If the sequence of words ‘Two-part base-under-siege story with ghosts’ doesn’t ring any sort of alarm bells then you probably haven’t seen enough Doctor Who. To say the format has been done to death would be a disservice to the concept of death itself. But New Who veteran Toby Whithouse seems fully aware of any potential concerns Who stalwarts might have with the familiar ground the writer has been tasked with treading for series 9’s second two-parter; delivering a truly unique, shaken-up take on the tired premise of a small group of scientists terrorised in an enclosed space, establishing the format for the sake of cosy familiarity then promptly doing away with it in favour of something far more compelling.
If The Magician’s Apprentice threatened at turns to derail the notion of more two-part adventures being a good thing, by feeling a little underdeveloped and prologue-like, Under The Lake proudly demonstrates the opposite effect; gracefully, glacially building on an atmospheric set of baffling questions, fleshing out its guest cast and jogging steadily to a climax ready to satiate the week-long fret over where things are headed. It’s probably Who’s scariest episode yet, even if the cliffhanger feels a little hard to swallow. This is unquestionably a story that had to be told in ninety minutes rather than forty-five, and though there are one or two scenes of superfluous head-scratching and bickering in its latter half, it rarely feels padded for the sake of Steven Moffat’s desired new Modus Operandi.
The guest cast are familiar but very likeable, though may just hit a dramatic milestone in featuring a deaf character in a prominent role. There are shades of past adventures The Impossible Planet, Silence in the Library and The Waters of Mars in their dynamic (aided no-end by the familiar situation they find themselves in) but there is a genuine sense of sorrow prevalent as they are gradually and inevitably offed, and even as the survivors wave goodbye to the TARDIS it feels something of a shame that we’ll probably not see them again. This is a further strength of the two-parter; the space to breathe life into one-off characters, elevating them beyond the requirements of ‘red-shirt’ cannon fodder and making them memorable despite the brevity of their screen time in the grand scheme of things.
The regulars are just as great. Peter Capaldi might be on his highest form yet, hilarious and commanding in equal measure, turning in a ‘cue-card’ gag that’s his Doctor’s funniest moment to date. Jenna Coleman is a joy too, taking advantage of her character just existing in the moment as opposed to having the weight of a personal story-arc that slightly dogged Clara in the previous series. Under The Lake could be a crash-course on how to write the Doctor and his companion, as they hop out of the TARDIS and get straight down to solving a ghostly mystery, stopping now and then to banter and crack wise as friends are wont to do. It’s like watching Tom Baker and Lis Sladen in their prime.
Before The Flood, part two of this story, despite being commendable in its unabashed abandonment of the base-under-siege format, fares slightly less well than its predecessor. There are flashes of uncertainty in the storytelling, wavering traits in the Doctor’s character and a set-piece that runs a little too similar to a celebrated moment in the third Harry Potter flick, but it’s still highly serviceable Who, replete with just enough death, high-stakes timey-wimey paradox proceedings and verbal sparring between the Doctor and the (slightly silly-looking) monster of the week for this time-spanning tale to end on a memorable note. Whithouse has hardly put a foot wrong in his near-decade writing for Doctor Who, and his streak remains untarnished here.
Including 2014’s Last Christmas, Under The Lake / Before The Flood mark five formidable Who episodes in a row. With Jamie Mathieson – series 8’s secret weapon – at the helm next week, aided by a much-anticipated guest turn from Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams, this series could well be on the way to being Twenty-First Century Who’s best yet.
Freelance Writer & Novelist
Author of The Creeping Seawall; a modern ghost story available now from Bloodhound Books