After the explosive two-part premiere with pretty much everything thrown into a giant pot – Daleks, Davros, Missy, Skaro, UNIT, time-frozen planes – Doctor Who needed to dial things back a bit. What better way to do that than with a classic ghost scarer?
Under the Lake saw the return of Toby Whithouse to the show, who has been absent since 2012’s A Town Called Mercy. His episodes are always a treat, because they’re pretty much guaranteed to be good; he has yet to produce anything that could be called bad. Some fans may argue that this is a fault, as none of his episodes are big stand-outs in a series – that’s usually Steven Moffat’s job. What Whithouse does do, however, is write some pretty solid and enjoyable material with a strength in ensembles and dialogue, which is what shines through this week.
When dealing with a large cast, it’s easy to not pay much attention to one or two of the characters and make them one-dimensional (especially in horror stories). Whithouse makes sure to spend time with every one of them and give them some layers; Moran is only human for a few minutes yet we learn that he’s a staunch military man, he’s very aggressive but wants to keep the crew safe. Many writers – especially in film and TV nowadays – wouldn’t have bothered with something like that if the character was to be killed off before the title sequence. Pritchard is your arrogant, corporate guy, Bennett is the sweet loser of the group, O’Donnell is a resourceful fangirl, Lunn is brave and protective of Cass, and Cass herself is perhaps the coolest of them all – because she’s deaf, and rather than making writing her as weak or vulnerable she’s actually the smartest person there besides the Doctor. It’s incredibly refreshing to see.
Good characters is one thing, but it takes some good acting to boot it up into something interesting – fortunately, the ensemble is filled with it. Everybody embodies their roles perfectly and makes them likable – I even felt a little bad for Steven Robertson’s Pritchard when he got killed by the ghosts. After two weeks of almost exclusively focusing on the Doctor, Clara, Missy and Davros, it was nice to get to know a much larger group of characters. Thank goodness this is a two-parter, too, because I don’t want to say goodbye to any of ’em just yet.
Another refreshing quality was the Doctor himself. Moffat has a tendency to turn him into a god; in recent years a lot of stories have revolved around his death and how that’s such a cataclysmic event, or make him all-knowing when it comes to the situation which just sucks the fun out of everything. Again, Whithouse scales things back in ensuring that the Doctor has no idea what’s going on. He doesn’t understand what the mysterious code is, who the ghosts are (or even whether they’re ghosts or not) or really anything until towards the end of the episode, and he’s still got a lot to learn in Before the Flood. It harkens back to the Classic era, where the Doctor would wander the galaxy and discover new things all the time, rather than coming across things which he already knows all about. Of course he should always be the smart and knowledgeable one, but it’s much more interesting to put him in a situation where he learns as he goes along. That way we can actually relate to him.
Under the Lake is also where we get our first real seeds of Clara’s arc this series. I vaguely remember Moffat or Jenna Coleman herself saying that Clara would start to become “addicted” to adventures, and that’s very obvious here, from the awkward high-five at the beginning to the Doctor’s little chat with her in the TARDIS. It gave us this strong teacher-student dynamic (ironic, because she is a teacher) and dropped hints that she’s gonna turn into a particularly rebellious student, all spurred on from Danny’s death. Judging from Coleman’s good performance in that scene and common sense, I’d wager that Clara isn’t fine at all, and is using her adventures in the TARDIS as a coping mechanism, diving into them head-first, and it’s gonna come back and bite her later in the series.
The mystery itself was very solid. Whithouse continuously drops clues throughout the episode, building on the suspense and likely confusion from the viewer, but piece-by-piece the truth becomes clearer. However, the big info-dump of explanation near the end is a little convoluted and it probably would have been easier to digest if it had been figured out by the characters over the entire episode. However, I can’t deny that the unknown did make the ghosts scarier than they already were – and they were pretty fucking scary. The last time I was freaked out by Doctor Who was Miss Evangelista’s mashed up face in 2008’s Forest of the Dead (hey, remember when Steven Moffat was the scare master?), but everything from the robotic movement to the zombie-like design just made these monsters utterly creepy.
There isn’t an awful lot more to say about the episode. It’s got solid acting, a solid mystery, solid storytelling – it’s good and enjoyable, but it probably won’t end up in anybody’s ‘best of’ lists. Then again, we’ve only been told half the story; it’s like writing a review for a movie based on only watching the first hour. Some of my gripes (like Clara’s uselessness) will probably be answered come Before the Flood, since she’ll have to step up as an authority figure on the base now that the Doctor is gone – and apparently dead.
Okay, that was a pretty good cliffhanger.
Some will argue that just being solid isn’t good enough anymore, especially following The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar. However, not every episode needs to completely revamp key points of the mythology like those did, or just be as epic and loud; it’s logistically impossible and would get pretty tiresome. Sometimes you just want to sit back and enjoy a classic base-under-siege story, and Under the Lake truly delivers on that.