Doctor Who series 9: Under The Lake review

A base under siege, a Peter Andre reference, and a cracking slice of old-style Doctor Who. It's our spoiler-filled review of Under The Lake.

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.

9.3 Under The Lake

“This safety message was brought to you by Vector Petroleum”

Right then. There’s an isolated base, with a diverse crew on board. There’s a threat, from which there’s no obvious sign of escape. There are corridors, which are set to be run down with as much determination as you would expect. And there’s the arrival of the Doctor and his companion, just as the fit is hitting the shan.

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What do you mean you’ve seen it all before?

“You actually poo-pooed the ghost theory?”

For his first Doctor Who episode following series 7’s middling A Town Called Mercy, Being Human creator Toby Whithouse has dug deep into the stylings of classic Doctor Who. The first in a two part story, Under The Lake has an awful lot going in its favour, too, delivering for my money the best of the current run so far. Accepting that the current run is two very good episodes old.

I’m going to start with just how spooky it all is, if it’s okay with you (which presumably accounts for a later transmission time. Side note: can episodes start going out at the same time again please? Ta).

Daniel O’Hara had never directed an episode of Doctor Who before this one, but it can’t just be me hoping he gets many repeat calls. He makes full use of the claustrophobia afforded by the base setting, using time honoured tricks such as relaying scale on computer screens and shooting from different angles to make everything appear far bigger on the inside. It works.

He also makes things really quite scary. I watched this one with my 11-year old, and it brought to mind another oft-quoted quality of Doctor Who old, the ability of the show to send you scurrying behind the sofa. Now, not to go into too much detail here, but the arrangement of my pokey living room doesn’t make that a possibility. Yet still, my offspring was hiding behind his fingers, every time the ghostly figures appeared (and they were up and running before the credits rolled). For one or two moments, I wasn’t far behind him.

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For in the creation of the ghosts, so much is done right. Firstly, the effects team use CG to enhance a human figure, rather than replace it. Secondly, the ghosts move slowly, and O’Hara’s direction thus doesn’t use rapid cuts to try and fake their menace. He keeps them firmly in his frame for large parts of their scenes, and in classic Romero style, they feel all the more sinister for him doing so.

Furthermore, anything that messes convincingly with eyes? That generally helps aid the fear factor. As such, Under The Lake is a creepy, creepy episode. Creepier than most things I’ve seen in a cinema this year, Adam Sandler films included.

“You can stay and do the whole Cabin In The Woods thing”

Not unlike Mummy On The Orient Express last year, Under The Lake is also a ghost story with a mystery behind it, and this one really benefits from having extra room to breathe. It’s the huge upside of two-parters by writers who know how to maximise them.

Thus, Whithouse layers lots of clues throughout the episode, and not having seen the concluding part – Before The Flood – prior to writing this review, I can’t honestly say that all of them will pay off. But I suspect they will, and I really enjoy the episodes where the Doctor and Clara get to play detective. Credit too for starting to provide some of the answers already. It lightens the need to explain too much come the finale.

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So: we have writing on the wall. We have a suspended animation chamber, found in the church of the flooded village where the base sits. We have the TARDIS herself scared of the beings on board the base, and unable to translate the aforementioned writing. Ghosts silently chanting clues (odd clues really, and the deciphering of them wasn’t Under The Lake‘s highlight). And the Doctor and Clara, both starting off in chipper mood, having to work out just what’s going on.

Not content with all of that, Toby Whithouse isn’t just in the ballpark of classic Doctor Who here, he’s also touching on Ridley Scott’s Alien. Thus, we have a bastard corporation, Vector Petroleum this time around, where humans are collateral damage against profit. Sure, Who and many other shows have been down this road many, many times, which is why Whithouse doesn’t really over-egg it. His company man, Pritchard, is arguably the most disposable character of this lot, and not just because of his shorts.

“Who’s in charge now? I need to know who to ignore”

Whithouse’s script does makes an effort to diversity and deepen what would otherwise be the usual gaggle of diverse nameless folk who get caught in the crossfire of one of these stories. In particular Cass, played by Sophie Stone. It was refreshing to see that her deafness here – which required her to be accompanied, not particularly practically in the scheme of things, by a translator – is woven in properly. It also allows the Doctor to proclaim he knows sign, only to tit it up a bit. One of the handful of good laughs on offer.

Even the cliffhanger’s a good one. Again, nobody’s in any doubt that the Doctor won’t be a ghost by the end of next week’s conclusion (presumably the fact that we’ve got a hologram Clara at one stage in this episode is a clue to the get-out there?), but there’s still some mystery solving to do, and plenty of questions teed up.

Why is he a ghost, and what changed to make him so? How will he get out of it? What’s with the missing power cell? And what’s the significance of the TARDIS cloister bell going off? During Capaldi’s tenure, that bell’s sure been getting a workout. He may as well change to his mobile phone ringtone at this rate. Is its frequent tolling significant?

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Oh, and there’s the small matter of that suspended animation chamber. Is the Doctor in it? Has someone snuck the Zygons in a few episodes early? Or is there something new in there? Is it whoever is ultimately behind the ghost threat, and the turning of people into transmitters?

I don’t know, but I do want to know. And that’s important.

The reason I care about the answers is that Under The Lake makes everything relatable, interesting, and really quite gripping. Peter Capaldi drives the story, and at some point in his career, he’s going to get offered the leading role in one of those detective dramas that live on Sundays. He’ll be great at it too. They might even let him swear. For now though, he’s a perfect fit for the story in question. And I don’t want him fleeing the TARDIS anytime soon.

“Surely just being around me makes you cleverer by osmosis”

There’s room too in the episode to fit in some little moments between Clara and the Doctor.

Whilst Clara still hasn’t really found her place as effectively this series as last, I did love the scene where she pulled out cards to help give the Doctor more compassionate things to say to people in the face of loss (Aberdeen!). That said, the relationship between the two leads does feel like it’s treading water a little still. Is it just me, or have the sparks gone a little there?

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Perhaps that’s because there’s a slightly more care-free attitude behind Clara that’s building up. She’s the one who wants to run directly into action this time, who is more actively thirsting for new adventures. If anything, it’s the Doctor who’s holding back.

It’s little secret that Jenna Coleman’s future in Doctor Who is shorter than Peter Capaldi’s, but where is all this going? Is her ultimate fate to be reunited with Danny? The old notion of building up your character to knock them down again may well be in force here, but so far, it doesn’t feel like a building up to a big farewell.

That said, Under The Lake was, rightly, primarily concerned with the effective story at hand. A story that’s a marriage of ideas and approaches that gel really very well.

It’s not perfect. The flipside to these base under siege stories, and one that the episode doesn’t fully navigate, is that we tend to get introduced to a bunch of characters who may as well be wearing red shirts. By the time the credits roll, Whithouse has given outline sketches of some of them, but it’s only really Cass and Zaqi Ismail’s Lunn who get much room to make an impact. There’s a lot of chattering going on, but not much sticking.

Those aren’t major critcisms, not least because we’re only half way through the story. There’s a sizeable springboard for a terrific closing chapter, after all.

What’s more, to its real credit, for the tempered pacing of Under The Lake, it actually gets through an awful lot of business and – crucially – leaves me waiting eagerly for next week’s Before The Flood. Hopefully, too, that one’ll fit in sequences as strong as the luring the ghosts to the Faraday Cage, one of the best and most exciting corridor zooming moments of recent Who (especially as the ghosts split up). And hopefully too, it’ll continue to apply contemporary ideas and visual wizardry to a story that feels like it’s been built from the foundations of classic Doctor Who. Mr Troughton, for one, would surely be proud.

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An excellent start to a new adventure, for me. I really, really liked this one. More like this please.

Our review of the last episode, The Witch’s Familiar, is here.