Doctor Who – “Under the Lake”

Arriving on an underwater base under attack, it’s up to the Doctor and Clara to save the frightened crew. But also inboard is an alien spaceship, and the base is being haunted by the most impossible of things.

The Doctor’s deepest beliefs are challenged when he encounters something he cannot explain. Can it really be possible? Can ghosts be real?

Peter Capaldi is the Doctor in Under the Lake.

X X X X X

Cast

The Doctor – Peter Capaldi
Clara – Jenna Coleman
Moran – Colin McFarlane
Cass – Sophie Stone
Lunn – Zaqi Ismail
O’Donnell – Morven Christie
Bennett – Arsher Ali
Pritchard – Steven Robertson
Prentis – Paul Kaye

Writer: Toby Whithouse
Director: Daniel O’Hara

Trailer – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FtY_E8TYosI

Gifs by: J-Ru

X X X X X

Under the Lake is everything the first half of a two-part serial of Doctor Who should be – unique setting, secondary characters with identifiable traits, creepy aliens, and one hell of a cliffhanger that sets the stage for the second half while also keeping aspects of the first episode in play, topped off by Peter Capaldi showcasing just how energetic this incarnation of the Doctor can be.

The TARDIS usually goes wherever she wants to go, taking the Doctor along for the ride. The Drum, an underwater mining facility at the bottom of an artificial lake, is not one of those places. In fact, it’s a place the TARDIS wants to get far far away from, to the point that the Doctor has to apply the handbrake. While the corporate overseer of the Drum is more concerned with the facility’s assets and the huge oil deposit it sits atop of, the military crew is focused on the spacecraft that was dredged up from the lake bed Its placement inside the Drum sets off a chain reaction of events leading to the death of their commanding officer…and the creation of his ghost, who haunts the crew alongside another, older looking apparition Of course, the Doctor knows there’s no such thing as ghosts…but what if all the evidence points conclusively towards their very existence?

Writer Toby Whithouse (School Reunion, The Vampires of Venice, The God Complex) and director Daniel O’Hara have worked together before on the BBC series Being Human. Whithouse’s script and O’Hara’s direction combine to give Under the Lake a creepy old-school feel. With a great set of pacing that keeps the action moving while adding in moments to give the characters, the viewers, and the story a chance to breath, O’Hara also sets the scene with a shooting style that lays out just how big the underwater mining facility is but also shows just how cut off and claustrophobic the Drum truly is. By using camera tricks to show rooms and corridors as bigger than they really are as well as using computer screens and displays to show both a sense of scale and isolation, O’Hara also sets up a good scare or two in the process.

Whithouse’s script throws back to the classic era of Doctor Who with its “base under siege” styling, along with your standard obstructive bureaucrat type (in this case, the corporate liaison played wonderfully by Steven Robertson), groups getting cut off from one another, and the aliens/ghosts/monsters playing havoc with the base’s systems once the survivors feel that they are safe.
Whithouse also touches upon the classic BBC science fiction presentations involving Bernard Quatermass as the Doctor attempts to use science to explain the metaphysical and the possibility of life after death. Throw in a couple of science fiction elements (a spaceship without its pilot and missing part of its power core), a unique setting (the ruins of a military town/facility flooded by a dam break as opposed to an ancient civilization like Atlantis or Yonagumi-Jima), an enemy who shows flashes of intelligence (the ghosts splitting up and going after two targets instead of one), a good bit of corridor running, and a few moments of humor, and Whithouse’s script combined with O’Hara’s direction sets the table for one cracker of a story.

Of course, it also helps that Whithouse’s ghost are as creepy as hell, missing their eyes and repeating the same words over and over again as well as realizing how to use the base’s day/night cycle to their advantage. The concept behind them is unnerving as well – alien words rewriting one’s brain to become a sort of intergalactic transmitter once they’ve died…

A good script is nothing without a good cast. The secondary characters in Under the Lake aren’t fully fleshed out, but they’re fleshed out enough for story purposes – the tough as nails Commanding Officer who becomes the Drum’s first victim (Colin McFarlane, who provided the voices of the Angel Host in Voyage of the Damned), the skeptical but curious scientist (Arsher Ali from the hilarious film Four Lions), the fangirl who recognizes the Doctor when the psychic paper proclaims him from UNIT (Morven Christie), and the second-in-command/now-in-command Cass, played by Sophie Stone. Stone is the first deaf actress at the Royal Academy for the Dramatic Arts, and in this episode’s Doctor Who Extra she praises Whithouse’s script for ”the fact that he’s written for a deaf character that isn’t vulnerable, who isn’t a victim, or typecast as someone who can’t – she was definitely a can-do girl.” Says it better than I could. But Cass is a great character who, along with Zapi Ismail doing the translating, looks out for her crew first and foremost, realizing and calling out the Doctor when she attempts to evacuate the base to keep them safe. What impressed me about the whole thing is that Cass being deaf and communicating through sign never seemed weird, out of place, or as some sort of casting stunt. Cass is an awesome character who just happens to be deaf, and hopefully that kind of zen-like “realizing by not realizing” realization is a hopeful sign for television casting in years to come!

Clara is in full-blown companion mode after two weeks at Missy’s side, and Jenna Coleman channels her performance from Flatline a bit in this episode. From the get-go after returning from some sort of long party, Clara is incredibly eager, ready to enjoy the next adventure to the point where the Doctor has to tell her to take it down a notch.

While Clara does what a good companion should do – ask questions, do what the Doctor tells her, runs like the dickens, appear to be in danger, and realize that it just might be all up to her once the cliffhanger hits – there’s one thing that’s just a little off. Jenna Coleman is fine in this episode, and it appears the next episode will see her acting in a Doctor-like capacity. It’s a concern with the script, the only drawback I have with Under the Lake. With all the talk of ghosts and the possibility of life after death, there’s no mention of Danny Pink, who’s death and survival thereafter was a huge part of Clara’s story arc last season. We don’t know just how long it’s been since Night of the Living Cybermen, but the scene in the TARDIS where the Doctor reminds Clara to take a deep breath and be careful wouldn’t have seemed as out of place as it did if the Doctor had said something more than “get in a relationship or find a hobby.”

How was Peter Capaldi in this episode? Let me check my notes.

Capaldi’s performance in Under the Lake seemed to channel a bit of both William Hartnell and Tom Baker. There was Baker’s manic delight at realizing he was dealing with something he had never dealt with before (the scene where the Doctor believed he was actually dealing with real ghost is a treat) as well as Hartnall’s casual dismissal of authority (“Who’s in charge so I can ignore him?”). This is an episode where there’s no doubt the Doctor is an alien who takes interest in the the unexplainable and the inexplicable while not letting anyone else get hurt, with Twelve in full detective mode as well as logically putting himself in harm’s way so Cass can read the lips of the ghost. Just the sheer energy that Capaldi exudes during his investigations is infectious…and something that Cass rightfully calls him out on at one point. As Cass is preparing to evacuate the base, the Doctor asks the crew, without asking the crew, to stay because if they leave they’ll never know why this happened and spend the rest of their lives wondering about it. He needs their help, but he’s not going to directly put them in harm’s way unless they choose to. It reminded me a bit of Rory’s joke in The God Complex about people who get pally with the Doctor needing to notify their next of kin. In a way, the Doctor saves lives…but he needs an audience. He probably could have solved the puzzle of the Drum without the help of the crew, but having them around makes it easier…and makes him look just a bit better.

As opposed to The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar, a little bit of tweaking could make Under the Lake a solid 44 minute episode. Instead, “The Season of Two Parters” continues with a promising first episode. We’ve got creepy aliens, we’ve got a unique underwater setting with the promise of another one, we’ve got Peter Capaldi being smashing and Sophie Stone an engaging actress playing a great character, and we’ve got one hell of a cliffhanger to lead us into the next story.

I mean, unlike Missy and Clara at the mercy of the Daleks we all know the Doctor isn’t going to die.

Right?

Random Thoughts
– A nice use of the much-discussed sonic sunglasses, as both a camera and a hologram generator. If you’re going to use the sonic sunglasses as a plot device, don’t just make them sonic. Make them multi-purpose!
– The Drum sits on top of a large oil deposit? It’s about time the people who run this planet of yours realised that to be dependent on a mineral slime just doesn’t make sense!
– Loved the call back to the Tivolians, the cowardly race from The God Complex. Otherwise, I would have thought the first ghost was some sort of fire-and-brimstone Victorian preacher!

Cobi’s Synopsis – The first episode of a two-part story, Under the Lake is a gripping “base under siege” tale that harkens to the classic era, including one heck of a cliffhanger, with some fine acting from Peter Capaldi and Sophie Stone along the way.

Next up – The ripples will be felt around the universe. Is this chain of events inevitable? And can the Doctor do the unthinkable?

Peter Capaldi is the Doctor in…Before the Flood

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About cobiwann

A guy who's into a niche fandom of a niche fandom - the Big Finish audio plays of "Doctor Who." Also into the show itself, both old and new, plus pop culture and a smattering of human insight.
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2 Responses to Doctor Who – “Under the Lake”

  1. I loved how old-school this episode felt while still feeling fresh. It didn’t feel like it was tied to the past so much as it was inspired by it. Still, the isolated crew of an underwater mining base (containing a nuclear reactor) discovering something alien that begins to pick them off…how much more Troughton era could you get?

  2. cobiwann says:

    The only way this episode could get more Troughton is if half of it was missing!

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