Doctor Who 'Under The Lake' [TV-EPISODE REVIEW]

Now this was certainly an important episode for a couple of reasons. In the first two episodes we were treated with one of the best season premieres the show has ever had (I even made a list of my top 10 favorites), episode 3 has consistently for the past couple of seasons (the entire Steven Moffat era) been one of the weaker episodes of the entire season - if not the weakest. So has Toby Whithouse finally been able to break that trend with 'Under the Lake' or is it possible that we will be seeing this story at the bottom of the list (or should I say.... lake, huehuehue) when the season comes to an end?

Toby Whithouse has penned three consistently great episodes - and one that I do not care for much ('A Town Called Mercy'). He is also being thrown around a lot when people talk about who could possibly replace Steven Moffat when he finally steps down so basically, this is a very highly regarded writer for the series. For me personally, I mentioned that I find 3/4 episodes of his to be great but what has always been rather consistent is that he sometimes misses some well needed character development for some of the guest characters. No more was that emphasized better than in 'A Town Called Mercy' when the episode ends with the Doctor saying goodbye to the characters and he is having a fake pistol face off with one of the younger characters and they make it seem like we as an audience have seen this before and see the two become friends over time - but none of that was warranted as we barely got to know any of the characters apart from the gunslinger and Kahler-Jex. We also have two instances of characters getting killed and the Doctor gets very emotional about it (Rita in 'The God Complex' and Isaac in 'A Town Called Mercy'). The problem again is that it happened so soon that we did not get to know them very well and can actually get emotional about them dying. The latter even had the cliché of Isaac handing over the Sheriff badge to the Doctor and telling him to protect his town when he is dying. What this leads to though and what I was hoping to see is that for the first time, Whithouse wrote a 2-parter for the show so I was thinking we might actually get to see more character development for the people involved as he now has twice the time to do so.

Now to the actual episode. 'Under The Lake' sets itself up as being a typical base under siege episode that was really popular in the Troughton era and as far as that aspect goes, it really nails it. We see the Doctor and Clara arriving in an underwater base, they discover that not all is as it seems and then they are immediately thrust into a situation with a whole host of other characters. It is such a welcomed contrast to the blockbuster and character-piece epic that the opening story was. This is 'Doctor Who' going back to basics and Toby Whithouse's script ensures that it is not going to be one you forget about anytime soon.

Two-parters in the Moffat era of the show is something that we rarely see. Two-parters in the Moffat era NOT written by Moffat himself however is even rarer as we have only gotten two ('The Hungry Earth'/'Cold Blood' and 'The Rebel Flesh'/'The Almost People'). While I am a fan of the former, I feel like 'Under The Lake' is on track to beat both of them as this is definitely the best singular episode out of the five. Whether or not its a better story overall is up for 'Before The Flood' to decide (which is really shaping up to be quite a different episode than this one) but suffice it to say, this is a great episode and the rest of the season is going to have to be really damn good in order for this to end up at the bottom. Whithouse is back in full form here in an episode that is surely going to keep all the children awake at night. I myself was not particularly scared by anything that happened, in fact I wanted MORE scares as I felt there were more things they could do with them - but then again we also have a whole other episode left.

I loved the scene when Clara brought up the cue cards and the rather acerbic Doctor reads them to get all the emotional baggage out of the way. This is quite an interesting touch as it could be read in a multitude of ways. For me it seems like they are not that interested in consoling people as they feel it gets in the way of fun adventures which of course is not a very healthy thing to do but it is a very interesting scene and again shows the growth of Clara becoming more and more like the Doctor. For example, in 'Into The Dalek' last year we had Clara saying she is the Doctor's carer - she cares so he does not have to. We have also another scene in the TARDIS (which is actually the FIRST scene of the season that takes place inside the TARDIS which is a record for the new series) were the Doctor is noticeably worried about Clara as she really seem to be getting quite reckless. I am glad it is being brought up as I was actually worried they would drop it after 'Death In Heaven'. I really do want to know where they are going with this.

The supporting cast are good but the show has definitely seen better. I praised the hell out of the guest characters being really good in Series 8 but if this is the level of quality the Series 9 guest characters will offer us then it will pale in comparison. I must say though I really like the idea of having a deaf character in the group - and it is not used as a gimmick or as a segway to show that she is "magical". She just happens to be a deaf character which is very neat to see. Better yet, the actress herself is actually deaf. There is a real sense of diversity to this group of people which I welcome with open arms. The real problem though is that they are not really given a lot of character by Whithouse's script (as usual) and the actors do not really do much themselves to make them stand out. As of right now I have no clue what any of their names are apart from O'Donnell (and she is probably the worst actor out of them all). I will say though that while 'The God Complex' and 'A Town Called Mercy' killed its characters way too soon for the audience to be fully invested in him/her. In 'Under The Lake' however, this does not happen and if the next episode 'Before The Flood' feels like killing characters - we will have gotten to know them by the time it happens as we have already spent a whole episode with them and we are about to spend maybe at least 40 minutes more in the next one.

As this is overall an excellent episode I feel like I should talk about the directing. Daniel O'Hara makes is directorial debut for 'Doctor Who' here (he previously directed episode of Whithouse's show 'Being Human') and despite only having a handful of sets to work it - he manages to make it feel dynamic and interesting throughout the whole episode. There was never a moment that made the corridors look dull and redundant - which is something a lot of the recent directors have been able to do phenomenally well. I also think it is a bit redundant to say that the episode looks amazing - because they all do at this point. I am excited to see what O'Hara can do in the next episode as he will be allowed to flex is muscles a lot more in a different environment.

The ghosts looked really, really good. Like, amazingly good. I loved how they could pick things up - but once they walk through walls the things they are holding will not be able to follow through (seeing as they are not transparent) and just fall to the ground. They are a wonderful creation and definitely tops the list of Whithouse-monsters (and he has not exactly been too shabby with his monsters). I was wondering just how powerful they were though. Clearly they can walk through walls and such but it was established that they disappear during the day and re-appear at night. This begs the question though, around the half way point the base switches back to "night-mode" after only spending maybe just a couple of hours in "day-mode" and they tell us that the ghosts did it - but how does that work if they only appear at night? Are they still able to control the settings in the base during the day? Of course this might get explained in the next episode but as of right now, I it is a bit fuzzy how that works.

Overall, 'Under The Lake' is an excellent followup to the brilliant opening story and if 'Before The Flood' can somehow live up to it - we will have had two amazing two-parters in a row AND the best non-Moffat written two-parter of his era. The dialogue is wonderful, the performances by Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman are fantastic, the directing by Daniel O'Hara is very sharp despite the limited locations and the ghosts are really wonderfully designed. It is just a shame that the supporting characters are for the most part not very interesting and the performances by those actors are not that impressive. But as a whole, 'Under The Lake' is a brilliant opener to what will hopefully become a brilliant story by next Saturday.

Oh and judging by the trailer for the next episode, it seems like Clara gave up on her Samsung Galaxy phone she had in 'Dark Water'. Just a random thing I noticed.

- Lucas

1 comment: Leave Your Comments

  1. Really, really loved this episode. Nowadays we don't get many episodes htat work purely on the merits of a simple Who episode, but this episode worked fantastically on those aforementioned merits and it was beautiful to watch. Everything about this was stunning- the beautiful lighting, the tense music, the sharp acting. It set up clues early on in a way that really showed style on the writer's part. On a deeper level, the theme of communication was excellent- small but it worked wonders within the narratalogical and conceptual boundaries of the episode. he concepts were also delicious and worthy of a further analysis when I embark on my annual rewatching. I really like this site, and your reviews are very well-written. You explore points very well. really looking forward to the next series of Doctor Who!