Doctor Who: Series 9, Episode 3 – Under the Lake

“So, we are fighting an unknown homicidal force that’s taken the form of your commanding officer and a cowardly alien, underwater, in a nuclear reactor. Anything else I ought to know, someone got a peanut allergy or something?”

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With ratings juggernaut and offence to human culture Strictly Come Dancing once again dominating Saturday evening (to the tune of two bloody hours), this week Doctor Who found itself ignominiously shoved away from its traditional teatime slot to the graveyard depths of 8.25, by which time many of us would normally have gone out. Cue the usual ill-informed bunch of Moffat-haters claiming that drastic drops in the overnight ratings heralded that The End is Nigh?

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Well, maybe, but Under the Lake was a choice slice of Doctor Who, and its Hinchcliffe-style horror might have justified that later timeslot. After all,younger kiddies might well have been as terrified by this tale of eyeless ghosts as the five year old me was by The Brain of Morbius.

It seems that this new season is very much drawing on the established classics of the show – last time we had a sequel to Genesis of the Daleks, and this week the ever-excellent Toby Whithouse gave us a return to the classic story format that dominated the Troughton years – the “base under siege”. The new show’s done this a few times before – think The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit and The Also People/The Rebel Flesh – but for me, this story (at least based on its first half) topped both of those for drama, horror, and even humour. Just the ingredients,in fact, that Whithouse brought to his own classic show, the much-missed Being Human.

It is fair to say, mind you, that a lot of this felt sort of familiar. The underwater base – well, some may have been reminded of 1989’s The Abyss, but Who fans will undoubtedly have thought first of Warriors of the Deep. The mysterious, empty old spaceship with enigmatic markings, in whose vicinity insubstantial, terrifying ghosts walk – even before the opening credits rolled, I was thinking of Quatermass and the Pit.

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Still, Who has never balked at reusing good ideas, Quatermass frequently being one of them. And it may well be that Toby Whithouse wasn’t even consciously doing so. Even if he was, though, what he did with those tropes was definitely inventive and interesting. This was, first and foremost, a story about wanting to find out, wanting to know – the Doctor explicitly drew attention to that, when he commented that if the crew left, they’d always wonder what they missed.

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Terrifying the ghosts may have been (although their eyeless look was perhaps a bit too reminiscent of Davros, coming just after we’ve spent two weeks with the old curmudgeon), but the script drew us, and the crew, into the Doctor’s insatiable curiosity. In contrast to Moffat’s rather pat line of a couple of weeks ago – “I try never to understand, it’s called keeping an open mind” – this week we saw a Doctor positively giddy with glee at the prospect of understanding. And his enthusiasm was infectious.

We’ve seen before how this can get him and those around him into trouble, and that played nicely into Clara’s nearly insufferable desire to “have another adventure”. One of the aspects of the Twelfth Doctor that has been thankfully dialled down this year is his frequent, presumably unintentional rudeness to his companion; instead we got a solemn scene in which he cautioned Clara about her increasing status as adrenaline junkie. “There’s a whole dimension in here,” he remarked, gesturing around the inside of the TARDIS, “but there’s only room for one of me.” Of course Clara has been trying to be the Doctor pretty much since she met him, but it might not be good for her – I wonder if it might be a factor in her impending departure?

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While he may not be constantly rude to Clara any more, he certainly hasn’t mellowed in his dealings with those he’d just met. “Why is this man still talking to me?” he enquired of nobody in particular regarding odious corporate arsehole Pritchard, while later commenting, “I thought just being in the room with me would make you cleverer by osmosis.” This culminated in the hilarious idea (which I’m sure was used with Hal and Tom in Being Human) of Clara having handy cue cards for how he should react in a social situation. The way they played off his already established personality was comedy gold; “I didn’t mean to imply I didn’t care” being one of them, along with the actually used (verbatim) “I will do all I can to make up for the loss of your family member/friend/pet”.

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It helped that, as usual with a Whithouse script, the guest characters were well-rounded and believable, with distinctive and often witty dialogue written for each. Even the ill-fated Captain Moran (Colin MacFarlane) got lines substantial enough, before his quick demise, to establish him as a real person, with a real history and personality.

The others, given far more screen time, were just as effective. After all, in a story where anyone might die at any moment, the audience has to have some investment in the characters to care when/if they do. This bunch were believable and for the most part likeable (with the notable exception of Steven Robertson as Pritchard, clearly written in the style of Aliens’ Carter Burke as a hissable corporate villain whose inevitable death gives the audience a sort of guilty satisfaction).

Some of the more… shall we say, ‘insensitive’ fans have been complaining that, with the base’s mixed gender, multi ethnic crew, the BBC are “shoving political correctness down our throats”. Conversely, I tend to the view that, by 2119,we’re unlikely to have reverted to a culture where all jobs are held by white males. Besides, the interesting aspect of the issue is that none of them is written specifically as black, or Asian, or even female. Listen to the dialogue – it’s not even mentioned once by any of them as aspects of their own or each others’ characters. Not even their names – O’Donnell, Lunn, Bennett – give any indication as to their race or gender, and all of them could just as easily have been played by white men (though I’m glad they weren’t). The (welcome) diversity is all in the casting.

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The obvious, and equally welcome exception was the genuinely deaf Sophie Stone as Cass (and I challenge you to name any other deaf actor that isn’t Marlee Matlin). Her gender wasn’t especially relevant, though after so many “base under siege” stories in the 60s and 70s where an obviously capable woman had to be content with being second in command under a man, it was satisfying to see her elevated to CO after Moran’s death.

Conversely, her deafness was both specified and pertinent to the plot, and it was refreshing to see a deaf character in the show for, I think, the first time. It was also realistically played, as my deaf friend Daniel pointed out, that her crucial role in lip reading what the silent ghosts were saying took a few goes, rather than the near supernatural lip reading skills usually given to the few deaf characters you tend to see in drama. I did think it was rather a shame that the Doctor’s own signing skills had been “deleted” (“oh no, that was semaphore, I’ll need a set of flags”) but it was dramatically necessary for a non-signing audience to have someone translate. Besides, I’d hate to have been deprived of the stunningly gorgeous Zaqi Ismail as Tim Lunn (he seems to be able to act too).

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There was some excellently atmospheric, and nailbitingly tense, direction from Daniel O’Hara. Given an unusual setting, he took full advantage of it to stage one of the more tense variants on that old Doctor Who staple of “running up and down lots of corridors” in the sequence where several of the characters played bait to trap the ghosts in the Faraday cage – though I’m sure I saw that same sequence in Alien 3. The reveal of the now ghostly Pritchard was also expertly done; we knew that he’d ultimately turn round to reveal his eyeless face to Clara and Bennett, but having them realise beforehand by seeing his corpse floating outside the cafeteria window was a genuinely spooky touch.

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As, of course, we knew that the ghostly figure floating through at the end would be none other than the Doctor – but as a cliffhanger, it was very effective. We know that, to become one of the ghosts, you have to actually die; Pritchard’s corpse appearing at the same time as his ghost demonstrated that. We also know, as we always do in this show, that the Doctor is most definitely not going to die (not with nine more episodes to go, anyway). So, as with the ending to the second series of Sherlock, the real cliffhanger is – how did he get out of that? Let’s hope the answer here is more satisfying than it was there.

It is fair to say that, after some innovative usage last time of Davros and Missy/the Master, this was a far more traditional Doctor Who story. The base under siege is a tried and trusted setting, and the show’s dealt with ‘ghosts’ before (Day of the Daleks, Image of the Fendahl, Hide); though it was refreshing here to see the Doctor accept that they might really be ghosts rather than offering a technobabble explanation.

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But while there may have been nothing especially new to see here, it was all done so well it was hard not to enjoy (though I’m sure some of the sourer fans managed). After my misgivings last year, Capaldi now seems to be effortlessly inhabiting the role of the Doctor (still not sure about those “sonic sunglasses” though), and his relationship with Clara seems far healthier than last year’s virtual emotional abuse. The ghosts were genuinely behind-the-sofa scary, the mystery intriguing, and the guest characters well-written and well-played. And it is genuinely interesting and innovative that the conclusion of this two-parter will take place chronologically many years before the first part. I’m looking forward to it.

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