TV At the risk of sounding like the demented and tormented Brad Pitt detective at the end of the movie Seven, “What’s in the baaaaax????” Lesser stories and episodes than Toby Whithouse's Under The Lake, and we’ve all seen, read and heard them, would have made the idiotic choice of finding a mechanism for opening the suspended animation crate revealing what’s inside the cliff-hanger moment. All the talk of the Sword of Orion led me to Ted Rogers the contents to be a cyberman (partly because the writer also mentions a minuet and I assumed his script was a love-letter to McGann’s first audios season) and it might still be, but the point is that going into the next episode we still don’t know, the script’s self-esteem is high enough that it’s happy to keep some mysteries for its second instalment know full well that there’s enough other hullabaloo bounding around to keep us otherwise enthralled. It’s a BBC Two launch night of a script if you will (including the odd black out).
We’re at episode three, people, and everything is blazing. Within minutes the usual social media platform was buzzing with notices about this being the best episode ever and such (well amongst the dozen of us not watching the rugby) which is probably going a bit far, this is just a superior base under siege story so far not Human Nature. But having spent the day actually looking forward to watching Doctor Who, quite the change from last year when I almost stopped watching (true), the show didn’t disappoint and was actively enjoyable, hitting all the right notes, in the right order and actually made me laugh, a lot, my new second hand armchair shaking beneath me, and pretty scareded on more than one occasion. Which used to be the baseline expectation for Doctor Who before the new series threw it into a vat of contemporary television bells and whistles, so it’s actually comforting to find ones self watching something which isn’t afraid to just stand alone, land the TARDIS somewhere and have at it.
Given Whitehouse’s previous scripts for the series, there’s something pretty iconoclastic about Under The Lake’s traditionalism. Not all of them have worked (GUNS!) (SOMETIMES!) but they’ve all been pretty rangy in how they’ve interpreted the show. Yet here we are on a base, under a lake, with a crew of scientists being menaced by ghosts obscuring some other mystery designed to intrigue the Doctor. As is always the case with two parters it’s impossible to make a judgement about the whole thing yet, and the throw forward (spoiler alert until the end of this paragraph) certainly seems to bend expectations in that we’ll soon be visiting the area of the base before if became the base which I don’t think has happened before, time travel becoming a component for the second story running, but so far Whitehouse has pretty much followed the series five playbook to the Pemberton. Was Vector Pretroleum, a shout out to the Fury of the Deep writer? Let’s hope so.
With all the necessary caveats in place, how are we orientated? Let’s look at the elements, starting with the crew who with the exception of the rather obvious Weyland-Yutani spy played by the usually called upon to be more subtle Steven Robertson, they’re that rare example of a group of professionals assured of their capabilities. How marvellous (as Russell might say) that ours is the show which has a leader whose abilities are just the sort of thing which are required at a crucial moment, who’s capabilities are what drives the story forward and which no one else, even the Doctor it seems, are able to tap into. Sophie Stone was the first deaf person to be accepted at RADA and it’s incalculable the effect of seeing this heroism might have had on children with similar dreams of following in the foot steps of either the actor or her character and it’s to be hoped that a signed repeat of the story turns up on television and the iPlayer as quickly as possible (it's currently listed in the signed section but none of the streams are yet).
It’s an eclectically cast group. The leader's translator Zaqi Ismail’s only other screen credit is Indian Summer II, mostly working otherwise in regional theatre, his ability to read sign language the only skill listed on his CV. To that he should add "able to look petrified, terrified and generally shit scared." Arsher Ali, best known for the Chris Morris film, Four Lions, also in what's usually a fodder role but given enough scope for some genuinely funny emoting. Then right in the middle is the mighty Morvern Christie, finally receiving her Doctor Who credit after having even avoided the gaze of Big Finish's various casting Saurons and utterly charming as she always is. She was literally the only reason I sat through all eight episodes of Frank Spotnitz co-production misfire Hunted and is still on my top five lists for potential future Doctors, the one I keep in back up just in case Romola is too busy as president of the known universe.
Structurally the base is about what it needs to be design wise, with lots of bulkheads and corridors and cargo bays, fulfilling the usual narrative requirements. Has anyone written a piece for the sorority bulletin about how the aesthetics of these environments have changed across the series both in broadcast order and in-verse chronologically? Under The Lake offers a pretty classical example, mainly white but with lived in sections, rather like crashing the Liberator into Moonbase Alpha. All these bases have a unique feature and so here's a Faraday Cage, for which the Radio Times handily asked a proper scientist an explanation the other day which includes the ability to block radio waves making the wifi in the Doctor's sonic sunglasses all the more magical. If nothing else it reminds me that I haven't watched Planet of the Dead lately. Let's add Lady Christina De Souza to the list of characters who we hope Big Finish will grant an audio boxed set, shall we?
Like Vampires of Venice, the apparent supernatural elements sadly turns out not to be, an implementation instead of some alien's plan. Nonetheless these are perfectly spooky examples with their blank spaces and faces with the irony that outside Christie, the episode's most prominent guest cast members find themselves being called upon to speak wordlessly (though perhaps they'll return next week in the earlier time period given their offhand demises here so early in the episode). Again, Whithouse's script is careful to keep them intriguing. How are they able to become randomly corporeal enough to carry metal and how come they can't exist within the artificial daylight of the cabin embracing instead the darkness? Image wise they're genuinely horrific and as every I wonder how this will play with children, how far over the edge this is. There's plenty of jump-scare horror on Netflix which has design work less potent than this,
After the emotional horrors of last season, Clara and to an extent Jenna, seem happy to allow themselves to slip backwards into a more traditional companion role. There's a supercut to be made for just how many times she says "Doctor" or asks a question in the episode to such and extent that even the Doctor not only notices but even uncomfortably warns her against "going native" with the implication that she's using this urge for adventure as a way of running from her grief. Jenna's playing in this scene is extraordinary, the mask of trying to accept the kind of sympathy which is being offered by someone who's only really wanting to make themselves feel better, and wanting that conversation to end. Let me direct you to this superb animation about the difference between sympathy and empathy (with a trigger warning for anyone touched by tragedy recently) (he says inelegantly), then go back and watch Jenna's face as she allows him to stop, especially her eyes.
But the Doctor's attitude and Capaldi's performance in that scene is the epitome of this new and improved Twelfth Doctor. Arguably his attitude hasn't changed that much from last year, he's still rude and yes, lacking in empathy, but he's clearly aware that it's a problem with this incarnation and the introduction of the cards (screengrabs here) and the implications of them is warm and funny rather than horrific, I think. This is no longer the man who simply dismissed all of the humans who went inside the Dalek with him out of hand and we're almost seeing a reverse of the Fourth and Leela during their Hinchcliffe season, of Clara attempting to civilise him. There's also a quite shameless introduction of Tenth like pop culture referencing too and dime-switching from complement to counterintuitive: the moment when he thanks Christie for turning on all the lights before asking her to do the reverse. Continuing on from last week (although we don't really know the production order), the actor simply feels more confident in himself and his ability to do his childhood hero justice.
One item which on the one hand is obviously simply a quick way of making the crew trust him but which otherwise has interesting implications is how this 22nd century crew are not just aware of UNIT but also the Doctor as an entity even to the point if LINDA like fandom. Having spent the best part of a season not too long ago expunging himself from the knowledge of the universe, now some rando in an underwater mining facility has heard of him. He seems unconcerned by this. It's possible that this is simple foreshadowing for next week's episode when the Doctor potentially does something notorious enough with the help of future UNIT in the base's past to warrant this recognition. But in the spin-offs, the "future" history of the organisation is sketchy (even if information about its employee's descendents isn't) so again, we're seeing a very confident script dropping potential hints for some future narrative, either next week in the coming months.
Which returns us to the initial question. “What’s in the baaaaax????” The imdb page for the episode has a potentially spoilery casting line, but I'm not convinced it's that simple. It's not Davros this time. My boiler plate theory is that it's the Doctor's real body, him having become a ghost for reasons and he'll spend the episode trying to explain this and how to put the two back together in her part of the upcoming episode, the Time Lord having discovered the identity of the person who thought they'd be going in the box, but that doesn't explain the fatalities. Unless it is a cyberman. Or it isn't actually revealed next week who is in the box, the Doctor having decided it's probably best not known. But like The Satan Pit, a locked box simply can't stay closed, it has to be opened and my goodness I can;t wait for the explanation which is a wonderful, wonderful feeling. Although it's become a disastrous night for English Rugby fans in the period its taken me to write this review, for Doctor Who fans it has been the exact opposite.