Sunday, 11 October 2015

Doctor Who: Under The Lake/Before The Flood (Episode Review)

One of the unique things which is being attempted this season is to turn every story into a two-parter. Effectively halving the number of stories and creating what is likely to be an inordinate number of cliffhangers, it's honestly one of the best things the show could use right about now. After all, the last two series have been extremely hit and miss, with some episodes showing why this show is so great while others questioned why you were still watching it. Cutting down on their number means - in theory - we're going to see a seriously upped quality of storytelling, but better yet atop that more budget devoted towards individual episodes. Oh and, can't forget, more time to really explore bigger scale tales which wouldn't be possible on a single episode basis.

Because of all the factors involved with returning a show to the classic cliffhanger format, Under The Lake/Before The Flood has a lot to prove. As such, for one time only, this is being judged as a single elongated episode to see if the show can really get it right.

The story here is classic Who to the core. A military base situated at the bottom of a lake in Scotland has unearthed a very curious object none expected to find. Boxy, angular and made of no metal found on Earth, it is clearly alien but seemingly unoccupied. However, when the vessels drags the ghosts of the past with it, breaking the very laws of death itself, it becomes a threat even the Doctor is perplexed by...

One of the big things to note with past two-parters is how many stories felt like two interlinking episodes. Rather than a single tale told across multiple runs, you often ended up with semi-independent interlinked stories. The second one would so often, rather than follow up on the same locations and events, break out into an entirely new location and follow a new set of scenes, with only a few carried over. This isn't universally true of course, but it's one issue which has plagued the series. Sadly, this combination doesn't quite break that trend but it does smooth things over a little. There's more a sense of an ongoing story here, and while it does leave the Doctor present in an entirely new setting, it felt much more like the second act of a story. There were more elements retained than expected, but there was still a definite problem of too many new elements being introduced for the second part to focus upon, largely ignoring the first.

Still, as a new outing, this did have a very back to basics sense in many regards. While it might have had a complex plot, it was closer to that of the Ninth and Tenth Doctors' eras. It never went so far as to become incomprehensible, but still left enough fun uses of time travel to keep the audience on edge. Even the use of an easy escape route for the cliffhanger was easily forgotten thanks to the impact of that moment, and the effectiveness of its execution. The real problem, however, was that the second part let itself down by explaining things all too easily. You actually had the Doctor coming out and explaining the whole time travel element in question, meaning smarter viewers immediately knew how things would end. Honestly, the episode only becomes all the stronger once you skip those two minutes, and the surprise ending all the more effective.

Speaking of the story itself, there is a definite sense of gradual evolution here, and a good use of the time on hand. There are stages to the Doctor's development we'd otherwise see rushed or skipped over in single episodes which are allowed to flourish here. His actions upon discovering the ghosts building into a gleeful curiosity, then gradual horror were fantastic to watch, and perfectly matched his overall character for this series so far. Better yet, when he did come to terms with a rather surprising twist during the second part, there was an odd degree of humanity to it. Sure, there were shades of what we'd seen with Eleven yet all the same, the fact it was given more time to develop made it seem truly natural.

The secondary characters for the episode were, on the whole, much more of a mixed bunch to be honest. We've certainly seen far better, and as a group set up to be a military outfit they lacked the discipline, cohesion and (in some cases) even uniforms to really convey that fact. At best they seemed like a civilian support team, never intended to be anywhere near the front lines. This might have been fine, but they lacked the solid character traits to make each of them stand out. While there were one or two exceptions, for the most part that was down to abilities or knowledge rather than performance or personality. They were serviceable to be sure, but hardly remarkable.

Probably the episode's biggest strength and what will remain its staying power is its villains. Both the ghosts mentioned and their hulking master were brilliantly executed, both haunting and shown in exactly the right light. Never overexposed to the audience, they were kept in the shadows for as long as possible, and you were given the real sense of their near unstoppable nature early on. A big part of this is down to two things, the first being the rapid establishment of their abilities, showing just how they operated and could hurt anyone almost anywhere. The second was down to the Jaws approach to revealing the enemy, keeping them out of sight until they were ready to be revealed. While that second one wasn't nearly as effective as one might hope, largely thanks to a lackluster death, it still had some chilling moments backed by a truly inspired design.

The cinematography and direction behind this one was spot on, as you'd hope for such a story. Being stuck inside an underwater base, with nothing but corridors to work with, is difficult at the best of times. However, director Daniel O'Hara seemed to know how to make that work to his advantage, setting up some especially unsettling and creepy shots. Better yet, while he was able to work in the familiarity of certain areas, he managed to sidestep the issue of making it seem like scenes were being reused once or twice too often.

Really, this is far from a bad two parter and it's a sign of good things to come. While it's far from perfect, the worst you can really say is that the script isn't nearly as smart as the writer thought it'd be. Despite that though, he still managed to craft an all around engaging story. It's more back to basics, more future and less Clara's personal life than we've had before. With luck, we'll see things staying that way and get stronger stories out of it. Definitely watch this one while you have the time.

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