Sunday 4 October 2015

Reviews in Time & Space: Under the Lake

Doctor Who s09e03 - Under the Lake

After two-parter The Magician's Apprentice and The Witch's Familiar kicked the latest season off with a bang, this week sees Doctor Who move back into more familiar territory with a good old fashioned "base under siege" story. Under the Lake was written by Being Human writer Toby Whithouse, who's previous forays on Who include the episodes School Reunion, Vampires of Venice, The God Complex and A Town Called Mercy. Certainly an interesting resume, which quite a variety of episodes. School Reunion however happens to be a particular favourite of mine.

The mysterious spaceship
Lesson 1: Never find an abandoned spaceship and expect something friendly

Set in the year 2119, the underwater mining facility Drum has unearthed a deserted black spaceship from among the depths. However the ship brings along with it a ghostly figure, and when the crew start to be targeted one by one they also become ghosts. The Doctor and Clara arrive on the base shortly after the ghost has claimed its first victim, and the Doctor seems rather excited to be met with the prospect of real-life ghosts - a prospect he previously considered impossible.

The question is who or what is causing these people to become ghosts and what are they after? The mystery begins to unravel as the the unearthed spaceship is explored, but the real answers lie hundreds of years ago - in a time before the flood.

The Drum crew
The crew of the Drum

Under the Lake doesn't have a particularly original set up - in fact it's the kind of scenario that's been serving Doctor Who well for over 50 years and one that has especially been doing the rounds since the show's revitalisation in 2005. Almost immediately the episode feels all to familiar to the likes of The Impossible Planet and such, however with the unique charm of being set underwater rather than in a space station or colony. This definitely works to the episode's advantage, as it replaces what would usually be a sense of isolation with one of claustrophobia - something which feels further amplified by the base's narrow, winding corridors. How memorable this episode was going to be was dependant on it's set up, and provided the second part can deliver in a reasonable fashion then Under the Lake does have the potential to stand out from it's contemporaries.

Oh yes, by the way this is another two-part story and by the sounds of it this is going to be a regular thing this year. While this means the number of individual stories will be significantly reduced, I personally don't have a problem with it if it means it can drive the quality of the stories up. More runtime hopefully means better development which hopefully means better stories. The downside however is that it will inevitably lead to some stories being difficult to judge as an individual component, and that's somewhat true of the one we have here. Under the Lake was almost entirely dedicated set up, drawing out reveals that would have likely been over and done with in the first 20 minutes of a one-part story. It does help draw out the tension, but can be rather frustrating when some of the things are either predictable or just plain obvious the audience.

The Doctor's cue cards
"I should have known you didn't live in Aberdeen."

The cast was pretty likeable all around, and it was great to see actress Sophie Stone bringing a deaf character to the forefront of the story - even if ultimately her inclusion was a plot device that could have been seen a mile away. Peter Capaldi was on top form as a Doctor getting completely carried away in a mystery that was actually new to him for once (the cue cards were an excellent touch). Clara on the other hand came off very strangely in this episode. Not because she was at the forefront like she usually is, but because her personality almost seemed to have moulded into a less extreme version of the Doctor at the beginning? Is throwing herself into dangerous adventures her way of truly forgetting about Danny? Is both this and the Doctor's "duty of care" speech foreshadowing her incoming exit from the show? Who knows, but something certainly didn't sit right with me this week.

The ghosts themselves were rather unremarkable, particularly when you have the cast standing there scared as one tried to pathetically attack them with a plastic chair. The make up was good (particularly the eye area - although I kept expecting the fact that they didn't have eyes to be addressed and it wasn't), but they were largely restricted here by what most people expect ghosts to do - walk through walls and look thinly terrifying. As a more "real" concept it might be scarier to some smaller children, but certainly so much that this episode needed to be put out at the ridiculous time of 8:25pm.

The ghosts of Under the Lake

For an episode that felt like it's been done over a dozen times before, there was a certain charm to Under the Lake. Moving what would usually be action set in outer space to under water gave it a more unique atmosphere and sense of claustrophobia, and there was plenty of mystery and running down corridors to satisfy the classic Doctor Who fan in all of us. Unfortunately the problems lie in the episode feeling like mostly set up, with very little actual punch to it to make it stand up entirely on it's own. This was however somewhat saved by a great cliffhanger ending, so hopefully Before the Flood next week will provide a satisfying resolution to this story as a whole.

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