Aired 3 October 2015
Toby Whithouse returns to the worlds of Doctor Who for the first time since ‘A Town Called Mercy,’ penning a very good opener in ‘Under the Lake’ that makes use of many of the most trusted stylings of many classic Doctor Who tales that have come before it. In 2119 Scotland, an underwater mining corporation has salvaged a mysterious ship; the commander is quickly torched by the ship’s engines but is soon revived- albeit still clearly dead and with menacing black holes for eyes- and joined by another ghostly figure in a top hat. Featuring a claustrophobic base under siege, a seemingly endless amount of corridors, and a diverse multinational crew, the setup is certainly nothing new, but the end result is something quite special, indeed, as the Troughton era meets Capaldi’s Doctor head on.
Daniel O’Hara makes his Doctor Who directorial debut here, and it’s apparent from the start that he knows exactly how to maximise on the sense of claustrophobia and tension that the setting affords. Just as importantly, though, is that the ghostly threat is brought to life exceedingly well. The CGI effects are superb, embracing the human basis for the figures, and the very slow determination with which they move is equally effective and disturbing. It’s a testament to a director whenever these types of corridor scenes seem to offer something new or refreshing, and that’s exactly the case here as the living crew tries to lure the ghosts to the Faraday cage.
As with that Faraday Cage, ‘Under the Lake’ takes full advantage of its two-part nature by laying clues regarding the mystery and possible resolutionn of the ghosts that will hopefully pay off in the conclusion. Certainly the intrigue is high as the Doctor and Clara try to figure out what is going on, and the writing that the TARDIS cannot translate, the suspended animation chamber, the flooded village nearby, and the ghosts all silently murmuring the same phrase need to pay big dividends to capitalise on the momentum they’ve already built.
Given everything that is going on and being set up, the story impressively finds room for the Doctor and Clara to interact for the first real time in this run of episodes. Clara still doesn’t have a set role like in her previous two series; whether this is due to a change in attitude since the passing of Danny or not, she seems much more care-free and willing to rush headlong into danger, perhaps looking for the thrill of emotion that has left her. It will be fascinating to see if this continues and what the potential repercussions of this course of action will be. Still, the scene where she offers the Doctor a set of cards to help him say more sympathetic things is quite touching and offers a brief respite from a relationship that has otherwise stalled a little bit.
‘Under the Lake’ is quite rightly primarily focused on telling its story and setting up its mystery, and that means that the supporting cast members, at least to this point, don’t get as much time to distinguish themselves. Sophie Stone’s deaf Cass and Zaqi Ismail’s Lunn fare much better than the others in this respect, but remainder of the crew as well as the Vector Petroleum corporate profit storyline are very much an afterthought, again at least in this opening half.
Otherwise, though, ‘Under the Lake’ hits all of the right notes and, even moving as methodically along as it does, it still gets through a lot and leaves a great sense of anticipation for the closing ‘Before the Flood.’ The cliffhanger is a splendid one as well, and although there’s little reason to believe that the Doctor will be a ghost for all or even most of the next episode, that haunting image still brings with it several more questions that need answering. With the TARDIS cloister bell going off (again), the stakes are at their highest for the Doctor and time is running out quickly.