After the weight of the season premiere, it seemed that the series was due for a change in tone. Traditionally in the Moffat era, this means a lighter episode with more humor, like “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” or “Robot of Sherwood.” While it is true that this week’s episode, “Under the Lake,” had it’s fair share of humor, the episode is scarier than the aforementioned episodes. It’s still a change in tone from the previous two, but in a slightly different way.
“Under the Lake” uses a familiar structure; it is essentially a base under siege story. The Doctor and Clara arrive about 100 years in the future at an underwater mining base (in a flooded town) to find that ghosts are picking the crew off one by one. The ghosts only started to appear after the crew salvaged an alien craft from the lake bed. Since ghosts shouldn’t exist, this intrigues the Doctor who stays to investigate.
The story was very well paced and plotted; it kept me engaged from the opening moments. The story mixes moments of suspense with lots of humor without seeming disjointed because a lot of the humor comes from the responses of the characters to the bizarre situation in which they find themselves. Moffat’s best episodes are scary while exploring a deeper fear and/or theme. This episode doesn’t reach for those lofty heights (so far the scares are just for suspense), it’s a welcome change of pace from the more serious opening episodes. It’s not profound, but it’s entertaining; it’s as much of a romp as a horror based episode can be. It’s full of interesting ideas, like people being turned into radio transmitters or the idea that the ghosts won’t kill you until you have read the message (which is also very strikingly depicted visually). The story keeps moving from one development to another; as the Doctor says, each answer just leads to more questions.
Watching Clara in this episode, I couldn’t help but wonder if we are seeing the seeds bring planted for her departure. She can’t wait to rush into dangerous situations and seems even more gung-ho than the Doctor. The Doctor even expresses some concern about her lust for adventure and his “duty of care.” Obviously, this could lead to Clara’s demise in a dangerous situation. However, the line that caught my attention was the Doctor telling Clara that there is only room for one of him in the TARDIS. As Clara continues to become more independent of the Doctor, will it lead to conflict? It might be a throwaway line, or it might be a seed that will grow through the season.
As for the Doctor, he is thoroughly enjoying himself as well. In Clara’s words, he’s like “a kid who’s had too much sherbet.” This episode is another chance for Peter Capaldi to display his comedic skills, as the Doctor gets to have many funny lines. After all the questioning of his identity that the Doctor did last season, it’s nice to see him having fun. Beings that shouldn’t exist excite and intrigue him, so even though the TARDIS wants to leave, he has to stay.
Of course all of the Doctor’s problems from last year haven’t disappeared; he still has trouble relating to people, and Clara apparently still functions a bit as his carer. While I didn’t see how the cards would be particularly helpful in reality, they were amusing and were an opportunity to pay tribute to Lis Sladen and Sarah Jane (I’m not sure in what situation that card would be useful again, but I really don’t care).
What really makes this episode work is the crew of “the drum.” From their introduction, they captured my interest. They feel like a team that had been in an isolated situation; they care about each other and they seem to have a great deal of camaraderie.
But besides functioning as a group, they have distinguishable personalities as individuals. I know a great deal has been made of it already, but it’s refreshing to see Cass, a deaf character who is a leader who happens to be deaf, not a character who is deaf because it’s a plot point. She’s a strong, engaging character. She is a good leader who takes on the responsibility for events, while still trying to protect her crew. She’s also intelligent; even the Doctor has faith in her instincts. The bond between Cass and her interpreter/translator Lunn is also clearly depicted. Lunn actually serves as more of a plot point than Cass, since he is the only one who hasn’t been inside the spaceship which helps the Doctor solve one of the puzzles of the ghosts.
Bennett, the scientist, is another supporting character that I enjoyed. He approaches their situation with a sense of humor. For instance, when he decides to stay and help solve the mystery he warns his fellow crew members, “At least if I die, you know I really will come back and haunt you all.”
Of course with this many characters, some of the characters are not as well-defined. Pritchard was basically the greedy company man, who was willing to put the crew at risk. He reminds me a bit of Paul Reiser’s character in Aliens, but not as evil. When the ghosts killed him you felt a little bad, but really, he was the one you would have chosen to get killed next. Although his ghost did get a great reveal. O’Donnall is probably the least developed personality of the crew. Making her a fan of the Doctor is a bit reminiscent of Osgood, and so far that is her main characteristic. Of course, this may change with the second half of the story.
The only other characters we meet in this story are the ghosts themselves. I have to say that I love the look of them. The alien from the planet Tivoli is the perfect first ghost; human looking, yet just different enough to up the creepiness factor. The eyeless faces keep the murdered crew members clearly recognizable, but that just makes them more disturbing. And the silent yet constant speech just added to their mysteriousness for most of the episode.
This being the first half of a two-parter, it did, of course, end in a cliffhanger. Seeing the Doctor’s ghost coming through the water was the perfect place to end it and leave the audience wanting more. While the audience knows that the Doctor is not actually dead (or else the show is going in a radically different direction), it does leave you wondering how on earth he is going to get out of this one.
Overall, I found “Under the Lake” tremendously entertaining, and I’m cautiously optimistic about the second half. I’m intrigued to know how the Doctor became a ghost, but more than that I’m curious to see how telling the story backwards (meeting the ghosts first and then going back to see how the trouble started) works. The reason I’m a bit cautious is that I must admit that I haven’t really loved any of Toby Whithouse’s stories. In several instances, it was the ending in particular that disappointed me. Even “The God Complex,” which many people love, ultimately didn’t quite work for me. I’m hoping that this story will deliver on the promise of its first half.