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Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Doctor Who 9-03: Under the Lake

Episode:817|Serial:255|Writer:Toby Whithouse|Air Date:03-Oct-2015

This week on Sci-Fi Adventures I'm watching a bit of Doctor Who.

Under the Lake is the first part of the second two-parter of series 9 (or series 35 depending on how you count it) and it's almost certainly about a bloke in a blue box putting himself into a ridiculously dangerous situation which he fails to resolve by the end credits.

As usual there'll be EXTREME SPOILERS for this episode, mild spoilers for episodes that come before, and zero spoilers for what comes after (because at the time of writing I haven't actually seen any further.)



The episode begins in the year it says above, in that place you see above. Well you can kind of make some of it out anyway.

It's a mining facility, but it's apparently being operated by the military as Captain Jonathan Moran explains in his personal log that his team have discovered a pod of some kind buried under rubble on the lake floor. Might be a spaceship, might be a forgotten military experimental prototype. 

Oh it's a shuttlecraft from Star Trek

The team’s amoral company guy is impatiently trying to claim the rights to it, but the others are more interested in figuring out what it is first. All except one, Lunn, who’s left to wait out in the hanger and pass them flashlights when needed.

Now armed with a flashlight, Captain Moran discovers some alien letters etched onto the inside of the ship, which is strange as most races advanced enough to develop interstellar space travel usually develop pens at some point beforehand.

Other than the mysterious symbols there's nothing particularly interesting about the interior so they leave to have a chat right next to the engines. This turns out be a bad idea.

Suddenly a mysterious figure in a top hat appears inside and the thrusters kick into life. It's rare to see a sci-fi spaceship shooting flame out of its engines these days and even rarer to see it staying put afterwards, but Moran hasn't got the time to dwell on such things. In fact he barely has enough time to shove Cass out of the way, at the cost of his life. So who's going to read out the log entries now?

The team gets out of the hangar to avoid being cooked, but before they can really get stuck into assigning blame and yelling at people, they spot a familiar face.

It’s the eyeless ghost of Captain Moran, and he’s made friends with the bloke in the top hat!

Cut to opening credits!

Three days later, the Doctor and Clara arrive on the scene, as they usually do, but the TARDIS really isn’t happy about being here and the Doctor doesn’t know why. Especially as it was the one who chose to bring them here. Clara isn't all that happy to be here either, as she'd rather get back into the time machine and go find an adventure somewhere. It’s like she hasn’t figured out how this works yet: if the TARDIS stops somewhere unexpected, that means this is where the adventure is. Especially if it’s a creepy abandoned underwater base.

I love shots like this with the TARDIS door open showing the ship's interior by the way. The writers seem determined not to show them standing in the control room this season, but I'll happily take this as an alternative.

A little further into the base and they discover an equally abandoned mess hall, with signs that whoever was here left in a hurry about 8 hours ago. They also discover a badass mural of a sea serpent attacking Captain James T. Kirk’s boat (it's already chewing on Mr. Spock!)

Clara's a lot more hyped now that she knows they're likely in grave danger and goes for a high five. They've been travelling together for at least a year at this point (in his grumpy Capaldi incarnation) and she's still surprised when he leaves her hanging!

She follows him back out into the corridors where they discover evidence of ghosts.

It's the same two from the teaser! Doesn't mean that the others all survived but I'm thinking they probably did. No sense wasting expendable characters off screen before the main cast arrives.

The Doctor being an idiot decides that he’ll go over and say hi, as he doesn’t believe they mean them any harm. Not sure how he made that leap of logic, but he does seem to be right this time. Then he discovers in 5 seconds what the people making real life ghost hunter episodes haven't figured out in years: chatting with ghosts gets you absolutely nowhere. Though following them takes the pair into the slightly singed hangar where the mysterious ship's still parked.

It's a lot better lit than it was three days ago so they don't even need a flashlight to spot the etched letters. The Doctor confirms that the ship's definitely alien, but he can't read the writing and the TARDIS isn't automatically translating it for them. Probably not a good sign.

Also not a good sign is that fact that the ghosts are now arming themselves.

The Doctor and Clara learn a valuable lesson about why you should never leave your speargun loaded, but they manage to escape unharmed. It turns out that they have an advantage over the ghosts: you can't run for your life when you're dead. Though the ghosts can just walk right through walls, so sooner or later they're going to get them. Fortunately for the time travellers, the ghosts will have to get hold of another weapon first, as they couldn't bring the axe through the bulkhead with them (because unlike their clothes, it isn't dead).

I don't really think they're ghosts by the way, because it's not Doctor Who's style. When vampires showed up they were fish aliens hiding behind a perception filter, when a mummy menaced them it was an ancient super soldier, and when witches appeared... a lot of stupid things happened. But they weren't actually witches is my point, so if these guys really are actual ghosts I won't be impressed.

It's not a huge base, so it's not long before our heroes flee in the right direction to discover the crew doing just fine inside their Faraday cage hiding place. AHA! A Faraday cage is used to shield things from electromagnetic influence... like the kind of electromagnetic influence that could pick up a metal axe and speargun! So they're not ghosts, I totally called it.

They introduce themselves as (from left to right): O'Donnell, Bennett, Pritchard, Lunn and Cass.

The Doctor shows them his psychic paper to introduce himself as someone they should be listening to, which is kind of a risky thing to do to with a group, considering they'd all likely see different credentials on it. But in this case they see that he’s working for UNIT, which is basically true. In fact they’ve even heard of him, so for once the authority figure he’s pretending to be... is himself.

Cass has taken charge after Moran’s death, but she’s deaf and relies on Lunn to interpret her sign language for the others. She's actually portrayed by a deaf actress and Lunn's actor really is proficient in British Sign Language, so they did well with the casting here. He's not terrible at acting either considering that this is his first role on TV.

The Doctor assures them he can speak sign, and then apparently starts by telling her “You’re beautiful,” by mistake. Seems that sign language is one of the things he’s forgotten over the years, but he’s pretty confident about semaphore if they can find some flags.

After a few minutes the lights come on and they can leave. Seems that the non-ghosts only come out at night (mostly).

The mining base is built where a military training village used to be, before a dam burst and turned the place into a lake. 20 years ago someone discovered a huge reservoir of oil underground and decided they wanted some (it took them a further two decades to notice the spaceship just sitting there on the lakebed).

Amoral company guy Pritchard explains that the crew could've left at any time, but that he kept them here these three days despite the not-ghost problem due to the trillion dollars of mining equipment they're watching over. If he abandoned the site he’d lose his bonus!

Back in the shuttle, the Doctor realises that there are a couple of things missing, like a power cell and a sleeping chamber for the pilot to spend the journey in suspended animation. Amoral company guy realises that a power cell with enough energy to send a ship across the galaxy is likely worth something and sneaks off to go for a swim outside.

Meanwhile Cass argues with Lunn in the hangar. She really does not want him to set foot on the shuttle, even though literally everyone else has been on it and there's no signs of anything dangerous on board. It's a definite 'draw attention to the fact he's the only one who hasn't seen the writing' moment.

Hey, nice transition.

After spending the first third of the episode strongly discounting any possibility that their spectral assailants are ghosts, the Doctor suddenly comes upon an exciting theory. Maybe… they’re ghosts! The others are a bit put off by his enthusiasm, considering that one of the ‘ghosts’ is their dead friend, so Clara quickly intervenes and tells him to check the cards.

It turns out that Clara is prepared for the Doctor a series of phrases to help him overcome his lack of empathy and social skills. Though she missed a slash between 'mortally wounded' and 'turned to jelly' on that last one. Clara's got a fondness for cards, she once covered a wall with them back in Dark Water when she was going to tell her boyfriend all her secrets.

Finally the Doctor finds the one that fits this particular situation.
“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.”
Well he almost had it. This does draw attention to the fact that he's been treating Clara a lot nicer this season. He was throwing around a lot of playful insults last year and I think it was getting on the viewer's nerves more than it did Clara's, so it's good that he's toned it down.

I love this set they're in by the way. This one-off base that was built for just two episodes puts Babylon 5's standing sets to shame, and that's impressive considering that Doctor Who doesn't exactly have a massive budget itself.

Anyway, the Doctor mentions that the ghosts can only pick up metal objects, so that's definitely being reinforced as a clue here.

Just then the lights suddenly shut out, giving me an excuse to show a shot of the empty corridor set. Seems that the ghosts have figured out how to hack the computer and switch the base back over to night mode! I guess they found a dark room somewhere they could manifest in.

Hang on, they said earlier that the reason they artificially demarcate day and night down here is because they're too far underwater to see daylight. I guess no one told the set designer who decided to project a water effect on the floor. Looks cool though.

Then the crew hears the sound of a bell. It’s the TARDIS’s cloister bell alarm, which only sounds at times when the writer wants to make the situation seem more dangerous.

It's only taken three episodes, but we're finally getting to see Doctor and Clara inside the TARDIS! It seems that they've redecorated slightly, adding more round things to the walls; it's a definite improvement. Plus the control room looks great with that red alert lighting on and the smoke, they should use it more often.

The TARDIS is apparently freaking out over the ghosts for the same reasons she freaked out about Captain Jack… Sparrow? It definitely began with 'Jack'... and 'Captain', but I'm struggling with the surname. Anyway, the TARDIS doesn't much like it when mortals cheat death (unless they're called the Doctor), so they put the handbrake on to keep it from chickening out on them.

Clara's really eager to get back outside to the adventure and the monsters, and that freaks the Doctor out a bit. She's been addicted to the Doctor Who lifestyle for a long while now, but since her boyfriend's death she's thrown herself into it 110% and that's a concern. Sure rushing blindly into peril is his MO, but his companions are supposed to be more cautious, and he has a "duty of care". Plus she's getting written out of the series at some point so her plot armour is rapidly weakening.

Harkness! That's what he's called, Captain Jack Harkness.

As they're getting supplies to hide out in the Faraday cage, they discover that amoral company guy floating dead outside the window. He was drowned due to a ghost-related airlock incident after his failed mission to find the missing power cell. The first death since the intro.

Doctor Who 2-08: The Impossible Planet
This really reminds me of the scene in The Impossible Planet back in series 2 where a similar team noticed one of their crew members floating dead outside the window. They filmed this underwater too.

Poor series 2 really isn't looking so pretty these days when it's put next to a series 9 episode, even a fairly plain looking one like this. The cinematography took a significant step up when the new production staff joined in series 5 and the show switched over to progressive scan HD.

I wouldn't call this episode a remake of Impossible Planet though, as there's some fairly major differences. For instance they've got the dead crew member's ghost in the room with them, trying to kill them with a chair. Fortunately O'Donnell gets the base back into day mode and that disintegrates Ghost Pritchard.

He was called Richard Pritchard by the way, which means that all we really know about him is that he loved money and his parents had a sense of humour.

Pritchard's death is enough to convince Cass to evacuate the base and get everyone to safety. But they learn that a rescue sub is already on its way, as a distress code was sent out in morse code half an hour ago. These ghosts aren't as dumb as they look! But they can't be allowed to get what they want, so the Doctor cancels the rescue. Then he tells O'Donnell to put the base back into night mode.

Huh, are the ghosts taking a five minute break or something? Everyone's still outside the Faraday cage and the electromagnetic interference from day mode is off, so where's all the axe murder? And why are they suddenly so contemptuous of gravity?

The Doctor's got a plan to get the three ghosts' attention and capture them, with people taking turns to lure them down the hallways. Why one person can’t do the whole run isn’t explained, but I guess it’s to make this more like that bit in Alien 3.

This means we get more shots of the big map, which I appreciate. This isn't your typical Aliens-style vague mess of overlapping lines either, this is a clear, easy to read guide to where characters are and need to be.

After completing their part of the relay race, the runner has to get themselves out of sight behind a flood door so that the next person gets the ghost's full attention, and Clara chooses the door with the Star Trek reference on it.

1701's one of the most famous numbers in science fiction (right up there with 42, 1138 and 451) as it's written across the top of the Starship(s) Enterprise. Every time the ship gets blown up, the next Enterprise gets the same registry number with a different letter after it. They couldn't use Captain Picard's Enterprise registry though as Battlestar Galactica beat them to it.

Battlestar Galactica 4-03: The Ties that Bind
They might as well have written "Remember, you're watching a science fiction series" on the door! Though to be honest I didn't even notice until I saw the scene a second time.

Unfortunately the Doctor didn’t think to take into account that the ghosts might split up during the chase and Lunn gets cornered by amoral company ghost. 

You know, flip this shot over and add more drool coming out of the ghost’s mouth and this would be a dead ringer for that iconic shot of Ripley being cornered by the alien in Alien 3.


Except this particular monster’s got a wrench… and he doesn’t use it. The ghost decides to leave Lunn be (presumably because he didn't enter the shuttle), sparing us from having to watch scenes of a frustrated Cass trying to communicate with people who don't understand sign language.

You know I don't know why the crew are so scared of these ghosts, seeing as they've only scored kills by using shuttle engines and airlocks against them. They keep grabbing axes, wrenches and chairs and achieving absolutely nothing with them.

The three ghosts then join back up again to chase Bennett around for a bit (without carrying anything that can harm him).

They're definitely getting some good trailer moments out of this chase, even if it just wibbly people with black eyes stomping down a corridor. I'm still waiting on the explanation for why this alien ghost is in a Victorian suit and I hope it's ingenious. It won't be, but I still hope.

Bennett finally leads them to the Faraday cage and quickly makes himself scarce as Clara steps out behind the door. The ghosts go right for her but she turns out to be a hologram!

Oh yeah they've suddenly got holograms now, no need to set that up in advance or anything. Also wasn't the Faraday cage filled with supplies and sleeping bags earlier? Did they bring them all out with them?

Well now they've got the ghosts caught, but they still need to understand where they came from and what they want, so the Doctor comes up with a cunning plan.

He opens the door and steps inside with them! They're utterly harmless without weapons so all they can do is silently chant whatever it is they like to chant. So what was the point of the Clara hologram huh? If it was the real Clara things would've played out exactly the same.

They ignore the Doctor's attempts to strike up a conversation, but he's linked his sonic Ray-Bans to the monitors outside, so Cass is able to read their lips. I like how the sunglasses serve a slightly different purpose to the screwdriver he used to have, they're not just a gimmick.

Turns out that they're just repeating "The dark, the sword, the forsaken, the temple," over and over, so that's not much help. Wait... THE FORSAKEN! That's what they called the invisible killer mummy from last series! Wow, everything's starting to make a lot more sense now. Oh hang on that guy was actually called the Foretold. Uh... never mind then.

The Doctor returns to their operations centre and gets everyone holding objects in a row to demonstrate what the words mean. 'The dark' refers to space, 'the sword' is a row of stars with our sun at the tip (as demonstrated by these balls), 'the forsaken' means the abandoned town under the lake, and 'the temple' is a temple.

Well that was the dumbest coded message in science fiction since Arnold Rimmer in Red Dwarf decided that a mysterious broken leg was a message from aliens saying 'hello to you' because it hurt like 'hell' and was 'below' the knee. You can't find a church under a lake in Scotland from the outer reaches of outer space with an address that vague, and it makes the Doctor look like an idiot for suggesting it.

But why are they silently repeating these directions? Because the ghosts act like transmitters, beaming the signal into space, and the more of them there are the stronger the signal gets! Was Steven Moffat too busy this year to look over the scripts before filming or something?

The crew decide to leave now that they've resolved the ghost problem, but the Doctor convinces them to stay to work the mystery out. They're all soldiers and scientists after all, they're the right people for the job.

They know they're looking for the temple, so Bennett remotely pilots a submarine with his glowing VR gloves to investigate the ruined church in the flooded village outside, and it comes back with... the suspended animation chamber from the shuttle.

Well that doesn't solve anything! All they know is that someone's in there and it's locked so tight that even the Doctor can't get it open.

The Doctor figures out that the message on the inside of the spaceship is a kind of electromagnetic ear worm. The writing rewrites the synaptic connections in the brain so that you can’t stop thinking about them, even after you die. That’s why the ghosts only attacked them after they stepped inside the ship, because they’d been programmed at that point to be a transmitter. Lunn never stepped inside or read the text, so there was no point in killing him.

I'm... just letting that drift right over me for now. No bullshit explanation is set in stone until the end of part two.

Suddenly the computer freaks out about everyone changing the day/night controls, so it figures there's a reactor malfunction and starts flooding the base to keep it cool. The whole base, not just the bit with the reactor in it.

They manage to limit the flooding to the central corridor, but that leaves the group split on either side of it. Fortunately the one who knows how to pilot the time machine ends up trapped next to it, so he can head back into the past with Bennett and O'Donnell to before the village was flooded to figure out what the deal with the ship is. Wow, he's actually using his TARDIS for something sensible mid-story for once.

With the ghosts locked away in the Faraday cage, the others aren't in any immediate danger. Just as long as there aren't any more ghosts they're not aware of.

Like this one that's just appeared in the water outside. Well the bad news is it looks like the Doctor died in the past, but the good news is that he looks badass as a ghost, even in that terrible jumper with the holes in it.


CONCLUSION

I don't want to say that my attention was slipping during Under the Lake, but it kinda was. It's a very traditional base-under-siege kind of episode, with the small group of unfortunate souls trapped in an isolated facility under attack by a mysterious force. I could list off a ridiculous number of episodes it reminded me of, but The Impossible Planet from way back in season 2 jumped to the front of my brain (and Alien 3) and this doesn't come off so well in the comparison. Not that it's a bad episode though, and the series certainly looks a lot slicker than it did back in the David Tennant years.

Plus the trouble I have with episodes like this, is that they're based on a threat to the rules of the setting, and a series is defined as much by what it isn't as what it is. Doctor Who has a ridiculously broad scope and and can tackle almost any genre, but it doesn't stray into the outright supernatural, at least not in any of the episodes I've seen. I don't give a damn about ghosts or demons showing up in Buffy or Supernatural (in fact those series would be a bit crap if they didn't show up), but when ghosts appear in Doctor Who I'm left waiting for the other shoe to drop and the real explanation to come out. A few years ago I'd be okay with going along for the ride as I trusted the producers to keep the show on track, but series 8's Kill the Moon and Forest of the Night have kicked all the faith out of me, leaving me with uncomfortable uncertainty.

We're also left with the mystery of who’s in the suspended animation pod. Well the obvious answer is that the Doctor's in there, faking his death to create a ghost for whatever reason (so obvious in fact, that I'm annoyed that someone else had to point that out to me). Personally though I think it'll be Bennett or O'Donnell, but I've no idea why, other than it'd be a less predictable reveal (like when Amy was inside the Pandorica in The Big Bang). Either way it's not going to be the one who left the electromagnetic earworm message in there. In fact I don't even believe the message itself is anything more than a trigger for something that's already in their minds, because it's four scratched symbols on a wall, c'mon!

Speaking of ghost Doctors, I am so tired of the Doctor or his companions 'actually really dying for real this time, honest'. It was interesting enough when The Impossible Astronaut started with his funeral but after Name of the Doctor and The Magician's Apprentice and all the others I'm thoroughly bored of it. The writers can threaten their lives all they want, I'll go along with believing that the lead character in a 50 year old series with his name in the title might actually die this time, but they can't keep showing that it's already happened and expect it to be a shock!

Wow, that came out sounding really negative; I enjoyed this one for the most part! It's always nice to see the Doctor working with a smart and likeable team. Plus it seems weird to make a big deal out of how the episode didn't make a big deal out of Cass being deaf (or the way Lunn was translating the dialogue into sign language throughout almost every scene), but that's another aspect that worked well for me. Overall it's a well constructed, but unspectacular thriller that's mostly concerned with getting everything where it needs to be for part two.


Doctor Who will return soon with Before the Flood. But coming up next on Sci-Fi Adventures, it's Doom!

Please leave a comment if you're so inclined, I always appreciate feedback! Unless it's rubbish.

1 comment:

  1. Captain Jack Harkness. Or John Barrowman, as he's known in our reality. I don't remember the TARDIS having a problem with him, but the Doctor started getting weird with him in "Utopia", because Time Lords -- or maybe just the Doctor -- aren't fond of actual immortals, apparently. It's a bit odd that they say here that the TARDIS reacted to Jack, because while you could read the opening of "Utopia" as suggesting that, it's far from clear, and the rest of the episode makes it seem as if it's the Doctor who has the problem.

    You do find out why that one ghost is wearing the suit in the next episode, but it probably won't impress you. Sorry.

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