Doctor Who Recap: One Of The Show’s Most Tired Tropes Delivers Some Great TV
Now with added ghosts!
One of the ongoing debates about Doctor Who is how much stuff the Doctor should have with him. When the sonic screwdriver was introduced in 1968’s ‘Fury From the Deep’, it was exactly what it said on the tin: it undid some screws using sonic waves. But as the show progressed, its uses became increasingly complex until the Doctor was using it to take atmospheric readings, blow stuff up, and (somewhat inexplicably) brandish it as a weapon.
This led to many fans and even some program makers to view it as a bit of a cheat. Doesn’t this make it impossible for him to be imprisoned or manacled if the sonic can magic his way out of everything?
Others figured the Doctor is locked up so often, you don’t actually need to waste time watching it happening and he should instead be off fighting Daleks, but that argument wasn’t enough. In 1982, the anti-sonic crowd won the battle when the iconic screwdriver was destroyed, not to be seen for the rest of the classic series.
When the show returned in 2005, not only did the Doctor have the sonic back, he also had some semi-psych paper: a Rorshach-esque blank card that he could flash at people to instantly assure them that he was an authority figure. (Because if there’s one thing that slows the Doctor down more than locked doors, it’s spending the first 20 minutes of each story convincing the people he’s just met that he’s someone worth trusting). Armed with these two tools, the Doctor could get straight into the nuts and bolts of the story and not get bogged down in the same old “You can trust me, let me prove it” stuff each week.
So, when the Doctor turns up at the beginning of this week’s episode ‘Under the Lake’, he has his psychic paper and his sonic sunglasses — the screwdriver replacement from last week that may or may not (but probably won’t) become a mainstay. I’m still not completely sold on them, but I do like the way they are used here, as the crew watches the ghosts via wifi link, a scene that could only have been made in a time where bodycams on cops and soldiers are increasingly ubiquitous.
In fact, this is an episode filled with familiar tools. The TARDIS is used not just as transportation, but as a plot device; the sonic is used to translate; the psychic paper allows the Doctor to immediately take charge; and the failure of the universal translation matrix provides a key clue. But there’s one familiar aspect that’s been around longer than any of them: we’ve got a base under siege.
If Doctor Who — with its sprawling universe and permanent state of reinvention — has any sort of rote story, it’s the base under siege. A mainstay of the Second Doctor’s era, it would usually plonk the Doctor and his companions in some sort of futuristic base, trapped with a small military expedition (hardened leader, nerdy scientist, hot-headed soldier, slimy businessman etc) who are slowly picked off by an invading force (Cybermen, Ice Warriors, Yetis etc).
Since 2005, it’s been re-visited a number of times with the likes of ‘The End of the World’, ‘The Impossible Planet’, ’42’, ‘The Waters of Mars’, ‘The Rebel Flesh’, ‘Cold War’, and so on. And, for a show that introduced sonic screwdrivers and psychic paper in order to escape repetition, there’s an uncharacteristic plodding quality to the familiar storyline.
Even when it’s done very well, it still rather feels like it’s going through the motions.
Thankfully, ‘Under the Lake’ is one of those that have done very well. The ghostly threat is both visually arresting and provides a tantalising mystery, and the crew is well-developed, which is not easy to do in such a short running time. The inclusion of a deaf crew-member is particularly interesting (and much-celebrated), although much more could have been made of this: why doesn’t the TARDIS translate her signing exactly? It’s a valid form of communication. What if, during the final separation sequence, the audio didn’t work and they could only communicate via sign through the window?
Even if “base under siege” — a phrase Doctor Who fans use almost as often as “deus ex machina” — is due for bit of a retirement, writer Toby Whithouse isn’t. ‘Under the Lake’ proves that even with a stock-standard format, he can still spin it into something really good.
Questions To Ponder
— Did we all pause through those conversational cue cards? I won’t spell them all out here, but I’m sure we all chuckled smugly and knowingly at the Sarah Jane gag.
— Recognise the Tivolian ghost? Toby Whithouse first introduced the cowardly race in 2011’s ‘The God Complex’.
— Much is made of the fact that ghosts aren’t a typical sight in Doctor Who. The Doctor dismisses a few previous ghostly encounters, weirdly choosing “flesh avatars”, “Autons” and “digital copies bouncing around the Nethersphere”. Wouldn’t it have been more on point to dismiss Cybermen (‘Army of Ghosts’), Gelth (‘The Unquiet Dead’), a time traveller (‘Hide’), or the Fendahl (‘Image of the Fendahl’)?
— Why is Clara suddenly so keen to have an adventure? And why is she calling them adventures? Few things take you out of a story faster than characters talking like they know they’re in a story.
— Was the “cabin in the woods” line a reference to the trope, or the excellent 2012 film? I suspect the former, but I hope the latter.
— It’s a bit exciting having cliffhangers properly back, isn’t it? Especially when it promises a completely different direction to part one.
Enjoy seeing the Doctor battle things in an underwater base? Then you should check out 1967’s ‘The Underwater Menace’.
This classic story sees the Second Doctor go up against a mad scientist who is determined to raise Atlantis from the depths of the ocean, and also surgically alter the Doctor’s companions so they become fish people.
For a long time, only one episode was available (many of the classic episodes have been sadly wiped from the archives), but a second surfaced (ha) a couple of years ago, and the BBC is finally releasing the story on DVD at the end of this month. Put in your pre-order now, ’cause more Patrick Troughton is only ever a good thing.
Doctor Who screens at 7:30pm Sundays on ABC, before reruns at 8:30ppm Mondays and 12:15am Tuesdays.