Writer: Toby Whithouse.
Director: Daniel O’Hara.
Main Cast: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Sophie Stone, Zaqi Ismail, Morven Christie, Arsher Ali.
Hello Whovians! We’re due quite a dramatic shift in scenery this week, moving from the radiation-blasted wastelands of Skaro to a significantly less arid environment; an underwater base under siege by an ominous force (an…’Underwater Menace’, if you will. Topical joke!). Can the Doctor and Clara deal with the threat and, more importantly to the Doctor, figure out what said threat actually is? Read on to find out in our review of ‘Under the Lake’!
WARNING: POTENTIALLY VERY MILD SPOILERS AHEAD!
We open to a rather lovely shot of our episode’s setting, an aquatic mining facility known as the Drum, which on-screen text handily informs us is geographically located in Scotland and chronologically located in 2119. The crew of this facility have discovered what appears to be an abandoned alien craft on the nearby lakebed, a spaceship of unknown provenance. As the crew bicker about calling the craft a spaceship among other things, one of them (Moran, played by Colin McFarlane) enters it, having noticed something. The ‘something’ turns out to be strange markings, which he investigates only briefly before the group are suddenly attacked by what appears against all possibility to be a ghost, with flickering form and a hollow, eyeless face. The crew retreat but Moran is left behind after a rather selfless sacrifice…or is he? Almost immediately, the group see him once again. He turns, revealing he has become a ghost like the one that attacked them. The two ghoulish spectres join forces, and the credits roll…
It’s a neat and spooky opening that sets the vibe for much the episode very nicely. ‘Under the Lake’ is a tense and atmospheric story throughout. The setting is a claustrophobic and isolated one, something that the episode utilises heavily, and the notion of an enemy of a completely unknown nature brings a thick layer of mystery into proceedings. Given that this story is the first half of a two-parter, writer Toby Whithouse (previously having written typically well-received stories such as ‘School Reunion’ and ‘The God Complex’) takes his time with this tale, allowing the Doctor, Clara and the base’s other occupants to slowly unravel the strange circumstances that surround them. It’s quite a strong character piece as with the opening two-parter, and takes some time to address certain issues that the fans have brought up in very neat style, particularly regarding Clara.
Like the last episode it introduces the key elements that will pay off in climactic scenes quite early on, allowing the viewer to guess at what will happen with these unused plot devices before they go off, which of course is really one of the key elements of any mystery story! It’s not easy guesswork though, that said, there’s enough slowly-revealed twists and turns to keep the audience from getting too comfortable. There are strong overtones of multiple Classic era stories in here, with noticeably strong vibes of the First, Fourth, and Seventh Doctors in particular ringing throughout, though fans of the Second and Third Doctors will also find a few pleasant little nods in there. I’ve often said over the course of reviewing the Twelfth Doctor’s episodes that they have a noticeably more retro vibe to them, and ‘Under the Lake’ is easily one of the most prominent examples yet (look for a few rather nice jokes with the cue cards. That’s all I’ll say on the subject for fear of spoilers).
To continue the look at the episode’s atmosphere, we’ll address the visuals next, which are really quite extraordinary. The Drum itself is extremely well put together, both in the haunting shots of its illuminated exterior in the murky darkness of the lake and in its cramped, corridor-filled futuristic interior. As I mentioned above, it’s a very isolated setting, and the episode plays off of that very nicely. The design of the ghosts, too, is rather effective despite being quite simple and their hollow-eyed gaze and flickering outlines are very eerie indeed, a good old-fashioned creepy creature! It would be remiss of me not to commend the lighting department, the camera crew and director Daniel O’Hara for their rather stellar work in making the submerged facility look almost otherworldly, with a constant green-blue tint to everything.
The cast of this story, as I’m sure readers have noted, is a considerable step-up in terms of numbers from last week’s minute cast. ‘Under the Lake’ is a very packed character piece and it’s genuinely one of my favourites in recent years. To open with our usual duo as ever, we’ll begin with Peter Capaldi, who it seems every week finds a new facet of his increasingly-complex Doctor to portray. He’s channeling the Doctor’s inner detective in this episode, talking to himself on a near-constant basis (as we’ve seen him do in last year’s ‘Mummy on the Orient Express) and excited to be faced with a new problem that he hasn’t seen before. The show’s seemingly-concrete (albeit temporary) removal of the sonic screwdriver is already having, I feel, a very positive effect on the depth of proceedings. Where once the Doctor could merely scan his way through things (and certainly would do), he’s now puzzling it out through careful analysis, observation, and talking with the base’s crew. It’s a situation that suits this slower, more reserved and precise Doctor perfectly. As ever, Capaldi is not so much playing his Doctor as becoming him on-screen, and there are a few rather deliberate throwbacks in his performance to prior Doctors that are quite a delight to pick out.
After a much-reduced presence in prior episodes, Jenna Coleman is back at the forefront as Clara, and much like the Doctor there’s a new facet to her character on display. Interviews with the cast before the airing of Series 9 had suggested that Clara will be a very different entity over the course of these episodes, having become dramatically more reckless as a result of the events she’s been through relatively recently. In this episode that side of her comes to the fore, as an excitable Clara eagerly revels in the dangerous and eerie situation that the TARDIS has brought her to. There’s a very intriguing scene between the Doctor and Clara where he warns her about the way she’s been acting in a manner that suggests the Doctor himself is very worried. Clara, of course, laughs it off as she would, but it’ll be interesting to see where this goes down the line.
With that, we move to the episode’s core guest cast. It feels like it’s been quite a while since there’s been a cast of this size, something which ‘Under the Lake’ makes up for in spades. Each of the characters feels quite fleshed out from the get-go, both with their individual character traits and with the camaraderie that they have. In general, they’re all very likable immediately, and I quite enjoy that! The command figure of the Drum is Cass (a familiar name for Eighth Doctor fans, perhaps?), played by Sophie Stone. Cass is, as described by Capaldi, “the smartest person in the room that isn’t the Doctor” and that’s quite evident. She’s got very strong opinions on the actions they should be taking, and adamantly refuses to give the Doctor his way when she disagrees with him. She also holds the unique position of being Doctor Who‘s first deaf character on the televised show, used quite cleverly as her lip-reading ability comes in very handy indeed. Due to communicating in sign language (and the Doctor having forgotten how to speak it), her interpreter is present in the form of Tim Lunn, played by Zaqi Ismail. Lunn and Cass immediately give off the impression of being quite inseparable, and the interactions between the two flow very naturally. There’s good chemistry there, and Lunn’s loyalty to Cass is on display throughout.
Rounding out the guest cast are Alice O’Donnell (Morven Christie), a peppy systems technician who is a huge fan of both UNIT and, embarrassingly enough for both herself and him, the Doctor himself, and Mason Bennett (Arsher Ali), the Drum’s marine biologist and a rather more reserved figure when it comes to ghost-busting than the rest of the cast. The presence of these four in particular fleshes out the cast immensely, they’re all well-written and get their character across quickly, and each of them has at least one shining moment throughout the episode.
All in all? ‘Under the Lake’ continues Series 9’s already-strong trend in grand style. This might just be your favourite episode featuring the Twelfth Doctor yet, it’s very possible! A strong ensemble cast, a compelling mystery, great performances from all involved and a cliffhanger that makes you crave more.
A great success – one of Whithouse’s strongest stories yet.
Join us next week for the second part of the story, where we go ‘Before the Flood’!