In the third episode of the ninth series of Doctor Who, this is terrifying and I LOVE IT A GREAT DEAL. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.
I love it when Doctor Who tackles science fiction and when it borrows from the horror genre, and “Under the Lake” combines the best of both worlds. It’s got a bit of “The Waters of Mars” in its spirit, and that’s a good thing. THERE ARE SO MANY GOOD THINGS. Let’s talk about them.
Y’al, the acting commander in this episode is a deaf woman who speaks in sign language the entire time, her disability is never magically explained away, IT LATER BECOMES ABSOLUTELY VITAL TO THE PLOT AND GIVES HER AN ADVANTAGE OVER THE OTHERS, and she is never undermined or dismissed by the story. I am obsessed with Cass, and I am so pleased with her portrayal. And there’s a second half!!! So I get more of Cass and more of Lunn! EVERYTHING IS WONDERFUL.
I will be the first to admit that “Under the Lake” is liberally littered with science fiction and horror tropes. We could sit here and pick them out of this script with very little effort. The episode is a bottle story meant to highlight how claustrophobic the setting is; there’s an annoying dude who represents corporate interests; there’s a gimmick that allows the group to be momentarily safe from the “monster”; the ghosts try to pick the group off one by one.
I think you get the point. And it’s not like this is all unfamiliar ground for the show anyway. But it’s all in the execution of this story that Toby Whithouse’s script impresses me. The atmosphere is utterly terrifying, first of all, so props to the set designers. But the bewildering mystery at the heart of this episode never suffers from a phenomenon most of us used to complain about while watching this show: dangling the carrot without ever giving us anything. Oh, the plot carrot is still dangled often here, but practically everything we saw hinted in “Under the Lake” was acknowledged in some sense. My god, the pacing alone in this episode is a work of art. I was never bored; I never felt like a monologue was misplaced or acted as filler. It’s all expertly crafted!
But one of the major reasons I loved this episode so much involves a trope subversion. In closed-room, claustrophobic scenarios like this, you often see everyone turn on one another as paranoia mounts and suspicions collide. I believed that Pritchard would be the one responsible for setting this off since he seemed the most adversarial out of the bunch. However, once he died, Whithouse took his story in a much more fulfilling direction. Instead of turning on one another, this team bonded together. There are very few scenes where anyone openly questions someone else. These people, who must have spent quite a bit of time together prior to discovering the alien spacecraft, are all quite close to one another, and it shows through their interactions. They’re honestly one of the best ensemble guest casts we’ve ever gotten on Doctor Who.
If this was a standalone episode, I think it would have a chance to experience something scary and creepy and… well, not much more. That’s okay, though, and I am hoping that the second half of this story delves more into some character development and insight. “Under the Lake” has to set up a lot of things to get us to that cliffhanger, and I appreciated that I felt like most of what had been teased was “solved.” We know that there’s an alien species who turns living creatures into signal boosters to help their species find… their bodies? We don’t actually know what’s in the stasis chamber and whether or not it’s alive or dead. The point I’m making, though, is that all the worldbuilding we needed is largely done, so I’m excited to see where Whithouse is going to take this. I GENUINELY DON’T KNOW. Regardless, this was an exhilarating experience. It is so awesome to be having such a wonderful time watching Doctor Who, and so far, I’ve enjoyed all three episodes of this series.
The video for “Under the Lake” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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