of that by incorporating it as part of his resolution. The Doctor’s trip to the past appears to have great consequences for him as right at the end of ‘Under the Lake’ we see him as a ghost. What happens to him and how he averts this is what makes me so anxious to watch ‘Before the Flood’.
A massive improvement this week. Without a doubt ‘Under the Lake’ was a step back in the right direction. I had no doubts that Whithouse would impress me again. He used the “base-under-siege” storyline with great care and created something a little different, whilst having a nice blend of elements from the likes of ‘The Impossible Planet’, ‘The Waters of Mars’ and ‘Cold War’. I’m really happy that he finally got the chance to write a two-part story, and as I mentioned above I cannot wait for the concluding episode next week.