Under the Lake

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When an abandoned alien spacecraft is brought aboard a base underwater in a lake,  it’s not long before murderous ghosts stalk the living…

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A quick look at Twitter reveals that this has been a very popular story with fans. There seems to be a consensus that it’s like ‘classic Doctor Who.’ Not a particular Doctor, or decade, but just somehow like the original series. Over the ten years that the series has back on our screens, there seems to have been a smoothing of twentieth century seasons into a homogeneous whole that is looked upon very favourably. Where the wilderness years had fans divided over, say, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, or the Hinchcliffe vs Williams years; 1963-89 now feels like it’s treated as a gold standard by some fans, and the polarisation is more prevalent between the Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat eras.

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Where Under the Lake is like the older stories is that it enjoys the longer running time as the first of two parts. It feels rare to have the time to allow the TARDIS crew to explore on their own for a while nowadays, which harks back to earlier stories, whereas this is far from the first base-under-siege of the modern era. The highly anticipated number of two-parters in series nine allows for tales of greater depth and scope. It’s a bold experiment (in the past the quality of dual-part stories has been variable. For every The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit there’s an Age of Steel/Rise of the Cybermen; for every Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon a The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People), but they have certainly got this series off to an incredibly good start. Compare Under the Lake to 2011’s The Curse of the Black Spot. In the latter a supernatural force is revealed to be alien technology and then quickly resolved. The ‘ghosts’ in this week’s episode are just a small part of the bigger mystery to be solved, a much wider story to be told.

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It’s a great hook for next time to have the Doctor travel back in time to the events of the spaceship crashing, before the valley was flooded. It seems strange in a show about time travel that a story hasn’t been done where the Doctor visits a place, after a trip there he himself has not made yet. It is done very well in Jonathan Morris’ BBC Past Doctor novel Festival of Death. This episode is not quite the same, as the characters here did not meet the Time Lord in the past. But this leads to brilliant cliff-hanger, like all the best ones, with no obvious way out for our hero.

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Toby Whithouse returns to Doctor Who writing with a couple of nods to his previous illustrious conrtibutions to the series (one of his Clara’s flash cards refers to School Reunion, and the ghostly Tivoli is the same race as David Walliam’s character in The God Complex). As in last week’s The Witch’s Familiar, it feels like we have a slightly toned-down Clara. Rather like Rose in Series Two, she’s no longer taking the lead quite so much, and deferring to the Doctor more. Whereas in the past she’s been incredibly capable and at ease in every situation, last week we saw her inside a Dalek: unable to think on her feet when questioned by another Dalek about holding Missy prisoner, and struggling to open the casing to release herself. I wonder if this more traditional companion role is another reason for this episode’s popularity with the old guard.

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Under the Lake boasts a diverse roster of distinctive characters, and clever ideas. The concept of an ear-worm as something alien feels very much a Moffat-era idea. It’s great to let the audience figure out that the ghosts do not kill Tim because the writing hasn’t ‘infected’ him with the ear-worm message without it being spelt out for us. Coming after the events of the previous story, it could also point to a potential theme of death and survival for this series. The short interlude in the TARDIS, as well news regarding Jenna Coleman’s future, could mean this is significant for Clara in particular.

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Order Doctor Who series 9:

Doctor Who – Series 9 Part 1 [DVD]

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