Do you ever wonder if someone at the BBC draws Doctor Who episode ideas out of a series of very wonderful hats (at least one must be a fez)? Drawing from pools of different random locations, enemies, encounters etc., until they find one they like? Dinosaurs on a spaceship, Robin Hood with robots, Daleks with Churchill..... the list goes on, and while there’s no denying the results are great, sometimes you have to wonder what the real method is behind the madness. This week’s offering certainly joins the random ranks as it gives us ghosts underwater..... and as we all know, water always wins.
Under the Lake – In an underwater mining facility situated on an abandoned military base, The Doctor excitedly encounters his first case of actual ghosts in connection to an unknown alien spacecraft. While his new spectral acquaintances are definitely hostile, their motives become a much deeper mystery in the depths.
So in a sense of déjà Who, we’re starting another two-part story but this Rapture-us tale does deliver its own story far better than the series opener. It’s a very chilling and thrilling episode too that sees the series trade the action elements of last week’s Davros debacle for some good horror instead. It doesn’t try to re-invent the wheel on the ghost mobile, instead it just focuses on the basics. It utilises surprise and shock techniques of materialising through walls and floors very well. What’s more, effects are good in their self restraint. Particularly, as the facility crew members start joining the undead ranks, the emphasis on keeping the ghosts recognisable to their human counterparts. Yet distinguishing feature of removing their eyes is more than eerier enough to induce mild sofa cushion squirming. The episode holds their mystery well with several curious details such as the use of weapons. While seeing an axe wielding ghost is awesome, it also sparks the imagination over why it was needed in the first place. The dim hallways and artificial light of underwater location suit the horror tone well, especially in delivering the claustrophobia. There are even a few playful nods to the Alien franchise as the episode progresses. The live bait corridor running feels similar to Alien 3’s lead works trap, the green apparel, and dog tags of the crew scream of Aliens, the “Vector Petroleum” corporation feels an intended equivalent to Weyland-Yutani, and it even turns out that they mostly only come out and night... mostly.
As you’d expect from a horror-inclined episode, the laughs take a back seat but they still stay in the car. In fact, there are some utter gems in the brief lighter mood breaks. The best by far, is the Doctor’s stash of apology/sympathy cue cards (that Clara obviously wrote) including such essential phases as, “It was my fault, I should have known you didn’t live in Aberdeen”. Then throw in a clockwork squirrel and the gut-wrenching, terrifying notion of having Peter Andre stuck in your head for weeks (non-UK readers, if you don’t know him, DO NOT Google). The mystery elements have their ups and downs. Some pieces of the puzzle are concealed well but others, like the writing in the ship, are overplayed for significance and more obvious than they should be. The episode format could be called "derivative" in that it’s the same small screw in an isolated/trapped scenario we’ve seen many times before, with different locations and enemies but like all those times before, that doesn’t stop the episode from having its own feel of originality. It also gets bonus points for self awareness as someone jokes about “Doing the whole cabin in the woods thing”. However, it does feel weaker in terms of its guests stars as we don’t really learn much about them as a unit or individuals over the episode, but those details might be saved for the concluding part. Cass’s character adds a welcome new dynamic as she officially becomes the first ever deaf character to feature in a Doctor Who episode (fun fact – a deaf character was planned in a '70's era episode before being changed prior to filming).
In terms of “to be continued” territory, Under The Lake does get substantial points for intrigue in the Back To The Future cliff-hanger it presents. The shock revelation imagery is.... well downright shocking and presents a fascinating problem to be overcome next week. Yet there’s still the big problem that rumbled The Magician’s Apprentice. It’s so dramatic that it’s all too obvious that it will be taken back/undone in some way next time. For the series' sake, this needs to be the last time that happens, less the show become dangerously predictable. Another series trend that could so with the boot is the Doctor’s sonic sunglasses. Yes, they were cool when revealed but they’re just not as an effective dramatic tool when called upon. The Doctor character is essentially a mad wizard, and he needs his wand to wave about frantically not a new set of specs.
Under The Lake is a much better themed episode than the last two, and an impressive show debut for director Daniel O’Hara. Other than heavily name-dropping UNIT (in likely preparation for the forthcoming Zygon invasion episodes) doesn’t concern itself with the Doctor’s confession dial or any other wheels set turning in the opening weeks ,which in many ways is refreshing. It's good old fashioned “kids behind the sofa” episode with plenty going for it despite a few niggles. It’s quite appropriate that the TARDIS is a phone box because when there’s killer ghosts running amuck, who ya gonna call?