Doctor Who: “Under the Lake” was good-not-great, but an improvement on the last two weeks

“Under the Lake” was a good, creepy episode. It wasn’t great, but it was good enough–and enough better than the last two weeks’ episodes–to highlight just how low my expectations for this show have fallen.

Peter Capaldi continues to shine as the Doctor, and it feels like we’re starting to see him really hit his stride in the role. The constant mean-spirited digs at Clara that were so unpleasantly characteristic of last season continue to be absent, which goes a long way toward making Capaldi’s Doctor actually likable and fun to watch. That said, he struggled a little in this episode. I understand not wanting to make the Doctor warm and fuzzy and lovable, but I’m concerned that he’s become too much a version of Steven Moffat’s obnoxious, abrasive Sherlock–only less clever, though about the same level of unfunny.

I rather liked the group of people that the Doctor and Clara found inside the underwater oil-drilling base. Some of Doctor Who‘s best episodes include these kind of ensemble casts, and this one is excellent support for Peter Capaldi.

It’s nice to see a deaf actor (Sophie Stone) playing a deaf character, and Cass is kind of a badass in general as the person in charge on the base, faced with some tough decisions as things go from bad to worse. The Doctor’s inability to understand sign language was played for laughs in a sort of cringeworthy way, but the interactions between Cass and the Doctor–mostly headbutting–were some of my favorite parts of the episode.

The only sour note with the guest ensemble was Steven Robertson’s Pritchard, who was a totally one note corporate jerkwad. He works for the oil company, and he dies early. Doctor Who has utilized similar characters before, and to similar effect, but I don’t think Pritchard works here. It’s not that I don’t love a good morality play where the evil corporate tool dies because of his own greed and/or stupidity, but this character just wasn’t stupid and/or greedy enough for me to feel like his death was really deserved. I think this is because his death was just way too obviously a punishment in the narrative. Usually these sorts of characters’ deaths are somehow a direct result of their bad qualities, but that wasn’t the case here. It also didn’t help that the character barely got any actual speaking time. It’s a well-chosen trope, but poorly executed.

The biggest problem with the episode, however, is that Clara still has pretty much nothing to do. Companions often do sort of fade into the background when there are a lot of other characters around, but rarely so completely as this, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it be called out as overtly within the episode as Clara’s irrelevance is here. After an action sequence where Clara and a couple of other characters were in mortal danger, the others are being greeted and fawned over by their friends while Clara literally says that she’s safe, too, if anybody cares. And, of course, no one does care, except perhaps the audience, but I think I mostly just felt bad for Clara.

It’s a particularly depressing sort of self-awareness to see from the show, and it makes me think that things for Clara are not going to get better. If the rumors are true and Clara is going to die when Jenna Coleman exits the show, that may be a merciful end to a character that has consistently been under- or poorly utilized.

Overall, though, I liked this episode a lot. It’s the first episode so far this year that I’ve felt was actually good rather than just “good for what the show is now.” It’s telling, though, that it’s also the first episode of the season not penned by Steven Moffat. There were still a few Moffat-esque flourishes to the script, but “Under the Lake” was a solid episode, with a great supporting cast and a pretty creepy monster mystery. I didn’t love the “cliffhanger” ending, but I’m looking forward to seeing the other half of this story next week.

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