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Doctor Who: Under the Lake / Before the Flood ★★★

An underwater mine is assailed by ghost-like revenants in this murky, time-bending two-parter

Published: Saturday, 10th October 2015 at 8:10 pm
A star rating of 3 out of 5.

Story 255


Series 9 – Episodes 3 & 4

The Doctor and Clara arrive at the Drum, a mining facility at the bottom of a lake in Caithness in 2119. Its crew have hauled aboard a sleek spaceship and are now being killed and transformed into ghost-like revenants, intent on further deaths. The Doctor unravels a mystery that takes him back to 1980 before the site flooded. In a remote and disused Army outpost, a fearsome alien warlord known as the Fisher King sets in motion a devious plan to ensure his own survival.

First UK broadcasts
Saturday 3 October 2015
Saturday 10 October 2015

The Doctor – Peter Capaldi
Clara Oswald – Jenna Coleman
Cass – Sophie Stone
Lunn – Zaqi Ismail
O’Donnell – Morven Christie
Bennett – Arsher Ali
Pritchard – Steven Robertson
Prentis – Paul Kaye
Fisher King – Neil Fingleton
Voice of the Fisher King – Peter Serafinowicz
Roar of the Fisher King – Corey Taylor

Writer – Toby Whithouse
Director – Daniel O’Hara
Producer – Derek Ritchie
Music – Murray Gold
Designer – Michael Pickwoad
Executive producers – Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin

Under the Lake blog (first published 3 October 2015)

★★★ 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).

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…

Before the Flood blog (first published 10 October 2015)

★★★ Many friends and colleagues will offer me their opinions of the latest Doctor Who episodes, which are by turns laudatory and scathing, sometimes hilarious and, of course, all valid. But there’s one verdict I value above all: that of my nephew Jamie.

A bright ten-year-old, he was aghast that I was underwhelmed by Under the Lake (last week’s episode) and he assured me that it was “brilliant” and “really scary”. He told me he’d watched it with a chum who’d “given up on Doctor Who but is now a fan again” because of that episode. The boys were particularly enthralled by the final image of the dead-eyed Doctor.

I should listen to ten-year-olds. I was ten in 1975 – now that was a bountiful year to be a Doctor Who fan. Tom Baker’s first term in the Tardis. Brand-new episodes on 35 Saturday nights – yes, 35! None of your measly 12. I knew at once that Tom’s debut story Robot was crummy, that his second The Ark in Space was great, and that while Genesis of the Daleks delivered shovel-loads of thrills, there was also an awful lot of grey men standing around talking for six weeks. So even then I wasn’t a dribbling slave to the series; I was sharpening my critical faculties. But perhaps I need to reconnect with my inner ten-year-old to evaluate Doctor Who in 2015...

Obviously, it cannot be a rave every week. I have to be frank and say that while I find Before the Flood marginally more intriguing than Under the Lake, as a brace of episodes they do little to float my boat, buzz my sonic or activate my time rotor. I’m an advocate for darker, spooky, complex tales, but at a time when Doctor Who isn’t exactly thriving in the ratings, the programme needs to deliver something less gloomy and more broadly accessible.

I’m in no mood to moan on at length for a second week running. There are always positives to be found in any episode so I’ll focus on what I like about Before the Flood.

And I do like Cass, played by Sophie Stone, and applaud the BBC's effort to include, almost as a matter of course, someone who doesn't hear. Of all the crew at the Drum, Cass actually looks the part, the likeliest among them to be staffing a lake-bed mining facility – regardless of her lack of hearing. Toby Whithouse makes her essential to his narrative, able to lip-read the ghosts/zombies and relay their messages. She gets one of this tale’s few laughs with a rude (and deserved) hand gesture to Clara.

She goes it alone in the haunted tunnels, stalked by MoranGhost who is dragging an axe, noisily but unheard by Cass. As he approaches, she senses the vibration and is able to picture the imminent threat. It’s an effective moment, and I’m intrigued to know whether Sophie Stone had any input here, and what deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers make of this display.

The big baddy turns out to be the Fisher King. He may do little more than lumber about and snort like a 1980s Who monster and have a survival plan that’s timey-wimey verging on silly, but when he emerges from the shadows, he’s an impressive beast, a hulking crustacean played by Neil Fingleton (at 7ft7, the tallest man in Europe) and voiced by Peter Serafinowicz.

Paul Kaye? Um, well, he's bearable as Prentis, the mole-like funeral director from Tivoli. Remember Tivoli? No, not the tacky pleasure gardens in the centre of Copenhagen. Please rewind to 2011 and to Toby Whithouse’s creepy episode The God Complex: Tivoli was the home world of the craven-hearted Gibbis, played by David Walliams. Prentis is similarly timid, borderline endearing in the 1980 setting – a contrast to his alarming, spectral counterpart in 2119.

The Doctor’s private chats with the viewer... his soliloquies, lectures... let's call them “Doclogues”... are becoming a “thing” now. I rather enjoy them. And they’re not entirely unprecedented. William Hartnell’s Doctor would often muse aloud when alone in the Tardis and notoriously wished “a Happy Christmas to all of you at home” 50 years ago. Tom Baker’s Doctor broke the fourth wall too, directly addressing us or beaming at the camera at the end of an adventure.

In Listen last year Peter Capaldi’s Doctor shared with us his fears of an unseen intruder lurking in the dark. In Before the Flood, it’s a straightforward lecture, albeit one in which he confects a head-scratching temporal paradox about Beethoven. I don’t care to be told to go and google while watching a TV programme, but I applaud any reference in Doctor Who to classical music and composers. (Who knows, maybe one day we’ll have nods to scientists and proper science again too!) These Doclogues play to the star’s strengths and I’ve a hunch we’ll be getting more as the season progresses.

Capaldi playing electric guitar is now another “thing”. It’s certainly one up on Patrick Troughton playing the recorder and Jon Pertwee warbling La donna è mobile – and a vast improvement on Sylvester McCoy playing the spoons on Kate O’Mara’s bosom. I expect many will hate RockDoc, but I love the way he blasts out the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth then has the temerity to play over the Doctor Who theme.


As if to say: Peter Capaldi’s incarnation isn’t just a Time Lord; this craggy old geezer could be a Rolling Stone. And I’ll always have sympathy for the devil.


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