‘Doctor Who’ spoiler-free review: ‘Under the Lake’

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How much you enjoy this weekend’s Doctor Who may depend on how prepared you are for old-school storytelling.

It may also depend on how much you like very dim green lighting, because there’s a lot of it about.

Say what you like about Steven Moffat’s hyperactive episodes, they are far from ordinary. Toby Whithouse’s ‘Under the Lake’, however – which sees ghosts haunting an underwater sea base – is far more run-of-the-mill, and has many of the strengths, and weaknesses, that come from being so.

It’s a set-up that works best for the novice viewer: one who hasn’t seen ‘The Impossible Planet’ or ‘The Rebel Flesh’.

A group of scientific researchers and interested parties investigate a buried spaceship and, in so doing, find themselves in the middle of a horror movie transposed to a sci-fi setting. There’s a sarcophagus; ghosts walk through walls; an ominous inscription is in need of translating.

In summary form, it reads like a Doctor Who dream. In performance, however, there’s a slowness to proceedings which isn’t just attributable to the build-up of tension but in part to the samey nature of the visuals and the desire to hold back the story-changing twist to the close of the episode. If ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ and ‘The Witch’s Familiar’ were a triumphant vindication of the return to the two-part format, ‘Under the Lake’ suggests there’s more work to be done.

Here, we should, we suppose, declare a prejudice. There’s a kind of po-faced Doctor Who story that just doesn’t do it for us, and usually it involves blank-faced supporting characters, dressed in army-issue vests and shorts, exclaiming, ‘This can’t happen! No, no, no!’ You know the kind: the one with the flickering turquoise lights, and clanking corridors, and bursts of ventilation steam. The one where everything is heavy duty, in more ways than one.

Doctor Who 9 3 Under the Lake

To say that, when watching these stories, we always yearn for the monsters and jokes is to do a disservice to Whithouse’s script. There are jokes here, many of them good, including a cheeky allusion to one of this year’s Strictly contestants. However, despite the many moments of winking-at-the-audience kookiness that we have come to associate with Doctor Who, things still don’t feel knowing, or radical, enough.

One very good actor is required to play below his abilities as that stock Doctor Who character, the company man driven only by a hunger for financial gain. Of the other crewmembers, one scene dares to spell out how generic their motivations are: scientific curiosity, the commitment to protect and serve… So far, so familiar.

Much more interesting is the relationship between the Doctor and Clara, which is gifted one arc-pertinent scene where the Doctor struggles to express empathetic concern, and Clara, confounded by a mixture of embarrassment, thankfulness and denial, struggles to shrug his behaviour off. It’s a properly truthful scene between friends and, for once, it’s Clara doing the emotional avoidance. For our money, it’s the best scene in the episode.

Doctor Who 9 3 Under the Lake

As for the rest – we are aware that we have been somewhat grumpy when previewing this episode, and it may be that part two pushes the envelope in new and interesting directions. So let’s end on a positive by celebrating what is thankfully mostly a reliable in modern-era Doctor Who: the quality of the special effects.

The ghosts are realised very well indeed: half-transparent and eerie – and all the more impressive when interacting with physical effects. The fact that one of them looks like a soot-eyed Abraham Lincoln only adds to the uncanniness, creating the kind of visual that may well prompt sleepless nights.

Doctor Who 9 3 Under the Lake

It’s a reminder that, for younger viewers, unschooled in horror lore, there are no clichés – only stories that engage and stories that do not. For them – although the episode may be transmitting a little beyond their bedtime this week – it may be that it is nonetheless, delightfully, the freakiest of the season yet.

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

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