There be spoilers here.
The problem with starting a season off with a huge blockbuster like “The Magician’s Apprentice”/”The Witches Familiar” is that anything that comes after it is liable to look rather pale by comparison. No matter how good it is, it will simply come across as second best and a bit of a dip after the highs of the season opener.
That can especially be the case when after the startling originality and vaulting ambition of the first two-parter, you instead take a step back as it were and have a story that is altogether more from the mainstream and whose primary ambition is just to thrill and scare you and most of simply to entertain the viewers – even if it means to do so by borrowing some of the show’s most familiar tropes as a warm and reassuring security blanket in the process.
The particular trope in question here is the hoary old ‘base-under-siege’ one. Most familiar from Patrick Troughton’s time as the Doctor, it’s been used more sparingly in the modern era although you could count “The Impossible Planet”, “42” and “The Waters of Mars” as examples from David Tennant’s incumbency. Since Steven Moffat took over as showrunner such shows have been much less in evidence – offhand from the Matt Smith/Peter Capaldi period I can think of only Matthew Graham’s “The Rebel Flesh”/”The Almost People” and arguably Moffat’s twisted approach in “Last Christmas”, so you could hardly say that the current show is overdoing its use in recent seasons. Indeed it’s probably about time to revisit it properly in 2015, and anyone who grumbles that this one was just the same as “The Impossible Planet” (a) basically can’t appreciate the finer variations in storytelling which mean the two stories are actually massively different in every important respect; and (b) really need to remember that no show on earth can go nine years without repeating itself to some extent. Indeed the miracle of Doctor Who is that people even remember old serials from such a long time ago. How many other shows can you say that about? Certainly not the ones that recycle the same storylines every few months let alone nine years.
Am I sounding defensive? If so, then it’s time that I admit something: I love the base-under-siege trope. Really and truly. I wouldn’t want it all the time by any means of course, but I think it’s a great and effective formula for Doctor Who. Add in some genuinely scary ghosts, an underwater setting, and the creepy setting of a village ‘drowned’ by a dam burst and you pretty much have the recipe for exactly the sort of story (Doctor Who or otherwise) that I absolutely adore. Honestly, it’s as if writer Toby Whithouse (Being Human, The Game) has been rummaging around in my subconscious to see what kind of story would most appeal to me, and then duly written it up and served it to me on a silver platter.
Adding to the sense of this being a solid, good old fashioned entertaining sort of Doctor Who to contrast with the dizzying vertigo of an ultramodern intricate Moffat construction, there’s plenty of other elements that feel to come from a long ago, simpler era of the show. The use of the psychic paper and the invocation of old-school UNIT to put the Doctor unquestionably in command and at the centre of things for example. Even the extended sequence where the Doctor, Clara and surviving crew of the underwater mining facility work together to lure the menacing ghosts into a trap feels very much like a nod and knowing wink to the good old days when the show would spend many an hour running up and down corridors to fill in the time, although this time it was updated, turbocharged and done very much with a plan and with some crucial character beats woven in along the way.
When it comes down to it, a base-under-siege story really needs two things above all else if it is to succeed: a good external threat (and the ghosts here extremely very well done visually although a little lacking in the intelligence and charisma department); and a group inside the base that you’re able to bond with quickly so that you really care about their fate. “Under the Lake” does a solid job in the latter, with Sophie Stone’s Cass particularly strong and her rapport with her sign language interpreter Lunn (Zaqi Ismail) a real stand out. However some of the others do feel a little too like characters from the stockroom: Arsher Ali as Bennet gives out strong Rory vibes, while Morven Christie as O’Donnell kept reminding me of Faye Marsay’s character from the 2014 Christmas special. Still, it’s a pleasing ensemble which does its job without any obvious weak spots although it’s a shame that neither Colin McFarlane nor Steven Robertson (the latter so good in Luther and Shetland) get very little to do before joining the other side.
The real star of the show this week however is the Doctor himself. He takes command of the episode to a far greater degree than normal, so much so that at times it felt we were attending a lecture by a particularly popular hip university lecturer who delights in entertaining his audience at great length. Capaldi got to rattle out lines that at times felt like the Doctor’s greatest hits, ranging over the sort of zingers that both he and his predecessors in the role have become famous for. That said it was perhaps a bit too full on, a little forced. It’s remarkable how few of these self-consciously witty lines actually stood out and stayed in the memory: the overall effect was rather like a pastiche, saying all the right things but sounding unconvincing and lacking the depth and originality compared to when they’re coming out of a script naturally, or being crafted by a writer with a deeper, richer handle on the character such as Moffat or Russell T Davies. Most of all, the Doctor needed to not be speaking quite so much all the time and instead allow others to drive the narrative for a spell here and there. Maybe it’s the sheer force of Capaldi’s personality which means you feel the weight of his presence far more than you did with Matt Smith’s motormouth incarnation where consequently the writers could get away with a lot more of this sort of thing without unbalancing the plot. The trouble is that when Capaldi speaks, everyone simply has to stop and listen.
In particular, with the Doctor gripping the spotlight so tightly this week it was a strangely light outing for Clara who spent much of the time watching and admiring the Doctor at work, merely adding a line here or a quip there. Her only really significant moments seem to have been injected in from the series arc such as when the Doctor admonishes her for being quite so keen to charge back into the fray instead of remaining safely in the Tardis. When he tells her “Don’t go native … There’s only room for one me,” he is implicitly rebuking her for invoking a Time Lord’s prerogative to incite incident within the story. To me that suggests Clara’s growing tendency toward risk-taking will be the main theme of season nine and probably the reason for her departure, much as Donna Noble had to go once she became ‘Doctor-Donna’. It’s ironic that a lot of Clara-haters among the fans have taken against the character precisely because of her tendency to be a full equal agent in the stories: it seems Moffat might be about to take this meta-textual and use this exact same growing sense of hubris within the character as being the very reason for Clara’s eventual downfall.
Clara’s other brief moments within the episode tended to be holdovers from the past, such as her schooling the Doctor in appropriate human interactions without offending the people around him (okay, I admit it: the cue card scene was absolutely brilliant.) What was nice was to see how something that had previously been a source of some quite spiky friction between the characters last year has now become a point of connection, understanding and even of warmth between them. They haven’t changed their approaches, but now they handle it like friends meeting one another half way. It allows Capaldi’s Doctor to remain that ‘unknowable inhuman alien’ that they were striving for in his first year while at the same time retaining a genuine warmth and likeability to the character that at times went missing in season eight.
Overall, if there’s any real problem that I have with “Under the Lake” it’s a sense of incompleteness stemming from the fact that there’s a lot of unanswered questions – and that’s because we’ve only seen half the story so far. There were moments this week when I felt that the episode was just teetering on losing momentum and stalling, partly because the script was holding back in order to hit its midpoint cliffhanger – and what a cliffhanger it was when it came! It was in the build up to this moment that you felt the script was finally coming alive again and getting excited about putting new elements of the story into place; having been so fixed on the base-under-siege story up to that point this week there’s a strong sense that it might be about to do what Moffat did so astoundingly well with the season opener and pull off a complete handbrake turn and do something thrillingly unexpected in part two just when we thought we had the whole thing figured out.
If Whithouse can do this successfully here then I suspect that this could be one of the best and most satisfyingly entertaining stories of the modern era of the show – but much will depend on what happens in “Before the Flood” next week, which is why it’s never a great idea to do a review based on only half a story. Rather like the show under consideration, any article about it ends up finishing with an implied or even overt “To be continued” as we fade to black and await the final resolution…
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Saturday evenings.