I’ve really enjoyed the first two episodes of Doctor Who Series 9 so far, but it’s very hard to judge how a series is going to turn out based on its opening. Steven Moffat episodes always have a certain air of grandeur, be they in references to past milestones or setting up huge new given circumstances. But its when the other writers’ work starts coming in that I start getting really excited. Toby Whithouse is a Who veteran at this point, having written all the way back in Series 2 with the beloved episode “School Reunion”, which reintroduced Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) into the continuity. He wrote “The God Complex” which I really loved, but also “A Town Called Mercy” which I did not. So, it wasn’t a given if “Under the Lake” was going to be enjoyable for me. Luckily, I dug it, and it looks like the second part will be much different, in a great way.
On paper, this episode has all the things designed for a Kyle Anderson high enjoyment: a base-under-siege storyline, an underwater setting, weird alien mysticism, scary ghost creatures, and a mystery that needs a second episode to understand. I’m a huge fan of the Second and Third Doctor eras, as well as Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass serials and Gothic horror, and there were elements of all of them present in tonight’s episode. Whithouse set up all the pieces for a cracking mystery and you could tell they were there, but they weren’t entirely noticeable or easily assembled right out of the gate.
The setting was great. It was a nice throwaway (that will end up not being a throwaway) that the Lake in Scotland where the underwater base exists is actually a flooded former military base. That allows Whithouse to play with lost civilization tropes without it being Atlantis or something similar (since we already know there’s been about a billion of those explanations in the show). How weird for the crew to find an alien spacecraft deep under the water, huh? Why would it be there? Who could have sent it? Ooh, mysteries!
The Doctor gets to be full-on Doctor in this one, and I love that it this was one of the few times when the Doctor’s psychic paper tells everyone that he’s the Doctor and he works for UNIT. That takes a lot of the “Hey, who are you?!” out of the episode, and again hearkens back to the Third Doctor era when he could just say “I’m with UNIT” for Earthbound adventures and that’s all anyone needed. It’s also cute how O’Donnell was all starstruck.
This is an episode that tries to use ghosts and have them just be ghosts, something the series has never done before. But how could ghosts exists? In the same way that Quatermass and the Pit did in the ’50s, this episode tries to explain metaphysical things using science. In this instance, strange alien markings embed themselves into a person’s brain and create a beacon to transmit a signal. When a person dies, they become nothing but a conduit for said signal, and they go out looking for more bodies to end in order to create more ghosts. So the ghost is really just a self-perpetuating radio signal. I love that!
The Twelfth Doctor continues to be the Doctor who doesn’t understand humans, even though he loves them. The cards Clara made for him with proper sentiments was cute, though I don’t think I like the fact that he’s so dumb about reading them. Still, it’s all about discovery for him, and when he tells the crew toward the end that he’d rather they leave, but gives them lots of incentive to stay (re: the discovery and the saving of people). Very rarely does a situation wrap itself up — in this instance, the ghosts are in the Faraday Cage and aren’t gonna hurt anyone — but everyone involved elect to stay. Maybe it’s slightly unbelievable that all of them would have been okay with it, but I like what it says about this particular group of people.
One really interesting aspect of the episode was the character of Cass and her sign language interpreter Lunn. For story purposes, it’s important that she can read lips, but also that she makes Lunn not enter the ship and look at the words. The Pritchard ghost didn’t kill him in the corridor, because he didn’t look at the words in the ship, even though that wasn’t expressed. I feel like Cass somehow knows that something bad would happen and instinctively knew not to let Lunn go in there. It’s also awesome that not only is there a deaf character in this show, but that, once the Captain dies, she’s the second-in-command. Lovely.
Let’s talk for half a second about that scene in the TARDIS between Clara and the Doctor. She’s rip-roaring and raring to go into the fire, but the Doctor takes a moment to express concern. There’s nobody who is the Doctor except the Doctor, and if the last series taught us anything, it’s that more than anything, despite relationships in her life, what she really wants to do is go on adventures with the Doctor. It’s good we’re touching on that again, and I think that’s probably going to lead to the end of this series (or whenever it ends up happening) where Clara ultimately departs. Whether that’s a happy or sad ending is up in the air, buuuuuuut, it probably won’t be happy.
And, ultimately, this episode did a good job of setting up the second part, which definitely is not going to be more of the same. Very little in “Under the Lake” dealt with who or what the first ghost was. The Doctor makes mention of him as a resident of the planet Tivoli, the cowardly and duplicitous race first introduced in Whithouse’s “The God Complex” as played by David Walliams. Here, this character is played by Paul Kaye, who you might remember from Game of Thrones and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Weird for such an actor to be in full makeup and reduced to just being an eyeless ghost, huh? Well, it looks like the Doctor’s gonna go back in time with O’Donnell and Bennet to when the town wasn’t flooded (hence the title “Before the Flood”) in order to see where everything started.
Oh yeah, and the Doctor’s a ghost now, kthnxbyeeeeeeeeeee!
I think “Under the Lake” was a great, mysterious horror episode with some good dialogue and no need to over-explain things. This really felt to me like a classic series episode, which naturally I think is great. And next week, with the Doctor both a hero and a villain in separate timezones, looks to up the ante. It’s always hard to judge a story halfway through, but so far, I think this was tops.
Let me know what you thought of “Under the Lake,” as well as your ideas for what could happen next, in the comments below!
Images BBC America
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor, a film and TV critic, and the resident Whovian for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!