Under the Lake
Review by Paul Bowler
In the year 2119, the crew of the underwater Caithness mining facility, The Drum, find an alien spaceship on the lake bed. After bringing the sleek craft aboard, they find it is empty. When something stirs inside the vessel, tragedy strikes, and the survivors find themselves attacked by hollow-eyed phantoms. When the Doctor and Clara arrive they discover the base and crew are under siege from terrifying apparitions. Their friends won’t stay dead, but what has brought them back? The Doctor and Clara must face the strangest possibility of all: could ghost really exist? So, when the Doctor finally uncovers the truth, the horrifying cause of the ghostly manifestations proves to be more unearthly than anyone could have possibly imagined…
Under The Lake continues the dark tone of Series 9, with the beginning of a two-part story by writer Toby Whitehouse. The Being Human (2008-20015) and Cold War drama The Game writer has already written several outstanding episodes of Doctor Who: including School Reunion (2006), The Vampires of Venice (2010), The God Complex (2011), and A Town Called Mercy (2012). Now Toby Whitehouse is back for Series 9 with the new episodes Under The Lake & Before The Flood, a spooky sci-fi ghost story which also has the added distinction of being Toby Whitehouse’s first two-part Doctor Who adventure.
The TARDIS materialises inside The Drum three days later, but it seems she’s not at all happy about landing here. Clara might soon get her wish for more adventures, monsters, and things blowing up, when they encounter two decidedly homicidal ghosts. Taking refuge with the crew hiding inside a Faraday Cage – the only area the ghosts cannot enter while the base is in night mode – the Doctor learns the area was a military training site before the dam burst and flooded the valley, and now Vector Petroleum have acquired the rights to mine the oil reservoir beneath it.
When day mode resumes the ghosts vanish. The Doctor inspects the ship in the main hanger, where he finds the crafts suspended animation chamber and power cell is missing. He’s also intrigued by the undecipherable writing on the walls, writing that even the TARDIS cannot translate. But as the Doctor proposes they might actually be facing real ghosts the base enters night mode and the TARDIS cloister bell suddenly rings out…
Peter Capaldi is on excellent form here as the Doctor, especially when the Time Lord takes charge of the situation, enthusiastically theorising about both the existence and the prospect of dealing with genuine ghosts for the first time. Jenna Coleman is also great as Clara and she is right in the thick of the action. The Doctor also begins to notice that Clara seems to be enjoying their adventures in Time and Space a little too much – it’s almost as if she has become addicted to danger that accompanies the Time Lords adventures. Toby Whithouse’s story tackles this issue in the superb TARDIS interior scenes between the Doctor and Clara as we discover why the time machine was so upset by the ghosts. It’s a sublime moment as the Doctor, quite literally puts the breaks on the whole adventure, and takes time out to address his duty of care to his companion in a moving scene that poignantly speaks volumes about how just strong their friendship has become.
There are some fun moments to break up all the ghostly happenings though: the psychic paper quickly establishes the Doctor’s UNIT credentials, the Time Lord uses some specially prepared prompt cards to hilarious effect, the sonic shades also prove very practical when you are face-to-face with a ghost, classic monsters the Autons get a mention, and there’s a fun explanation for why the Doctor doesn’t have a radio in the TARDIS.
Under the Lake has a great guest cast. The crew of The Drum are a mostly military team, commanded by Moran (Colin McFarland) who tragically becomes a ghost in the opening moments, and there’s also a corporate rep from Vector Petroleum named Prichard (Steve Robertson). Second in command Cass, has to step up and take charge of the crew, and her character, like Sophie Stone who plays her, is also deaf. Its great to see a deaf character served so well by the script, Cass’s sassy and confident, her disability is never made into a big issue, she plays a vital role in helping the Doctor understand what the ghosts want at a crucial moment and also helps in discovering the true meaning behind the unintelligible writing on the ships walls. The rest of the crew is comprised of O’Donnell (Morven Christie) a systems technician who knows of the Doctor, the marine geologist Bennett (Arsher Ali), and Lunn (Zaqi Ismail) is the sign interpreter for Cass.
There is a distinctive alien-looking ghost with a top hat in this episode, Parentis (Paul Kaye, who played Thoros in Game of Thrones), from a species the Doctor identifies as Tivolian, a being from the mole-like race that Toby Whitehouse invented for The God Complex – the character Gibbis (played by David Williams). The Doctor is clearly puzzled why a being from such a peaceful and subservient race as the Tivolian’s has become such a violent ghost. Indeed, special effects used are excellent. The ghosts in Under the Lake are all brilliantly spooky looking and are genuinely unsettling with their silent voices and blank eye sockets. There are some particularly scary ghost encounters with the crew, especially when Prichard returns to The Drum, Lunn also faces a terrifying moment when he gets trapped with a ghost, and the disquieting sight that greets Bennett when he takes a sneak peek inside a room where the ghosts are lurking is sure to send a few chills up the spine.
There is one pivotal scene that also finally lets us in on what that brilliant: “Every time I think it couldn’t get any more extraordinary it surprises me. It’s impossible, I hate it, it’s evil, it’s astonishing… I want to kiss it to death!” line from the Series 9 trailer was really all about. The Doctor has faced ghost-like hauntings before, such as in the episode Hide (2013), but even he could be out of his depth against these underwater spirits!
The ghosts begin using the base systems against them, even sending a fake message to call in a rescue sub. With the Drum in quarantine the crew attempt to catch a ghost! Playing a deadly game of cat and mouse in the corridors with the phantoms, Clara, Bennett, and Lunn lure the ghosts to the Faraday cage so the Doctor can finally confront them. The ghosts silent words are really coordinates, each death and ghost created has made the signal stronger, and the fourth part now pinpoints the source – a church in the old flooded military town. Using a remote controlled sub they recover the missing suspended animation chamber, and it becomes clear the untranslatable writing on the walls of the ship are insidiously connected to the ancient threat sleeping inside the chamber.
In order to get to the bottom of the mystery the Doctor decides he must travel back in time to find out what happened, but a sudden computer malfunction initiates the emergency protocols, flooding the base to cool the reactor. In all the chaos the Doctor, Bennett, and O’Donnell get separated from Clara, Lunn, and Cass. The Doctor is left with no option but to leave them behind, as he cant bring the TARDIS to them because of the ghosts, but after they’ve gone Clara is horrified to witness the terrifying sight now walking across the lakebed towards the base…
Under The Lake provides an exciting and spooky opening to this two-part adventure. Toby Whitehouse’s story takes the classic base under siege story and splices it with numerous sci-fi / horror tropes. Although at times it does feel a little like an undersea mash-up of themes from The Impossible Planet, 42, and the Waters of Mars, Toby Whitehouse’s multi-layered story is nevertheless packed with standout creepy moments, some of which are actually quite disturbing, and there are plenty of grim deaths to keep us on our toes. This is also the first full-length episode to be produced by Derek Ritchie, having already been script editor on The Time of the Doctor (2013), Deep Breath (2014), Into The Dalek (2014), and The Caretaker (2014), along with the Five(ish) Doctors Reboot special (2013), and he’s done a fantastic job with Under The Lake as well.
Director Daniel O’Hara skilfully builds the tension and menace, using the fantastic sets to great effect, and the clever use lighting makes this underwater base look really convincing. Under The Lake is a fantastic episode, it has all the hallmarks of a classic Doctor Who story, and I really enjoyed it. There’s also a complex time-bending mystery resting right at the heart of the story, it builds towards to what is possibly one of the most jaw-dropping cliff-hangers the series has ever had, and it sets the scene for a thrilling conclusion in Before The Flood.
Images Belong: BBC