Doctor Who – Season 9 Episode 3

Oct 4, 2015 | Posted by in TV
Doctor Who

“Under the Lake”

After a really intense, character driven set of opening episodes Doctor Who shifts gears to a more mystery/horror hybrid story that focuses more on the action than the characters. Another late review but I should be on time next week.

This isn’t altogether a bad thing as the beauty of Doctor Who has always been the potential for infinite variety within the premise. Of course this is rarely taken advantage of and this episode isn’t particularly original since it basically follows the old “base under siege” template.

Something doesn’t have to be dripping in originality to still be engaging. This story does a good job of building atmosphere and creates a particularly sinister and mysterious villain for the Doctor and Clara to puzzle their way though.

The basic story is that there is a an underwater base in Scotland circa 2119 where the crew has found an unidentified ship. This discovery seems to house a malevolent spirit who wastes no time in starting to pick off the crew to grow its ranks. Enter the Doctor who is already a little unsettled as the TARDIS is reacting strangely to the situation.

The ghosts attackClara on the other hand is bursting for adventure after having some off screen excitement. It’s unclear how much time has passed since the death of Danny Pink but Clara seems to be over it. My theory is that she is in denial and the only way she can prevent herself from breaking down is to throw herself completely into her travels. I hope I’m right as it might be a good catalyst for her inevitable departure at the end of this season.

The great thing about Clara so far this season is that she seems like a proper companion in contrast to last season where the Doctor may as well have dropped her off and left for all he would contribute to the resolution. She is still important to the story and serves a clear purpose but she mostly backs up the Doctor rather than taking the lead. It proves that she can still have agency of her own without overpowering the narrative.

As mentioned above the story builds atmosphere well and the claustrophobic nature of the narrow corridors provides a suitably eerie setting for the action to take place. Most corridors look the same which creates a sense of there being no way out and the fact that they are underwater with the high pressure outside providing its own innate danger. The ghostly figures look great with an ethereal yet tangible design that manages to make them very unsettling. It’s a great job on all fronts creating a setting that isn’t the most welcoming.

The story develops nice and slowly with plenty of time spent asking the right questions that will hopefully have satisfying answers in the following episode. As far as I can tell this whole season is going to be made up of two part stories. I would say that’s a good fit for Doctor Who as many of the single part stories move along too quickly and have really poor resolutions but with that extra time to develop then that problem can hopefully be solved. I certainly think this episode needed the time to build the mystery and it was spent wisely.

Capaldi is on top form as the Doctor here with a clear sense of who he is and what his objectives are. He’s portrayed as a man who is really excited about the situation but forgets that there are people involved who have lost friends and fear for their own lives. This version of the Doctor is somewhat lacking in compassion and I like that. He feels like an alien who doesn’t really understand humanity and forgets to do simple things like be sympathetic when bad things happen. In particular this character trait sets him apart from David Tennant and Matt Smith who were defined by their empathy for humans. Capaldi’s Doctor seems to find it easier to feel compassion for Davros than any human involved here. If this remains consistent then it will give Capaldi something concrete to base his character on.

Doctor Who

The Doctor confronts the ghosts

I liked the two sides to Capaldi’s performance being a childlike excitement as well as being a grandiose authority figure. He presents the appearance of being the most important man in the room and revels in the fact that he is the only one who can figure this out. It’s great to see Capaldi approach the role with such confidence and clearly have a lot of fun with it.

His approach to the mystery was interesting to watch with a denial of the concept of ghosts at first since in all of time and space he has never encountered a ghostly figure that couldn’t be explained such as the Gelth in Christopher Eccleston’s story “The Unquiet Dead”. I like that he’s not too proud to admit when he might be wrong. At the absence of any other explanation he accepts that they are ghosts and concentrates on finding out what they are after. Capaldi’s Doctor is really engaging when he’s written properly. Toby Whithouse seems to get this character better than Moffat does.

The native humans that interact with him are something of a mixed bag. They aren’t terrible at all but they definitely slot firmly into the background. I did like the casual diversity of Sophie Stone’s Cass being deaf and having constant use of sign language threaded through the narrative. I’m not sure there has been a disabled character certainly in recent memory without them being a plot point of some sort. Cass is simply there and contributes to the story in her own way without too much attention being drawn to it outside of a joke where the Doctor has apparently forgotten how to use sign language.

In classic horror movie fashion each of the seemingly expendable characters are given a couple of small character defining traits that anchor them quickly and give them some personality while wondering which one will be picked off next. I liked the reference to Ridley Scott’s Alien with the profit only focused corporation Vector Petroleum as represented by the douchey Pritchard (Steven Robertson). I love how the Doctor shows contempt for him by immediately calling him an idiot after finding out his only motivation is money. It’s a bit on the nose but works well enough.

Doctor Who

Capaldi makes for a very creepy ghost

It is a shame that the other characters are a little thin on the ground as the two parter situation means that there is time to properly develop at least some of them. They were all fine but I was never in a situation where I really cared what happened to them. I got the impression that they were all expendable and wasn’t overly fussed about that.

The action beats in this episode were great to watch with a notable highlight being a tense chase through the corridors as the ghosts pursued relentlessly while the Doctor coordinated from the control room. It was a clever way to have him be part of the action without running around like his recent predecessors.

Naturally with a two parter a cliffhanger is needed and the one used here didn’t really work for me. Having the Doctor be outside the base as a ghostly figure looked pretty creepy but it’s a completely toothless tease as we all know he won’t be a ghost by the end of the next episode. I can only hope that the reason behind this will be done well but it’s pretty cheesy to have a cliffhanger dripping with false jeapordy.


  • 8/10
    Under the Lake - 8/10


A suitably creepy and engaging episode of Doctor Who that effectively builds a horror/mystery hybrid story with a claustrophobic setting.

The episode does an excellent job of building an unsettling atmosphere with the ghostly figures looking appropriately creepy and the mystery driven narrative providing something that is constantly engaging.

Capaldi is on top form as the Doctor here with a childlike curiosity coupled with a grandiose sense of authority that drives his character. He seems appropriately alien as he has to be reminded to care about the humans who have died. The fact that he needs to be reminded suggests that certain things are beneath his notice and that he is fully drawn into the situation with his entire focus being on solving the mystery.

Clara is used well here and again falls into the capable assistant role. She still has plenty of agency within the story but doesn’t overpower it by taking over. Her job is to support the Doctor and she is used well in that regard. Her desperate desire for adventure suggests to me that she’s in a lot of denial over the death of Danny Pink last season and is due for a breakdown sometime in the future.

The native human characters are a mixed bag with not a lot of development. Given that there are two episodes to tell this story then there could have been a bit more depth to at least a couple of them. I did like the casual use of the deaf character Cass without drawing too much attention to it outside of a joke and the money driven douche Pritchard representing the evil corporation is a nice callback to Ridley Scott’s sci fi classic Alien.

I really enjoyed the action in this episode with particular attention to be given to a tense corridor chase as the Doctor barks orders from a control roll. It makes good use of the claustrophobic setting and keeps the tension levels high.

Sadly the cliffhanger ending seems a little toothless as we all know that the Doctor won’t be a ghost by the end of the next episode. Using cliffhangers like this are a bit cheesy and unimaginative. Creepy as it was the episode could have ended better.

User Review
4 (1 vote)