Review: Doctor Who – 9.3 – ‘Under the Lake’

Oh dear. Things are not going well when your former boss writes to you saying that you shouldn’t “bite the hand that feeds” and “if you can’t quietly endure [Doctor Who] then just stop watching what many of us are quietly enjoying.”

Anyway, if they’re shooting at you, you’re probably doing something right.

With no influence from these comments, this week was actually a pretty interesting return to form for Doctor Who with the Toby Whithouse penned, ‘Under the Lake’.

The base under siege plot is nothing new and has been done memorably several times since the show’s return, not least with 2009’s ‘Water of Mars’ (I’ll return to this in a minute, and no it’s not going to be a pun on NASA’s recent discovery).

What made this episode unique is the combination of structure, writing and characterisation. The base itself, under water in Scotland, is infinitely more claustrophobic than the vastness of space where these siege stories tend to take place and there is a real sense of being trapped. All of this hits home considering the villains, or ghosts, of this week are sincerely, properly scary: vacant eyes, inaudible utterances and their seemingly benign nature that turns parochial and deadly. There’s also the freaky Victorian look to them that makes them an old school monster that could have come from the pages of Poe or Dickens.

The opening sequence is terrifying, but not as bad as The Doctor and Clara’s cavalier approach to encountering them. It was the first time in a long time you felt a ‘look out, they’re behind you’ twinge; almost as powerful as the first appearance of the Weeping Angels in ‘Blink’.

On this we have the script. Wirtten by Toby Whithouse, whose previous credits include the ‘School Reunion’ (which reintroduced Sarah Jane-Smith) and ‘A Town Called Mercy’, we have a Doctor and Clara team that are more well formed than they have been to date. The scene with Clara providing cue cards for the Doctor to be more sensitive to loss was genius and precisely what this Doctor should be rather than the perpetually morose granddad. Whithouse might have remembered what the First Doctor was given latterly: you can begin with a grumpy, morally ambiguous granddad but the character and show work best if you mellow those qualities with an impish youth.

Of Whithouse we have a gift and a problem. He’s long been rumoured to be the successor to Stephen Moffat when he decides to hang up the sonic and it wouldn’t be a bad thing. Previously his writing has always had an unremarkable quality to it (think ‘Vampires of Venice’), but here he has a maturity and gives characterisation to all of the cast that goes beyond the very parochial, ‘for the fan boys’ plots and twists that Moffat has been providing increasingly.

Here’s the bad bit that some won’t like: It might be too early to say, but one of the big criticisms of Who recently and of Capaldi’s tenure is it has lost some of its en masse appeal. No one wants a return to farting aliens under Christopher Ecclestone and Russell T. Davies, but it’s getting harder and harder to remember a time when the country went crazy in the millions as they did with the Tennant cliff-hangers and collectively wept at his regeneration. The idea that you’d have Capaldi on a goodbye channel tour of appearances and adverts changed to the TARDIS is laughable. Whithouse has some solid episodes to his name that are novel – much as Russell T. Davies was without ever writing a drudging walk through Doctor Who history.

But this is the problem of the show now, and something that irked some readers when I made this point last week. Once the show had an active place in the public conscience and it was a well-spirted adventure with only a few dud episodes thrown in. Now, for a plethora of reasons, it seems to be losing fans and losing its audience. It’s even been touted that next year there will be Sherlock-style serials of Who as they did in 2009 (although this was due to Tennant’s filming schedule than the show fatiguing). In fairness, they were all excellent, particularly the aforementioned Mars episode, and did whet the appetite for season five and Matt Smith’s debut.

Personally, I think it might be an idea to make people miss it before they bring it back for another 12-episode run. This sound’s worse than it is, but when you think of the future after Moffat and even Capaldi and if this episode is anything to by, the prospect of Whithouse as lead writer is an exciting prospect.

Of The Doctor and Jenna Coleman there’s the interesting dilemma that they’ve never seen more like their true selves when being written by another screenwriter and not the leader writer. Capaldi was excellent, excitable and arrogant and slightly manic but ultimately very photogenic as the Timelord; an ignorant, young man in an old man’s body. Clara, curiously, seemed almost like the 11th Doctor with her wild eyed enthusiasm for the adventure, be damned the consequences approach. It seems the natural conclusion for someone who has been through so much in his name and been in that lifestyle for so long and Whithouse has done a superb job realising that characterisation with logical maturity. It raises the tantalising prospect of where her fate rests by the end of this season.

Even if this is in danger of becoming anti-Moffat rant, there are certainly signs that the end beckons. If you are familiar with Doctor Who extra you will know that in addition to Peter Capaldi sounding like an aging thespian reflecting on his latest debut, Steven Moffatt sounds like a mad man in the throws of a midlife crisis. The episode discussing the sonic glasses as a big ‘fuck you, keep it fresh because we can lads’ heralds the final puff of steam. Fan boys will hate it and it’s a quirk too far that just doesn’t suit Capaldi’s Doctor. If there’s one last thing for Moffat to do, it’s to close the circle and give him to give River the old sonic that was featured in finest episodes to day, ‘The Silence in the Library’ and ‘The Forest of the Dead’.

The last few moments here were a stroke of genius, the ensemble cast interesting and fascinating, and it should all prove to be a timey-whimey twist that goes beyond yet another, but forgivable, intimation that The Doctor is dying.

In any event, it’s been a long time since Doctor Who cliff-hanger has been exciting, and hopefully next week lives up to the promise laid down here.