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Doctor Who's Under the Lake splits Reg scribes: This Alien homage thing – good or bad?
'I've not seen tech on Earth like this before'
TV Review Readers please note: THIS IS A POST-UK BROADCAST REVIEW – THERE WILL BE SPOILERS!
I know there's something wrong with Doctor Who – Under the Lake, but it hits me only at the end.
It isn’t the standard sci-fi set up of humans stranded in isolated and hostile setting – scientific/industrial/military facility/hotel/forest. Nor that said humans are being stalked by an unseen, psychopathic alien presence.
Or that those humans span a template lineup of powerful woman, blue-collar grunts (no offence) and a yuppie servant to a sinister corporation.
What really strikes me is that, rather like a scientist on a deep-water oil-drilling facility of the future, I'm immersed.
The final scene of an eyeless Doctor spinning in the cold waters sent from the past where something has gone horribly wrong is a shock, not only because it's an eyeless Doctor, but also because it's the end of the episode.
I'm unprepared for this ending. What? Time up, and no conclusion? How did that happen?
This is a first for a regular, non-series opener or final or special since Doctor Who rebooted in 2005 with the ninth Time Lord.
Doctor Who's writers have had an epiphany: their audience aren’t hopeless victims of the 146-character-driven, instant-gratification Facebook culture.
In fact, members of the Who audience are capable of keeping a storyline in their heads for a week and will tune in again to catch the exciting next instalment.
This is more like Doctor Who of old: the four-part, month-long, carefully crafted to a climax approach with stories, characters and journeys able to breathe and build.
Ah yes, the days of hiding behind the sofa.
'It's impossible, it's evil, it's astonishing and I want to kiss it to death.'
It’s difficult to escape the powerful gravitational force of science-fiction totems like Alien, Aliens, Predator, The Thing and Event Horizon.
Too many films and TV dramas think they are referencing them when they are actually just repeating them – movies that, in turn, are really actually copying horror films.
You can’t do a cut and paste job; you must bring something fresh to the familiar set up. Telling the familiar story in a new way is where many fail.
That’s where Doctor Who’s The Waters of Mars and Kill the Moon failed: those stories galloped along breathlessly with lots of running around and waving of the sonic screwdriver to deliver the necessary pay-off within its single episode timeslot.
Under the Lake doesn’t make this mistake. Rather, by stretching the story out over two parts, the writers allow us and them time to explore familiar components and stumble down dead ends.
Doctor Who, Season 9, Episode 3 – Under the Lake. Pic credit: BBC
Paying his dues to this sci-fi temple, and with a nod to the audience, the Doctor makes a crack about nut allergies.
What follows is an all-together slower paced and more finely crafted piece of storytelling compared to recent years’ Doctor Who – and that’s why it works.
There is a reference to contemporary reality: Oculus Rift-style Virtual Reality gear used to pilot the remote sub? Also, again, we see the Doctor's wearable tech. All of which means no sonic screwdriver to do some crazily implausible piece of hokum science-scanning of the ghosts.
The Doctor/Clara relationship gets time to breathe, too. She's gung-ho; while he's concerned for her safety: a set up pointing to something bad coming. And indeed it arrives with their separation by doors and water and farewell waves.
The relay race down the corridors to lure the “ghosts” into the Faraday cage is actually a pulse raiser because it doesn’t go to plan, as it might have in earlier episodes. The addition of a Clara hologram provides light-hearted relief that soon dissolves when the Doctor enters the Faraday cage.
Throughout this episode the Doctor, Clara and the mining facility's crew return repeatedly to the mysterious alien ship: don’t they know what they are doing? Don’t go in there. And DON’T open that animation chamber.
The atmosphere inside the Drum underwater base isn’t some cliché horror house: this is warm, reasonably inviting and cosy with its low lighting – but threatening, nonetheless. There is new mood music, too: sinister electronica for that eye-popping last scene.
If the Who writers can keep this up, I won’t just look forward to tuning into next week’s conclusion to this two-parter; I’ll actively look forward to future episodes, too.