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Doctor Who tells a real ghost story, then gets crazy

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Maybe next week’s episode will provide a satisfying conclusion to this two-part story. Maybe it won’t. But to the extent that it matters how well tonight’s “Under The Lake” functions as its own compelling 45 minutes of television—and you could certainly argue that won’t matter much at all a week from now, once the second part airs and everyone will forever after have the option of watching the whole story in one go—well, to whatever extent that matters, “Under The Lake” is one impeccably structured episode. Superficially, “Under The Lake” recalls the first episodes of previous two-parters of the base under siege mold like “The Impossible Planet,” “The Hungry Earth,” or “The Rebel Flesh.” These are all episodes in which teams of technically minded people—sometimes soldiers, sometimes scientists, sometimes a mix of both—discover some great, deadly mystery, and the Doctor must bring his reliably superior knowledge to bear in figuring out how to survive the disasters the humans have unwittingly stumbled upon.


The apparent difference, though, is that those three stories are all interested in opening up larger philosophical debates in their second episodes: the value of faith in “The Satan Pit,” the possibility of coexistence between aliens in “Cold Blood,” the nature of identity in “The Almost People.” As such, those earlier stories are all working toward the narrative swerve at the halfway point that allows the story to switch gears and open up the story to those bigger questions. Those first parts all feel, to one extent or another, like Doctor Who clearing its throat, like the show arranging its storytelling pieces in the correct combinations to enable more thematically complex second parts. And while next week’s “Before The Flood” might well get into that kind of territory, “Under The Lake” doesn’t take those previous episodes’ paths to get there.

Instead, this episode isn’t far from a typical one-off story. It wouldn’t take that much narrative tweaking to have “Under The Lake” wrap up in the space of 45 minutes, with the Doctor working out the true nature of the “ghosts” maybe five minutes earlier—you’d only need to tighten up some of the more deliberately paced scenes of the Doctor investigating the mystery to free up that time—and then him defeat the creatures, perhaps with the evil pilot of the spaceship showing up at the last minute to menace the Doctor before the day is well and truly saved. I mean, that doesn’t sound great, but it could work, certainly when compared with those other first halves of two parters, and doubly certainly when compared with recent Steven Moffat-penned opening episodes “Dark Water” and “The Magician’s Apprentice.”

What this means, in practice, is that “Under The Lake” has a tightness of narrative focus that often eludes the first episodes of Doctor Who two-parters. The show loves to use these extended-length stories to tease out more slowly the precise nature of the threat the Doctor and company are facing, but the challenge is there’s often a vanishingly fine line between “poorly understood,” which is fundamentally a problem for the characters to solve, and “poorly defined,” which is a problem for the audience. There’s an immediacy to what the ghosts are up to. Sure, we only find out in the closing minutes of “Under The Lake” that the more specific motivation behind the murdering is for the mysterious pilot to refashion people’s souls as transmitters, or something that means the same thing but is less ridiculous when typed out. (In fairness, that whole scheme sounded infinitely more reasonable when Peter Capaldi described it, which is roughly reason number 500 that he’s perfect as the Doctor.) But until that big revelation comes, it’s enough to know that the ghosts are out to kill everyone, lending the most obvious urgency to the ensemble’s efforts to work out what’s going on.


Indeed, “Under The Lake” presents one of the best-considered versions of an archetypal Doctor Who conceit. The show delights in presenting us with adversaries that certainly appear to be impossible creatures like ghosts or werewolves or mummies. (Not vampires though. Doctor Who has long contended that vampires are completely real.) Tonight’s episode gets to have all the fun of being, for all intents and purposes, a story about murderous ghosts, right down to the beings’ disappearing during “daytime” and their limited ability to manipulate heavy objects. But to keep the show’s universe from collapsing in on itself, the show has to offer some justification for why this is actually some alien technology that just happens to appear identical to some bit of human folklore.

In a one-off episode, that explanation typically comes toward the very end of the episode, and it’s hard for it not feel like an anticlimax, even if that information is what then allows the Doctor to save the day. But, in this case, the explanation serves to reconfigure the scope of the threat, pointing us toward that cliffhanger. “Under The Lake” has the luxury of giving the explanation about the soul transmitters—or, again, whatever we ought to be calling them as actual, non-ghost things—some time to breathe, and the non-ghost ghosts figure to remain threats long after their true fate is known. The nature of the threat changes, but it isn’t invalidated, and so “Under The Lake” doesn’t implicitly dismiss the fearsome threat it has spent 45 minutes building up just because said ghosts are likely to be superseded by still more serious concerns.


Where “Under The Lake” is less successful is in its characterization, which is surprising given writer Toby Whithouse’s track record on the show. “Under The Lake” recalls his 11th Doctor story “The God Complex,” and not just because of the return of the Tivolian race. Both stories find the characters facing the kind of otherworldly threat that should shake them to the very core of their being, and “The God Complex” set aside a considerable amount of time to exploring what faith and fear meant to the Doctor, the companions, and the other hotel guests. “Under The Lake,” by contrast, offers precious little insight into the inner lives of the Drum’s occupants. There are some little things, like O’Donnell’s Doctor fandom and Bennet’s relative cowardice, but some seemingly big stuff just isn’t there. For instance, the episode only considers what it means for them to see their dead commander (and, um, their asshole representative from Vector Petroleum) walking around and trying to kill them in terms of how the Doctor’s blasé reaction offends them. Honestly, whatever the narrative necessity of having a crew member or two join the cadre of ghosts, I do rather regret that it’s Moran who dies before the opening credits. For what little we see of it, Colin McFarlane’s drily cynical performance has an energy to it that enlivens the interactions with the rest of the cast, and it’s a bit of a shame the episode throws Moran away so immediately.

The rest of the cast is fine, but they are thinly sketched, especially once Pritchard—who, greedy jackass though he might be, at least distinguishes himself from the rest of the ensemble—also dies. The focus of “Under The Lake” remains very much on the process of investigating and trapping the ghosts, and the characters have nothing to say about their lives or their world beyond the Drum. That isn’t inherently an issue: I mean, a lack of characterization is never going to be a strength, but that reduced emphasis does let the episode streamline the storytelling and maintain its narrative concentration on the ghost hunt itself, and director Daniel O’Hara ratchets up the tension in what might otherwise be a whole lot of random racing through corridors. Besides, the fundamentals of these characters are still sound, and there’s no reason to think Whithouse can’t develop them beyond these vague starting points in “Before The Flood.” It’s just not something I can credit “Under The Lake” for one way or the other.


The characterization issue is slightly more troublesome with the Doctor and Clara. The performances are great in the early going, with Capaldi again showing off the more natural take on the Doctor we saw in the season-opening story. The Doctor of the early scenes is an effortlessly alien character, shamelessly fascinated by the puzzle of the Drum and airily dismissive of Clara’s request for a high five. This is no longer a Doctor who has to grumpily tell us he’s different from his previous incarnations, as his every action and reaction indicates it. That’s why it’s a little disappointing when the episode tries to engage with the Doctor’s alien nature more directly and ends up just being clunky. The notecards gag is fine as a joke in isolation but tramples a little too much on the actual nature of the Doctor’s character; it’s just a hair too cavalier in how it uses the Doctor’s inability to comprehend humans as a source of humor, though I’ll say this point is even more down to viewers’ individual tastes that, well, everything else under discussion in an inherently subjective enterprise like a review.

Anyway, the really odd scene is the one in which the Doctor tries to tell Clara off for … something. The TARDIS scene is dusting off an idea most clearly developed in “Flatline” about how Clara was becoming too much like the Doctor. The show then pretty much forgot the entire plot thread until that very moment, and it’s hard to say what about A Clara’s behavior here—which sure seems like typical enthusiastic companion behavior, not at all different from how any other new series companion might act in the same scenario—would set the Doctor off in this way. The episode itself almost acknowledges that when the Doctor asks if he has done enough to satisfy his duty of care and if he can stop bothering with this entire line of inquiry. It’s a scene that feels like scaffolding for some later character payoff between the Doctor and Clara, and the only question is whether the payoff will come in “Before The Flood” or later in the season. (My money’s on much later in the season, but I am frequently wrong.) But here, in isolation, it’s a scene that makes little sense in terms of the episode-specific story, and it’s a discordant moment in what otherwise is an efficient, well-told little story.


And that, in the end, is the thrill of “Under The Lake.” Character deficiencies aside, it works beautifully as a propulsive monsters story, one that lets the Doctor show off insight and wonder in equal measure. Yet it’s a story that sets up a far more complex threat next week, as the Doctor heads to a past in which we already know he’s doomed. (Well, he isn’t, obviously, but still.) A simple, focused first episode figures to set up a twisted, sprawling second half. But even without seeing the payoff, it’s hard to imagine more efficient narrative construction for whatever that conclusion might be.

Stray observations:

  • As a general rule, I try to save discussion of whatever might happen in the second part until I’ve seen what actually, you know, happened in the second part. But it really is one hell of a cliffhanger to have Clara confronted with the Doctor’s failure right at the end of the story, particularly after her confidence in him was so high. Here’s hoping “Before The Flood” picks up on that detail to deepen the Doctor/Clara interaction the episode was kind of randomly kicking around earlier. And when I say “randomly,” I just mean in terms of this episode. There’s every chance it will all make sense in the larger context of the finished two-parter, but I can’t give credit for that.
  • It’s very cool that Cass, the de facto leader of the Drum for most of the episode, is deaf, as is actress Sophie Stone. It was also a fun bit of ass-covering on the show’s part to claim the Doctor still needed her sign language translated because he had deleted it in favor of semaphore. I assume it was so he could enjoy this as it was originally intended.

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