The MacGuffin this week is an ostensibly abandoned alien space ship, discovered during a mining operation at the bottom of a Scottish loch. The crew of the facility are soon in peril, and when The Doctor arrives there are ghostly goings-on to be deciphered. The episode therefore takes the form of a mystery in need of solving, and the underlying success of stories like this – a success that it is, of course, impossible to judge on only the first half of the story – is generally dependent upon the question of which came first, the idea or the solution. Did writer Toby Whithouse start with the concept of ghosts in an underwater complex, and then set out to devise a story around that conceit, or did he begin with the reason for them being there and work backwards, creating his ghosts in service to the solution rather than the other way around? Oftentimes, the former can lead to inconsistent storytelling, as the marriage between the idea and the realisation of it is never quite as satisfying as in the latter – and that’s not an accusation you can level at Under the Lake, which is at this halfway stage as consistent and immersively accomplished a story as we’re likely to get.
The ghosts themselves, as scary and as well achieved as they are – there’s a vague hint of the Boneless from last year’s Flatline in the effects work, by way of the Empty Child – are possibly actually the dullest part of Under the Lake, which sings in its character interplay and works by involving the audience in the figuring out of its central puzzle. At every beat, Whithouse emulates his showrunner’s prior successes and matches his themes to those of the ongoing season, while at once writing something distinctive enough to entertain in its own right, and clear-cut enough to work on both levels. There is a huge amount of imagery conveying the twin themes of communication through the visual spectrum – an aspect of Moffat’s work that has been present throughout his Doctor Who career – with an ever-present but never intrusive focus on eyes and reflections; the very lack of opaqueness in the ghosts themselves a consolidation of this. But there are two much more direct themes which were a part of the opening story, and whose presence here indicates they’re going to be crucial to Series 9 as a whole.
The first is the unveiling of this year’s arc story. Steven Moffat, like Russell T Davies before him, likes his arcs to work on two levels, firstly for the characters (and more conspicuously for the companion), and secondly – and perhaps less importantly – in terms of the actual plot; no doubt we’ll see Missy, maybe the Daleks and possibly even Davros again in Hell Bent, the Series 9 finale, but more significant is what Steven Moffat’s doing with Clara. Just as the Twelfth Doctor’s lack of empathy with the human beings surrounding him is this year taking as much mellower form – reflecting the Doctor’s newfound self-assurance in light of his ‘idiot with a box’ revelation – and the scene involving the prompt cards already rivals ‘the only other chair on Skaro’ for Doctor Who’s funniest ever moment, so his companion’s trajectory is taking her in the opposite direction. We saw this spelled out in the TARDIS scene in which The Doctor questions her taking charge, but there are examples littered throughout the episode of Clara exhibiting this inclination, having in the previous story had this proclivity first legitimised in the UNIT scenes before being undermined when she was abandoned to Missy’s care on Skaro. This week, there is an apparently newfound determination on the character’s behalf to live up to what she sees as her just purpose; it’s a classic tragedy that – as with Donna Noble before her – can only end in tragedy should Clara attempt to fully emerge out of the Doctor’s shadow and become his equal. The delicious irony for fans of the original series – fans who in other areas should have been completely satisfied with this week’s episode – is that what Moffat’s doing is inverting the storyline that Ace would have been given in the unproduced Season 27; Clara isn’t being bequeathed Time Lord status, rather she’s subconsciously assuming it, and that’s undoubtedly going to be her downfall.
Even more interesting, and certainly more modern and unique to Moffat’s vision of the series, Under the Lake also reveals a less-obvious theme of Series 9, and that is the way in which these largely two-part (or connected) stories are working – by revealing a conundrum or plot point in the first episode, that the second thereafter illuminates by going back to before those events in order to explain how they came to happen. There was a heavily-disguised version of this in the opening two-parter, in which the young Davros plotline helped to illustrate the character of the dying Davros that the story was really all about. This week, the format is being made much more obvious by the Doctor actually travelling back in time to Before the Flood in order to try and resolve the ghostly issue that’s plaguing the underwater facility – and the two episodes that follow look to work in a similar fashion. It’s a conceit that a time-travelling series like Doctor Who should have at its very core – not every week, but occasionally enough to be a developing theme – yet like many of the fundamentally more obvious and relevant ideas, it takes someone to actually think of it and put it into practice.
What this two-part story will ultimately turn out to be is presumably a temporal paradox sci-fi horror wrapped around the format of an Agatha Christie whodunit, with the drawing board scene becoming a literal rather than metaphorical recap of the pieces falling into place.
How successful – and how relevant, at a fundamental level - it is, we will only discover once we’ve seen how it resolves next week. But Toby Whithouse has a facility for a deeper, more three-dimensional understanding of his ostensible villains, and hopefully the two-part nature of this story will iron out the occasional ‘sci-fi’ wrinkles that have been known to creep into his shorter Doctor Who stories in the past, where he’s been known to give the mechanical explanations a back-seat in favour of character material. Under the Lake hasn’t really introduced us – yet – to the occupant of the abandoned craft, so while as a first episode it was in the end too basic to completely fulfil, it was nevertheless a dazzling piece of Doctor Who, invoking memories of the series’ most glorious past while entertaining in a thoroughly modern manner.