Doctor Who, Under the Lake, TV review: Extraterrestrial ghost story is scarier than the Daleks

Peter Capaldi does an admirable Tom Baker impersonation, but this week things are more traumatic than Scooby-Doo 

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The Independent Online

Doctor Who seems to be overly concerned with death at the moment. Last week Davros was in imminent danger of carking it and this week we’re tentatively prodding at the afterlife thanks to the presence of some homicidal ghosts. With zombie Cybermen and an artificial digital heaven featuring prominently in last season’s finale, it almost feels like Who is turning into your Saturday teatime memento mori. It’s a wonder it isn’t followed by a Lars von Trier double-bill and a Changing Rooms special on the hottest new trends for the family crypt.

But this is Doctor Who we’re talking about, so it’s not all existential dread. In fact, Under the Lake neatly pulls off one of the tried-and-tested tricks of Who’s elastic format by gleefully mashing together genres and expectations. For a ghost story, the hoary tropes of clanking chains and flickering candles are in pretty short supply. This is spooky with a sci-fi slant, and while the show has tackled this sort of narrative countless times before (for which see 2013’s Hide), it has rarely been done with such palpable tension and slow-burning dread. Doctor Who has always happily worn its inspirations on its sleeve, but when it comes to tone this is far closer to Event Horizon than Scooby-Doo.

So instead of the bog-standard haunted house/abandoned mine/amusement park, tonight’s episode is set in a Scottish underwater base in the near-ish future. The part-military, part-scientific crew have discovered a spaceship of extraterrestrial origin dislodged during a mining expedition, and bringing it aboard results in the almost instantaneous death of the base commander, who promptly reappears in the form of an eyeless, gibbering ghost. He’s not alone in his post-mortem perambulations either – in another example of Who’s habit of melding disparate styles he’s joined in his undead rampage by what looks like an Edwardian undertaker with gigantic muttonchops.

Three days later the Doctor and Clara show up, hankering after adventure. As the pace picks up Toby Whithouse’s script doesn’t just nod to classic Doctor Who. The Time Lord has always been a wanderer in space and time, and having him land and go poking around a set of mysterious circumstances is always a welcome way to start an episode – as is the base-under-siege motif that cranks up the tension as the episode progresses. Then there’s Capaldi’s increasingly nuanced performance. Surely I wasn’t the only one who noticed a vaguely Tom Baker-ish tinge to his Doctor this week? Not only was he quickly taking control and coming up with intuitive leaps of deduction to drive the plot forward, he’s even starting to sound a bit like Baker, pronouncing his vowels with a portentous bass rumble.

But lest we forget, Capaldi’s Doctor is slightly less avuncular than many of his predecessors, and after a daft but amusing bit involving cue cards (“I’m sorry, I didn’t realise you weren’t from Aberdeen”) it was ultimately the Doctor’s enthusiasm for discovering the nature of the killer apparitions that won through. As secrets were uncovered and deductions made, the plot rattled along with a pace that ended up as satisfying as it was intriguing.

And then we had the cliffhanger, and it was a bit of a doozy in terms of visual flair. As for tension? Maybe not. The Doctor’s Final Death (And Totally, It’s For Real This Time, We Swear) is cropping up with increasing regularity these days. Heck, this year’s opening story springboarded off it. While Under the Lake certainly delivers in tension and effective scares, it works better when it’s not upping the stakes so dramatically. Skedaddling from a trio of spooky ghosts is one thing, but the Doctor’s eventual death is either an important recurring theme this year or something that’s just trotted out because the peril-o-meter needs to be cranked up a notch. Fingers crossed it’s the former, though those fingers have been burned before.

Still, in terms of wonderfully solid and spooky TV there’s nothing to moan about here, except perhaps the scheduling. 8.25pm, Auntie? Surely Who is better earlier, when it can terrify the under 10s like it’s supposed to? In terms of long-lasting psychological childhood trauma, Under the Lake ranks with the gas mask kid and the giant maggots, doubly so when you consider the final image of a dead Doctor. OK, so it’s a trick that’s been played before, but half the fun is tuning in next week to find out how the trick is done.