Tony Fyler gets wet for the Twelfth Doctor.
Under The Lake is a bit of an odd one. It’s pretty much what happens if a classic base-under-siege story meets The Walking Dead in a dark, drippy sea base corridor and clonks it over the head with an axe.
Atmosphere is key here – the pre-credit sequence is lacking what might be called sparkling repartee, but what it has in droves is dark, shadowy old-fashioned creepiness, with a couple of jumpy moments and a good solid screamer thrown in.
When the Doctor and Clara arrive, something actually feels a little off about their dynamic – she’s all gung-ho for adventure and monsters, he’s more circumspect and oddly respectful. It’s almost as though the campaign to bring the Grumpy Doctor of Series 8 in from the cold a bit has worked a little too well, and left the Clara that had learned to deal with him out on a limb of running towards danger. Does it work? Almost, but honestly, not quite. Not to worry though, soon there’s more running and scares. The crew of The Drum, the undersea drilling rig in which dark forces are stirring, are significantly above average in the ‘people to get killed along the way or saved heroically’ stakes, taking us back to The Waters of Mars or The Satan Pit in terms of character dynamics. Perhaps appropriately then, the cast is strong – with Colin McFarlane as Moran, you’d expect a nuanced performance, but the rest of the crew stand up and are counted too, making you actively invest in the fate of this rag-tag bunch of human beings stuck where human beings probably, in all likelihood, shouldn’t be.
Perhaps it’s the watery setting, but there’s a distinctly Waters of Mars vibe about the atmosphere too: the baddies – if indeed they are baddies – set about the same sort of strategy throughout the course of the episode; they kill you, you join their ranks (see? Walking Dead), and one becomes two, becomes three, becomes possibly four across the course of the episode. The baddies have a truly quite creepy look too (another Waters of Mars parallel), seemingly eyeless and with a shimmery, (yes, there’s no real alternative to calling them this) ghostlike vibe that enhances the scare factor of them – as does the fact that, in a possible nod to George Romero, these things are fast. We’re not in ‘monsters lumbering down corridors’ territory here – you believe in the necessity of running from them.
There’s a solid puzzle at the heart of all the running – and it’s the kind of story where once you know how it all plays out, you’ll look back on all the clues and think ‘But of course…’ By the end of Under The Lake though, you don’t have enough on first watching to quite get to the solution. There are lots of things that nag away at your brain, electricity and Faraday cages being among the most potent, but the puzzle holds enough new twists and turns along the way to keep you guessing. Are the ghosts really ghosts? If not, what the hell are they? Where are they from? Why is there a Tivolian among their number? What’s in the box with the deadlock seal? As the Doctor remarks at one point, ‘the more I answer, the more questions there are.’ That of course is the job of the first episode of a two-parter – pile question on question and forge the whole thing into an enormous hook to pull you forward into the second part. Does Under The Lake do that? Oh hellyeah – Whithouse is never one to shirk the responsibilities of his craft, and when he gets it very very right, he delivers Who that stands head and shoulders above its fellows (as he did in The God Complex). Under The Lake leaves you with the sensation that it’s in The God Complex’s area – creepy corridors, an enigmatic threat, compelling characters, a mounting body-count, and a do or die dynamic that could yet see our hero take steps into the unknown in its second part. That’s never bad territory to be in, and Whithouse’s Twelfth Doctor continues the strong start he made in Moffat’s opening Davros epic: it feels very much as though this Doctor has had his Series 8 training wheels of grumpiness crowbarred off – there are rapid speeches, there’s that streak of Tom Baker or Matt Smith hyper-intelligence, but there’s still a Capaldian uniqueness that can throw off-hand remarks about without a care where they land – “Ah, I see – you’re an idiot,” “Why is this man still talking to me?” and more. The Capaldi Doctor, on the evidence of the first three episodes of Series 9, is not by any stretch of the imagination mellowing. It’s more that he’s learning how to put his spikiness to more effective use, as though he’s had to look himself in the eye and say “Right – this is how I am now. How do I make this the Doctor?”
As the creepiness grows and the questions multiply in Under The Lake, the Twelfth Doctor grows more and more resplendent. Perhaps interestingly, Clara by contrast feels more and more sidelined, pared down to a more traditional companion role, which will please many in fandom. Here, it’s not Clara who plays the main companion role of helping the Doctor to be as brilliant as he needs to be, leading to an odd sensation that whereas many of his companions have stopped travelling with him when they’ve out-grown the Doctor, Clara might yet be the companion that the Doctor himself outgrows. Maybe that’s a false impression given by the need to fit all the running and the mysteries into Under The Lake to craft that great big hook to drag us forward. Certainly though, by the end – and with the end reveal – you’ll want to know what’s really been going on Under The Lake.
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