Sunday, 11 October 2015

Under the Lake written by Toby Whithouse and directed by Daniel O'Hara

This story in a nutshell: We've seen it all before, but quite stylish nonetheless...

Indefinable: I can't quite get enough of this Doctor. It's not exactly the way he is written (which is pretty well most of the time) but more how Capaldi chooses to interpret the material. He's magnetic, even in adventures as stereotypical as this. Or perhaps especially in adventures as stereotypical as this because he adds a whole new layer to a story that has been told before. The way he strokes the TARDIS and asks what is wrong with her gave me flashbacks to so many other moments with previous Doctor's. At moments like that you can genuinely believe they are the same man. I laughed out loud at the Doctor's arrogance in attempting to communicate with O'Donnell without the help of her translator only to walk away with egg on his face. He's such a tool sometimes. Capaldi has the perfect face to gnash his teeth and declare that there are ghosts on the base...let's be honest his face is frightening enough to put the willies up kids if lit dramatically enough. Clara giving him little cards that prompt him to be nice is a pleasing reminder of the grumpy bastard he was last year and tugged at my mouth. He flies around the Drum, spectral and alien and loving every second of this supernatural investigation. He's electrifyingly good.

Impossible Girl: I thought this was where we would be at the beginning of the season with the Doctor and Clara going off on adventures in the TARDIS without all this yo-yoing back to Earth every week. It's what I have been asking for ever seen she first stepped into the TARDIS. And it's still not clicking for me. With her leaving soon it feels like too little, too late and especially with Clara being so meta and self aware of her role all the time. Stop banging on about looking for adventures and just have one already. This season I have barely seen her break a sweat. I always go back to my default companion in these situations, Elisabeth Sladen's divine Sarah Jane Smith. She would absolutely rock in this adventure, standing up to the Doctor's spikiness, sympathetic towards the crew and most importantly she would be absolutely terrified of the ghosts without me losing an ounce of respect for the character. Clara is just too confident in her abilities (without having much ability) to be believable or even that likable. I want a companion who is a little less faux emancipated and a little more real next time. Somebody made a fascinating comment recently about Moffat having real difficulty bringing women to life with any great success but having a lot more luck with his male characters. They are allowed to be more flawed, more emotional and (paradoxically) weaker which makes them much stronger overall and easier to buy into. I'm hoping for a male companion next time around.

The Good:
* Some locations manage to excite just by their very nature and I love the idea of setting a story on a Sea Base. Mind you we all know how that worked out last time, don't we? So I guess Moffat knows exactly what kind of pitfalls to ignore. I guess Lake Base would be more accurate but that doesn't sound half as exciting. A creepy flooded village and an apparently abandoned base. It's ripe for the Doctor to turn up and investigate. We've seen disaster movie Who before but that doesn't stop the water breaking into the Drum any less exciting. It comes at just the right point as well, leading up to the cliffhanger and when the episode has started to get a little too chatty for it's own good.
* Not to criticise the performances that have laced the previous four seasons but this is finest assembled guest cast for the series since the last outstanding stab at a base under siege story, The Waters of Mars. There's something about the formula that brings the best out of the guest cast, the claustrophobia hangs around their necks and allows for them to truly show their true colours. It's certainly the first time in an age where the collective guest cast has left an impression on me. I had Pritchard down as the villain of the piece, given his attempts to claim everything as his own. It genuinely surprised me when he was the first one for the chop. O'Donnell is sweet in the same way Shona was in Last Christmas; spunky, lively and ready for anything. You can tell there is a little love between some of these characters thanks to some subtle work done by the actors, I hope it is explored in more depth in episode two.
* Let's stand back for a moment and bask in the joy of having a disabled character making such an impression on the story and for sign language and the very nature of deafness to be part of the fabric of the plot itself. For Doctor Who this is a genuine innovation.
* Ghosts have never put the willies up me because I have never really bought into the idea of them existing in the first place, despite seeing some horror movies that have tried painfully hard to scare the shit out of me with the idea. My mother is a firm believer and I was surrounded by people in my childhood who not only believed in the notion of the afterlife but would form circles and try and contact people on the other side. So the idea of spirits is one that has been with me and part of my life for a long time. Doctor Who's stab at ghost stories in the past have been right up my street, offering up supposed manifestations of the dead and then giving a rational explanation for their appearance. Time travellers from the future. Time travellers trapped in the past. A woman caught in a moment in time. Doctor Who often enjoys de-bunking myths and offering a creative explanation as t how they came about in the first place...which makes this quite a novel experience when the ghosts in Under the Lake turn out to be the real McCoy. Visually they are rather creepy with their dark staring eyes, penchant or picking up solid weapons and attacking and pursuing people through the empty corridors of the Drum. I just hope there is a really explanation for their manifestation in the next episode otherwise the show is simply putting out there that peoples spirits can turn malevolent, substantial and be directed for the hell of it. Although it has to be said that the ghosts were properly scary at points and it is worth their inclusion for that reason alone. The black penetrating eyes, silent words and their ability to turn up unexpectedly and menace you makes them one of the better examples of spectral phenomena I have seen in fantasy for a while.
* I am still completely in love with that version TARDIS console room. If they dare to change it I might just go all Ian Levine and smash my telly.
* What a cliffhanger, what a clever notion. We've never really seen this sort of thing done before which makes it quite exciting. The Doctor spending one episode in a single location and then heading back in time to before it became that way and potentially making it happen. This appears to be a portent of his death, which might have excited me more had the idea not been flogged to death in series six. But the moment itself is chilling and the image of Capaldi floating through the murky water with black, soulless eyes is burnt into my memory. Please, please, please don't let this be a cheat.

The Bad:
* Self conscious dialogue. I'm beyond weary of it now. Half the time it feels like the regulars know that they are taking part in a Doctor Who adventure and feel the need to comment on it all the time. The Doctor's 'I want to kiss it to death' is a particularly gruelling example. For those of you who think I am a Russell T. Davies apologist I admit it sprung into life with a vengeance during his era (all that 'I'm the Doctor from Gallifrey and I can save the entire universe whilst sipping a cup of tea' nonsense) but with clever clever Moffat behind the wheel this post-modern madness has been taken to the next level. I'm not entirely what the scene in the TARDIS between the Doctor and Clara was all about, I think it was supposed to show some signs of development but it's meaning was lost on me. Except for the fact that it was entirely self-conscious again.
* I'm one of those irritating people who cannot help himself but compare what is being brought out now to what has gone before. It's an annoying quirk of my reviews but if I have seen the show deliver the same thing before but better, I will comment on it. The untranslatable alien writing was very reminiscent of The Impossible Planet but not quite as effective because it has been done before. First time out it felt mysterious and compelling, this was just another cog in the plot. Death at a push of a button with the killer and the victim with glass between them was much more chilling in the series two adventure as well. A base flooding with water? The Waters of Mars. Ghosts that turn out to be more than just supernatural phenomena? Army of Ghosts. The Doctor and his companion on either side of a porthole with him promising to return for her? 42. I'm not saying these things are handled badly here (far from it, the direction is excellent) but Whithouse has assembled much of his story from material seen elsewhere in the new series.
* Forgive me because I have just banged on about how the show can be a little too literal in the discussion of its genre but isn't the distress call that this creature sends out far too complex for it's own good. Creating ghosts who mouth words that require experts of the cryptic crossword to interpret seems a little convoluted when he could just have them say 'co-ordinates blah blah blah, come fine me' or just 'Fisher King in trouble, send help.' Frankly I wouldn't be at all surprised if nobody ever came after the Fisher King because his distress signal was far too florid for it's own good. 'What ever happened to that great hulking monster The Fisher King?' 'God knows...but we received a sting of godawful poetry from that sector a few weeks later...something about an arrow and a church. We never went looking, probably a bunch of talentless playwrights in trouble.' Mind you of course without the cry for help being quite this puzzling (essentially the ghosts and the exposition around them) this episode would be about ten minutes long. Is this the only episode that relies on the monster being a bit flamboyant in his SOS to give it substance?

The Shallow Bit: Lunn with the enormous eyebrows and lickable skin.

Result: Derivative, but pacy and full of mysteries and realised within an inch of it's life. Whilst I was watching Under the Lake I was fully aware that we had seen all of this done before (the recipe is basically every base under siege story ever told with extra lashings of The Impossible Planet, The Waters of Mars and Cold War) but that didn't stop me enjoying what was essentially a firm meat and potatoes slice of Doctor Who that doesn't really put a foot wrong in its realisation. Simon made me realise something whilst we were watching together - this is essentially an extremely long winded way of putting across a piece of information that could have been dealt with in the pre-titles sequence (that the ghosts are a distress call for whatever is trapped on the sea bed) but the extra time allows us to build up some atmosphere, get to know the crew, let Capaldi do his thing and enjoy some spooky moments. Us Doctor Who fans like nothing more than a lot of exciting running around, a few mysteries and a good, creepy cliffhanger. What Under the Lake has in spades is a great deal of potential to wind up being a hugely satisfying two part story, all the elements are in place for the second episode to deliver a massive punch. More than ever since the show returned to our screens in 2005 the show is being made for it's fans, which is why you can hear the cry of delight from that quarter whilst the viewing figures from the abandoning audience at large are at an all time low. Whithouse's strongest? Let's wait until next weeks episode to determine that (the trailer looks awesome, it reminded me of the outstanding Doctor Who novel City of the Dead in some ways) but at the moment it sits way above The Vampires of Venice and but below School Reunion (which still makes me cry), The God Complex (which is one of my favourites from series six) and A Town Called Mercy (despite its reputation I still love it). What all these episodes prove is that Whithouse is an extremely versatile writer within the Doctor Who format and is foremost in my mind as a possibility for showrunner. His understanding of nuts and bolts Doctor Who with a little extra spice in Under the Lake is another notch on his belt: 7/10


Ed Azad said...

"I'm hoping for a male companion next time around."

Keep waiting.

I know Billie put it quite eloquently that there is something gorgeous about the Doctor traveling with a wife-y sort of companion. But it's been done.

To death.

And I *know* Moffat realises this. The show peaked with River and Donna, and no combinations of tics and girl-power and sly winks to the camera will keep it fresh.

If anything Clara has seen a downgrade in independence. Remember when she was the one wrinkle the Doctor couldn't figure out? Then she became his cosmic guardian angel or something, which I was onboard with. Then we got River Redux, and now Amy Redux... We have regressed.

Bring on a male companion. Bring on a Female Doctor. Give me something to work with, DW.

Anonymous said...

Joe, you know that the Rugby World Cup is the cause of the low ratings? For Series 9 it is much higher than the previous one, especially without Danny Pink. And to be honest, television is a half-dead since the Internet exists.

Anonymous said...

I don't want to imagine a female Doctor in Moffat's hands... I'm not totally against the concept if done properly but... A female, shallow and flirty Doctor brought by Moffat... *shudder* It would be the only incarnation of the Doctor that I might truly dislike.
Totally agree with a male companion for 12...

Urlance Woolsbane said...

You know, I don't think anyone complains about Renette or Sally Sparrow. Not all of Moffat's female characters are the flirty sort. Missy certainly doesn't qualify (though she does have Moffat's trademark bawdiness.) I'm not saying he doesn't have a tendency to make characters in that mold, but it's not the only sort of woman he writes.

Moffat has stated that his conception of the Doctor is a sort of mad, older uncle ("You wouldn't have a young Santa Clause, would you?") so I imagine that he'd portray a female Doctor as a sort of mad, older aunt.

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting a female Doctor if she was some sort of Docorish Evelyn Smythe. But not a young smug flirty woman (River Song anyone?)

Anonymous said...

Sarah Jane was as vanilla as companion could get
what's interesting there