Netflix UK TV review: Doctor Who Season 9, Episode 3 (Under The Lake)
Mark Harrison | On 04, Oct 2015
This is a spoiler-free review. Already seen it? Read on at the end for spoilers.
Doctor Who was bumped back to its latest ever start for a new episode on BBC One. The sky may fall in histrionic articles about overnight ratings from here to the end of Season 9, but it’s apt that the first time the main series has ever dipped its toes into the post-watershed schedule, it’s for Under The Lake, an episode set some time after a massive amount of water has been shed.
Since we last saw the Doctor and Clara, they’ve apparently had a run of wacky, stress-free adventures around time and space. Clara can tell that the Doctor is itching to save a planet when the TARDIS brings them to a submerged Scottish base in Caithness in the year 2115. Handily, the crew of the Drum are already being besieged by an underwater menace.
To all intents and purposes, it appears that the Drummers are being stalked by the ghosts of their deceased colleagues, led by another alien ghost. Add in a message in a language that the TARDIS cannot translate and you’ve got the makings of a mystery that ought to keep our heroes busy for a while, but have they arrived a little too late?
The base-under-siege story is a time-honoured staple of Doctor Who, having formed the basis for countless stories over the years. This episode is particularly reminiscent of one or two more recent additions to this vast sub-genre, namely the David Tennant stories The Impossible Planet (untranslatable message) and Silence In The Library (priggish corporate overseer, here played by Steven Robertson) and the Matt Smith story Cold War (the most recent of previous underwater base stories).
What Under The Lake has to distinguish it from previous stories is almost entirely down to atmosphere. Director Daniel O’Hara is the first of many new directors to take on episodes in this season and he gets every last bit of mileage out of Toby Whithouse’s clever and unnerving script. The interiors of the Drum are definitely of a set of sets that we’ve seen since the series came back in 2005, but despite the familiarity of the location, this manages to do something especially creepy with the usual tropes.
Aside from atmosphere, there’s a strong bunch of characters. In addition to Pritchard, we also get Cass (Sophie Stone), Lunn (Zaqi Ismail), O’Donnell (Morven Christie) and Bennett (Arsher Ali), all of whom get some quite substantial characterisation before the credits roll. There’s an obvious standout in performance terms, though – like her character, Stone is hearing impaired and even aside from the rare sight of the Doctor being told off in sign language, she’s terrific.
The ghosts themselves are very scary too, from their simple but effective design to the execution of the visual effects. In the style of classic screen zombies or even the menace from the superb recent horror movie It Follows, they look almost like people you care about and they don’t ever pick up their inexorable pace – they just walk after their victims until they catch up. Some kids will definitely have shimmied behind their sofas.
In the best tradition of Who, these ghosts are macabre with a cod-science underpinning, and as in the last two episodes, it’s hard to begrudge the show that when it’s so good at it. Whithouse even takes advantage of the chance to drop in a typical comic-horror catchphrase, through a series of spine-chilling branded emergency messages “brought to you by Vector Petroleum”.
Peter Capaldi’s awkward and irascible attitude continues to raise a chuckle at the right moments. There’s a brilliantly swift sight gag involving a set of cue-cards that Clara has designed for him to read in emotionally charged situations (you have to wonder how the Aberdeen one would ever come up) and the Doctor throws in some terrific aloof one-liners and a couple of killer references to contemporary popular singers. But for the most part, comic beats are wisely sidelined.
We’ve a year of two-parters ahead, which will play havoc with casual viewers but should allow writers to play with the format and tell more rewarding stories. Under The Lake gives us clues to how things might shake out, but by the time of another cracking cliffhanger, it’s clear that there are many more puzzle pieces yet to come. We have reservations about where the tone of that final scene might lead in the concluding half, Before The Flood, but given Toby Whithouse’s previous track record for smart, understated adventures and with a fully fleshed-out guest cast, skin-crawling monsters and spookiness to spare, it feels as if this one will appreciate in value upon future viewings.
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Additional notes (contains spoilers)
– That cliffhanger! Between the guitar solo on the tank and hijacking Davros’ chair, this season was already batting above average for iconic images of Capaldi, but that final shot of the Doctor’s ghost in the water is truly haunting. We suspect that we’ve already been shown how he’s going to get out of this one, so it’ll be a bit disappointing if next week, he spends most of the episode believing he’s going to die. Again.
– While Clara sticks around in 2115 with Cass, Lunn and a ghostly Doctor, the living Doctor takes O’Donnell and Bennett back to before Caithness was flooded. Expect to see more of Paul Kaye as the ghostly Tivolian, Prentis too. Tivoli was last represented in Whithouse’s Season 6 episode The God Complex, in the form of David Walliams’ Gibbis, so you can probably imagine he’s going to be more of a hindrance than a help in his living form.
– “There’s a whole dimension in here, but there’s only room for one me.” In a private moment in the TARDIS, the Doctor once again reminds Clara that she’s not him. Jenna Coleman’s imminent departure has really upped the jeopardy for Clara this year and whenever she goes for real, we bet it’ll be a result of this free-wheeling and reckless attitude to adventure.
– The frankly ridiculous 8.25pm scheduling turned out to be fortuitous, for a scarier episode, but that’s not the only coincidence. The show’s lead-in, Strictly Come Dancing currently features Peter Andre as a contestant, and he’s mentioned here as the Doctor describes destroying the TARDIS radio to build a clockwork squirrel, all because he accidentally got Mysterious Girl stuck in his head. Saturdays on BBC One seem to have a touch of Insania of late.
Photo: Simon Ridgway / BBC