‘Under The Lake’, by Toby Whithouse, is set in the Drum, an underwater mining facility located at the bottom of a Scottish lake in the year 2119. The crew have located an alien craft and are soon haunted by ghosts. Each time someone dies a new spectre joins their ranks. This is exactly the type of adventure Clara wished for but she may soon regret it.
This is a classic ‘Base Under Siege’ story with all the claustrophobia and tension that brings with it. The 2 part format is used well, with a reasonably brisk pace. With less introspection it can spend more time giving the Doctor a mystery worth solving.
Spoilers From Here On In!
Toby Whithouse has a strong history with Doctor Who, with his best previous episode being ‘The God Complex’ (which I reviewed here.) This episode shares many of the same traits which made that story great. A group of people are trapped in a maze of corridors, menaced by an apparently supernatural threat. It is a race against time to work out the rules and understand their situation as their numbers are reduced one by one. Like ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ this is a formula that works well for Doctor Who.
After the opening introduces us to the situation and the crew (each given a brief defining trait) the Doctor and Clara arrive via the TARDIS. The Doctor is apprehensive from the start (mainly as the TARDIS is unhappy at their destination) while Clara is eager to get the adventure started. This is a nice way to show their contrasting approach and why the Doctor later becomes concerned about Clara travelling with him.
Their first encounter with two ghosts is well handled. While creepy the Doctor is willing to give them a chance to communicate. The incorporeal phantoms are well designed. Grey, eyeless and silently mouthing words. After leading the time travellers to the spaceship they prove they are a threat, being able to wield metallic axes and spear guns.
In their flight from the ghosts the Doctor and Clara run into the remaining crew, seeking shelter in the faraday cage that protects them during the night. This is the first of several rules about the ghosts we learn, as it is quickly revealed that the spectres retreat during the artificial day cycle of the station. Once the lights go back on the crew happily emerge, unwilling to leave until the mystery is solved and any resources gathered.
This is where the twelfth Doctor is in his element. While originally dismissing the idea that ghosts could be real he is now giddy at the prospect. This leads to a neat scene in which Clara refers the Doctor to prompt cards so he can appear more sensitive to the crews situation.
The crew are well depicted. Now that their former commander Moran (played by Colin McFarlane) is a ghost, Cass (Sophie Stone) is charge. Interestingly she is deaf, with Lunn (played by Zaqi Ismail) acting as her translator. Her deafness does become a plot point (as she can lip read the ghosts) but it still nice to see that she is a strong character rather than just a plot device.
O’Donnell (played by Morven Christie) is the Doctor fan girl and technical wizard while Bennet (played by Arsher Ali) is the scientist who admires UNIT but feels he lacks the courage to join them. The final member is Pritchard (played by Steven Robertson), representing the interests of the oil company who run the base.
With the exception of Pritchard all of the crew come across as likeable, which adds more tension to the episode. When Pritchard is drowned by the ghosts opening an airlock the audience knows that these characters could be killed at any moment.
With the approach of a rescue submarine the crew could escape but since none of them sent the distress signal the Doctor realises that is what the ghosts want. Instead they come up with a plan to get some answers. This leads to a thrilling sequence in which the crew work together, herding the ghosts into the faraday cage. Unable to pass through the walls they are imprisoned.
The sonic glasses, introduced last story, are put to good use here. They allow the Doctor come face to face with the ghosts, projecting what he is seeing back to the rest of the crew to allow Cass to work out what they are trying to communicate.
The mystifying message “the dark, the sword, the forsaken, the temple” appears at first to be gibberish until the Doctor works out they are directions. The ghosts are artificially created to lead people to a sunken village, where a suspended animation booth from the alien craft is hidden.
Recovering the booth and find it is locked the Doctor decides that he needs to go back in time to before the village was submerged and work out what happened when the alien ship landed. Before he can do so the group is split in two when a section of the base is flooded.
Clara tries to keep her group spirits up, saying that the Doctor will be back in no time, having solved the problem only to spot the Time Lord’s ghost floating outside the base. A suitably ghoulish cliff hanger to end on.
Director Daniel O’Hara does a good job making the base atmospheric. During the day cycle it is bright and futuristic while at night it is filled with shadows and the shimmering light from the water is more apparent. Of particular note are the sequences in we get a close up of people’s eyes upon reading the runes on the alien ships walls. It felt like ‘The God Complex’, with a curse being placed upon those seeing the runes.
There were just a few parts where I thought it was unfortunate that we couldn’t clearly see Cass signing. While Lunn was there to translate since that was her only means to communicate it would have been nice if the audience could see her, even if they can’t understand her.
Similarly there were a few shots early on where it appears that the ghosts are speaking but it is just that the Doctor has his back to the camera while talking and the ghosts are just silently mouthing their own message.
As previously mentioned the ghosts are well-executed. Paul Kaye as the Tivolian (the cowardly mole aliens from ‘The God Complex’) is dressed like an undertaker. I didn’t initially realise he was supposed to be an alien until it was pointed out, as the distorted nature of the ghosts could have allowed him to pass as someone from the drowned village.
With another part to go to resolve this story it is difficult to comment on the story. There are lots of questions unanswered but that only makes things more exciting for ‘Before The Flood’. So far it has been strong, with each new scene adding to the story.