“Under the Lake” is simple, scary, and effective.
“Everything is solved. There’s just more questions…”
If you’re like me you may have been feeling a little underwhelmed by the first Doctor Who story of Season Nine, “The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar.” It’s not that the episode was bad, per se, but it was certainly a bit of a mess. Juggling the Daleks, Davros, Skaro, the Master/Missy, characters murdered, resurrected, and whatever a confession dial is, the story was packed to the brim with Time Lord lore and blasts from seasons past. The story had its moments, but it was also a pretty typical example of what’s come to be known as “the Moffat problem.”
Writer and current showrunner Steven Moffat is a brilliant writer who has penned many of the revived series’s best episodes (he actually wrote six of the staff’s ten personal favorites), but his recent work is often marred by being far too complex to have any real sticking power. The episodes are too scatterbrained and busy to comprehend, much less enjoy or commend. Doctor Who has always worked best when it takes a simple idea and plays with it in wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey ways. Well fear not, Whovians. “Under the Lake” is exactly that type of episode, and it’s firmly the best outing of the new season thus far.
Written by Toby Whithouse (“The God Complex,” “A Town Called Mercy”), “Under the Lake” finds the Doctor transported to an undersea mining base off the coast of Scotland in the year 2119. The TARDIS is acting up again, transporting the Doctor and his companion to where they need to be rather than where they’d choose to go. At its core, “Under the Lake” is a ghost story. The crew of the undersea base stumble upon a mysterious spaceship while mining for oil, and they bring it into the base to investigate it further. In the grand tradition of horror movies, that turns out to be a terrible idea, and a Victorian era ghost (actually a Tivolian, an alien race last seen on Whithouse’s own “The God Complex”) soon begins stalking and killing the base’s crewmembers. Why was this Tivolian trapped in an undersea spaceship, and what do the strange markings scrawled into the interior wall of the spaceship mean? That remains to be seen.
It’s a simple setup that we’ve seen a million times before in fiction: a trapped group of people fighting to survive an onslaught from an otherworldly assailant as their companions are picked off one by one. Think of John Carpenter’s The Thing and The Shining. It’s fertile ground for a show like Doctor Who to put its spin on, which is probably why it already has (see: “42” and “The Impossible Planet”). But never mind the retread. “Under the Lake” feels both fresh and terrifying thanks to its focus on the claustrophobic confines of the undersea base. The parts of the base that aren’t just dimly lit metal corridors have vast windows with a view of the millions of gallons of water outside. It’s a constant reminder that there’s no escape. The episode’s set designer deserves a special shoutout for dressing the mess hall’s wall with a fresco of a sea monster crushing a ship while the helpless crew screams in terror. It’s a cold, damp world, and the only source of heat and light is the nuclear reactor that powers the station and whatever little sense of comfort that fact brings with it.
Adding to the eeriness is the ghosts’ ability to use the base to their advantage. Like any good ghost, they can only come out at night, but that only lasts until they figure out how to set the station’s sensors on night mode whenever they feel like. Once they learn how to operate the base’s airlocks they use them to drown a man to death. Stray tools left in the base become weapons in the ghosts’ hands.
The situation is dire, but the Doctor remains a joy through it all. In light of this week’s rumors that the BBC could be interested in moving forward with a new, younger Doctor, it’s worth remembering that Peter Capaldi is an absolute gem in the role. His inquisitive, but altogether alien, take on the Time Lord is a true pleasure to watch. It’s wonderful to see him stroking the TARDIS’s phone box exterior and asking it what’s wrong like it’s a sick pet. You could’ve almost forgotten the spaceship is a living thing.
While surrounded by a crew scared out of their wits, the Doctor remains as excited and curious as a child. There’s no such thing as ghost, you might say? “Yes, well there was no such thing as socks, or smart phones, or badgers until there suddenly were!” he retorts to the frightened crew. The Doctor remains such a walking non sequitur of a personality that Clara has prepared him a set of tone-appropriate notecards for just such a situation. “I’m very sorry for your loss. I’ll do all I can to solve the death of your friend/family member/pet,” he intones like a scolded child under Clara’s supervision. It’s perfect.
A few facts begin to roll into focus as the episode reaches its closing moments. A deaf member of the crew realizes that the ghosts all seem to repeat a mantra silently, and by reading their lips she’s able to decipher their chant: “The dark. The sword. Forsaken. The Temple.” It’s an ear-worm, a saying that burrows its way into your head like a catchy song that you can’t seem to shake, and anyone who’s read it off of the ship’s interior wall is doomed to repeat it endlessly. Anyone who reads it becomes trapped by its power, and the army of ghosts are intent on killing those trapped by the mantra to help them project its signal into the galaxy.
As the Doctor says with the mystery seemingly cracked, “everything is solved. There’s just more questions…” He’s right, and in the episode’s final seconds it makes a bold and fascinating choice. The Doctor and some of the crewmembers will take the TARDIS into the past to discover not what happens next, but why everything has happened thus far. It’s a very clever way of flipping the script, and it will probably help to explain why the original Tivolian is dressed like a Victorian-era man. It may also be a clever way of avoiding the boring second halves that often plague two-part stories that begin with a bang.
As I said, “Under the Lake” is a perfect example of what makes a great Doctor Who episode. It takes a simple ghost story and runs it through the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey web that defines the show. It’s clever, claustrophobic, and mysterious without being convoluted. Director Daniel O’Hara knows that it’s fun to be scared, and what could be scarier than being trapped in an undersea metal prison with an army of ghosts? How about the Tivolian-esque ghost of the Doctor that Clara sees outside the mining base’s windows at the episode’s end? Her disbelief speaks for the entire audience. As the Doctor himself previously stated, we know how this story ended. Now we just have to find out why.