The Good: Acting is fine
The Bad: Plot heavy, Pacing, No character development
The Basics: A complete Doctor Who dud, "Under The Lake" belabors its own premise before creating a nonsense cliffhanger.
No show is perfect and among fans it seems like it is a form of sacrilege to admit that. Among Doctor Who fans, it it tough to discuss the episodes that are duds without some leaping on those making the argument. In the case of the latest episode, "Under The Lake," the episode has some severe problems and while part of that is based on the expectations fans might have for what Doctor Who "should" be, the most severe issues come from how it is just problematic storytelling.
Like many episodes of Doctor Who, "Under The Lake" is a science fiction episode that is structured much like a mystery. Doctor Who episodes frequently involve The Doctor and his Companion arriving in a place and discovering something amiss. The Doctor then makes a series of deductions and figures out what is going on and, spoiler alert, it is usually some form of alien infestation that is masquerading as something else. "Under The Lake" follows that same essential formula, but it feels especially expository. As a basic element of storytelling, "Under The Lake" is structured like a mystery where no new clues are introduced, yet the detective (The Doctor) makes almost all of the assumptions necessary to (correctly) unravel the mystery.
In the near future, a company has a submerged base under a later in Scotland. The crew is there as part of a mining operation that has staked a claim to oil beneath the surface. The workers, however, have recently brought aboard what appears to be a space ship, which was not present when the company did its initial survey underwater. After inspecting the ship, one of the crew is killed and he proptly returns as an eyeless ghost.
The Doctor and Clara arrive with Clara enthusiastic for another big adventure and The Doctor concerned that she is still running away from her sense of loss following Danny's death. The pair encounter the two ghosts and when they are menaced by them, they turn tail and run. They run into a Farraday Cage where the rest of the crew of the base are hiding. The leader is a deaf young woman whose authority is challenged by the company man, Richard Pritchard. When the base goes to "day mode," the seven humans are able to leave the Farraday Cage. That allows The Doctor to inspect the ship and start to make some conclusions about what the ghosts actually are. But, after Pritchard is killed and the ghosts are ensnared in the Farraday Cage, the Doctor and Clara become separated.
Without spoiling the end, which puts an incredible burden on the second part to explain the most basic aspect of how the hell "Under The Lake" could end where it does, the narrative problems make for a very unsatisfying episode. Inside the alien ship are four glyphs, which correspond to the words that the ghosts are trying to say (and, seriously, Doctor Who bothers to have a deaf character who has been proximate to the ghosts for the past three days and never managed to read their lips?!). When The Doctor figures out what the gylphs say - and the TARDIS still fails to translate them?! - he declares that the words are akin to a song that gets stuck in one's head. He leaps to this conclusion by observing that no one in the group was surprised when he said what the four words were. This is just shoddy storytelling because it's not like until he realizes what they are, characters are walking around mumbling "there's something familiar about these glyphs." To make a stronger Doctor Who analogy, the leap The Doctor makes would be like The Doctor acknowledging a pain in his temple in "Last Christmas" (reviewed here!) late in the episode without the prior mentions of it or other characters admitting they have that exact pain. The reference to the pain would come out of the blue if The Doctor had not already mentioned it, had it acknowledged by the other characters and correlated it to the Dream Crabs attacking them. So, in "Under The Lake," The Doctor suddenly declares that the glyphs are like a song stuck in one's head, rewriting the listener, with no basis within the episode to support it. He challenges his comrades that none of them were surprised when the four words translated to the four glyphs; of course they aren't surprised - they are the only two sets of four words/symbols presented in the episode! It hardly makes the rest of the assumption hold.
And yet, it is inconceivable that the rest of the idea will hold, but that makes for an unsatisfying narrative. It's like a murder mystery where one is not given the clues to figure out who committed the murder and watching the detective pick clues out of thin air to solve the crime. It's not satisfying and it is not good storytelling. That is "Under The Lake."
Add to that, "Under The Lake" pays lip service to the primary characters. The Doctor and Clara are absent for the teaser and when they do appear, The Doctor quickly gets any sense that character will be a part of the story out of the way. Clara is eager for an adventure, The Doctor shows concern that she is running away from her feelings. After that, there's no character development and little in the way acknowledging actual character traits of the protagonists. The Doctor meets another groupie and Clara tags along.
"Under The Lake" barely even establishes a creepy mood; there is something formulaic about Pritchard's death and the sparing of another crewmember. Instead, the episode seems more baffling for its lack of reasonable methodology. The crew acknowledges that the ghosts and mayhem began when the crew took aboard the alien ship, yet none even proposes the obvious solution: put the ship back and flee the outpost, quarantining it. In fact, based on what The Doctor concludes, the ghosts would be defeated by just such a plan (because they would be able to cull no more "souls" for their beacon). The idea is not even floated in the episode.
The performances in the episode are adequate, but none of the performers are given anything especially strong to do in terms of range.
"Under The Lake" spends its hour belaboring and establishing its premise and puts an insane burden on the second part to bail out the utter failure of an episode.
For other works ghost stories, please check out my reviews of:
"The Unquiet Dead" - Doctor Who
"The Haunting Of Deck Twelve" - Star Trek: Voyager
"Sleepless" - The X-Files
[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Ninth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the sophomore season of Peter Capaldi as The Doctor here!
See how this episode stacks up against other episode of Doctor Who by visiting my Doctor Who Review Index Page where the episodes and seasons are organized from best to worst!
© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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