Base under siege: This is a time-honoured style of Doctor Who story, set in an isolated location (generally a scientific and/or military base, although other settings can be and have been used), where a relatively small group of characters are fighting for survival against some invading threat. The format has been used (and sometimes overused) many times in Doctor Who's history. Some of the greatest stories have been base-under-siege stories (“The Tenth Planet”, “The Ice Warriors”, “The Ark in Space”, “The Waters of Mars”), as have some of the worst (“Warriors of the Deep”). While the format does have its limits, resulting in some stories being rather similar to others (the many Patrick Troughton base-under-siege stories started to fall a bit into this rut), it can also be surprisingly versatile, making for some very gripping and original tales. It's no wonder Doctor Who has revisited the format many times over the years.
“Under the Lake” by Toby Whithouse is the latest return to this format. For viewers who have picked up on Doctor Who in the last decade, it may at first seem very similar to stories like “The Impossible Planet”/”The Satan Pit” or “42”. The nice thing about “Under the Lake”, though, is that it quickly establishes its own identity, becoming what may be one of the most unique base-under-siege stories in all of Doctor Who. It's a gripping, atmospheric tale with just the right amount of creepiness, and superbly paced, building tension gradually up to its shocking climax. There's a definite “old school” feel to this story, which could easily fit in to the Patrick Troughton or early Tom Baker periods, and this works to its benefit (that's not to say that simply because something is “old school”, it's automatically better; just that, in this particular case, it enhances the story). It's not a flawless story, but it is excellent.
To make a really good base-under-siege story, you need two things: a credible threat and a strong, interesting cast of characters (okay, these are, admittedly, both extremely important to any story, not just base-under-siege stories). “Under the Lake” succeeds perfectly at the first and almost perfectly at the second. From the very start, the “ghosts” present a threat that is both sinister and mysterious. Although we don't yet know their motivations, they behave in a way that is consistent, allowing us to gradually catch on to their motivations and understand why they are behaving in the way they are. When the Doctor and Clara first arrive, the ghosts don't attack them until after they have seen the strange writing in the ship. Similarly, later, the ghost of Pritchard threatens Lunn with a wrench, but doesn't actually kill him (in an intense scene wonderfully portrayed by Lunn actor Zaqi Ismail). Viewers paying attention may, of course, remember that Cass has never let Lunn enter the ship and so he hasn't seen the writing. As such, viewers can start to deduce that the ghosts only kill people who have seen it.
The episode presents its clues in such a way that, when the Doctor starts figuring everything out, viewers can actually nod along, saying, “Hey yeah, I was thinking that too,” or perhaps even figure things out before the Doctor—well, before the Doctor tells everyone what he's determined; no one could actually figure it out before the Doctor, right?
Of course, this being Doctor Who, the ghosts are almost certainly not actual ghosts, but something else, despite the fact that even the Doctor starts acknowledging them as ghosts for a while. And here, we get consistent nods towards whatever the final explanation for them will be, from the fact that they are part of some sort of beacon to the fact that they can only physically effect metal items (some sort of magnetism?).
All this consistency also helps add to the atmosphere of dread that permeates the episode, something that is further enhanced by the excellent pacing of the story. There's really very little that could be considered filler in this episode, with virtually every moment contributing to plot or character development—often both simultaneously. One might argue that the attempt to trap the ghosts in the Faraday cage is a little convoluted and drawn out—particularly the need to get the ghosts to keep changing who they're following (and the Doctor oddly not considering beforehand that the ghosts might split up)—but perhaps this was because the Doctor felt that a simpler plan might be too obvious? However, overall, “Under the Lake” is brilliantly paced.
The other important part to a good base-under-siege story is the cast of character. “Under the Lake” does a very good job of establishing and differentiating its characters in the short amount of time it has, and most of them come out feeling like real people. The main exception here is Pritchard, who is pretty much a stereotypical corporate stooge. A character like Pritchard is pretty much a requirement in this kind of story (similar characters can be seen in other base-under-siege stories, and not just in Doctor Who, but numerous other media as well), and unfortunately, these characters are frequently not very distinguishable from one another. Pritchard falls into this indistinguishable category. You could swap him with Lux from “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead”, for example, and hardly notice the difference. I do wish that, for once, a character like this would be more unique. It's possible to be a corporate stooge and still be a three-dimensional character without that somehow diminishing the character's stooginess. All it takes is a little nod to something about the character that's not part of his/her corporate world: hobbies, family and friends, accomplishments, and so on.
Clara begins the episode incredibly eager to waltz in and have an adventure, to the point that she not only ignores her own safety, but frequently the safety of the base's crew as well. Although there is the card scene (which provides a moment of levity amid the tension of the tale) where she chides the Doctor for not being sensitive enough, Clara also pretty much encourages the Doctor's manipulation of the crew to get them to stay when it would be safer for them to go. This can seem somewhat jarringly out of character for Clara, but the story nicely acknowledges it, hinting that Clara is over-compensating for something, presumably the death of Danny Pink at the end of Series 8. Her statement of, “I'm fine,” when the Doctor confronts her for being too much like him, pretty much translates to, “I'm not fine.” It seems that this series intends to deal with how Clara is handling Danny's death, and if so, I completely approve (even if it could, perhaps, be a bit subtler about it). Doctor Who has had a pretty bad record at handling death since Steven Moffat took over. In fact, Moffat tends to avoid handling it at all by bringing everyone back from the dead. Yet so far, Danny Pink has stayed dead, and perhaps this time, we'll actually see some long-term consequences.
The rest of the cast is simply wonderful. The characters have clear personalities, and each of them get moments that develop who they are and let them shine: O'Donnell fanning out about the Doctor, for example, or Bennett's threat to come back and haunt the others if he dies. This episode also marks the first appearance of a deaf actor on Doctor Who: Sophie Stone as Cass. Over Series 8 and definitely continued in this episode of Series 9, Doctor Who has made some great strides in improving diversity among its cast when compared to the eleventh Doctor's period. Indeed, in this interview for Salon, Steven Moffat acknowledges the issues with representation in Doctor Who and that there has been a conscious effort to improve the situation. Here's the relevant part:
We need to do better on, certainly, the ethnic question. I thought when I first took it over — oh, what the hell, we’ll just audition people of all races for every part, and it will average out. I don’t know why an old Lefty like me had such faith in the free market; it did not work out. It does not work out. You’ve got [to] actually decide that’s what you’re going to do.
This effort certainly shows in “Under the Lake”, not just with Cass, but also the diversity amongst the other characters. Most importantly here, though, is that the episode doesn't in any way draw attention to the diversity. They are all just people, and their presence is just normal. Cass, for example, is a fully realized person. She is shown to be smart and resourceful, but also to care for her crewmates, especially her interpreter Lunn. Their relationship is beautifully brought across as two people who have worked together for a long time and become close friends, yet without anything romantic or sexual. The fact that Cass is deaf is just one more detail amid a myriad other details we get about her. The other characters fare similarly well.
The Doctor fares well in this episode, too. In the first three episodes of Series 9, we've definitely seen a mellower Doctor. He can still be a bit mean and unsympathetic, but he's not quite as crass or rude as he was in Series 8. At this time, I'm undecided how much I like this, but it has been written well so far. During Matt Smith's time, the scripts began to focus more and more on the Doctor's “wackiness” until eventually it came to define the eleventh Doctor. So far in Series 9, the scripts have been putting a bit more emphasis on the humour in the twelfth Doctor. It hasn't gone too far yet, but I worry that it might after another series or two. For the moment, the humour is working well, though. I really, want to see that clockwork squirrel!
On the other hand, I really don't like the sonic sunglasses. This isn't so much a problem of this story as it is something the story has inherited. There are valid reasons for removing, or at least significantly limiting, the sonic screwdriver. It was removed from the series in the 80s because it had become too much of a magic wand during Tom Baker's time. In recent years, it has become even more of a magic wand than it ever was, capable of doing pretty much anything the story requires of it. We don't know yet just how similar in capabilities the sonic sunglasses are to the sonic screwdriver, but it doesn't really matter, as sunglasses are a very poor choice no matter what their capabilities. This is for the simple fact that sunglasses obscure the eyes, which are amongst the most expressive parts of the body—Peter Capaldi's particularly so. By all means, let's see the Doctor get by without his sonic screwdriver for a while, but let's also be able to see his face while he does it.
Overall, “Under the Lake” is a great episode: tense, atmospheric, and a lot of fun. Most importantly, it has left me on the edge of my seat, waiting impatiently for next week's concluding episode, “Before the Flood”. I suppose one might argue that the cliff-hanger is a bit repetitive of the one in “The Magician's Apprentice” (the apparent death of a principal character), but I think this one works much better. Even though we know the Doctor is going to survive, the mystery of how is much more interesting this time. I can't wait!