‘Under the Lake’

4 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Doctor Who’ Season 9, Episode 3 Recap: The Doctor becomes a ghostbuster in ‘Under the Lake’.

“Doctor Who” has a long history of setting episodes in isolated bases and “Under the Lake“ continues that tradition in the first of a spooky two-parter that gets a bit bogged down in the details.In an extraordinary honest and frank interview with legendary US talk show host Larry King, Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi came to the defence of the BBC and had some cautionary words for the current Conservative government. ‘The organisation that makes our show [Doctor Who], the BBC – is one of the great, great organisations of the world, the most special, special organisation.’ ‘Yeah and for its very existence. He’s never met a bump in the night that isn’t secretly a time traveler trapped in a pocket dimension; he’s never conducted a séance that couldn’t be explained away by something like the Guelph.

Doctor Who loves nothing more than to spin conventions on their head, and for his return to the series, writer Toby Whithouse culture-jams haunted-house intrigue with classic base-under-siege tension. I think because it is not answerable to shareholders and it entertains ideas – all kinds of ideas about Britain and about history and about the world and about art – I think the government, they don’t want to pay for it. After an accident with the ship, their commander has gone the way of Casper and the crew finds themselves trapped on the base with ghosts that have the mysterious ability to swing metal weapons despite their state. Ever since the show was forced to deal with slimmer budgets in the late 1960s, Doctor Who has visited more bases, stations and lairs than you can shake a bass guitar at. If the opening two-parter was a nod to old Davros/Dalek stories gone by, then Under the Lake sets its stall out to provide old school scares in the form of a base-under-siege adventure.

We’ve seen moon bases, star bases, sea bases, jungle bases, polar bases, bases in castles, bases in sewers, bases in pits that happen to contain Satan. Conveniently ignoring the fact that it was scheduled against The X Factor and Rugby World Cup – not to mention the extra 2 million viewers who watched on catch-up – Beeb-sceptics and Who-phobes have been claiming it’s in crisis, sounding the death knell with rather too much relish. As always with Whithouse, there’s fizzing, funny dialogue and a cracking ensemble (particular props to deaf actor Sophie Stone, who nails Cass as a character, her deafness proving entirely incidental, as it should be).

The writer/director team of Toby Whithouse and Daniel O’Hara, past collaborators on Whithouse’s series Being Human, work well together to produce a taut, claustrophobic atmosphere which ramps up the tension beautifully. The two-part nature of the stories this year again allows room to breathe, slowly picking off crew members and piling on tension layer by layer, so by that breathtaking cliffhanger, you really do feel claustrophobic and completely in the dark as to answers. From the pre-credits demise of Captain Moran to the underwater isolation of the crew and the ghostly nature of their pursuers (including a heavily disguised Paul Kaye as the Tivolian undertaker Prentis), there’s a chilling sense of impending doom throughout that is well conveyed by the episode’s cast.

You’d think base real estate was the most valuable in the universe, the way they’re forever hammering at walls, oozing under doors and playing with light switches to try and scare the current inhabitants out. It was the year 2110 and when an underwater mining facility in Scotland came under attack, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) tried to save the frightened crew and defeat a seemingly supernatural foe. There are some proper scares too – none more terrifying than the notion of the Doctor being stuck with Peter Andre’s Mysterious Girl as an earworm. After whatever sent her back to Coal Hill School while the Doctor traveled on his own, Clara’s rediscovered her “shut up and give me some planets” mode this week.

Whereas Clara was written as a bit of an idiot last week, this week she’s all adrenaline junkie to the point of irresponsibility, a characterization the show has used and dropped at will. If he ever retires from adventuring (and doesn’t want to become a curator), the Doctor could make a fine living converting abandoned bases into condos for all manner of grateful and grisly creatures.

In particular, the traditional chase sequence involving Clara, Bennett and Lunn being pursued up and down endless corridors to lure the ghosts into the Faraday cage is deftly handled with some genuine heart-in-mouth moments as Lunn, curiously, escapes being killed. Doctor Who didn’t invent the base-under-siege plotline, of course; nor did the show bring the concept to perfection (go watch Zulu or Alien or Das Boot for that). Three days ago, the crew spotted a “craft of unknown origin” on the lake floor and brought it on board, only to be met by a figure in Dickensian mutton chops. As much as his desire to help others, it’s his love of the unknown that draws him in here and drives him to put himself at mortal risk to get to the bottom of the mystery. The apparition caused the craft’s engines to fire, incinerating the crew’s captain, John Moran — who, moments later, returned as a ghost himself.

After some exposition dumps, we learn that the base has an artificial day and night system, is powered nuclear fusion and is located in the middle of a flooded military town. What if those ghosts were deadly when they wanted to be, but also weren’t such a threat that you could actually study them like a scientist, trying to figure out from whence they came and what they wanted?

Mainly, though, it was reminiscent of classic Doctor Who – land the Tardis somewhere, get caught up in an adventure with the locals, make children hide behind soft furnishings. They do the same to the Doctor and Clara, but only after our heroes have seen the inside of the spaceship, which is marked by symbols that even the TARDIS can’t translate.

And what if the crew actually voluntarily stayed in the base when they had a chance to escape, in order to decipher ghost words and unlock a ghost secret? If next week’s conclusion of the story – and the 12-part series as a whole – can keep up the standard set by the opening three episodes, we’re in for a treat. Having had a few ghostly encounters that turned out to be anything but (“The Unquiet Dead”, “Army of Ghosts”, “Hide”), the Doctor is skeptical that these are the real deal. But it does feel like Whithouse is going to pull off something that Doctor Who manages quite rarely; a two-part story where the second half is significantly better than the first. Arguably the most effective cliffhanger of any new-Who two-parter, we’re left wondering both what could have gone wrong in the past to turn the Doctor in to a ghost and how he can circumvent the rules of Time to avoid his fate.

Heavy weather is being made of Clara’s evolution into an adrenalin junkie (her “I want another adventure!” is just a teensy bit Violet Elizabeth Bott). That Clara has made the supposedly insensitive Doctor a series of cards to read is funny until you recall that the last episode was all about the Doctor’s compassion. The crew, by the way, is in the pay of the Vector Petroleum corporation and appear to be looking for oil, which suggests a supremely depressing future where we haven’t switched to renewable energy and still need to drill for black gold.

But it’s becoming clear that her new live-in-the-moment fervour after losing Danny could be turning into a recklessness that might prove her undoing. Thus far, it seems writer Toby Whitehouse (Being Human) just needed this plot device to make the crew dig up the spaceship from which the first ghost, strangely dressed as a Victorian and described as a “mole man,” appears.

Whithouse had fun mashing up the genre conventions as he approached his story, telling Doctor Who Magazine this month: “I wanted haunted-house tropes. Temporarily back in a skittish TARDIS, which is put off the ghosts since they represent an aberration in time, the Doctor gently lectures Clara about her adrenaline junkie behavior. The team finding the spaceship is an echo of the familiar ghost stories, such as someone finding a sarcophagus and opening it up, only for an ancient curse to be unleashed and so on. The episode hits the point so hard that it seems like this behavior might lead to Clara’s eventual exit but it’s just as likely that it might be dropped completely when the next “Who” writer gets a crack at her.

It’s already too late for Pritchard, the profit-obsessed Vector Petroleum representative who ventured off base to look for the spaceship’s missing (and valuable) power cell. After Vector Petroleum’s avaricious boss Pritchard falls to the same ghostly fate as the commander, the Doctor puts the base under quarantine and decides they need to do some ghostbusting. And we haven’t even seen the monster yet … Obviously, “ghosts” as such are not supposed to exist in a Whoniverse which ultimately explains everything via some kind of science. She’s also a smart cookie who instinctively keeps the interpreter away from the alien symbols on the craft, the symbols we are later told are like earworms for the brain — magnets that influence, maybe even dictate our actions — and that the ghosts forced them all to see.

I’m not completely convinced by Whitehouse’s Clara dialogue, or even his Doctor dialogue, which seems to bounce around too much between giddy ghost hunter, “like a kid who’s eaten too much sherbet,” and making sober, cautious Tom Baker-esque pronouncements. His pop culture references and his jokes also seem a little out of character — like putting the TARDIS “handbrake” on to turn off the ship’s little used, always-important sentient alarm known as the Cloister Bell, for the sake of a laugh.

They hit a snag when the ghosts split up: Moran and Mutton Chops (or, as Cass calls him, the Mole) follow Clara while Pritchard’s ghost tracks Lunn, nearly killing him. Using his sonic sunglasses, he beams Cass a close-up of their lips; they’re mouthing something. “The dark, the sword, the forsaken, the temple,” Cass reads.

Outside the window of the flooded base, Clara sees another apparition but as it draws near, the haunting final shot reveals that this time it’s the Doctor that has become the ghost. Longtime fans will be punching the air to see a card marked “I’m sorry, I thought you lived in Aberdeen.” That’s what the Doctor needed to say to the all-time fan-favorite companion Sarah-Jane Smith, played by the late, lamented Elizabeth Sladen, when he met her again in Whitehouse’s first Doctor Who episode, “School Reunion.” Nice to see she’s still in his thoughts. As a setting, the underwater base provided a delightfully creepy atmosphere though any longtime “Doctor Who” fan might feel like the abandoned base is a setting we’ve seen a little too often.

And if the previous two-parter of this two-parter-heavy season is any indication, what happens next will give us chills — just like any good ghost story should. Fun with useless production trivia: the set for The Drum was repurposed as the Dalek control room in The Magician’s Apprentice, which was the following story to go in front of the cameras. The Doctor has to know that people are capable of putting their lives on the line for something bigger — he can’t stop himself from depending upon the human capacity for selflessness any more than people can stop being curious. “It’s impossible. The whole crew agrees to stay, and Bennett guides a robotic probe into the church — which, in retrospect, does not seem dangerous enough to warrant that build-up. They rewrite the brain of everyone who sees them, sticking in there like an earworm, “a song you can’t stop humming even after you die.” The more people die, the louder the song.

Clara suggests that the Doctor just pop over to her side in the TARDIS, but the TARDIS won’t land near the ghosts, so the Doctor will have to go back in time without her.

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