It’s a good old-fashioned ‘base under siege’ tale this week as series nine of Doctor Who continues with Under the Lake, a spooky undersea adventure penned by Being Human creator Toby Whithouse. The plot might stick too close to formula to land any truly unsettling shocks, but this is still a tense, thrilling story and it comes with a chilling twist that you’ll never see coming.
The base in question this time is The Drum, an underwater mining facility in 22nd Century Scotland that has seen better days. The Doctor and Clara arrive to find it seemingly abandoned but soon run into the surviving crew when they’re forced to flee two homicidal ghostly figures. Safely ensconced inside a faraday chamber, the TARDIS duo discovers the ghosts are former crew members who have been killed in mysterious circumstances. But can that really be true?
After two slightly underwhelming episodes, Under the Lake feels like Who is finally kicking into gear. The story is immediately teeming with enticing mysteries such as what are the ghosts reciting on an inaudible loop and what’s with the strange indecipherable writing etched into the wall of an alien spacecraft? As the Doctor so eloquently puts it: “It’s impossible. I hate it. It’s evil. It’s astonishing. I want to kiss it to death.” So let’s dive right in, shall we?
Who debutant director Daniel O’Hara (who previously worked with Whithouse on Being Human) superbly establishes an unbearably claustrophobic atmosphere by confining the action to the base’s imposing halls, with their charred, seemingly decaying walls and gloomy lighting only adding to the foreboding mood.
O’Hara also evokes the eerie tone of Alien throughout (helped along by Murray Gold’s fantastically creepy score) as the ghosts – unnervingly designed with trance-like movements and eyes gauged in gaping black holes – stalk their prey, picking off their victims one by one. Watch this one through your fingers from behind the sofa.
Doctor Who is still a family show, of course, so it’s not all scary thrills and chills, with Whithouse also injecting his script with a regular stream of gags, usually coming from the Doctor and aimed at his pudding brained accomplices. “Two weeks of Mysterious Girl by Peter Andre? I was begging for the brush of Death’s merciful hand.” Poor Peter.
Being thrust into the heart of a mystery he can’t fully comprehend, the Doctor is in his element here as evidenced by his child-like relish when he realises that ghosts may be real after all. This also means we finally get to see the return of the harsh, borderline misanthropic Time Lord that suits Capaldi’s fierce persona perfectly as he charges around the base causing chaos with scant regard for how it affects anyone else.
Fortunately, Clara, ever the teacher, is on hand with some nifty social etiquette cards that prove reasonably effective in making sure he doesn’t go too far.
While the Doctor is thriving, there’s something not quite right about Clara. The part-time teacher has always had a thirst for adventure but the Doctor is right to suggest her dangerous tendencies are getting out of control. Witness how eagerly she follows the Doctor’s plan to trap the ghosts by using the crew as bait; in the previous series Clara would’ve surely challenged the Time Lord’s disregard for human life, a sign of just how reckless, and Doctor-esque, she has become.
Could this be further fallout from the death of her beloved Danny Pink? Whatever the reason, these dangerous tendencies are certainly foreboding for Jenna Coleman’s impending exit.
Under the Lake also features a large guest cast and while some are necessarily relegated to little more than alien-chow, most of the crew manage to make a lasting impression before meeting their ghostly maker. Steven Robertson (another Being Human alum) is especially enjoyable as a greedy, vainglorious corporate stooge for the firm bankrolling the base, being happy to risk his colleague’s lives in pursuit of profit. I doubt many were saddened by his watery demise.
Meanwhile, Sophie Stone and Zaqi Ismail form a unique dynamic as the base’s strong, compassionate commander and her sign language interpreter.
The only fault with this story is it’s not particularly original. The ‘base under siege’ tale is a regular Who fixture but there’s only so many ways that can play out and we’ve seen them all before. It doesn’t help that Whithouse deliberately steers towards well-worn horror tropes – such as the crew’s unfathomable decision not to abandon the base – resulting in an easily predictable storyline that saps some of the suspense around the characters’ fates.
This particularly shows during the episode’s final third where the story hits a notable lull as all the necessary exposition becomes too heavy and effectively kills the action’s momentum.
It does pick up again towards the end, though, as the base is mistakenly flooded leaving Clara stranded and forcing the Doctor to embark on a time-wimey mission to save her. And then there’s that chilling twist right at the last second as Clara spots a ghostly Doctor floating out in the ocean’s murky depths. Will the Doctor once again be fighting to save his own life in next week’s second parter?
Ultimately, while it’s not the most original story in the Who-canon, Under the Lake is a cracking episode that proves series nine is finally picking up ahead of steam. Crammed with bone-chilling scares, expertly built tension and some brilliant gags, this nautical adventure is an old-fashioned Who tale that everyone can enjoy. Roll on Before the Flood.
Click here to watch Doctor Who: Under the Lake on BBC iPlayer