“Is it Hallowe’en yet?” asks Tony Fyler.
We were teased, and then told outright, that whereas Series 8 was the beginning of a new ‘Dark Doctor’ era, Series 9 would see the Twelfth Doctor shaded more towards the comical than the intense, creepy and unapproachable.
Three episodes in, the strategy seems to be working, but not by any means at the expense of dark, creepy storylines. Steven Moffat’s opening Davros epic gave us unending war, children on battlefields, the price of compassion and the price of losing it – all good, clean knockabout fun for a prime-time Saturday night family drama and no mistake. Through it all, Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor was active and vocal, as though someone had taken off his Doctor Who training wheels and let him rise above the staring Scottish intensity of Series 8.
Likewise in Under The Lake, although we’re dealing with a world of dark and creepy things, Capaldi’s Doctor dominates proceedings with both a physical performance and a rapidity of speech that evokes a less sweary version of his Malcolm Tucker character in hit comedy The Thick of It (and In The Loop). But more than that – I’m not sure if this has already been mentioned till the space whales come home, but check out the retro in Under The Lake. Capaldi’s outfit has clearly gone through a 60s/70s spin cycle, becoming less severe and more evocative of Ye Goode Olde Days, while the hair has grown out, yes, a la Jon Pertwee, but quite a lot more a la the likes of Hartnell and Peter Cushing. We get a look inside the slightly retro-refitted Tardis here – ooh, look, round things (or roundels, as we used to call them when I were a lad), and Jenna Coleman’s Clara has been outfitted via the retro shops too, looking in this episode more like the Unearthly Child than the Impossible Girl we’ve come to know. What’s more, watch Capaldi go upstairs in this episode – again, it resonates with the likes of Troughton’s energetic shamble and even more with Cushing’s fascinated shuffle. What we’re being sold here is a Classic Doctor with New Who knobs on. To which the correct response is ‘Thank you very much – can we have some more.’
Is that important? Only really in that it’s almost a metaphor for Under The Lake as a whole. The design work here and the overall look of the sets has a kind of 60s and 70s vibe, a solidity that belies the artistry involved in turning egg-boxes and sticky-backed plastic into a whole other world of adventure – except here in the 21st century it has a sheen of quality, a scale, a realism to it that 70s budgets never allowed. It’s also that great money-saving marvel of most especially Troughton Who, a base under siege story – but it’s done in a particularly post-millennial way, with a crowd of interesting, realistic, conflicted people as the bait for the Big Bad. It’s detailed characterization that distinguishes, say, The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, or The Waters of Mars, or even Toby Whithouse’s previous ‘creepy corridors’ powerhouse, The God Complex, from the likes of…well, pretty much any Cyberman story of the sixties you care to name. And that’s definitely what Under The Lake feels like: a base under siege story, but one that says “Look, really interesting people that you’d like to hang out with. Let’s throw in some really creepy bad things and see how many of them make it out alive, shall we? Bwahahahahaaaa…”
Let’s examine the story in a bit more detail. A village with a dam gets flooded in the past, leaving the village mostly intact but buried underwater. Years later, the region is found to contain an oil deposit and a mining company secures the rights to drill for it. Enter our team, mostly military, but with one regulation short-sighted mining company moron to throw his weight around and get in the way. The team uncovers what appears to be a spaceship. We know, though they don’t, that a ‘ghost’ appears, makes equipment go electrically nuts, and suddenly they’re without a commander, who has joined the first ghost on a quest to, as it turns out, signal someone in deep space their location, for reason or reasons as yet unknown, and to make more people dead, so as to have more transmitters for those co-ordinates.
That feels like a Pertwee story in structure, right up to the point where the ghosts are beacons. That’s an element of pure New Who technobabble, in Toby Whithouse’s semi-trademark style: he knows how to structure a mystery, does Whithouse, and he’s quite capable of working to time, which means even though all his previous Who stories have been single-shots, the shape of Under The Lake is exactly what it should be as part one of a two-part story: questions, questions and more questions – every time you think you have an answer, what you actually have are two paving stones to more questions: What, actually, are the ghosts? We think we know they have no link to their material bodies any more, as shown by Pritchard floating about with lungs full of water, but whose mad idea would it be to turn living people into dead people merely to use their ‘ghosts’ – electrical after-images, maybe? – as a way of transmitting some (when you come right down to it) fairly bizarrely coded co-ordinates? As opposed, say, to building some actual beacons. Who or what is in the suspended animation casket? (Bagsy me the Doctor!) Why would there have been a Tivolian as the first ‘ghost’? Why is Lunn safe? What’s with the inability of the ghosts to go inside the lead-lined Faraday cage? Isn’t just popping back in time to sort things out fairly strictly against the laws of time, such as they still are?
The point about Whithouse’s style is that while all these questions beg to be answered, you can be confident that Whithouse will answer them. Unlike some writers, he more often than not does give you a logical in-universe explanation for all the nagging questions banging around your brain. This time round, he’s just going to make you wait for it.
But beyond and above all this, beyond the questions and the logic and the ‘what-now?’ of it all, Under The Lake is a piece steeped in atmosphere. The atmosphere of science-fiction campfires, around which fans of all ages huddle as the story unfolds of damp corridors, flickering lights, and running away from fast, eyeless ghosts who walk through walks and wield axes, coming to get you! Yes, being Whithouse, there’s logic and science and a story in there, because to give him his eternal due, Whithouse respects his audience, but Under The Lake is first and foremost not so much a rollercoaster as a ghost train ride of thrills and chills and creep-the-hell-outs, fit for October nights, and rendered with that combination of Classic Who structuring and New Who characterization that makes you feel exhausted and excited in almost equal measure at the end, and definitely keen to find out what the hell has actually been going on under that lake.
Once everything’s explained in part two of the story, there’s a chance that it’ll be one you remember enjoying but might not get the same thrill from on a second complete watch-through. Then again, once you know what’s going on in The God Complex, you still want to rewatch it time and time again because it’s complex and philosophical and dark and creepy and because both the characters and the ‘Big Bad’ are intrinsically interesting and delivered well on screen. On the evidence of Under The Lake, this two-parter might well be in God Complex territory – running and screaming and a mounting body-count, absolutely, and for clever, complicated reasons, but resisting the weariness of fan-understanding by delivering interesting people in a really weird situation, rendered in a way that remains unique to Doctor Who, whether Classic or New.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk