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Doctor Who: Under the Lake – Spoiler-Free Preview

Doctor Who: Series 9, Episode 3
Under the Lake

Written by: Toby Whithouse
Directed by: Daniel O’Hara

Broadcast date: Saturday 3rd October at 8.25pm on BBC One

The Gallifrey Times have seen Under the Lake and have put our spoiler free preview together.

Series 9 kicked off with a cinematic two-parter filled to the brim with elements of Doctor Who‘s mythology and writer Steven Moffat’s traditional tropes – and after that thrilling start on Skaro, we’re heading straight into another two-part adventure, this time penned by stalwart Toby Whithouse, who’s back after a three year break from the show. Eschewing the bombastic scale and continuity-laden nature of the opening two-parter, does Under the Lake prove a worthy successor?

As you may have heard by this point, Under the Lake is traditional with a capital T – a horror-inflected, claustrophobic tale of a base and its crew under siege from a hostile force. You’ll have seen this before – it’s bread and butter Doctor Who, and as a consequence it’s often hard for these types of stories to stand out from the pack. Thankfully, Under the Lake manages that, even if this is an episode that plays it a little safe for the most part. It’s an episode that gains its virtues by presenting a polished, refined take on each of the familiar parts of a base under siege tale, rather than innovating in any grand way. 
Part of its strength is the slowly building mystery that runs through this episode like a stick of rock – what are these ghosts, and why are they attacking the crew? It’s a mystery that’s set up in atmospheric, blistering style with a cracking opening act that drops the Doctor and Clara in, ahem, the deep end, and it builds nicely throughout Under the Lake as the Doctor, Clara and the crew slowly unearth more clues from the ghosts and their mysterious surroundings – and while the answers to everything might not be truly shocking, there’s a fun handful of relatively surprising plot twists that serve to lay the groundwork intriguingly for Before the Flood. 

Another key strength here is the crew of guest characters. One or two get lost in the wash, but the guest characters here are a really pleasant surprise, possessing diverse and enjoyable personalities and enough depth for the audience to root for them – Morven Christie’s O’Donnell is an enjoyable vivacious presence as a fan of the Doctor, and Sophie Stone’s Cass is a thoroughly successful and sensitive take on a deaf character (Zaqi Ismail’s character, Lunn, signs for her throughout the episode) who’s defined more by her protective desire to keep her crew alive than her disability.

Essentially, however, Under the Lake is all about the ghosts. They’re front and centre for a good portion of the episode, and there’s some legitimately excellent scares that take advantage of the non-corporeal nature of the ghosts in a way that goes a great way to justifying this episode’s 8.25pm timeslot. Bolstered by some strong direction by Daniel O’Hara that exploits the watery setting for a claustrophobic atmosphere throughout the episode (just remember – day and night are different underwater), Under the Lake continues Doctor Who‘s hot streak of scary, entertaining horror episodes. It’s a shame, however, that Under the Lake does fumble a couple of moments with the ghosts, resorting to tired, stock horror clichés on two occasions that don’t achieve remotely the same success as the more inventive moments in the episode. These fumbles are rare, but they’re still a little egregious, and could easily have been improved.

There are actually far less storytelling errors here than usual. The plot is consistently intriguing, the performances are solid (Peter Capaldi returning to the Twelfth Doctor’s social awkwardness for a great scene) and the mystery unravels in a satisfying fashion. It’s just not an episode that aims high enough to be considered truly excellent – it hits its targets, but only by aiming lower than you might expect. In short, this is comfort zone Doctor Who – this episode achieves what it sets out to do, but you can’t help but wish that Whithouse pushed the boat out a little more with part one. In fairness, this is still a thoroughly entertaining instalment, and, crucially, it does set up a second half that promises to tinker with the formula in a hugely intriguing manner. The way it sets up that second half? It’s another great cliffhanger, with a final scene that steers the plot into terrifying new territory…

The bottom line: Under the Lake is old-fashioned Who done right, with a diverse and intriguing guest cast, solid horror and a mystery that unwraps itself in an engrossing manner. I’d hazard a guess that this one won’t stir up as much controversy in fandom, and it’s likely to be tonic for people who disliked the avalanche of mythology in the opening two-parter. Under the Lake might play it a little too safe for this reviewer’s liking, but, at the end of the day, it’s a great horror story that’s perfect for these dark autumn nights.