Well, that was a deliciously retro treat, wasn’t it? Since “Doctor Who” returned in 2005, I don’t think there’s been an episode which evoked the original series in quite so pure a form as “Under The Lake”. The classic atmosphere was so strong that when the first caption set the adventure in Caithness and there was a mention of a mysterious spaceship found underwater I had a brief hope that we might be in for a link back to the Zygon’s tartan-hued incursion of the 1970’s.
When a strange spaceship is salvaged to an undersea oil drilling station, it brings with it a sinister spectral presence which attacks the crew, claiming one of them as its own. The TARDIS reluctantly brings the Doctor and Clara to the base and neither of them can resist the mystery regardless of the risk.
The first thing that makes this feel decidedly old school is that neither the Doctor or Clara appear in the cold open which instead serves to introduce us to the guest cast, the setting, the monster and even has a gruesome death as one of the crew is recruited en flambé by the monsters. It’s a 70’s childhood mash-up too, as O’Donnell (Morven Christie) comes perilously close to saying ‘he’s a g-g-g-ghost!’ in a Scooby-Doo style as we crash into the opening titles.
The absence of Missy and a ‘name’ villain initially makes the episode feel slightly more lightweight but there are compensations. Capaldi’s Doctor is at his most Doctor-ish ever here as he’s confronted by a phenomenon that’s entirely new to him and he gleefully sets about unravelling it. Clara too is having fun again (too much fun to bother keeping the Doctor’s recklessness in check anymore) and it’s their chemistry which powers the episode along as they interact with the overtly diverse but otherwise fairly generic crew of the station (there’s even the standard issue corporate weasel, performing much the same role as Paul Reiser’s Burke in “Aliens”).
Delightful moments pepper the episode too, such as the revelation that Clara has prepared several cue cards for The Doctor to fall back on when he’s inadvertently been rude or insensitive, a gimmick made that much cuter given the Doctor lets slip how much he cares about Clara in a clumsy attempt to make sure her interest in life after death and her gung-ho attitude isn’t still driven by a falso hope of somehow reuniting with Danny Pink.
On the strength of the three episodes so far, this move to two part stories has really benefitted the show, giving adventures time to really grow and breath and the show a chance to experiment with story structures in a way “Doctor Who” hasn’t really done outside of Big Finish audios.
With the old fashioned base under siege style adventure given a twist with the sinister mantra ‘The dark, the sword, the forsaken, the temple’, the episode heads to its finale with the marvellously underused conceit of the Doctor deciding to go back in time to solve the crisis before it begins only for it to bring forth a genuinely horrifying cliffhanger. It’ll be fascinating to see how this adventure plays out as we’re likely going to be seeing it out of chronological order; we’ve seen some of the effects and next week we’ll start to understand the cause.
Not quite as scary as the trailers led us to believe (or the late timeslot inferred), the ‘ghosts’ are effective villains but it’s hard to be truly frightened of someone who looks like a phantom Noddy Holder. Yet again, they’ve managed to deliver a cracking episode of sci-fi TV with clever economy. The cast is small, the sets minimal yet the drama is big and the stakes are huge. The success overall of this story will depend on how they resolve the fate of the Doctor now we’ve seen him in the cliffhanger. There have been a bit too many predestination paradoxes in “Doctor Who” of late so it would be nice for writer Toby Whithouse to have found a way to tie it up that doesn’t rely on some kind of deus ex machina. The thing is, “Doctor Who” has come out of the gate so strong this season that I’m having to try quite hard to find things to quibble about. Even the ‘sonic shades’ didn’t bother me this time round. Long may that continue!