TV Episode Review: “Doctor Who” “Under the Lake” (09.03, 2015)

Written by Toby Whithouse

Directed by Daniel O’Hara

Okay, let’s get the inevitable sonic discussion out of the way . . .

The Sonic Screwdriver has been a part of Doctor Who since at least very near the beginning back in 1963. However, it began life as a piece of alien technology that nonetheless actually did what its name would imply: it functioned as a screwdriver, just doing so with sonic vibrations instead of mechanical force. Its functions have grown since, to the point that the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors have essentially been able to use it to resolve any plot point they wished. Its appearance has changed repeatedly, and we learned from an angry Amy Pond that it is in fact a Sonic Probe rather than a screwdriver, which the Eleventh Doctor essentially said he called a screwdriver just for fun. It has really changed so much and so often that it hasn’t been the same thing. So, the Twelfth Doctor ditching it for sunglasses isn’t some sort of affront to the series’s history.

However, I have to admit that there’s something that feels too “cool” to me about using sunglasses. The Eleventh Doctor called it a screwdriver because he was always so deeply in touch with the kitschy, nostalgic part of the Doctor’s personality. But, that kitsch and nostalgia have been there for the entire modern series. Sunglasses are almost by definition signals of coolness. They’re symbols of celebrity and separation from the “commoners.” They’re signs of youth and modernity. They’re actively the opposite of all of that kitsch and nostalgia. While I can understand the desire to allow the Twelfth Doctor to make his own mark by moving more toward the heroic high-tech alien and away from the kitschy nostalgic old man, there do seem to be precious few hints of that element that has belonged to the Doctor for the first eight seasons, which makes its absence more starkly felt, especially when the Sonic Screwdriver is replaced with something that is a symbol of everything the opposite of what it was for us.

This episode is a fairly traditional Doctor Who episode. A weird monster is attacking humans, they’ve given it a supernatural explanation, and the Doctor arrives to figure out what’s really going on and solve it. It’s the formula that encapsulates probably at least 2/3 of the show’s episodes, but one that the show has typically done well. And as a multi-episode story arc, it’s difficult to say how well this one is doing it. There is a good amount of tension as the Doctor really does seem at a loss to explain the “ghosts,” to the point that he actually accepts the terminology.

The monsters’ actions are strange enough that we have to wonder what they are–they aren’t just generic human-killing monsters. They leave one character alive when they would seem to be in position to kill him easily and they make a lot of weird tactical decisions that one would assume will make sense once they are revealed. But it’s all doing a good job of making us interested.

We’re also seemingly seeing the seeds sown for Clara’s eventually exit. The Doctor warns her of “going native” and seems concerned with her desire to be “where the action is.” He sees her taking risks for the sake of taking risks, which worries him. If she continues down this path, the Doctor will eventually view her as someone he cannot protect, and he won’t keep her around–that’s a responsibility he will not accept. Moffat never really did provide a good exit plan for the Ponds, which is why he had to have the Angels take away Rory and Amy follow him. He seems to be avoiding that mistake, and perhaps planning that Clara is out at the end of this season.

A word about Peter Capaldi. While the series hasn’t been at its best with him starring, his performance is still absolutely fantastic. He plays the Doctor with a subtlety and depth that we haven’t seen since Christopher Eccleston. All of his internal contradictions are written on Capaldi’s face, and he does a fantastic job of dynamically moving among them as befits the moment. Jenna Coleman, meanwhile, has dramatically improved. Many scenes last season were marred by a poor performance from her that lessened any emotional impact that we were meant to get out of her character arc. What she’s done this season has been much easier than what they asked of her last season, but she’s also done it well–she hasn’t had a noticeable false moment yet, which is an improvement over previous seasons.

Notes

  • The cards were a funny idea, but they seemed sloppily done for Clara.
  • “I’m fairly certain it’s not so they can all form a boy band!” Okay, that’s funny, but isn’t it also about 15 years too late?
  • The Doctor’s “I want you to go” speech was a good heroic leader moment for the Twelfth Doctor. He’s not dramatic like the last two Doctors, so it wouldn’t make sense for him to give a speech like before the Pandorica opens–it was a good example of adapting the formula of the show to a new Doctor. They seemed a bit unsure how to do some of it last season, but so far this season feels like it’s on a far steadier footing.
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