Saturday, October 10, 2015

The World's a Mess; It's in My Kiss: An Overanalysis of "Under the Lake"

Day Mode.  Whoa-oh.  Fighter of the Night Mode.
Every time I try to think about why I love "Under the Lake," words and specifics fail me. I can't really give a good reason why it's special, why it's anything more than a middling, filler episode. There's not a huge, glaring reason to point to why this episode is significantly better than some of the other "Who cares?" boring episodes like "Curse of the Black Spot," or "Rings of Aka-Something or Other"--or, to pull from the same writer as this episode, an episode like "Vampires of Venice." And yet, every time I go back to rewatch "Under the Lake," I fall in love all over again. I don't know what it was I loved about this episode. Perhaps it's that the show's brilliant music producer, Murray Gold, has outdone himself yet again with this episode. Perhaps first-time Doctor Who director Daniel O'Hara is just the best director the show has ever seen and we've just never seen him before. Perhaps it's the stellar performances all around, including the most dignified characterization and portrayal of a deaf person I have ever seen seen in media (admittedly, I've never seen Children of a Lesser God). Perhaps it's that Toby Whithouse is a pretty amazing writer, albeit with a few duds here and there. Or maybe it's a combination of all of those things that results in an episode that fires on all cylinders.

It was so exciting that, at the point of the episode where the Doctor looks at the ghosts and says "What are you?" I caught myself literally saying the same thing as the Doctor at the exact same time. He owes me a coke.
I only accept Mexican Coke, Doctor.  Fuck corn syrup.
Toby Whithouse has been rumored more than once to be the successor to Steven Moffat for when he's ready to leave the show.  Moffat has not really given any indication that he's quitting anytime soon, but Whithouse has been thought of as a natural successor.  As I've been mostly saying I just want #anyonebutgatiss, I'd be happy to see Whithouse take over.  If we think back on his few episodes he's written, there are some pretty good ones.  He brought us the fun romp of "School Reunion" where he triumphantly brought back the most popular companion(s) of the classic series.  "The God Complex" is one of the smartest episodes of its or any other season.  The worst episodes he's written, "Vampires in Venice" and "A Town Called Mercy" are really only guilty of being dull, never of being silly or stupid.  Perhaps "Vampires in Venice" was always as riveting as "Under the Lake" in Whithouse's head, and the director and cast could never fully pull off his vision.  Whithouse is, of course, also responsible for the show "Being Human," which I still need to go back and finish, but which I do highly recommend (what I've seen of it, anyway) and I've even heard positive comments about the American adaptation of it.  So, overall, I wouldn't hate it if he took over for Moffat eventually.  Him or Jamie Mathieson.  Or Neil Gaiman, but that's a pipe dream and we all know it.

Whithouse is already building his own trademarks, though, as this episode actually sees the return of a species he created for one of his previous episodes.  Remember the Tivolian from "The God Complex"?  The most invaded race in the galaxy?  The one who surrenders so easily that their planet's anthem is called "Glory to <Insert Name Here>"?  

It's like having an entire planet full of Adrics!
Yeah, in case you didn't catch it because he was speaking so fast, the Doctor did identify the first ghost in this episode as another Tivolian, and points out how odd it is for them to become violent like that, because they're known for surrendering so easily.  The Tivolian is named "Prentis," something we only know so far from press releases and credits, because he didn't speak a single time in this episode, but he's clearly meant to be a much larger character in the next episode.  Creating your own recurring species?  That sounds like someone is setting up the Doctor Who universe for some plans he has down the road when he becomes showrunner.  However, where Steven Moffat did that in the Davies era with some of his creepier monsters like the Weeping Angles, Whithouse's creation of the Tivolians seems less terrifying, and more Terry Pratchett-esque in nature.  (The girl I'm dating has me reading the Night Watch books.  I'm hooked.)

I keep trying to think up some way that this episode is going to link into larger plot arcs in the greater series, and I keep coming up with nothing.  I get the feeling this two parter is probably going to be self-contained, but then again, you never know.  Remember how much "The Rebel Flesh"/"The Almost People" felt like a self contained episode until about 30 seconds before the ending?  I keep wanting the coordinates that the ghosts are shouting out to be the coordinates to Gallifrey, but try as I might, I can't quite get that scenario to make sense in my head, and I don't think we're going there in the next episode.

In the next episode, the Doctor blindly follows the coordinates like an idiot following a GPS.
Also, I have to take a moment to acknowledge the brilliance of the Doctor's cards.  Not just a great one-off joke, but also something that really taps into who the Doctor is right now as a character.  Plus, one of them, if you freeze frame the episode, is a joke about the Fourth Doctor dropping Sarah Jane Smith off in the wrong town, something that Toby Whithouse also referenced when he brought Sarah Jane back in "School Reunion."

I also have to give Whithouse some real credit for his diversity of characters.  In "The God Complex," I was very impressed not only that he included a Muslim woman as a character, but that in an episode about religion, Islam was the only major, real-life religion actually referenced.  Whithouse gave a lot of dignity to a religious and ethnic minority that is often maligned in media, and I thought it was very refreshing.  He does that again, this time for the hearing impaired, as Cass is not only a strong and capable deaf woman, but one that the Doctor refers to as the smartest person in the room.  She's a powerful leader, and a loyal one to her people, too.  I think Whithouse should be applauded for that characterization.

I'm really curious to see what these ghosts are.  They aren't just going to be ghosts.  As the Doctor already figured out, these are not a naturally occurring phenomenon.  Someone has created this situation, and trapped these souls somehow to be used as communication tools.  The Doctor is tremendously curious right now, and his curiosity is infectious.  But, in the end, they're not going to be significantly different than other types of "ghosts" we've seen in Doctor Who, from the digitally saved consciousnesses in "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead" or even in "Dark Water"/"Death in Heaven," to the psychic impressions left behind in Amy's house in "The Pandorica Opens," to the woman trapped in time in "Hide."  The Doctor is thrilled about finally having found real "ghosts, but ultimately, these souls are somehow trapped in something that's specifically linked to this ship, and that's going to turn out to be very technological, not otherworldly.  In Doctor Who, the explanations are almost always scientific and never otherworldly (with the ambiguous exception of "The Impossible Planet"/"The Satan Pit"), although, as we were reminded back in "The Shakespeare Code," there's a thin line between science and fantasy in the Doctor Who universe.

A theme that Whithouse is playing with here, and one that I don't think is seized on enough, is the idea of the Doctor as an adrenaline junkie.  Clara's catching it, too, and it's starting to scare the Doctor, as witnessed by his little speech in the TARDIS.  But clearly, there's a sense that the Doctor is too invested in his own thrill seeking right now, and the ghost of his future self that appears at the very end of the episode suggests a Doctor that inevitably lets his addiction to adventure take him down a dark and dangerous path.  In a way, he lost his last set of companions, and I don't think he's going to take it very well if he and Clara are separated, not by choice, but by force.  The Doctor might be learning by the end of part two that he needs to slow down a little.  But while he may have to, the pace of this two-part episode doesn't have to slow down at all, and I'm excited to see where it goes from here.

When I first heard the "I want to kiss it to death" line in the trailer, it really bugged me, but I like it in context.  So in honor, here's a little X!:

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