Director: Daniel O’Hara
Cast: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Paul Kaye, Sophie Stone
Synopsis: Peter Capaldi gets to go back to his roots, as the Doctor and Clara find themselves aboard an underwater mining facility in Scotland. Of course, all is not as it seems, with the remnants of the crew fleeing a pair of ghostly apparitions…
Well, that didn’t take long. After a promising return to form in the opening two-parter of Series 9, Doctor Who has returned to the uninspired, poorly scripted and downright dull stories of Peter Capaldi’s first series aboard the TARDIS.
The premise will be familiar to just about everyone at this point – we’ve seen it plenty of times before, after all. A team of scientists, explorers and engineers are trapped in a hostile environment with someone (or something) deadly among them, and they slowly get bumped off one by one while the Doctor tries to save them all. So far, so predictable.
All the classic supporting character tropes are ticked off as if on some kind of methodical writer’s checklist; from the unsure engineer-turned warrior to the stone-faced, no-fuss leader. We’ve even got the cold-hearted money man (who’s obviously one of the first to die), just in case you didn’t quite get the message that writer Toby Whithouse – previously of School Reunion, The Vampires of Venice, The God Complex and A Town Called Mercy – is basically just phoning it in at this point.
It’s not as if Whithouse isn’t aware of what he’s doing – at one point the sign-language translator (do we care enough about these cardboard cut-outs to learn their names?) tells the Doctor he can do his ‘Cabin in the Woods’ thing if he likes, but everyone else is leaving. (That’s another cliché to tick off your list, Toby.)
Of course, the lack of originality wouldn’t be a problem if Under the Lake at least excelled at propagating its tired formula. Unfortunately, the direction, story and acting all fall flat. The lack of a score during the drawn-out discussions seems odd and, rather than cranking up the spooky atmosphere, simply makes the episode feel lifeless.
Ghosts are hardly an original monster, only further proving that the show has run out of ideas for its villains – a suspicion begat by Series 8’s numerous bland, robotic background baddies padding out its Waterloo Road-esque storylines – and they’re not executed especially well here. They have the look, sure, but beyond that they’re not particularly creepy; again, that’s largely thanks to the lifeless (if you’ll forgive the pun) direction.
The acting on Doctor Who has never been anything to write home about, at least not past its leads – but even Capaldi looks like he’s given up trying at points in Under the Lake. Perhaps he’s as exasperated as the rest of us should be at the show’s potential getting squandered with such lacklustre scripts.
The reveal of the Doctor’s ghost in the episode’s finale will no doubt be largely inconsequential, but it’s at least the most interesting thing Under the Lake has going for it – at least in terms of ensuring we all tune in next week. Let’s just hope it’s worth it.
The Doctor’s flash cards. Poor Peter Capaldi does his best with an otherwise flat scene, but the flash cards are a genuine highlight, mostly thanks to Capaldi’s deadpan delivery.
The Doctor: Clara, why don’t I have a radio in the TARDIS?
Clara: …because you took it apart to build a clockwork squirrel?