04 October 2015

Doctor Who: Under the Lake

Review by Matt Michael

What a joy, after Series Nine’s opening two-parter, which took almost as long as Eric Saward to get the Doctor to the plot, to see Under the Lake achieve the same outcome within four minutes. Of course, ten times faster doesn’t automatically equal ten times better, but it’s not far off.

This speed is achieved with some neat shortcuts. For example, there’s a clever economy with the characters - Pritchard is the money-grabbing annoyance, O’Donnell is another UNIT fan in the style of Malcolm and Osgood, Bennett is a bit cowardly, and Moran is the dependable base commander. The only surprise there is that the commander gets killed off first, whereas normally they’re the gruff and suspicious one the Doctor gradually wins over. Instead, the Doctor uses the psychic paper to bypass all that routine stuff, and the commander’s role is given over instead to Cass, whose deafness thankfully hasn’t, so far at least, become the solution to the plot in the way Daphne Ashbrook’s character’s disability was in the ‘worthy’ Deep Space Nine episode Melora.

It seems counter-intuitive to be focusing on the speed of Under the Lake when modern base-under-siege stories such as Cold War and The Waters of Mars have managed the whole deal in a single episode. Again, Daniel O’Hara’s direction emphasises the pace even when the characters are confined to a handful of sets. There’s an outrageous amount of running through corridors, particularly during the central ghost-hunting sequence. But even the exposition scenes move with an unusual energy helped by touches such as the Doctor’s visual representation of the Dark-Sword-Forsaken-Temple coordinates, and the ability to bounce the dialogue around lots of characters.

That pace makes two slower scenes stand out, and both of them have a similar point: Clara’s increasing recklessness. Inside the TARDIS (nice touch up, by the way) the Doctor warns her off becoming too much like him. And then later, Bennett contrasts himself with Clara – more of a ’bleeder than a fighter’. Clara, however, has become a danger junkie, desperate for ‘monsters and blowing things up’ and always wanting to go ‘where the action is’. There’s the implication she’s running from a life without Danny. I’d be surprised if this theme wasn’t leading, in some way, to her departure later in the year

For the time being, though, she’s well paired with Capaldi, whose performance has lightened. Given he’s the oldest of the modern era Doctors, he plays it like he’s the youngest, rushing about like an excited teenager, constantly thrilled by the latest new thing. Watching the two of them, I was reminded of the irrepressible energy of the first Doctor and Vicki in The Romans, which can only be a good thing.

It’s this energy that saves Under the Lake from becoming too dark. Whithouse is an effective horror writer – Being Human, The Vampires of Venice and The God Complex and the traumatising pre-credits sequence of School Reunion are obviously testaments to that. Here we’ve got legitimately creepy ghosts who play on the old myth that the eye retains the last image it saw after death. We’ve also got a fairly graphic drowning and a man being burned alive. Then there’s that cliffhanger, with the Doctor’s spectre, made up to look like Peter Cushing in Tales from the Crypt, floating through the lake.

It’s a good place to end the episode, although five years of timey wimey have conditioned me to expect the very much alive Doctor to turn up inside that deadlocked suspended animation chamber next week. My one big reservation about the story so far (the little reservation: how did the sonic specs transmit from inside the sealed Faraday Cage?) is the time travel at the end. A change of scene for the second episode is probably necessary in the modern two-parter, but I always look askew at using the TARDIS to solve the plot – if he does it this time, why not every time?

That said, Under the Lake definitely whet my appetite for Before the Flood. After the opening diptych felt like a good two-hander for the Doctor and Davros with a lot of flabby padding around it, Whithouse has raised the game with a much more compelling piece of work. All that water, and not a damp squib in sight.

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