Doctor Who series 9 episode 3
Under the Lake has something of a gradual pace and steady build to it. After the series opener blasted us with an opening twenty minutes of action and intrigue, this story is taking its time. This gives us more opportunity to get to know the characters and the world as well as really build up the spooky nature of this week’s ghostly monsters. But does it succeed?
Toby Whitehouse has penned some classics in his time. The God Complex remains one of my favourite episodes of the last five or so years and a lot of that had to do with how he constructed his characters. Here I felt that there was a lot less depth to the people we saw dealing with the menace and as a result it was hard to feel invested. While the characters are diverse and seem interesting enough, I didn’t feel a real connection with the peril. Where the God Complex succeeded was in letting the audience believe that these characters had real reason to fear the monster and its powers because of a connection – the monster fed on fears and so we delved into what exactly they were afraid of and why. Here, beyond just the general spookiness of ghosts and fear of death, we haven’t got much to connect the characters to their peril.
As a result, the peril itself doesn’t feel quite as real. Ghost stories are two a penny these days, and even more so as we get closer to Halloween, so if you’re going to do one it helps to make it different. The mystery of what they are and how they came to be is the most intriguing part of it; the Doctor is at first reluctant to call them ghosts, but soon decides ‘what the hell’ and does so.
The military team are a good bunch of characters and I do hope we get to know more about who they are and why they do what they do. Sophie Stone plays the de facto leader Cass and I was glad that her deafness was not played for laughs (which had been a major worry). The only joke made related to it was the Doctor’s arrogant insistence that he knew sign language when he clearly didn’t – he quickly realises his mistake and allows the interpreter Lunn (Saqi Ismail) to continue. I did breathe a sigh of relief as I had worried that this gag would be stretched out over the entire episode and become quickly uncomfortable. Thankfully, Whitehouse seems to have the good sense not to do this and instead lets the Doctor be the butt of the joke and also allows him a bit of well needed humility in the moment.
The relationship between Cas and Lunn seems to have a lot of unspoken depth to it, too. If they go down the road of a romance I will be a tad disappointed; it’s a great opportunity to display a positive friendship with a disabled character without resorting to a cheap hand-waving of ‘they were just in love’ to explain it away. We need more varied and distinct representations for non-verbal people and it’s something of a tired trope to make the only person who shows a genuine interest in them as a person to be simply romantically infatuated. We shall see.
Sophie Stone was the first deaf person to win a place at RADA. It is such a relief to find out that a deaf character is being played by a deaf actor – there are few enough roles for disabled actors as it is and it would have been a crime to have cast anyone else. Cass is one of the most interesting characters on the base; she’s no-nonsense, practical and stern, yet with a compassionate side. Stone plays both sides to her to perfection and she communicates so much through body language and through her eyes – I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more of her on our screens in the future.
The Doctor and Clara’s relationship is also taking some interesting paths. I’m glad to see some concern crossing the Doctor’s mind about Clara’s behaviour and they do seem to be addressing his own lack of tact. The cue cards to tell him what to say when he’s being insensitive were good for a laugh and his bouncing excitement at discovering something new is something I’ve been missing. Whenever the Doctor has had this ‘I hate not knowing’ attitude it’s rubbed me the wrong way; the Doctor having eager curiosity and encouraging delight in discovering new things has always been better for my tastes.
Clara didn’t get a lot of action in this episode and at one point even had to remind everyone that she was there. Perhaps this is a symptom of having an episode with so many characters in it that somebody will get left behind. Similarly, Zaqi Ismail’s character Lunn could have done with more fleshing out and Steven Robertson’s Pritchard felt a little too one-dimensional.
Many of the issues with this episode are ones that can be helped by the second part. Fleshing out the characters, giving more depth and expanding on what has been established. I have a lot of faith in Toby Whithouse’s ability to pull off some great things and I look forward to seeing what he has in store for us.
One criticism I feel I have to raise is one of the lighting. There was too much of it. I kept finding myself thinking of Warriors of the Deep – a Fifth Doctor story often panned for its hilariously poor special effects. That story too had an underwater base invaded by monsters, but the bright white light of the set made the low budget all the clearer. Here I felt that the ghosts would have benefitted from being in much, much lower lighting, or even lighting of a different tint. As it was, it all felt too warm, too safe, and too sterile. The low orange glow of the ‘evening shift’ didn’t make them nearly as terrifying as, say, a green or dark blue light might have. Then again, such a light change would have to be justified in the script. Still, it took something away from what could have been a much more frightening monster.
The cliffhanger was somewhat inevitable. I found myself thinking it would be either Clara or the Doctor walking as a ghost at the end. Still, it was very well done and if we hadn’t just had an entire two-parter revolving around the Doctor’s impending ‘death’, it might have come as more of a shock. That being said, I am genuinely curious to see where this goes.