October 3, 2015, 8:00 p.m. (EST), BBC
“So we are fighting an unknown homicidal force that has taken the form of your commanding officer and a cowardly alien, underwater, in a nuclear reactor. Anything else I should know? Someone got a peanut allergy or something?”
Now, that’s more like it. At its best, Doctor Who is gleefully anarchic, a joyously absurd mish-mash of ideas and influences careening wildly around a narrative hoping it all sticks together (oddly, the show is often also this when it’s bad, which is why a story like “The Magician’s Apprentice”/”The Witch’s Familiar” can still be so interesting). There are a lot of ways to do Doctor Who well, but among my favorites is the form we’ve been seeing quite a lot in the Capaldi era, the form that gives us episodes like “Kill the Moon,” “Mummy on the Orient Express,” and “Last Christmas.” It’s a mode of storytelling that works from the willfully insane backwards until it finds an emotional or thematic core to lock in on. It’s the sort of story with a premise so bonkers, anyone you explain it to will laugh. Until they see the episode and are floored by the way it can simultaneously be completely bananas and played reasonably straight.
“Under the Lake” is such a high-wire act, but at the halfway point of this story, it is working that wire like a master. Everything here is brilliant set-up, from the concept so high it can scrape the sky to the mystery that works itself out slowly over the episode, laying out every piece and then fitting them together elegantly, to that cliffhanger, which is so brilliant and invigorating, I realized what the episode was about to do only a few moments before it did it, and was so excited by the prospect I got worried it was too good to be true. The Doctor returning as a ghost to haunt the people he left behind is a classic Doctor Who cliffhanger even seconds after it ends. It gets everything right about the way to flamboyantly blow up the stakes in a way so few stories do. The magic of this cliffhanger isn’t that it leaves you wondering how The Doctor became a ghost, nor that it makes you worry that The Doctor is dead. No, the magic of this cliffhanger, like all great Doctor Who cliffhangers, is that it gets you excited and wondering about how The Doctor is going to get out of this one next week.
This episode is tailor made for a certain type of fan which I happen to be, so your mileage may vary as to whether you were blown away by all its doing. But “Under the Lake” spends time building out its setting, gives us some breathing room with Clara and The Doctor just exploring their surroundings and figuring out the mystery, and then develops stakes as they race to solve it under increasingly tense pressures. It’s a base under siege story, which is not, traditionally, my favorite form of Doctor Who, but it understands the virtues of that storytelling mode, building the claustrophobic setting and eerie invaders both up until they near the mythic. This is an episode that understands the innate appeal of the base under siege, that looks upon that era of the show’s history (roughly coinciding with The Second Doctor’s tenure, though there is at least one before and the form reappears periodically after, not always strictly for throwback purposes) and tries to do what it was doing better. It doesn’t rely on the constant barrage of continuity references that the last story featured to remind us of this show’s rich history. Rather, it looks at something this show used to do frequently and sets its eyes on doing that well.
If there’s a flaw to this story, its Whithouse’s characterization of Clara. It seems like he received the brief Moffat, Capaldi, and Coleman have been repeating ad nauseum in interviews (that series 9 is the “golden age” of The Doctor and Clara and that they are having the time of their lives just going on one adventure after another) and just dialed that up to eleven. This episode’s version of Clara isn’t totally foreign. We’ve seen her take huge risks and be addicted to danger before. It’s just that Whithouse’s Clara is the most obvious version of her most obvious flaws, as if he is placing a big, neon arrow above Clara’s impending departure. She doesn’t feel like herself here, nor like her arrogance and thirst for planet-saving is a natural outgrowth of what we’ve seen in the last few episodes. The final stretch of “Mummy on the Orient Express” last year pulled off essentially what Whithouse is going for here, but he misses the mark, and Clara is too broad for the story that’s going on around her, which is otherwise full of well (if thinly) drawn characters and some absolutely stunning moments from Capaldi.
From the first, Capaldi has been very good in the role, but he does seem to be inhabiting The Doctor more fully this time out, careening between emotions with ease and playing all facets of The Doctor as if they realistically emerge from the same alien being. There are three or four lines here (all laid out below) that will likely live on in my brain as quintessential Twelfth Doctor moments, and Capaldi plays them all to utter perfection. He doesn’t grandstand the way his two immediate predecessors did. When The Tenth Doctor was being iconic, the camera seemed to press in on him as if he were stepping into a cosmic spotlight. When The Eleventh Doctor was showboating, he stole the scene as if he was a bit player in the universe who finally had a chance to break out, booming and pulsing with joy at the idea of his own excellence. But The Twelfth Doctor is a different creature entirely. He is recognizably the same man, but Capaldi’s great moments are frequently little asides, tiny pauses where The Doctor is reminding himself who he is supposed to be. Even his most outwardly theatrical moment in the episode (when he intones “My god, every time I think it can’t get more extraordinary, it surprises me. It’s impossible, I hate it, it’s evil, it’s astonishing. I want to kiss it to death”) is a distinctly odd one, where he almost seems to bring down the energy in the room so that all the oxygen is being pulled into the point he is making. Matt Smith played to the rafters. Capaldi makes you lean forward in your seat so you don’t miss a breath, a glance, or a tic. It’s spellbinding in a completely different way, and I honestly can’t get enough of what he’s doing in the role right now.
The structure of “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood” seems, at the halfway point, like a genius bit of timey wimey of the sort this show doesn’t engage in often enough. But that is something I cannot fully weigh in on until I see the resolution next week. For now, though, this is breathlessly effective as building action, a smart, well-paced, funny, and scary hour of television that showcases what this show and its current lead can do well when given the chance. I want to kiss it to death.
- “Maybe they went for a swim? In the…creepy flooded village outside.”
- “Right. I did not expect that. Hands up, who expected that?”
- “You’re from UNIT!” “Well, if that’s what it says…”
- “So who’s in charge now? I need to know who to ignore.”
- “It’s all right, they only come out at night.” “Weird how that is not comforting…”
- “They’re ghosts. Yeah, ghosts!” You said there were no such thing as ghosts. You actually poo-pooed the ghost theory.” “Yes, well there was no such thing as uh, socks, or smart phones, or badgers until there suddenly were.”
- “I’m very sorry for your loss. I’ll do all I can to solve the death of your friend/family member/pet.”
- “How can you just sit there? Don’t you want to go out there, wrestle them to the ground, and ask them questions until your throat falls out? What’s death like? Do you still get hungry? Do you miss being alive? Why can you only handle metal objects? Oh, I didn’t know I’d noticed that.”
- “I like adventures as much as the next man, if the next man is a man that likes adventures. Even so, don’t go native.”
- “Well, at least if I die, you know I really will come back and haunt you all.”
- “These words are an earworm. A song you can’t stop humming. Even after you die.”
- “Wait. You’re going to go back in time. How do you do that?” “Extremely well.”
“Under the Lake” is such a high-wire act, but at the halfway point of this story, it is working that wire like a master.