Doctor Who Under the Lake review: “my claptrap-o-meter is pinging towards the danger zone”

There are haunting images and plus points for sign language but an overfamiliar formula disappoints

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★★★ I hesitate to use the term “on the surface” for a drama set at the bottom of a lake, but hey ho, on the surface Under the Lake has much that normally works in Doctor Who: a mystery with roots in the past; inexorable, stalking monsters; claustrophobic sets; a frantic run-around in tunnels; the companion cut off from the Doctor; and, above all, the HQ under assault (I’m sure many of you know which cliché I’m paraphrasing there). 

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An isolated scientific/military outpost stumbling upon a dangerous alien has been a winning formula in Doctor Who right back to the 1960s (and was probably first minted by the 1951 movie The Thing from Another World). I normally love it. With a tweak and a fiddle, it can remain fresh, and maybe Under the Lake does appear fresh to younger viewers, but this time, to me, it does not. It feels derivative, even by Doctor Who’s standards.

In the old days, it would usually suffice for the human crew to be attacked by monsters; now the trend is for the crew to be assailed by monstrous versions of themselves. I refer you to Russell T Davies’s superior The Waters of Mars (crew become hydro-monsters) and Chris Chibnall’s underrated 42 (crew become pyro-monsters). Toby Whithouse’s Under the Lake (crew become ghosts) also has much in common with Matthew Graham’s lacklustre The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People (crew attacked by doppelgangers), even down to the cliffhanger depicting a gruesome version of the Doctor. The formula is as tired as ZombieDoc looks. 

The crew of The Drum, an underwater mining facility in Caithness, seem a pleasant bunch – with the exception of that standard-issue sci-fi character, the venal corporate bod (in this case, Pritchard). Sadly, like the crews of those aforementioned episodes, they’re almost entirely forgettable. With one exception – Cass.

Doctor Who has long led the way with diversity in casting, and none more so than here with Sophie Stone, who is the first deaf woman to have studied at Rada. Her character Cass is strong and perceptive, fully involved in events and able to lip-read the “ghosts”. Importantly, the frequent inclusion of her signing and its translation by her pal Lunn doesn’t slow the drama but adds a level of reality. This shouldn’t seem brave in a fast, primetime drama; it could be the norm. So kudos to Toby Whithouse and the Who team for going there. 

Under the Lake and its follow-up After the Flood were the first episodes of series nine to be filmed, and all aspects of the production look and sound polished. The pre-credits sequence is told at quite a lick and quite chilling when the eyeless “ghosts” hurry down the tunnels. Doctor Who is clearly capitalising on its late-evening BBC1 slot. A good long section shows the Doctor and Clara exploring their new environment. The return to a two-part format means there’s time to build atmosphere and tension, which are not to be sniffed at. This is the sort of Doctor Who I usually lap up.

But, but… suddenly, the cringe moments arrive by the barrowload. The annoying O’Donnell is a particular culprit. She tells the Doctor, “I’m a huge fan” (another one!?) and later, coyly, tells him to shut up. Could we have a moratorium on people telling each other, coyly or otherwise, to shut up? Certain other dialogue ticks make my spleen twitch, especially “You lot” or “Your lot” as a prelude to lofty Time Lordly observations. Here the Doctor tells Clara: “You lot, you’re bananas about relationships,” during a peculiarly awkward Tardis scene.

He gets excited about meeting “real” ghosts. “These people are literally, actually dead. Wow! This is amazing. I’ve never actually met a proper ghost.” Really, Doctor? Would the Time Lord we’ve known and admired as a rational man readily jump to this conclusion?

Later, appreciating the alien threat, he raves: “It’s impossible. It’s evil. I hate it. It’s astonishing. I want to kiss it to death!” This spiel might have suited one of his excitable recent predecessors, but it diminishes Peter Capaldi’s Doctor and seems a lame attempt to sex him up. 

I’m not a humourless person but was there a single laugh in the house for the business when Clara shows her idiot cards to the Doctor? When he rabbits on about Shirley Bassey and enduring an ear worm of Peter Andre? I was an early convert to Capaldi’s Doctor and see no reason why he should remain aloof and acerbic and out of touch, but funny is as funny does. All this falls flat. 

Eventually, the “ghosts” are explained as having been generated by a force that is “getting people killed, hijacking their souls and turning them into transmitters”. Fancy! I’m usually prepared to swallow all sorts of cobblers, but my claptrap-o-meter was pinging towards the red danger zone during that guff. I suppose it’s all a matter of personal taste and what you’re ready to accept in the moment. (Last year, unlike many, I was forgiving with “the Moon is an egg”…)

At the time of writing, I haven’t seen the next episode, Before the Flood, and know next to nothing of its content. (Although I will have watched it by the time this blog appears.) We know it loops back in time, and I imagine it will complement and bolster Under the Lake. 

Maybe in the end it’s all about the mystery and the thrills and the creeps. The final image of the Doctor – eyeless, drifting through murk, ostensibly dead – is horrible, indelible and should give nightmares to all the Time Tots staying up past their bedtime. Maybe they’ll be writing about this story fondly in 40 years’ time…

Every story since 1963 reviewed in RT’s Doctor Who Story Guide

Recent reviews: 

Episode one: The Magician’s Apprentice ★★★★★

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Episode two: The Witch’s Familiar  ★★★★★