Let me just start off saying that this experiment in Season 9 where we do things so far exclusively in two-parters is really, really good. It’s like Steven Moffat has honestly resurrected the best parts of the classic serial era, and Rassilon knows “Under the Lake” feels as much like a lost Seven / Ace adventure as it does Twelve / Clara. I’m not the first to notice its resemblance to “Curse of Fenric,” nor will I be the last.
That said, how did people in the 20th century cope with this constant anxiety of resolution? Every other week, I’m screaming at my television to tell me what happens. It’s maddening.
So I’ll keep this brief since it details half an episode. “Under the Lake” comes to us courtesy of writer Toby Whithouse, who has a somewhat uneven batting average on Doctor Who. There’s “School Reunion” (hooray!) and “Vampires of Venice (slightly less enthusiastic hooray), but then there’s “God Complex” and “A Town Called Mercy.” Well, if “Under the Lake” is his tie-breaker, then it’s definitely in his favor.
The adventure is similar to my personal favorite kind: the Event Horizon episodes. Stuff like “The Impossible Planet” and the incredible “42.” They are essentially haunted house films set on spaceships, or in this case an underwater research facility. In fact, “Under the Lake” even borrows the inexplicably untranslated-by-the-Tardis hieroglyphics trope from “Impossible Planet.” In this case we get straight-up ghosts who disappear when the sun’s out and can walk through walls.
The monsters are top-notch all the way. There was a lovely small featurette during the commercial breaks that showed how the special effects team achieved the unnerving trick of turning the ghost actors’ skulls into hollow shells that you can see right through, and that in no way makes the effect less creepy. As far as monsters go, they’re probably the best since “Flatline.”
But, as usual with the episodes of this nature, half the fun is watching The Doctor figure things out. As a character study of Twelve, it was as good as…well, “Flatline” again. Clara has apparently given him cue cards to read when he does that awkward thing of forgetting human care about the death of someone they love, and there’s this really hilarious moment when he claims to be able to read BSL (British Sign Language) and is forced to admit that he actually can’t.
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Side note: Sophie Stone steals the show as Cass, the commander of the base after her superior is killed. Stone is the first deaf actor to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. She is spell-binding, and it is so refreshing to see a disabled character just be normally portrayed. She rocks as a capable and protective superior officer, but also manages a rare humor as well as a tremendous rapport with The Doctor. If any other shows are wondering how disabled people should be portrayed in the media, here’s your template.
I won’t say that this season of Doctor Who is a creative renaissance for the series because frankly we are still seeing ideas that have been done before, though I would argue that “Under the Lake” is actually better than all the adventures it is aping. I do applaud the creative direction this season that seeks to connect more thematically with the classic series, and it’s abundantly clear that Peter Capaldi has found his footing as The Doctor. What often came across as a bad Tom Baker impression last season (don’t feel bad; Matt Smith was generally doing a bad Patrick Troughton impression in the same time frame) has grown into a true Doctor. Even something like “Kill the Moon” makes more sense now in the context of the character Capaldi has built.
“Under the Lake” is creepy, clever, quotable and lovable. It’s everything a Doctor Who episode should be. It feels like the show did when David Tennant hit his stride in Season 3, or the free-form excellence of Eight when he met Lucie Miller. This is a very dynamic time to be a fan of the show, and it just keeps getting better.