• 8th October 2015 • Review by Julian Hazeldine •
As Doctor Who fans, we’re used to seeing the series’ archetypal ‘base under siege’ template being disguised and twisted into new forms. Since the success of Series Four’s “The Moonbase”, the sub-genre’s key elements of an unknown and mysterious threat, an isolated location and a tightly-drawn cast of trapped characters have given some of Who‘s greatest moments, but repetition has forced this style of story slightly into hiding. The attack of the headcrabs in 2014’s “Last Christmas” played second fiddle to the appearance of Santa Claus and a succession of Inception-style dreamscapes. “Hide” sought to subvert its besieged haunted house with a love story ending, while Toby Whithouse’s own “The God Complex” tried to divert attention from the nature of its setting with peeling and faded wallpaper.
The old-school fun of “Under the Lake” therefore comes as a breath of fresh air. I physically flinched when the word “base” was used in the opening scene, not expecting such an on-the-nose recognition of the unfolding scenario. Part of the modern tone comes from the high production values, particularly in the superb hanger set where the alien ship is examined, but the key to the episode’s success is the way it cunningly salvages the genre’s strengths, while discarding its more played-out elements.
The most striking feature of the episode is the intelligent way in which it approaches the form. The pre-credits sequence rattles through elements which could easily have occupied twenty minutes of drama. The Doctor’s use of his psychic paper is undercut by the way the crew members actually know who he is, swiftly closing off the risk of another interminable “Can we trust this man?” debate. Despite the luxury of a two-part structure, Whithouse rattles through the early stages of the story, having three days of ghost offensive occur off-camera, and leaving the Drum’s inhabitants more than willing to play out the Doctor’s slightly eccentric stratagems for getting to the heart of the mystery. The nature of the ghosts makes a good hook to hang a potentially generic story upon, but it’s not the real focus here, as the story’s tight structure would work just as well with a more generic menace.
With Clara having been sidelined by the spotlight-loving Missy and Davros in Series Nine’s first story, “Under the Lake” has the task of beginning the character arc that will eventually lead to her departure. Whitehouse deals with the subject extremely well, seeding her fey overexcitement at the top of the episode, and then having the Doctor specifically articulate the subject after it has started to sink in. Jenna Coleman again doesn’t get a massive amount of material, but Whithouse is clearly comfortable writing for the character.
His take on Peter Capaldi’s Doctor entertains, but is slightly less successful. He gives the actor plenty of commanding material, capturing his Doctor’s abrasive-but-(just)-witty put-downs of any human hapless enough to get in his way, and the near-forgotten trait of reasoning through questions. Whithouse’s curious habit of giving each Doctor moments that feel more written for his previous incarnation continues, however. The rapid about-face by the Doctor on the nature of ghosts; sceptical, believing and then sceptical again, might have sat less oddly in Matt Smith’s gadfly mannerisms than the driven and focussed twelfth Doctor’s approach.
As you’d expect, the crew of the Drum are drawn in broad-brush strokes, but each is given just enough personality to remain in the mind, particularly during the Scooby Doo ghost-chase-relay. Sophie Stone’s Cass is the standout inclusion, with the subtle and understated authority and sense of responsibility bringing to mind Lindsay Duncan’s believable leader from “The Waters of Mars” rather than a stock military buffoon. The forward-looking treatment of her deafness is sadly slightly undone, however, by the way in which her lip-reading skills are used as a device to drive the plot forward. The only poorly-drawn character is Steven Robinson’s clichéd capitalist Pritchard, but he at least has the grace to be written out after a handful of scenes.
There are a couple of other niggles. The black guy doesn’t only die first, but expires with indecent haste, and on the basis of this first episode, the return of the Whithouse-created Tivolians feels somewhat forced. For almost all of its length, however, “Under the Lake” delivers old-school Who with modern sensibilities and intelligence. No mean feat.