Reviews: Doctor Who - Series Nine Episode Three - Under The Lake

Chris Jordan is keeping up with series nine of The Doctor.

"That's an extremely long recipe
for some pot brownies!"
Doctor Who Series 9 started strong with a philosophy-driven two-part Dalek story that felt more like a typical season’s finale. This left some serious questions about where the series could go from there, and what it could do to follow such a tale. This week, those questions are answered: it can follow that two-parter by doing something completely different yet equally compelling, and it can get even better. The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar was a very good, but not perfect, series opener. Under the Lake, on the other hand, is pretty much perfect. A slow-burn tale with a wonderful emphasis on character and suspense, this ranks alongside last series’ Robot of Sherwood and Flatline as one of the best episodes of Peter Capaldi’s era.

Being Human creator Toby Whithouse (who previously wrote some excellent Doctor Who episodes like School Reunion and The God Complex) has crafted an excellent story here, which had me hooked immediately with its unique genre blend. It’s a hybrid of one of my favorite horror sub-genres, the haunted house tale, and one of my favorite sci-fi sub-genres, the underwater base story (The Abyss, Michael Crichton’s novel Sphere). Taking a ghost story more typically suited to an old Victorian mansion and dropping it into a futuristic environment is always a lot of fun, but Whithouse doesn’t just play with cool genre possibilities; he crafts an honestly smart and compelling story. He keeps the action restrained and focuses on the cerebral, and keeps tightening the suspense with a sure-footed slow-burn menace.

This isn’t the sort of story where The Doctor merely runs around and says clever things; it’s all about investigating the whys and hows of the strange situation, with the precision of a detective digging into a foggy mystery. For those familiar with classic Doctor Who it evokes a bit of a Philip Hynchcliffe/Robert Holmes 4th Doctor-era feel; and for those unfamiliar, that’s an atmospheric hybrid of modern sci-fi with gothic horror and Sherlock Holmesian enigmas. Of course, the budget and visual strength of the new series gives it an edge over that era, with some genuinely ghostly villains and an underwater location that looks both magnificent and claustrophobia-inducing.

"Are you Destro?"
Peter Capaldi feels right at home in this situation, with the acerbic brilliance of his Doctor shining in the character-driven scenes. Jenna Coleman is likewise really getting some great material to dig into this season, as Clara has grown into a natural adventure hero after a year and a half in the TARDIS. Whithouse provides an excellent supporting ensemble as well: a group of characters who are well-developed and compelling co-stars, rather than just people for The Doctor to save. One character stands out in particular: a deaf actress (Sophie Leigh Stone) who delivers all her lines in sign language through an interpreter, yet nonetheless delivers a strong and emotionally-powerful performance. Whithouse juggles the development of these characters while he genuinely keeps us in suspense, and keeps us guessing, as his tale unfolds.

While the series premiere hooked us in with familiar Dalek-inhabited territory, Under the Lake sees series 9 break away from the safety of the show’s mythos and give us a story that is as new as it is really good. This should announce very firmly to anyone who had doubts that series 9 is getting off to a brilliant start. It is easily among Capaldi’s best, and is a clear reminder that Doctor Who is one of TV’s best genre shows.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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