Thoughts on: Under the Lake / Before the Flood

Two-parters are a funny thing. Regular readers will probably be familiar with my standard paean to the two-part format for Doctor Who stories: the format gives the story time and space to breathe; if employed well, it allows for a more fleshed-out and involving narrative; it allows for the kind of quality plot and character development that a single 45-minute episode story simply doesn’t accommodate. I don’t think two-parters are inherently better than the single-episode format—there are a handful of standout episodes that have utilised the 45-minute time-frame perfectly—but I certainly think that the two-part format facilitates better script-writing on the part of writers not limited to setting up, developing and concluding a story (a Doctor Who story, no less) in the space of 45 minutes. No surprises then that almost all my favourite stories are two-parters. I suppose it’s much like when an assessment gives you a word limit of 1,000 and you spend three hours chopping up and amputating large chunks of your perfectly-crafted essay, leaving an uncomfortably succinct rump as your submission.

The point of a two-part story is that it’s a story in two parts. Put like that, it’s patronisingly obvious. But I feel as though it’s easy to lose sight of that point when there’s a week’s wait in the middle. My praise for Under the Lake was qualified when I jotted down my “first thoughts” last week. I thought it didn’t quite measure up to many of the other very similar stories it was consciously aping. Likewise, I felt a bit underwhelmed by this week’s episode. I felt that it was something of a feeble follow-up to wait a whole week for. But that was just it. It felt feeble because I waited a whole week to see it. Between last week’s episode and this week’s, anticipation, speculation and excitement had been swirling around my head, festering and putting me in the kind of state of mind I might possess going into a new James Bond movie or Harry Potter book, rather than Act 2 of a play, which is essentially what the second episode of a two-part Doctor Who story is. On their own, Under the Lake and Before the Flood are neither the stuff of screenwriting excellence (for Doctor Who, at least), but, watched together, they’re something quite special. A two-parter is a play of two acts, which are supposed to be watched together. That’s what I’ve taken from this experience, and that’s what I think ought to be kept in mind when forming impressions of two-part stories.

So in general I think this story is highly successful. Given the ideas it plays with, it’s hard to see how it couldn’t be. The ghosts are undoubtedly the highlight of this story: freaky, macabre, spine-tingling apparitions realised astoundingly well, just like the Mummy from Mummy on the Orient Express last year, another paranormal creature featured in Doctor Who. Everything about them is perfect, and, although I don’t have any under-twelves conveniently at hand to confirm this, I’m sure the show succeeded yet again spectacularly in its unrelenting mission to send as many children as possible to bed trembling. The blackened, hollowed-out eyes, the silently-whispering mouths, the eerie, zombie-like movement; it was all perfect. In addition, I thought the concept of going back in time to investigate the genesis of the ghosts was just a brilliant sci-fi spin on a ghost story. This is Doctor Who seizing the ghost genre and doing something profoundly different and distinctive with it. It’s all carried out to distinction, making for a highly atmospheric, irresistibly suspenseful and creepy screenplay.

Toby Whithouse displays his usual skill for crafting diverse and believable characters in this script. For such a large cast, it’s genuinely impressive that none of the characters were wasted, but Whithouse has managed to pull it off. Actually, a qualifier to that—the only character I thought was poorly written was Pritchard, the greedy corporate rep, who felt a bit like a lazily-assembled constellation of certain prejudiced ideas about business people typically harboured by persons of a particular political persuasion. Other than that, the supporting characters were all well-written and memorable (testament to which is that I can actually remember all their names). In particular, the deaf Cass was easily one the best aspects of this story. I’ll hear no talk of tokenism—Cass was a brilliant character who wasn’t wasted by any means, and easily the strongest of the supporting characters. Her relationship with her interpreter, Lund, was just lovely. And I loved the scene where Cass was being stalked by Moran’s ghost, oblivious to the ringing of the axe scraping across the metal floor; brilliant suspense.

We haven’t seen any conspicuous indication of a series arc yet as such (somewhat to my disappointment), but I think we’re seeing some very subtle foreshadowing of what’s to come later in Series 9, especially surrounding the circumstances of Clara’s coming departure. It’s clear the Doctor has been worrying himself over Clara’s alarming new-found thirst for adventure and danger, her troublingly reckless pursuit of an adrenaline hit. This builds on her character development in Series 8, but it seems to have become more acute since then, as though Danny Pink’s death has seen her throw care and caution to the wind, such to cause the Doctor to begin worrying about her. There’s a heavy suggestion that we’re going to see tragedy strike. The Doctor’s going to lose another one, it seems. It was much the same in Series 7a, where Amy’s tragic end was quite un-subtly foreshadowed. At the same time, I think we’re starting to see a pattern in respect of the “changing history to save a loved one” motif—that’s the second time that idea has cropped up in two stories; added to that the fact that the title of the final episode of the series is the very suggestive “Hell Bent”, one wonders whether the finale will involve the Doctor attempting to recover a dead Clara by changing time. Something to speculate about, anyway.

Some final thoughts. The Fisher King was a brilliant creature, a towering, terrifying skeletal figure, but somewhat underused, I think. It would have been great to see some of his purportedly terrible power, but at least he went out like a boss. The pretitles sequence to Before the Flood, in which the Doctor breaks the fourth wall and pontificates on the bootstrap paradox, was wonderful, but I thought it might’ve worked better if it weren’t put right at the beginning of the episode—perhaps it might’ve worked better closer to the end, if not at the very end, as a kind of contemplative endnote. I just adored Prentis, who couldn’t have constituted a more incongruous contrast to the menacing, nightmarish figure of his ghost. He was just hilarious. By the way, is it just me or did Doctor Who just indulge in a bit of very smutty innuendo in Prentis’s tantalising offer to the Doctor to peruse “a selection of items you can oppress me with”? It wouldn’t be the first time, actually.

Rating: 8/10.


Quote of the week:

“Someone get me a selection of flags.”

Cue Clara giving the Doctor a look that says “I can’t believe you actually just said that.”

First thoughts: Under the Lake

Warning: spoilers ahead.

  • I really enjoyed this. It was a refreshing change of pace from the sweeping, epic scale of the opening two-parter; a more low-key and intimate story, but, at the same time, still genuinely thrilling and gripping Doctor Who.
  • That said, compared with the very non-traditional storytelling of the opening two-parter, this episode is very traditional Doctor Who. The base-under-siege is a familiar staple of the show, and this episode couldn’t help call to the mind of any Doctor Who fan similar base-under-siege stories in the new series like 42The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit and The Waters of Mars. It feels a lot like each of those stories, and comparisons are inevitably going to be made. Don’t get me wrong, Under the Lake is a fantastic exemplar of the base-under-siege format, but, when looked at beside those stories, it falls just a bit flat.
  • But, I hasten to remind myself, we’ve only seen the first part of a two-part story. A great deal hinges on how well the second half turns out. The trailer makes it look amazing: scaling out from an anomalous incident in an underwater base to something of far greater moment. So I can’t really form a judgment about this one until I’ve seen the whole picture. As it stands, the second episode could either entrench this two-parter as an instant classic, or, if it fails to satisfactorily expand the plot and the narrative, leave it an enjoyable but unremarkable story that will be forgotten by this time in the next series, which is basically my opinion of the strikingly similar 42. But, just from the trailer, I’m confident that Whithouse will follow through with an absolute corker. I absolutely love the conceit of going back in time to discover how ghosts came to be, and I’m a great deal more excited for Before the Flood than I was for this episode.

  • These ghosts are seriously freaky. They’re astoundingly well-realised. If I were ten years younger (maybe eight, at a push), I’m sure I’d have gone to bed with the covers pulled resolutely over my head. Those blackened, hollowed-out eyes are the stuff of prepubescent nightmares, and the silently whispering mouths are the perfect final bone-chilling touch.
  • That cliffhanger was a belter. The Doctor, desiccated old Scot that he is, is maybe the freakiest of all the ghosts. Great buildup, too; my thoughts when Clara’s eyes were widening in shock when she saw who the new ghost was went something like: “Nope. Nope. Nope. NOPE. NOPE! Not him! Surely not! Oh, God, it’s him. He’s dead. Again.”
  • Cass was a great addition to the cast. The inclusion of a deaf character who communicates by signing always carried the risk of being a novelty, a hollow and embarrassing overture to the “minority representation” crowd, but Cass was unarguably one of the best things about this episode. She was easily the strongest of the fairly large cast of supporting characters (testament to which is that she’s the only one of the supporting characters whose name I can remember), and she proved vital in translating the ghosts’ silent mantra.
  • The show’s doing that ominous foreshadowing of the companion’s death thing again. Remember the not-so-subtle hinting that Amy was going to die all throughout Series 7a? I don’t know how to interpret the Doctor’s increasing concern over Clara’s worrisome thrill-seeking and recklessness other than as foreshadowing her forthcoming demise.

  • And just when I was starting to really like Clara again. Compared to Series 8, Clara so far hasn’t been given all that much to say or do (which is probably for the best; Series 8 was far too Clara-heavy at the expense of Capaldi), but, from what we have seen and heard from her, I think they’ve finally got the writing of her character right. She’s a genuinely likable character again. It’s as though they’ve finally struck the right balance, the sweet spot in between the charming but generic character devoid of distinctive personality that was Clara in Series 7, and the annoying, self-consumed drama queen that she was (at times) in Series 8.
  • Maybe the one main thing I would criticise about this episode is that too much reliance was placed on verbal exposition. Too many scenes of people standing in a room and talking. These sequences are tedious, puncture the atmosphere, and lose the viewers’ attention. When there’s as much of it as there was in this episode, it seems like disproportionately more of the episode was taken up by these sequences in one’s impression of the episode than in reality, which, I’m sure, when you’re a writer, is not what you want viewers to take away from your stories.
  • I really appreciated the humour of this episode. A selection of my favourite bits: Clara going for a high-five after she and the Doctor walked in on an overturned room, and the Doctor giving her a strange look that said “what a freak”; the Doctor assuming he can speak sign and becoming flustered when he realises he can’t; the faces Clara makes every time the Doctor says something inappropriate; the Doctor being reduced to carrying flashcards to remind him of how to conduct himself in a socially acceptable manner; “It was my fault, I should have known you didn’t live in Aberdeen.”