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Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Doctor Who S35E3: Under The Lake.

Doctor Who
Series 35, Episode 3
Under The Lake.

I'm always a bit ambivalent about Toby Whithouse and his writing work. He penned The God Complex, one of my favourite episodes of Moffat-era Doctor Who, this almost Kubrickian work of horror, but he also wrote The Vampires of Venice and A Town Called Mercy, one of which was actually quite terrible and the other of which was watchable, but really nothing to write home about, presuming a situation where I'm watching it somewhere other than home and don't possess a phone. Possibly it's run out of charge.

In this week's episode, the Doctor and Clara arrive unexpectedly at an underwater mining facility in a flooded Scottish village, where a military and scientific crew has been forced to evade two ghosts - including the ghost of their former captain - who have been attempting to kill them. As the ghosts become more insistent in their attacks, the Doctor attempts to figure out what they really are, what they want, and what their connection is to the village.

Here's a baffling thing about this episode: Colin McFarlane is in this episode, but he dies during the first five minutes and appears later only as a mute ghost. Colin McFarlane, an actor renowned for his voice. I had a learned colleague who was planning to overcome her bone-deep exhaustion with Moffatoid Doctor Who to watch this episode because she loves McFarlane (or as she calls him, The Future Mr. Learned Colleague), that's how beloved he is. Why would you waste an actor like that?

Colin McFarlane's character, shortly before his early demise.

It's a minor quibble, I can't say that my enjoyment of the episode was really damaged by it, but it's an odd thing to do. Does McFarlane's agent charge enormous amounts for the privilege of having the man speak, so they could only afford to hire him if he said a few lines and then was completely silent? Very unusual.

I also had a bit of a pernickety moment when the Doctor said he didn't know BSL. Of course the Doctor knows BSL, Whithouse, don't be so ridiculous, it is inconceivable to think that he wouldn't. The plot function of this, of course, was so that deaf team leader Cass could have her signing translated by her assistant, rather than there being long conversations between the Doctor and her taking place entirely in sign language, but still, they could have come up with another reason for it.

Apart from that, though, it's a pretty great portrayal of a deaf character - other characters talk to her, not her assistant, Lunn, she's an active agent in the plot, her deafness is never treated like a burden to other characters. Whithouse and the BBC have done an all around good job with Cass, and her hard-ass military leadership schtick makes for a good contrast with both the Doctor and with the gentler members of her crew.

(On another character related note, the Doctor's scripted prompt cards for being sympathetic to people were actually a pretty great comedic high note, and I did notice the little nod back to earlier episodes with one of the characters being 'I'm sorry for leaving you in Aberdeen.')

Oh, man, remember how in the last series, we had a whole plot about these two
not getting along at all and it was really awkward and unpleasant and not as well
written as the writers clearly thought it was? Good times.

The episode feels very much like a pre-Eleven episode of Doctor Who, a fun and slightly ridiculous monster film esque episode, a sci-fi twist on the horror genre. That might not necessarily make for the most compelling episodes, but it almost always equals some of the funnest episodes, and frankly, given that Moffat-era Who is obsessed with things being deep and dark and meaningful, I welcome some good, fluffy, ghosty fun.

There's not a gigantic amount I can criticise about this episode, if I'm being totally honest. It's tightly plotted, concise, well scripted, and fun. It has a great supporting cast of characters, and both Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman have brought their A-games. I had to rewatch the first ten minutes or so today to refresh my memory on some things, and had I not been bound by a looming deadline I probably would have quite happily watched through the whole episode over again. It's just fun, and despite being the first of a two-parter, never felt like it was a set-up episode, as the first episodes of two-parters so often do. It felt like it was an episode in its own right, to the point where even though I knew it was just one of a pair, I was almost surprised when the plot wasn't wrapped up at the end of the episode.

Apparently he's meant to look like a mole, and not just an elderly Victorian man.

We're about a quarter - very roughly - through the series now, and so far I'm really enjoying it. We had a surprisingly strong set of episodes opening the series, and this two-parter is shaping up to be even better. If this level of quality can be kept up for the entirety of the series, this will probably take the prize for the best series of Doctor Who since Moffat has taken over. That's not a tremendously high bar, I'll grant. 

Also, if we're lucky, Colin McFarlane will actually have more lines in the next episode. I mean, he probably won't, but you never know.

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