[Ed. Note: This article contains spoilers for the Doctor Who episode referenced in the title.]
Now that the Season 9 opener is out of the way, Doctor Who: “Under the Lake” has set the tone for the smaller scale adventures of Clara and The Doctor. With Toby Whithouse running the show, we were always going to be expecting a flood of new and imaginative ideas, but Doctor Who: “Under the Lake” broke the pattern for a Whithouse double-header in that it spent most of its time suggesting and setting up. In previous Whithouse episodes, such as “School Reunion” or “The Rebel Flesh,” a much faster pace was set, with most important details of the story fleshed out and the major mysteries solved by the end of the first episode. In Doctor Who: “Under the Lake,” however, it seems that Toby has more faith in the audience being there for him next week.
We open the “Under the Lake” with an isolated team of explorers under the harassing leadership of the shallow, greedy representative of big corporate. Straight away, dedicated fans are put in mind of “Silence in the Library,” but that doesn’t matter. In fact, it’s in line with Doctor Who’s habit of referencing itself, its original series, and anything else that takes its fancy. The team pulls a spaceship that looks suspiciously like an SR-71 Blackbird out of the water and, predictably, mess about with it until somebody dies. There is a strangely hammy moment from usually accomplished actor Colin McFarlane as he jumps in front of a none-too-convincing jet of flame, but then the titles start and we’re off.
The Doctor and Clara appear, with The Doctor preoccupied with an unhappy TARDIS. Clara, on the other hand, has apparently shaken off most of her scruples and, for some reason, is going through a good patch in her relationship with The Doctor. Not that anyone probably cares very much, but it is of note that companions, when envisioned by Whithouse, tend to be much more upbeat and eager to enter the fray. The Guardian speculated that this “new” recklessness might represent a vehicle for Jenna Coleman’s exit, but this is doubtful. Doctor Who: “Under the Lake” is probably just being a typical Whithouse experience.
There are minor recalls of past episodes dotted throughout. One of the more glaring ones is the ancient writing inside the spaceship which The Doctor examines with his new wearable tech. Just like the writing in “The Impossible Planet,” this text is not translated by the TARDIS, though whether because it’s too ancient or because of the hissy fit the TARDIS is having is unclear. A note on the “sonic sunglasses”: if Moffat and Co. thought that this would be a popular new touch, they were wrong. We sincerely hope that the screwdriver is coming back — that its absence has been woven through a larger storyline and that the makers of Doctor Who have not made the catastrophic mistake of messing about with one of the fundamental elements of the show.
There is also a reference to planet Tivoli, first heard of in the Whithouse episode “The God Complex,” with one of the ghosts being recognizable as a member of that hilariously cowardly race. In Doctor Who: “Under the Lake,” however, the Tivolian is anything but cowardly. He very quickly arms himself with a speargun, showing what The Doctor describes as “murdery” tendencies.
Where this episode falls a bit flat is in its plotting. We have The Doctor unsure as to the nature of the “ghosts” at first. Early on, however, he discovers that they can only handle metal objects, and that a Faraday cage will keep them at bay, yet for some reason never makes the connection with electricity or radio waves. The string of clues by which he arrives at the idea of ghosts as transmitters is frankly ridiculous. Ree Hines over at Forbes was both puzzled and disappointed by the improbable logic of “Under the Lake”, especially the treatment of the co-ordinates: “the dark, the sword, the forsaken, the temple.” While we might easily agree with Lee, it should be pointed out that if we removed all the episodes of Doctor Who containing implausible reasoning, we’d probably be left with about six episodes in 50 years.
One of the most charming touches of “Under the Lake” is the collection of flashcards Clara has made to help The Doctor say socially acceptable things. In this case, The Doctor acknowledges his regret for the loss of the crew’s “friend slash relative slash pet.” We can see that there’s still some work to do there. As The Doctor flips through the cards, we see that one of them is an apology containing the word “Aberdeen.” Could this be a reference to a certain Dame of the British Empire? Of course it is, but the question is — will she appear next week?
Fuzzy logic and false notes aside, Doctor Who: “Under the Lake” has still delivered. The places where it is flawed are, in fact, the very areas where the least attention was paid during the heady days of David Tennant’s peak as The Doctor. Whole plotlines were curtly dismissed with a couple of gabbled lines of dialogue while the show got on with focusing on what Doctor Who fans really tune in for: the monsters, the relationships, and the overriding and very British idea that decency and determination will solve just about anything. And also the gags. Doctor Who: “Under the Lake” was jam packed with funnies, which is quite an achievement, considering the bar recently set by Michelle Gomez’s Missy.
Whatever was wrong or right about the episode, there is no chance we’re missing the next installment — not with a cliffhanger that involves a newly ghostly Doctor stalking across the sea bed toward a recently abandoned Clara. It’s going to be a long week.
[Images Courtesy of the BBC]