Doctor Who S09E03 “Under The Lake” review
Airing in the UK on BBC One, Saturdays
Writer: Toby Whithouse
Director: Daniel O’Hara
Essential Plot Points:
- The Doctor and Clara materialise on an underwater base in a deep lake which has a homicidal ghost infestation. Any crew members that the ghosts kill become ghosts too.
- The ghosts only come out at night, they can be trapped in a Faraday cage and they keep saying the same four words over and over again.
- The Doctor works out these words are co-ordinates, the same as some alien words written on the wall of a spaceship that the crew have recently discovered. If you see the words when you’re alive, then when you die you become some kind of spectral transmitter, sending out co-ordinates.
- But why? As the ghosts start flooding the base, separating the Doctor and Clara, the Doctor travels back in time to when the spaceship originally arrived. Back then, there was no lake, just an abandoned army base next to a massive dam.
- After the Doctor leaves, Clara sees a new ghost – the Doctor.
Apart from a doozy of a cliffhanger, “Under The Lake” – from its title to its monsters to the whitewashed walls of the alien spaceship – is a disappointingly bland, yet also comfortingly cosy slice of new Who. For the kind of fans who shudder at the more outlandish excesses of the revived series this must have been a nostalgic return to a tried-and-trusted Who formula – the base under siege – free of farting aliens, Mary Poppins villains and guitar solos. There was an interesting sci-fi concept at its heart, lots of running down corridors and the Doctor was working things with his superior intellect and deflating buffoonish authority.
It was competent. It had entertaining moments. It was also worryingly generic. The irony is that the ending strongly suggests that the unique twist for this tale will come with episode two; that next week the story will surprise and shock us. Which is all well and good, but it’d be nice to have something with a bit more punch this week. It’s by no means a bad episode, but it does feel a little too much like a extended preamble for something more exciting. And some of the plot mechanics are worryingly visible; you can almost see cogs meshing as it becomes obvious why we have a deaf character. What a shame. It would have been great to have had a disabled character who wasn’t there for a reason; they just happened to be disabled.
The blame isn’t all in the script. Whithouse is clearly aiming for a really spooky, creepy vibe and if director Daniel O’Hara had pulled that off, this may have been a far more tasty hors dourves. While O’Hara can clearly frame and light shots nicely and loves a suddenly startling close-up every so often, he seems to be flailing to inject tension or terror into the story. The ghosts just plod about lethargically and pop through walls like they’re out for a Sunday stroll. A scene such as Pritchard’s death in the airlock should creep you out like the horror moments in “Waters Of Mars” and “Blink”. Instead it’s about as tense as watching your socks in a tumble drier. And the less said about five actors all failing to look scared of a plastic chair the better.
On the plus side, Capaldi and Coleman are in great form. The “duty of care” scene in the TARDIS is very sweet, while the idiot cards that Clara has prepared for the Doctor are hilarious – one of the highlights of the episode. It’s great to see Capaldi’s Doctor being clever, too – working things out with that big brain of his and encouraging others to use their noggins too.
Great special effects, some solid-looking sets and the usual smattering of great lines help. Unusually, one of the best lines doesn’t come from the Doctor: “At least if I die you know I will come back and haunt you all,” says Bennett.
The problem with reviewing “Under The Lake” is that it’s too easy to moan about what it isn’t rather than what it is. What it is, is average Doctor Who, and that’s no great tragedy. It remains an entertaining way to lose yourself for 45 minutes. It’s just that we’ve come to expect more. Hopefully, “Before The Flood” will give us more. The cliffhanger suggests that it will.
- The cliffhanger – you can almost forgive the episode all its faults for giving us that.
- The ghostly effects on the eyes – especially the first reveal of “ghost” Pritchard.
- The Doctor’s prompt cards. For the record, as well as the one that he reads out (“I’m very sorry for your loss. I’ll do all I can to solve the death of your friend slash family member slash pet”) the others we see read, “I completely understand why it was difficult not to get captured,” “It was my fault, I should have known you didn’t live in Aberdeen,” “I didn’t mean to imply that I didn’t care,” and “No one is going to get eaten/vapourised/exterminated/upgraded/possessed/mortally wounded/turned into jelly – we’ll all get out of this alive”. At least we assume that last one says “out of” because Clara’s thumb is over that bit.
- The basic idea of the ghosts being transmitters created by some kind of sci-fi earworm is a decent concept.
- Capaldi is in top form – he’s rude and social inept but totally commanding. His reverse psychology to get the crew to stay (“Oh, no – I want you to leave”) and help him is a great moment.
- “Clara why don’t I have a radio in the TARDIS?”
“You took it apart and used the pieces to make a clockwork squirrel.”
- “It’s okay, I understand, you’re an idiot.”
- “You’re going to go back in time? How do you do that?”
- Limp direction that sucks all the horror and tension out of the situation.
- Too much running around corridors.
- Apart from Sophie Stone (and we’re not just saying that for PC reasons, she’s acting with a commitment, grit and edge a cut above the other) the other guest stars are rather bland. And what the hell is Steven Robertson’s pompous-official-in-a-’70s-sitcom accent all about?
- The scene with the the Doctor and co looking scared of a ghost wielding a plastic chair is hilariously silly. What next? Pillow fight?
- Some of the plot mechanics are clunkily convenient.
- A couple of potentially good guest stars are wasted.
And The Random:
- UPDATE: Between the preview version of this episode uploaded to the BBC’s site for reviewers (we just went back and double checked), and the broadcast version, the scream immediately before the theme tune has been removed: seems somebody on the production team agreed with us that it sounded wrong. So the following piece of trivia only makes sense if you saw the review copy…
- Toby Whithouse often writes a scream at the end of his teaser sequences so that the scream segues into the sting at the start of the theme tune (he even planned this for “The Vampires Of Venice”, but the episode was slightly re-edited so that the scream fell in a different place). He does it again here but the sting in the current theme doesn’t fit with a scream so well. Also, the scream feels fake; neither of the women look like girly screamers.
- Why is Pritchard doing an impression of Pinocchio here?
- Sophie Stone, who plays Cass, is genuinely deaf. She was the first deaf person to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) and has been seen in Casualty, Holby City, Mapp & Lucia and Marchlands.
- For the second story in a row, a supporting character utters an SF cliché somewhat self-consciously. In “The Magician’s Apprentice” Jac says, “Pardon my sci-fi, but this is beyond any human technology.” Here, Bennett and Moran have the exchange, “I’ve not seen technology like this…” “Please don’t say that.” “…on Earth before.” Coincidence, or new running gag?
- At the beginning of the episode the Doctor asks the TARDIS why she brought them here. For the rest of the episode the TARDIS seem desperate to get away. Simply a little inconsistency or should we read more into it?
- Continuity minefield time: “They’re not holograms.” (Too many instances of holograms in Who to list but let’s say “Mummy On The Orient Express” – 2014); “They’re not Flesh Avatars.” (“The Rebel Flesh”, “The Almost People” – 2011); “They’re not Autons.” (“Spearhead From Space” – 1970, “Terror Of The Autons” – 1971, “Rose” – 2005); “They’re not digital copies bouncing around the Nethersphere.” (“Dark Water”, “Death In Heaven” – 2014).
- Bennett does realise he’s controlling a sub at this point and not a dolphin, right? His fingers movements are like something out a belly dance routine suggesting the sub should be doing somersaults.
- The Doctor says the alien ghost comes from the planet Tivoli. The last time we met someone from that planet was in “The God Complex” (2011) also written by Toby Whithouse.
- Oh, and considering what we know of the rest of the season from the season nine trailer, should we read anything into this mural?