Doctor Who 9.03: Under the Lake

Yeah, I’m calling it already: season 9 is brilliant.

Spoilers under the cut.

One of the (many) things that I remember from watching Doctor Who as a kid is how scary it could be. It was the right kind of scary: the kind that made you jump, made you hide, made you want a nightlight after dark even though you were a big kid who don’t need no stinking nightlights! The important part, though, was that it was Doctor Who and therefore the Doctor was there. No matter how many times I hid behind a cushion, deep down, I knew that the Doctor would make everything okay again by the end of the story.

I think that’s why I love scary Doctor Who stories and never got into horror movies. I needed the Doctor to reassure me through the fear.

Modern Doctor Who has a long and wonderful tradition of scary stories, too. Usually written by a certain Mr. Moffat: The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances and Blink stand out for me as two of the scariest modern stories. They had the jump factor; the moments when you thought it was all fine and then it all went wrong.

The little boy’s voice asking for his mummy as the camera pans down to show that the tape has run out.

The angels suddenly appearing when you thought you were safe.

In this episode, it was the hands reaching through the wall, just when I thought the Doctor and Clara were safe. It was the base switching to night mode. It was the final image, of the Doctor’s ghost floating in the ocean, his eyes blacked out and his lips moving.

Toby Whitehouse learned from the master of scary Doctor Who stories, didn’t he?

The episode was tense and claustrophobic. It had hints of other base under siege stories, but the watery setting was a little different from the usual space settings. It enables a different kind of story to be told: the drowned town is clearly the source of everything, but it was drowned a long time ago. The only way to explore it is with a submarine or by travelling in time. There is no risk that gravity will suddenly disappear or the station will fall into a sun, but water is just as dangerous as a vacuum.

The atmosphere definitely helps those jump moments to stand out. I was tense enough already, just from the claustrophobia and the heavy feeling in the air, so the hands appearing out of the wall had an effect that they might not have had in a lighter, airier setting. Well done to the production team for setting that up!

One of the biggest talking points about this episode was the presence of the first deaf actor on Doctor Who. Lots of commentary on how important representation is, and how good it was to see her described as the smartest person in the room (after the Doctor, obvs) and providing one of the big keys to the plot. I was slightly surprised that the Doctor doesn’t sign, but I suppose that would have made her ‘cypher’ less valuable to the story, so it makes sense. Possibly the most impressive part is that the character was actually played by a deaf person: it’s so rare to find a disabled character in media actually played by a person with that disability.

I did find the secondary characters hard to keep track of initially. I suppose that’s my one criticism of the episode: the black guy died first, and it took a while for the personalities of the other crew members to become sufficiently differentiated for me to identify them outside of “not wearing glass” (apart from the company stooge, who stood out by being a company stooge). That made some of the earlier scenes a bit confusing, particularly when I kept losing track of which woman was Cass and who was supposed to be signing for her. I did eventually get that figured out when O’Donnell became the person who could operate the base’s computer and we started to get some actual character development from them all. It’s only a minor quibble, but I had to find something to keep this from being a perfect episode!

I loved the Doctor’s glee at discovering the universe might be stranger than he’d imagined. It felt so Doctor-ish that he’d react that way. Ghosts are impossible, shouldn’t exist, but if he has to rewrite the way he’s always thought in order to fit them into his world view, then he’s excited! It’s a lovely glimpse into the way his mind works. He wants to know everything, he wants to ask questions, he wants to discover. The ghosts are horrible and wrong and make the hair stand up on the back of his neck because of their wrongness, but he’s overjoyed to discover something new.

Maybe this is one of the things I love most about the Doctor: he always wants to know more, even if knowing more will change the way he has to look at the world.

The plot of the episode hangs together well provided you handwave the strange science of the locator beacon reprogramming people’s brains, but as that’s true for a large portion of Doctor Who’s episodes, I’m calling it a success. For now. It holds together so far.

We still have another episode in this story. It’s hard to review the plot of a two-parter when you don’t know if they’ll stick the landing until you’ve seen the second part. That’s definitely not a complaint! I love two-parters. The idea that this season will be pretty much all two-part stories makes me gleeful. Stories can be written that would be too big for forty-five minutes. There can be more exploration of ideas and characters, providing a meatier experience than a single episode story.

I’m not sure they could compress this episode into forty-five minutes without losing a lot. They’d have to sacrifice the slowly building tension for something much bangier and whooshier, and some of the best things about it would get lost.

Next week’s episode should be good. It looks like Clara’s story on the base will all be scary ghosts and so forth, while the Doctor’s story in the past will be a mystery-slash-race against time. We think we know how his story ends–ghost!Doctor–but do we really?

I’m willing to bet it won’t be what we think.