‘Doctor Who’ Season 9 Episode 3 review: ‘Under the Lake’

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There’s a lot that’s familiar about ‘Under the Lake’. Apart from the transmission time of course. Remember when Doctor Who was on at teatime?

But that’s a conversation for a time, when you (I) don’t have jim-jams on. And it’s nothing to do with this week’s writer, Toby Whithouse. In fact, the later start, with the Autumn sun down and night-mode engaged in our living rooms, certainly does work in favour of his script. ‘Under the Lake’ wouldn’t nearly be as atmospheric if the sunlight was streaming onto your TV and diluting the spookiness.

And it is properly spooky, something you can’t always say of the show. You’d expect nothing less from the creator of Being Human. But you’d also expect something a little bit more bold, more bonkers (there are flourishes toward it, but only flourishes). Or maybe we’re still in the hangover of ideas from last week’s Technicolour ‘madventure’.

‘Under the Lake’ is built on familiar, time-loved Doctor Who staples: a base under siege; lots of dingy corridors to chase the camera along; a cast of characters who are all just interesting enough to pay attention to, but not so much that you care who’s next on the chopping block… It’s done very well, but it’s also been done very well before. It’s bound to satisfy some and annoy others. Again, another classic feature of the show.

Doctor Who 9 3 Under the Lake

The Doctor and Clara land in The Drum, an impressively designed, corridor-heavy 22nd century base that’s one part Morpeth Jetsan, one part Sanctuary Base 6 and, because it’s damp and claustrophobic, one part that submarine from ‘Cold War’.

It’s a subaquatic haunted house – less Scooby, more Scuba-Doo – but here the ghosts are actually scary and solid nightmare fuel for any nippers watching the show just before bed. Daleks are fun, but it’s nice to have an enemy that gives you a shiver through the sofa.

Naturally The Doctor’s quickly trying to apply Clarke’s Third Law to the situation, and who can blame him? Ghosts tend to be Gelth or Cybermen or time-travellers stuck in pocket universes. But this time they are actually ghosts. Ghosts as well as transmitters luring something to Earth. It’s one of the small parts of that episode that feels new, scary, and which stretches the boundaries of a familiar universe.

Doctor Who 9 3 Under the Lake

But it also takes most of 45 minutes to reach that conclusion, and everything is devoted to reaching that. It makes for a workmanlike progression of events, as everyone else becomes a spectator to The Doctor talking things through, and puppets to his working things out.

It might be flat if Toby Whithouse wasn’t good at fitting dialogue in people’s mouths. There’s the fun of The Doctor quietly seething at Strictly favourite Peter Andre, but also the substance of more serious conversations that speak of The Doctor and Clara’s relationship beyond this episode. It’s a lovely moment as he warns Clara not to ‘go native’ and discusses his duty of care. No, it’s more than lovely, it’s subtle and marvellous and it might be the best 12/Clara moment yet. Capaldi and Coleman handle it beautifully.

But not everyone gets the best of things. Toby Whithouse used Steven Robertson to such terrific effect in Being Human that it’s genuinely disappointing to see Robertson reduced to the two-dimensional corporate caricature Richard Pritchard; a business bod with a strong resemblance to Steve Pemberton’s Mr Lux in ‘Silence in the Library’. It’s a waste of a good performer, but it is the only thing that really niggles in the script. Unless you like sticking to the Laws of Time.

Doctor Who 9 3 Under the Lake Steven Robertson (Pritchard)

In a big finger to the causal nexus and being locked into events, The Doctor goes back in time to understand why it’s all happening, only to wind up dead in the future (should a Confession Drive be opening up somewhere, or is there more to this than meets the eye?). It’s a heck of a cliffhanger. Maybe even – and I realise this is fighting talk – better than ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’. Certainly eyeless Peter Capaldi’s just as scary as Peter Capaldi shouting ‘Exterminate!’ at a kid.

‘The Magician’s Apprentice’/’The Witch’s Familiar’ was a Saturday morning cartoon. ‘Under the Lake’ is a swing to horror that reminds us what a wonderfully adaptive show this still is (so pay no attention to those ratings).

Compared to Moffat’s opener it feels safer, well-trodden. That’ll be a comfort to some, a frustration to those who want to be surprised. But it is a reliably solid episode of Doctor Who, and that’s always a treat. Whatever time it’s on.


Aired at 8.25pm on Saturday 3 October 2015 on BBC One.

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