If there’s one way to describe Steven Moffat’s run as showrunner, it’s to call it a throwback to classic Doctor Who. He’s mixed in little bits of action, horror, morality, and dry humour to make a fun show just like it was when it first started. Moffat also seems to be bringing back the multi-part stories to Doctor Who. For the second story in a row, we have a two-parter. While the last one was meant to tug at your heartstrings, this one is meant to send chills up your spine.
Clara steps off the TARDIS looking for a little adventure and she got one (or half of one) this week. By now, you’d think that she’d know that adventure almost always follows the TARDIS or, as The Doctor implies, the TARDIS always follows adventure. If you’ve watched older episodes of Doctor Who, at some point, the TARDIS’s navigation controls stopped working for a long stretch of time and it just wandered into adventure of its own accord. While The Doctor can still pilot it, the TARDIS still doth wanders of its own accord.
While we’ve seen Clara take the lead in many an episode, this is The Doctor’s show. With ghosts terrorizing the crew of an underwater base 100 years in our future, The Doctor’s curiosity causes him to take the lead in this adventure. In fact, Clara is pretty much an afterthought in this episode though it looks like she’ll be getting a big role in next week’s adventure. Granted, a few Doctor Who fans I know weren’t heartbroken that Clara was pushed to the sidelines in this episode or any episode.
While this wasn’t a Moffat episode, you could see some of the influences. If there’s one thing that Moffat has proven himself properly adept at writing, it’s the horror story. The difference between Under The Lake and the typical Moffat horror stories is that Moffat will try to take something seemingly normal or everyday or generally non-threatening and use that as the crux of a horror story.
In Under the Lake, the use of ghosts doesn’t really generate that same sort of terror that an everyday object since it feels like a Halloween story instead of a Doctor Who adventure. Sure, the ghosts being able to selectively interact with solid objects is a nice little touch but they never really started seeming dangerous until they got smarter. Mindlessly wandering around wasn’t threatening. Splitting up to foil The Doctor’s plan and not deciding to kill the one fellow with the wrench made the ghosts seem like that much more of a threat because they were making decisions to reach an end that we don’t yet understand.
On the plus side, we got a mix of the standard horror and Doctor Who tropes that worked effectively. From horror movies, we had the stereotypical early death of a black character and the greedy business man getting killed while being greedy. From the Doctor Who side of things, it was a woman in charge and understanding things that only The Doctor also saw. Okay, women are also the reliable ones in horror movies (unless their gruesome murder is telegraphed in the movie) but that usually feels like a dramatic device but in Doctor Who, it feels like a natural part of the plot and characterization.
I will definitely give credit where it’s due to episode director Daniel O’Hara. This is his first episode of Doctor Who in the director’s chair. Between he and his design team, they created an amazing atmosphere when the underwater base goes into night mode. The dirty, lived-in feel of the base combined with night mode mood lighting that seems oddly reminiscent of candle light puts you on edge, especially when compared to the bright white lights of day mode and blue glow of computer screens.
Where the makeup and CGI departments deserve some credit is in the actual design of the ghosts. From the CGI side, I like the little distortion when looking through them and the almost heat haze or steam coming off them as they stand there. The makeup and design departments’ call to take the eyes out of the ghosts sure does make them look scarier than if they left the eyes in. It also begs the question of how they can do anything if they can’t see but let’s not overthink sci-fi.
Overall, I thought this was a pretty good episode but it didn’t really feel particularly interesting until we got to the midpoint of the episode. Granted, ad break spam might not have helped the flow of this episode (again) but once The Doctor started investigating what the ghosts were up to, the episode felt like it had a sense of purpose beyond spooky ghosts. A great destination is all well and good but the journey is just as important. We needed to be set on that journey for the episode to take off.
Other random points of note:
- The Doctor seems to have made a couple of changes to his wardrobe. He has the sparkly black jumper instead of the white button shirt. It also looks like he’s traded in his heeled Doc Martens for a flat-soled pair.
- Did the ghosts’ eye remind anyone a bit of Davros? I know that he actually has eye but the big black circles where eyes usually would be seemed both creepy in general and creepy because of their similarity to Davros.
- I love The Doctor’s flash cards. “I’m very sorry for your loss. I’ll do all I can to solve the death of your friend slash family member slash pet.”
Next week, The Doctor dies. Well, he becomes a ghost. The Doctor says that he can’t change what’s already happened so he has to die to become a ghost in Before The Flood. I mean, it’s not like The Doctor has been doing this for over the course of a millennium or anything.