Doctor Who Review: Under the Lake

doctor who review under the lake toby whithouse daniel o hara peter capaldi jenna coleman clara oswald twelfth doctor

They walk through walls, they only come out at night, and they’re see-through. They’re ghosts!

Reaction has been quite positive to this one, hasn’t it? People really seem to have enjoyed it.

I, however, was not so enamoured by it. Certainly, the episode did a lot of things right, but it felt a little sub-par to me, in comparison to previous weeks, and in comparison to the previous variations upon this theme that we’ve seen in the past – the base under siege is a staple of Doctor Who, and it didn’t feel like there was much else on offer here.

But! We will start with the positives, because like I said, there was a lot to enjoy here, and it would be remiss of me not to give the episode due credit for it’s many noticeable strengths.

First off is, obviously, the cast. A lot has been said on the topic of the casting, but it’s worth stating again: It’s brilliant that the characters were so diverse. Representation is important, and Doctor Who did really well on it this week. A particular stand out was Sophie Stone, who played Cass – the deaf woman in charge of the base. Personally speaking, I think her best scene was when she stood up to the Doctor (”you can do the whole ‘cabin in the woods’ thing if you want”…) with regards to evacuating the base; you can see a lot going on with her body language, in the way she gets very forceful and aggressive, to convey her point. It works quite well, I think, and it’s worth noting that this a scene that would typically go to a male commander of the base; the fact that if was given by a woman, in sign language, is a great forward step.

Next up would be the direction. It’s a very stylish looking episode; the base looks great, and it’s shot extremely well. The entire episode is very atmospheric, and can be quite tense at times; it’s heightened by Murray Gold’s score, who again did a very good job here.

But…

doctor who review under the lake cass sophie stone lunn interpreter sign language deaf character toby whithouse daniel o hara representation

Well, that’s it?

I mean, there really is very little about this episode that can be commented on, because it’s really just half a story. I’d actually assumed that this week we would have seen a full story, and then next week coincidentally ended up seeing the episode before hand – a two parter in the same way The Ark works as two connected stories, or The Long Game and Bad Wolf. Two separate stories, in essence, linked by shared consequences and a shared setting.

But that’s not the case, because in actual fact, we have another episode which acts simply as set up for the next part. At least with The Magician’s Apprentice there was a fair amount of spectacle to act as, essentially, a diverting sleight of hand, to distract from the fact that there’s nothing really happening – here there’s nothing, really. I am now starting to question the wisdom of a series full of two parters, given the difficult with first parts that seems to be beginning to arise.

A few moments ago, I was talking about the characters, and how it was great that they were so diverse… but that’s all that can really be said about them, to be honest. One would have hoped that the extra run time would be used to flesh out the characters, develop them more, and so on and so forth – but that’s not the case. They’re essentially short hand; we even have the stock greedy corporate character, an entirely one dimensional insert, who even has a freudian slip between “valuable” and “powerful”.

You get interesting moments because the clichés are subverted (rather than an angry male commander shouting, it’s an angry female commander signing) and the actors all bring moments of charm in their own way (O’Donnell punching Bennett on the arm, for example) but that’s about it. All of the guest cast are served poorly by the writing.

doctor who review under the lake jenna coleman clara oswald yellow green daniel o hara series 9

Same goes for Clara, actually, and to a lesser extent the Doctor. I wasn’t so impressed by the handling of their scene in the TARDIS, wherein Clara’s character arc was signposted in the most blatant way possible. There was a lack of subtlety to that throughout, actually; Clara’s excitement at the abandoned base felt far too on the nose, and the high five bit was a little tasteless. It’s hard to articulate what I mean here; essentially, I’d expected the basic character arc to be written far more deftly. Implicit details rather than explicit ones, and any confrontations over the issue should really have been saved until we’ve actually seen the issue built to over a few weeks.

And… well, that’s all I have to say, actually, because there’s really not a lot to say. This is just half a story. It’s an introduction of the premise, before they change the premise, because they want each half of the story to feel unique.

I mean, I’m certainly looking forward to next week, because I did enjoy this episode, and it’s set up some interesting concepts, but there’s not a huge amount that you can talk about within this episode.

Under the Lake is a pleasantly diverting way to spend 45 minutes, but I get the distinct impression that it’s not actually going to be a really compelling story until you get to include part two, Before the Flood.

For now, then, I’ll give it 7/10 – it’s the weakest of the series so far, but by no means a weak episode.

Related:

Doctor Who series 9 reviews

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