Doctor Who Review: S09E03 - Under the Lake
I love a good base under siege story in Doctor Who and that's exactly what Toby Whithouse gave us this week. Or at least he gave us the first half of one, but I have high hopes for part 2. Whithouse has a pretty good track record when it comes to Doctor Who. He has given us The Vampires of Venice, The God Complex and A Town Called Mercy, all of which should a solid grip on how to tell a Doctor Who story and in this case I think he's come up with something that should appeal to all Who fans.What's So Great About a Base Under Siege
This particular story-telling trope isn't unique to Doctor Who but it is something that the show has leaned on heavily over the years. The Patrick Troughton era for example is famous for it as the technique was used to compensate for small budgets and tiny sets. In the modern era where the show is shot more like a movie it has been less common but The Waters of Mars is an excellent example of the format.
One of the reasons it works so well in Doctor Who is that it is such an efficient use of limited time. You only have a handful of characters to focus on which allows you to give them at least the appearance of depth and you have limited locations which lets you focus your world building. On top of that the siege immediately puts tension into the situation and cliffhangers spring naturally from it.
Which is exactly what we got with Under the Lake.There's No Such Thing As Ghosts
The Doctor has never been a believer in the supernatural so no matter how many times ghosts and demons turn up in the show, you know there will eventually be a scientific(ish) explanation for them. I did like the way he instantly dismissed the notion of ghosts only to, having eliminated the probable, return to it later on and completely embrace it.
I really liked the Doctor's portrayal throughout this episode. It was a great blend of elements we have seen previously. Yes there's some of the "manic pixie" from earlier incarnations, but we also get the thoughtlessness (the cards were a lovely touch) and the obsession with solving a problem. Having recently been watching Tomb of the Cybermen (a great base under siege story) I thought it was interesting to compare Troughton's manipulation of people into exploring the Tombs with the way Capaldi here blatantly manipulated people to stay and solve the mystery.
I am actually contractually obliged to praise Peter Capaldi's performance in every episode of Doctor Who, but he gives me plenty to work with here. There's an energy to it that is captivating, but also a subtlety to his facial expressions. There's a lot going on under the surface and it's so fun to watch.First Amongst Equals
In Doctor Who the supporting cast for any particular story is basically just there to provide information and get killed. That's still the case in this episode as well, but Whithouse has done a great job giving the characters enough depth that they aren't blatant information spouts and we do actually hope for them to live at least a bit longer.
The weakest of the characters would be Pritchard who is absolutely the one note greedy corporate stooge that is so common in Doctor Who but Whithouse cleverly sidesteps that criticism by having the Doctor dismiss him as an idiot. The other characters however seem pleasantly competent in their jobs and capable of functioning without the Doctor's input.
What this leads to, unusually for recent Who, is a situation where Clara does not stand out. She doesn't have the technical skills that the other characters have nor any particularly useful knowledge. She's there and she's eager to help, plus smooth things over when the Doctor ruffles feathers, but she's not better than anyone else. That's rather different to how she's been portrayed of late but it works well in this story.Obviously He's Not Dead
I've seen a little criticism online for the obvious fake out that is the Doctor's ghost. Clearly the title character of the show is not dead and therefore it's not much of a cliffhanger! Except that the purpose of a cliffhanger is not specifically to make you think someone is dead but to give you a reason to tune in the following week.
Yes, we know the Doctor will survive. But how? What happened to him? The cliffhanger has us asking questions and wanting answers. It works.
What weakens it, however, is the fact that it is the second time in only 3 episodes that this style of cliffhanger has been used because it's almost exactly what happened with Clara and Missy. Repetition will always weaken a concept no matter how good it is. They definitely need to vary their cliffhangers a bit more.Tension, Tension, Mood and Tension!
A base under siege story stands or falls on the mood it creates. We as a viewer should feel the siege tightening and our protagonists getting increasingly frantic as their options are removed. Under the Lake achieves this quite effectively first by setting up the threat of the ghosts then by gradually revealing how sophisticated and dangerous they actually are.
It's a classic situation where every time one of the good guys falls they join the ranks of the enemies making each loss doubly bad. Their ability to walk through walls; the reveal that they can control the base; their attempt to bring others to the base; the odds just kept stacking up against the Doctor and his friends.
And then that clever "victory" in the middle of the episode gave the audience a chance to breath and dwell on the questions that have been building about what is actually going on. Which also gave the opportunity to really squeeze us again near the end and bring the panic right back.Next Week on Doctor Who - Before the Flood
It looks like we break out of the confines of the base somewhat next week. I hope that doesn't weaken the tension, but there are plenty of questions that need answering.