This review contain spoilers and mild swearing. If you don’t wish to read either, click here. Go on. I dare you!
The Underwater Musing. Aka, All About The Base. (Sorry. I'm so sorry!)
Under the Lake, the much anticipated third episode of season nine, penned by Toby Whithouse wastes no time in plunging us, the viewer, in, quite literally, at the deep end. Set on-board an underwater base station, “The Drum”, in the year 2119, a mysterious craft has been discovered. Within the first few minutes of the story, we are introduced to the crew, one of which is killed, and we are given our first glimpse of the ghosts which form the central focus of the story.
The Doctor and Clara arrive three days after the death of crew member Moran. There are no pointless scenes of Clara fart-arsing around at work here. Immediately upon arrival, they are embroiled in a mystery…
From the outset, the tone of the story is very clear. This is, in every sense, a "base under siege" style story which has served previous incarnations, most notably Troughton and Pertwee, so well.
Reminiscent of the greedy, or power-mad characters of old, Richard Pritchard is a trope; but one which works well and echoes classic era characters such as Mr Chinn from Claws of Axos, Professor Stahlman (Inferno), and Eckersley from Monster of Peladon. with his lust for profit. ‘Vector Petroleum’ are the latest in a long line of Doctor Who mining corporations; the Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe faced the Issigri Mining Company in the 1969 story The Space Pirates, whilst the Third Doctor and Jo encountered the IMC (Interplanetary Mining Corporation) in Colony In Space two years later. Similarly, the Fourth Doctor materialises aboard the sand-miner, ‘Storm Mine 4’ in Robots of Death, whilst the sixth Doctor met the repulsive, slug-like Sil, a representative of the Galatron Mining Corporation, in the 1985 story Vengeance On Varos.
Similarly, this is not first time the possibility of ghosts has been raised in Doctor Who. In the 1972 story, Day Of The Daleks, the Third Doctor was sent to Auderly House, to investigate ghostly sightings which later transpired to be time-travelling soldiers from the 22nd century. In recent years The Ninth Doctor faced Gelth in The Unquiet Dead, while the Tenth Doctor story Army Of Ghosts featured ghostly apparitions, which were subsequently revealed to be a Cyberman invasion force.
Whether intentional or otherwise, eyes appear to be a recurring theme of some importance in series nine. The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar both made strong use of eye imagery, from the hand-mines, to the revelation that Davros has semi-functional eyes. Under The Lake has several close-ups of the mysterious symbols, etched into the wall of the spaceship, reflected in the eyes of various characters, including the Doctor; magnets, which imprint a memory into the synapses of the brain. The Doctor refers to these as the equivalent of an “earworm”, and are, courtesy of Peter Andre, one of the reasons he no longer has a functioning radio aboard the Tardis which he dismantled to build a clockwork squirrel!
The supporting cast is incredibly competent, and it is particularly pleasing to see a deaf person in a strong, commanding role. Sophie Stone, who plays the deaf and mute character, Cass, shines in every scene, and is able to utilise her disability to further the story, by lip-reading the words spoken by the ghosts. The representation of disability within Doctor Who is long overdue, and it is to Whithouse’s credit that he has sculpted a solid, believable and likeable character in Cass. Equally, the casting of an actor with a disability is very welcome.
In response to the Tardis Cloister Bell (a moment which will surely have pleased diehard fans) the Doctor and Clara share a brief exchange in the console room, in which the Doctor makes it abundantly clear that he is in charge; there is only one Doctor. He also reveals his caring side, explaining his duty of care toward Clara.
There are frequent, subtle references to episodes past, notably, the Doctor's cue cards, one of which pays homage to Sarah Jane being taken home to the wrong city; particularly fitting since it was Toby Whithouse who revived Elisabeth Sladen’s much loved character, in his first Doctor Who story, School Reunion. Autons and Gangers, get a mention, and one of the ghosts is a Tivolian, a race introduced in The God Complex, also written by Whithouse.
There are even a couple of Star Trek references subtly incorporated into the story. Did you spot them? The mural on the wall features three characters who appear to be wearing the blue, red and yellow uniforms from the classic series. Also, the flood door which closes on Clara is labelled ‘1701B’. NCC1701-B is the ship registry number of the USS Enterprise from Star Trek; Generations, on which Captain Kirk was presumed killed.
The sets look magnificent, and the Tardis, replete with roundels has seldom looked better. The sonic sunglasses make another appearance, however, within the context of the episode, their use as a “relay”, transmitting the Doctor’s POV seems wholly appropriate, and they work surprisingly well.
Capaldi is, I feel, more “Doctor like” than ever before, and, perhaps, most surprising is Clara, who feels much more like a traditional companion. Once all of the “impossible girl” arc, love interests, and her work as a teacher are stripped away, she becomes much more credible as a companion. If there is one criticism to be found, it lies in the line “I want to kiss it to death”, which is, perhaps, one of the oddest things I have ever heard the Doctor utter. It is a piece of dialogue which doesn’t sit well with me at all, largely as it makes no sense whatsoever! Ultimately, though, one poor line does little to detract from an otherwise superb story.
The episode has strong horror elements, but is carefully suffused with enough humour to balance this, without detracting from the “scare factor”, and there are numerous questions raised, which will keep us all guessing until next week. Why doesn’t the ghostly Pritchard murder Lunn? Why did the ghosts summon the submarine, or more specifically, why do they need more people to convert. Why are they only able to utilise metallic objects, and who, or what, is in the stasis pod?
The cliff-hanger suggests a degree of complexity to the next episode, with the climax featuring the Doctor leaving The Drum and travelling back in time to investigate the origins of the craft. Could it be that the stasis pod contains The Doctor himself?
Ultimately, there is very little to fault with Under The Lake. It is fast paced, entertaining, horrifying and funny, all in the right places. Moreover, it feels like a classic series story, which is perhaps fitting, as it has all the makings of becoming a classic in its own right.
Those of you who follow me on Twitter
may have noticed my comment in which I remarked that I felt this was the best episode since Vincent and the Doctor
. Having rewatched the story, it is a comment I retract. Under The Lake
In fact, I would posit that it is, arguably, the best episode since Waters of Mars
. It feels, in every sense, like a true classic, which can be summed up in three words.. Fantastic.. Bloody fantastic!
With The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar earning 8/10 and 6.5/10 respectively, it is an absolute joy to assign a score of 9.5/10 for Under The Lake.