Season 9, Episode 3 - "Under the Lake"
Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman
Regular airtime: Saturdays, 8:25pm
US: 3 Oct 2015
Ah, the base under siege. A staple of Doctor Who since the Troughton era of the late ‘60s, the combination of claustrophobic atmosphere and what parental guidance warnings refer to as ‘sustained peril’ is hard to beat.
Yet attempting a ‘base under siege’ story is a high-risk play. By restricting the story to a single location, you give up the chance to move the action, so your sets must look fabulous. Your heroes will only have a limited number of characters to interact with, so you’d better make sure they are compelling. And your plot should be as watertight as the walls that enclose your cast.
At their best, ‘base under siege’ stories encapsulate all that’s good about Doctor Who. “Cold War” (7.8) is a fine recent example, combining ‘80s superpower paranoia and Das Boot-esque claustrophobia with the reintroduction of an old foe, the Ice Warriors, and a delightfully understated performance by none other than sci-fi veteran and Emmy Award winner David Warner.
At their worst, though, they can be an embarrassing mess. Serials such as “Warriors of the Deep” (1984), a Peter Davison story featuring what looked like a genetically mutated pantomime horse that was only marginally less convincing than some of the supporting cast, were grist for the mill of those who thought Doctor Who hammy, wayward, and nonsensical.
‘Under the Lake’ offers the latest incarnation of this type of story. The beginning does not bode well, as the pings on the cliché-o-meter come thick and fast. Underwater base manned by an unhappy mix of military personnel, corporate flacks, and scientists? Check. Personality conflicts? Check. Stock monsters? Check (see below).
As the episode progressed, it began to demonstrate the truism that clichés done well are just fine. A base located in a drowned valley is a little far-fetched—who would want to build such a thing, even if oil is discovered beneath the lake?—but it’s realised excellently, with dirty service corridors contrasting with clean mess areas in a manner reminiscent of the Nostromo in Alien (1979).
The supporting characters are all too familiar from Hollywood sci-fi movies, but the casting is strong. The underrated Colin McFarlane (The Dark Knight) plays excellently as the base’s hard-as-nails commander. Horror and crime drama regular Steven Robertson (Being Human) does a good impression of Aliens’ Carter J. Burke as Pritchard, a company executive who cares more about the expensive equipment on the base than the people manning it. Sophie Stone, Arsher Ali, Zaqi Ismail, and Morven Christie all do decent work in stock roles.
And the premise? Well, the base is being haunted by ghosts.
Yes, that old shtick. There’s been a lot of undead types in Doctor Who over the last few years: mummies (“Mummy on the Orient Express”), gas mask zombies (“The Empty Child”, “The Doctor Dances”), Martian astronauts with chronic water retention issues (“The Waters of Mars”), and the like. By now, it’s turned into a dog of a plot, a high concept that no longer harbours either the element of surprise or the truly horrifying connotations of earlier years, thanks to chronic overuse. Like the Daleks, the trope is due for a rest.
However, maybe we can forgive writer Toby Whithouse for resorting to them, as there are only so many things an underwater base can be menaced by. Besides, these creatures may not even be ghosts—one looked suspiciously like a Tivolian, an alien race featured in “The God Complex” (another Whithouse episode), a few years ago.
The script also benefits from Whithouse’s dialogue, which is natural-sounding and economical. The jokes, made largely at the Doctor’s (Peter Capaldi) expense—at one point Clara (Jenna Coleman) has to prompt him to empathise with the others by means of cue cards—are funny without resorting to the sledgehammer wit so often found in the episodes written by Steven Moffat. There are other deft flourishes in the post-production, including a spare-sounding score that combines with the exceptionally striking realisation of the ‘ghosts’ to give the whole episode an effective ethereal feel.
Ultimately, however, elements such as special effects can only act as so much window dressing if the story-telling is not up to specs. In “Under the Lake”, we have a simple, suspenseful story that is well-acted and well-paced. Daniel O’Hara’s direction cannot be faulted, and the ending, if predictable, sets up next week’s conclusion perfectly.
Series Nine’s device of using half-a-dozen two-part episodes was seen in some quarters as a move of desperation, a gimmick designed to mask the fact that the narrative cupboard is bare of new ideas. “Under the Lake” is certainly not a new idea. Quite the opposite, in fact; as I say, it’s a dog of an idea on the face of it. But, if a story is told with flair and conviction, even the oldest dog can be taught a few new tricks.