‘Doctor Who’ Review: ‘Under the Lake’ Is ‘Cabin In the Woods’ Underwater
Recap and review of Doctor Who – Series 9 Episode 3 – Under the Lake:
Doctor Who is great sci-fi fun, but that’s not really why the show has had such longevity. Its endurance as a pop culture phenomenon across five decades is due, in large part, to its ability to tackle various genres at once. You could classify Doctor Who as a sci-fi program, but episodes like “Under the Lake” will pop up to remind you that it can be a horror show too. This is when it’s not also a comedy, or a character study, or even an action movie. Doctor Who wears many hats, and it’s never more exciting than when it’s juggling between them all.
“Under the Lake” isn’t any more ambitious than, say, the series four episode “The Waters of Mars”, but the story is every bit as tightly-plotted. In fact, I consider it a lot closer to a movie like The Cabin in the Woods than I would “The Waters of Mars”. Sure, they both take place in isolated environments, but where “The Waters of Mars” is more foreboding and grim, The Cabin in the Woods has a certain wink-and-nod sense of humor to it. It’s not high-minded, serious drama, nor is it intended to be. It’s just a scary story wrapped around a central mystery. Of course, it doesn’t have to be either The Cabin in the Woods or “The Waters of Mars”, I’m simply using the two stories as a point of comparison, although you could argue this episode is a mixture of both. From a strict plot level, this episode has nothing to do with either, but this episode shares tone and a gripping, atmospheric dread with both tales. And that’s what I loved about this.
Let’s do a quick rundown: a military research team discovers a spaceship at the bottom of a lake. The suspicious markings inside the spacecraft, coupled with the mystery of the ship’s missing power cell and missing suspended animation chamber (for its similarly AWOL pilot), suggests something far more sinister has happened here. In time with the discovery of the spaceship is the arrival of The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), and…well, some murderous ghosts. Yes, despite The Doctor’s strict disbelief in the existence of ghosts, he has no other explanation for the existence of these creatures, who’ve decided to start killing off each member of the research team, one by one. Each person who dies is added to the growing army of ghosts, who wander the ship spouting the same phrase, over and over again. Thanks to a deaf member of the team, they’re able to decipher the phrase through lip-reading. Ultimately, it’s coordinates to the location of the missing suspended animation chamber. In short, it’s a distress call, and each ghost added to the army amplifies the signal, hence the motive for all the killings, since you can’t really get a message to broadcast very far with just three ghosts (well, I would imagine). As it stands now, it makes absolutely no sense, but the twist at the end of the episode is enough to launch this episode into the stratosphere: The Doctor goes back in time to try and stop the ghosts before they kill anyone, only for Clara to discover, in the present, that The Doctor has failed…and has become a ghost himself. It’s a downright terrifying image to see The Doctor floating in the murky waters outside the chamber, his eyes burned out and hollow, his mouth agape like he was frozen in mid-sentence. I have no doubt there will be some clever explanation for why The Doctor isn’t really a ghost, or how he can come back from being one if (and that’s a big IF) he’s actually turned. Still, it should be fun to see what kind of explanation the show pulls for this, particularly considering how achingly complex this story already is. This is a two-parter that doesn’t even pretend to answer any of the questions it poses, much less hint at any of the possible answers, leaving us with a basket full of mysteries to spend the week piecing together. If the solutions are anywhere as compelling, this could be one of the great two-parters.
Naturally, one of the big reasons for the success of this first part was the cast itself. Despite not spending very much time with them, each member of the ship’s crew feels like a fully-formed character. Deaf actor Sophie Stone is a highlight as Cass. On the one hand, her ability to read lips is essential to the plot, but her deafness never factors into who she is as a character. She’s treated just like anyone else, and the characters hardly even comment on it outside of an awkward moment in which The Doctor admits he’s forgotten the ability to interpret sign language. The relationship she shares with Lunn (Zaqi Ismail), her interpreter/best friend/lover (?) is touching, and the episode hardly even draws attention to it, simply allowing us to piece together how much these two mean to each other through observation. It’s the very best of “show, don’t tell” storytelling.
In fact, I liked all of the ensemble this week, from the ghost members of the crew, Moran (Colin McFarlane) and Pritchard (Steven Robertson), to the living members themselves. In addition to Cass, there’s O’Donnell (Morven Christie), who’s great at her job, but also rendered giddy by the tiniest compliment from The Doctor (she also seems quite amused by his experiments, fighting to hold back a childish grin when he demonstrates the layout of the planets using members of the crew). There’s so much personality to the portrayal, even without her saying all that much. I felt the same way about Bennett (Arsher Ali), the token scaredy-cat, who doesn’t want to solve the mystery at all if it means getting killed. Yet, despite his protests about just going home and forgetting about all this, it’s his dedication to science and the pursuit of knowledge that ultimately compels him to see this through to its conclusion. And that simple choice imbues him with more nuance than many characters in this type of “set’em up, knock’em down” horror story. I just loved the ensemble here, since they work as characters on their own, in addition to working well in their respective pairings with The Doctor and Clara. I would also be remiss if I didn’t continue to laud the fun chemistry between Coleman and Capaldi. One great scene sees Clara helping The Doctor manage his poor social skills through the use of cue cards. Another features The Doctor encouraging Clara to find a nice boyfriend, as part of the “duty of care” he’s tasked himself with, regarding his companion. It’s a surprisingly paternal moment, and instantly endearing.
“Under the Lake” actually surprised me with its overall quality. Not because I didn’t think Doctor Who was capable of it, but rather because I didn’t think there was any way for the show to top last week’s grandiose, blockbuster of an episode. Granted, it’s far too soon to say if this will top “The Magician’s Apprentice”/”The Witch’s Familiar”. But, so far, I’m enjoying this way more after part one than I did the last two-parter. And that’s saying something (for me, anyway), considering how much I enjoyed that two-parter.
But what did you think of Doctor Who, Series 9 Episode 3, “Under the Lake”? Sound off in the comments!
And for more on Doctor Who, read up on the upcoming Doctor Who spinoff series, Class!