Doctor Who Series 9 Review: Under the Lake, by Eddie McGuigan

 

UNDER THE LAKE

Review by Eddie McGuigan

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The Doctor is fascinated by something..

In the olden days, when the Universe was half its present size, Doctor Who used to start like this:

It was autumn, getting dark, maybe a little windy and cold outside. Curtains were drawn, tea had, everyone on the couch. The haunting melody would drag that old blue box down a swirling tunnel and open up to some plucky guest stars with some pretty distinct characteristics in a claustrophobic base set slightly in the future. There’d be a leader, brusque but true, a scientist, a creepy and slightly untrustworthy specialist, and a few immediately likeable characters who you could envisage as companions to the Doctor. Just as we’re getting to know them, something will happen – a likeable character will be killed, a monster will appear…

…and elsewhere in the base, tucked away in a cupboard or utility area there’ll be a strange, wheezing, groaning sound and an old blue Police Box will materialise out of thin air. It’ll sit for a second, as if gathering its thoughts, then an eccentric man will spring from the creaking door, sniffing the air, followed by a pretty, plucky companion, eyes wide with excitement at the start of a new adventure. Before long, the man – known only as the Doctor – will be embroiled in the situation, with his companion a loyal sidekick, and he’ll take control of the group meeting various levels of resistance, from suspicion, aggression to immediate new friendships.

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The Doctor takes control

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…but what’s he up to?

This is how Doctor Who used to start. It didn’t start with grumpy some-time companions working elsewhere, or with a domestic drama. It didn’t start with a convoluted backstory or a timey wimey arc. It started, it ran. And it ran.

Luckily, writer Toby Whithouse remembers those autumn nights, and how important those first few minutes were, and, to my absolute pleasure, he has recreated that perfectly here with Under The Lake. It is without a doubt the most traditional Doctor Who episode in quite some time, echoing tropes and conceits last seen in Mummy on the Orient Express, with much the same result. You get, in 42 minutes, true, undiluted, distilled and pure Doctor Who.

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Haunted corridors

Whithouse also knows Doctor Who should be scary. Weeping Angels scary. The Flood scary. Osirian Mummy scary. Weng-Chiang scary. So he makes the “Ghosts” scary too – he even manages to make the Tivoli scary, with the help of guest star Paul Kaye.

The Base Under Siege trope in Who has been around since Davis and Lloyd went “aaahhhh” in the 1960s, and it never fails. Under the Lake has echoes of The Ark In Space and Revenge of the Cybermen. It has shadows of The Seeds of Death and Waters of Mars. It also apes other sci-horror stalwarts like Buffy The Vampire Slayer – the Ghosts are very reminiscent of Hush’s “The Gentlemen” with their slip/slidey approach, terrifying look and incessant whispering.

Director Daniel O’Hara knows the score too. An impressive set is moodily lit and cleverly shot. There’s only so many ways to shoot the same corridor, but this director has nice camera angles and long shots coupled with some claustrophobic close ups and the filters give an underwater, cramped feel to the base. Before long we all know the geography of the place, and fear what’s behind each corner.

Guest star wise Morven Christie is the stand out, and her character O’Donnell would make a fabulous companion. A former UNIT operative, she knows the Doctor very well, and he takes to her pretty quickly, it seems. The rest of the cast, especially Paul Kaye who has little to do than look menacing, are comfortable and very adequate in their roles, and the ensemble – a much larger troupe than in the previous two episodes – is very believable as the weary gang stuck under the water.

This episode, though belongs to Peter Capaldi who bounces off of Jenna Coleman’s much more likeable Clara like a Tom off a Lis. This is without a doubt the most comfortable Peter has been in the role. A couple of years ago, I spoke to Tom Baker about the role of the Doctor, and he told me this: “You don’t act the Doctor, really… that’s doomed to failure. You’re with him too long to try and pretend. You have to let him inhabit you, and before long he’s more you than you know. I was the Doctor before I was given the scarf, and I will always be him”. In Series 8 it seemed perhaps Peter was “acting” the Doctor, but, like all the actors, his second season is a lot more relaxed. His scenes here are testament to this, as he takes command of the room, eyes up potential allies and enemies and insults and charms in equal measures. He is, more than ever, the Doctor. His “card” routine with Clara is fantastic.

I can’t fault this episode. It’s a step up from the previous two, which were fab, and a return to proper, old school, scary Doctor Who, something it’s 8.25 start time reflects. It really is time to hide behind the sofa again with a proper, genuine and unique Doctor.

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Run you clever boy…

 

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