Doctor Who: “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood” First Impressions

I’m covering this two-parter in a very late single post because I’m a bit traumatized right now when it comes to water.

Why?

I live in South Carolina, which suffered a rainfall of near-biblical proportions the weekend that the first half of this two-parter, “Under the Lake,” premiered. “How much rainfall are we talking about?” you ask. ::deep breath:: We had two feet of rain. TWO. FEET. That much water looks like this:

The white area? That’s 20″, the top of the rainfall scale. Some locations received even more rain than the scale can show. For example, my particular part of Charleston received 24.10″ of rainfall between October 1-5. I spent the days (and nights!) on either side of “Under the Lake” watching the retention pond in my back yard fill up and begin moving towards my back door. I live in flood zone X, which means that my property is outside of the 500 year flood plain, so I was not required to have flood insurance. I put a helluva lot of trust in the people who drew that map, and suddenly that seemed like an incredibly stupid idea.

Luckily my house remained dry. The pond stopped advancing about 20 feet from my back door. Other people in my city and across South Carolina weren’t so lucky. I went to college in Columbia, SC, and many areas of that city are devastated. Columbia has rolling hills and dams of all shapes and sizes, none of which are good things to have when you dump two feet of water on them in one weekend. Dams have burst. Roads have washed away. People died. Kids have been out of school for extended periods of time. They’re having their Hurricane Hugo moment, and my heart goes out to my friends who live there.

So believe me when I say that it was rough going to watch an underwater base-under-siege story featuring ghosts with a side order of a breaking dam flooding a village, all while the SC Flood was happening here at home.

With a little distance, I think I’m going to enjoy these stories a lot more than I did initially. I usually rewatch the episode at least once right away, but in this case, I’m going to wing my response without seeing them again.

Once again Doctor Who has made me extremely happy by featuring diverse characters. Major characters are again portrayed by actors of color, but Toby Whithouse’s script doesn’t stop there. The base’s commander, Cass, is deaf. Her deafness is presented with no fanfare and does not prevent her from being charge of the base. Cass does generally have to rely on crewmember Lunn to interpret for her, but she is firmly in charge and well-respected by her crew. Even the Doctor quickly comes to respect Cass because she is smart and can cope well with a scary and rapidly changing situation. Her ability to read lips allows them to figure out what the voiceless ghosts are saying, so a specialized skill she has to know because of her deafness puts everyone around her at an advantage. Yes, there is a potentially squicky moment where she is separated from the others while being stalked by a ghost. She successfully fights off the ghost because she senses something is wrong and feels the vibrations of her attacker in the floor with her hand. I’m not 100% sure how I’d respond to this if I were deaf since it’s a bit of a cliché that if you’re missing a sense, the others will compensate in response. Having said that, I’d much rather see Cass portrayed as a self-rescuing character than someone who needs protection. She survives their encounter with the ghosts, and not only that, she finds love in the end. Cass’ deafness does not hold her back in any way and actively puts her team at an advantage in the story. What a great message to send, especially to young viewers of the show with hearing loss! Sophie Stone, the actor who plays Cass, is deaf, and Zaqi Ismail, who plays Lunn, really knows how to sign. I can’t stress enough how happy I am about these casting choices! I firmly believe that it’s important to be able to find a mirror of yourself in stories that you love, and I’m glad that Doctor Who is beginning to address this issue in a more profound way than it ever has before.

Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi once again gave us two great performances. Again, we see Clara acting on her own in a situation where she has to be the Doctor. The scene where they are on the phone call and Clara tells the Doctor that he’s become a ghost is a highlight of the stories for me. Their interactions often have a lot of meaty emotional depth with a lot going on under the surface (UNDER the surface? Get it?). We can see definite growth and a new maturity in their relationship here in Series 9. Last year, they were often not honest with each other, because everything happening between them was cloaked in lies. This year, they tend to tell each other the truth, no matter how difficult it might be. There is something completely honest about the moment when Clara tells the Doctor that he CANNOT die on her, that he can die all he likes with whoever comes after her. For his part, Rule One is still in force. The Doctor still lies, but now he lies to other people rather than to Clara. When he is honest, it’s still a brutal Twelfth Doctor brand of honesty that no set of socially acceptable phrases scribbled on note cards can completely soften.

I also enjoyed the ghost makeup and the Fisher King’s design. They were properly creepy and in the creature’s case, physically imposing. I loved that they asked lead singer of Slipknot, Corey Taylor, to help with the Fisher King’s voice. He really added to the overall effect, but in a way that was completely seamless. It struck me as being the complete opposite of JN-T’s stunt casting. He used to bend Doctor Who around who he wanted cast in it, rather than what was done here, which is to make an inspired casting choice by casting someone whose celebrity is secondary to what he or she can bring to the performance.

We’ve already discussed, at length, the thing I was least comfortable with, which is the predominance of water and flooding in the story. (I couldn’t even watch the part where the dam burst and the Fisher King was swept away by the wall of water. It just hit far too close to home for me to enjoy it.)  I also wasn’t a fan of how predictable parts of the story were for me. For example, the second that we saw the ghost of the Doctor at the end of the first episode, I knew for sure that he was alive in the casket. Sometimes when I figure out things like this ahead of time, I feel proud of myself for solving a mystery. In this case, however, it just felt so obvious to me that it was a little disappointing.

As far as what might be carried forward through the series arc (assuming there is one)? I pinged on the Minister of War reference. It could be a throwaway line, but these things often bear fruit later. Death itself and the separation caused by death is another theme I see here that might have legs for the rest of the season, especially considering the not-unexpected news that Jenna Coleman is leaving the series. This script gives Clara something that classic Who companions rarely got: space to show that she is still affected deeply by Danny’s death. We’re several episodes past that moment, and yet Clara clearly feels his loss and that experience affects how she relates to the people around her now who have also lost people they love. (I am also using a timey-wimey cheat: I’m writing this paragraph on the morning of the premiere of “The Woman Who Lived.” It’s easy for me to point to that theme here in this story with the benefit of having seen the series through the end of “The Girl Who Died.”) We’ll have to see how it goes in the coming weeks.

So after much thought, this story gets a thumbs-up from me even though my response to it is mixed. The increased diversity among the cast made me super happy! The coincidence of a creepy water story with the SC Flood made me super uncomfortable. The performances and creature design were great, but some of the story was a little too predictable for my taste. Still, the SC Flood isn’t this two-parter’s fault, and there were some nice character moments here for many of the cast members. I’m happier with this overall than I was with the season opener, so Series 9 is on an upward trend for me.

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