PREVIEW: Doctor Who Series 9, Under The Lake [SPOILER-FREE]

Under The Lake
by Toby Whithouse

Starring Peter Capaldi & Jenna Coleman

Airs Sat, Oct 3

Review by Cameron K McEwan

“What’s death like? Does it hurt? Do you still get hungry? Do you miss being alive?”

After the near-apocalyptic levels of epicness and ingenuity in the preceding two week’s debut, Doctor Who Series 9 settles down into a slower pace as we face this series of (mainly) two-part adventures.

Under The Lake may well be more languorous in its execution, but this opening instalment is packed full of intrigue and mystery as The Doctor and Clara find themselves plonked in a classic base-under-siege style story.

The TARDIS, who is not a happy girl it should be said (and the Time Lord notes this), lands our traveler in an underwater mining facility known as The Drum in Caithness, Scotland. Almost immediately they encounter what can only be referred to as “ghosts” - and our favourite Gallifreyan concedes that that’s precisely what these apparitions must be.

“They’re not holograms. They’re not Flesh Avatars. They’re not Autons. They’re not digital copies bouncing around the Nethersphere,” he states when he meets the ghosts (one of whom is an alien, the other a former crew member of The Drum). Also exacerbating the dilemma is the discovery of an unknown alien craft which includes untranslatable alien writing.

Unusually, for this kind of tale, the surviving inhabitants aren’t hostile towards our heroes. The latter is actually well-known to one of the crew O’Donnell, played by Scottish actress Morven Christie, who gushes over the appearance of the Time Lord (can’t we have just one story where nobody knows The Doctor?).

This does mean, however, the team are working cohesively as a unit to battle the ghosts, which grow in number throughout.

Sadly, the casting here isn’t as strong as we’re used to in Doctor Who. Colin McFarlane, familiar to those who saw him Torchwood: Children of Earth (and he also voiced the Heavenly Hosts in Voyage of the Damned, fact fans) is wasted in his role and we don’t get to see much of the terrific Paul Kaye either (though he will feature more prominently in next week's denouement). For me, there are just perhaps too many characters going on here to get any sense of personality or engagement with each of them.

On the plus side, Christie is immediately delightful and warm and Sophie Stone is resolutely strong as the show’s first deaf and signing character Cass. Although integral to the story, this is not a gimmick of any kind as handled superbly. Audiences will barely notice after a minute or so.

The relationship between Clara and The Doctor is heavily pronounced, with writer Toby Whithouse furthering the “glory years” motif suggested by lead writer Steven Moffat at the launch of Doctor Who Series 9. Miss Oswald, who thankfully is residing in the TARDIS rather than being picked up at home/school (as a sidenote, I feel that the companion should live in the TARDIS and not be some kind of occasional hitchhiker whenever they feel like it to brighten up their dull lives), now has flashcards to teach her buddy how to behave in a socially responsible and unoffensive fashion.

The idea that Doctor needs Clara to guide him in etiquette, given how selfish and solipsistic she can be at times, is risible. Steven Moffat has often made a great play about each regeneration of the same man. If Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor is indeed the same man then he wouldn’t need this device. Sure, he has been brusque and alien in almost every incarnation but he’s always been friendly, empathetic and understanding whomever he’s dealing with throughout the universe.

It evokes the casually callous and needlessly bitter, “She cares so I don’t have to!” from last year’s Into the Dalek and also reminds one of Steven’s other show Sherlock - where the great intelligence of Baker Street’s finest has to be compounded with the fact that’s he’s socially autistic and needs lesser mortals to teach him about the trivialities of life and human beings. If The Doctor is indeed the same man, then he doesn’t need this tutelage, especially from Clara - who is now a fidgety imp demanding monsters and "things blowing up" every week (join the club!) in a tad annoying way.

Murray Gold has pulled out the odd synth or two for a fascinating and tremulous soundtrack. Whilst it matches the sparseness of the base and fragile eerieness of the ghosts, Gold also ramps up for the second half of the episode which packs in the action as The Doctor and company split up and go ghost chasing in segments which aren’t too distant from those during the Ventilation shafts Ood pursuit in 2006’s The Satan Pit. Chills and thrills for the closing twenty minutes or so.

“What are they?” the Doctor asked with teenage exuberance and gushes with glee, “I haven’t a clue, isn’t that exciting?” And we feel this excitement too as we’re plunged into mystery and questions with intrigue and more questions. Despite some fumbled logic towards the end and the flaws stated above (which some may not agree with, of course), Under The Lake will keep you wondering and hanging on until the rather shocking cliffhanger. Chuck in grisly deaths and ghastly goings-on, and you’ve got yourself a stout Doctor Who story.

Doctor Who, Under The Lake airs Sat Oct 3 on BBC One at 8.25pm

Thanks to the BBC

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