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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Doctor Who blogging: “Under the Lake”


[previous: “The Magician’s Apprentice”/“The Witch’s Familiar”]

warning: spoilers!

This certainly looks, at first glance, like classic Doctor Who: corridor running! But it’s almost a caricature of the format: the Doctor arrives to help a bunch of people trapped in a starbase/ship/hotel/whatever figure out and escape from the monster trapped in the bottle with them. It’s Steven Moffat’s take on James Cameron — there are so many shades of Aliens, Titanic, and The Abyss here — and he can’t seem to leave it alone: we just got this in the Christmas episode, and it’s not any more interesting now. And much of the potential tension is diffused because everyone on this underwater base already knows who the Doctor is and knows what UNIT is, so they welcome his help instead of being suspicious of him and demanding to know just who the hell he thinks he is to waltz in and take command. Sure, that’s a trope that’s gotten old, too… but the solution isn’t to just skip right over it but to avoid writing stories that make it an issue at all (or to find a new and clever way to deal with it).

The Doctor (Tom Baker version) once said, “There is nothing inexplicable, only unexplained.” Since when does the Doctor immediately jump to the conclusion that what they’re facing here is something actually supernatural — they really are ghosts! — and then get excited by that? This is not the Doctor.

Since when does he make wild leaps to entirely unsupported conclusions, such as that the phrase “the dark, the sword, the forsaken, the temple” refers to galactic coordinates? (And why would an alien race with a completely different perspective on the position of stars in the galaxy, not to mention a completely different set of cultural references, see a sword hanging from Orion’s belt?! Is there really only one church in an abandoned town on the entire planet Earth?) This is just lazy writing (it’s Toby Whithouse this episode) that doesn’t want to do the narrative work to make that conclusion stick. It doesn’t take much — maybe the Doctor remembers encountering a race of beings that are poetic rather than mathematical in their space-directions. But we don’t get that. Because Doctor Who isn’t about storytelling anymore.


Since when is Clara the Doctor’s babysitter? Since when does the Doctor need anyone to tell him how to behave in such a regimented and regular way that flashcards are required? Why is the Doctor being infantilized like this?

I don’t recognize this show anymore.

[next: “Before the Flood”]

posted in:
tv buzz
  • David_Conner

    “Since when does he make wild leaps to entirely unsupported conclusions,
    such as that the phrase “the dark, the sword, the forsaken, the temple”
    refers to galactic coordinates?”

    I think this is actually addressed later, when they’re looking at the writing inside the spaceship and the Doctor makes the “earworm” analogy. It *is* a big leap to the “coordinates” conclusion, but the reason is that they’ve already been subliminally set up to make that conclusion.

  • RogerBW

    There have been various answers to “why isn’t the Doctor simply locked away until the emergency is over”. Actually, the boring old sonic screwdriver wasn’t a bad one; it’s also a good reason why he can get through the locked door and find the evidence/monster/etc. before other people. (In Terror of the Vervoids we had “he’s an old friend of the ship’s captain”, which felt like spending narrative capital that hadn’t been earned.)

    I would really like to see what Capaldi could do with the role of the Doctor if he didn’t have a showrunner making every story into a series of pretty moving pictures and moments of cool.

  • Ella

    I actually DID recognize Doctor Who in this story because it WAS a pure DW. Running through corridors, scary monsters, Doctor solving problems, a companion just asking questions…and yes, companion has always been sort of a guide for the Doctor to deal with humans. It is nothing new. This episode was great.

  • ketac6

    I’ve never really liked how the character of Clara interacts with the Doctor in either incarnation and I’m finding this series very hard to like (apart from the fantastic yet underused Missy).

    Plus why did we get the, “Oh, he’s a sociopath and needs cue cards for human emotions” stuff when the plot last week hinged around the Doctor showing mercy to the young Davros?

  • But the earworm is only about the words, not what they mean.

  • Good point.

  • But the Doctor doesn’t actually solve problems here. He just pulls answers out of thin air. Like magic.

  • Oops! I forgot this: Why isn’t the solution to *every* problem always, “Let’s pop back in the TARDIS and see what happened in the first place”?

  • Martha Kuhn

    Or, let’s get all of these people into the TARDIS and bugger out of here?

    I shook my head at the flashcards too. Only my thought was “is the Doctor autistic now?” instead of psychopathic. So sad.

  • Maria Niku

    Entirely incidentally water in this episode made me think of Waters of Mars. Not because there’s any particular link between that story and this, just the thought how that story still gets me every time, and how entirely these stories now fail to do so. Made me kind of depressed.

  • David_Conner

    Hmm, I thought it was both.

    I may have been rewriting the script in my head in real time. Which seems to happen a lot with me and Moffat, come to think of it.

  • David_Conner

    I don’t think he’s uncompassionate so much as he has a crappy bedside manner. I’ve seen the two coexist a fair amount in real life.

  • Also too: it was a huge leap for the Doctor to conclude that a couple of symbols scratched into the side of the ship constituted an earworm. :-(

  • Jim Mann

    The flashcards worked for me. A key part of the personality of the 12th Doctor is his lack of patience for standard human interactions and niceties. Clara keeps trying to remind him that this is important.

    Whey is he this way? Part of it is that every regeneration has a somewhat different personality, and this one may be more extreme based on a) the Doctor is much, much older now (and thus his “editing out” some things may make sense in that context, b) he just went through one of the most drawn out, horrific experiences of his long life, and c) the regeneration was the most extreme and dramatic he ever went through.

  • Considering that Doctor Who almost seems to repel you now(I personally have a love-hate relationship with it), I was wondering if you’d want to go back to watch the old ones for a bit? There’s little to no reviews on them on this site and I’d really love to hear your opinion on the 60s stories especially.
    As someone who’s just going through them right now for the first time, they work kind of like therapy when the Moffat hate goes too deep(“The Celestial Toymaker” was like a glass of water in the Saharan desert of “Kill The Moon”)

  • It seems that way because he’s not human, he’s a Time Lord, he calculates answers like twenty times faster than we(given how fast we’ve seen him reading books).
    And I’m not just trying to make excuses, I usually hate when they have the Doctor randomly get the right answer(like in Kill The Moon where the whole concept of the moon being an egg comes out of nowhere), but here, it felt like a logical conclusion that someone with a 2000-year old genius brain would’ve come to.

  • Because doing so would make him part of the timeline, which is forbidden(I distinctly remember the Ninth Doctor saying something like that in his last episode)?
    Also, he doesn’t want to spoil the fun. But like many gamers will tell you, if you can’t figure it out, go cheat.

  • Jamie

    Couldn’t agree with you more about that last paragraph of yours especially. I think Capaldi could be incredible if he were given an actual and good story.

  • Jamie

    Yeah. Mr. Moffat and crew have forgotten that characters and stories need tension, they need weight. They need to be unraveling a mystery not just ‘pop here it is’, and characters that face consequences, rather than what you just pointed out, and reset buttons. I do try to enjoy the rare few interesting and funny moments, but this show really is getting less and less recognizable. I really hope that changes some time. In my lifetime.

  • GeeksAreMyPeeps

    Arguably, he showed mercy not because he felt it was the right thing to do, but rather because something had to be the impetus for the mercy to be shown later.

  • A key part of the personality of the 12th Doctor is his lack of patience for standard human interactions and niceties.

    Then maybe — here’s a crazy idea — he could stop hanging around humans so much and go see some other bits of the universe for a while.

  • I wish I had time to rewatch and write in-depth about the classic series. Maybe I’ll do a Kickstarter and see if anyone wants to support that.

  • What reason might be retconned to explain this, it does not make for satisfying storytelling.

  • Moffat has thrown away all the old rules. The rules that made the stories work *as stories.*

  • Bluejay

    Given the surge in comments whenever you post about Doctor Who, there might be enough interest to support it.

  • Danielm80

    The timing would make sense in the U.S. BBC America has just started re-airing the Tom Baker episodes.

  • The statement is true, but this was written by Toby Whithouse. Also, are you sure you’re not becoming just a bit biased against our lord and master? Because to me, this episode felt like an ordinary one. Heck, even the Doctor and Clara were all “ooh, an actual adventure at last!” There was little to no banter, no making the Doctor look like an idiot(the cards thing seemed more like something out of Dr. House), straight-forward storytelling and clear characters.

    I’ll give you the gaps in the Doctor’s logic, but it’s not like laziness hasn’t been around since the beginning to some extent. The Doctor has been around for 2000 years and can crack a puzzle that human brains wouldn’t easily guess.

  • Danielm80

    Also, are you sure you’re not becoming just a bit biased against our lord and master?

    If you’re referring to Moffat, then I would question most of the words in that sentence, especially “becoming,” “a bit,” and “our.”

  • RogerBW

    What is the boundary between bias and experience?

    I quite liked some of Moffat’s early scripts, but once I got a feel for the direction in which he was taking the programme I became increasingly disenchanted. At this point, given the stuff he’s done, he’ll have to be really impressive to get me thinking positively about him again. Is that bias, or is it just restraining my enthusiasm because I dont want to be disappointed again?
    (See also the Biast thing, elsewhere on this site.)

  • 1) He used pure and simple logic. Yes, I admit we didn’t have all the pieces, but do we ever? He recognises it as a clever way to disguise coordinates: fine, got it, moving on. He pulls it out of nowhere, but it makes sense for him to figure out. That’s how sci-fi works.

    2) I was kidding about Moffat. But seriously, just because the guy is in charge doesn’t mean he’s responsible for everything. This was a decent, RTD-type story that we haven’t seen in ages and you’re acting like it’s The Time Of The Doctor.

  • Jurgan

    I haven’t seen this episode- is Moffat really using the term “sociopath” for a hero again? I really hate this lazy pop-psychology that people who don’t understand others’ emotions well must be “sociopaths.” It was bad enough with Sherlock, but I absolutely do not see it with The Doctor.

  • Moffat is not my lord or master, or my anything.

    I know this was written by Whithouse. I mention him in the OP. That does not change the fact that Moffat HAS throw out many of the rules of the old show. It also does not change the fact that nothing happens in episodes not written by Moffat that Moffat does not approve. He’s the showrunner. He sets the tone and makes the rules.

  • just because the guy is in charge doesn’t mean he’s responsible for everything

    That’s exactly what it means, actually. Do you understand how TV production works?

    He pulls it out of nowhere, but it makes sense for him to figure out. That’s how sci-fi works.

    No, that’s not how sci-fi works.

  • The episode doesn’t use the term sociopath.

  • What I meant by my first statement was that just because Moffat is in charge of Doctor Who, doesn’t mean everything that goes wrong is immediately his fault. After all, Toby is a recognised writer in the DW community and I doubt Moffat is the kind of guy who pores over every script he gets. He gave Toby the thumbs-up and after that, everything that can be considered wrong in the episode is on the latter.

    Sci-fi is the art of making the impossible look possible. Acting like technobabble makes sense or that a blue police box is a bigger-on-the-inside spaceship or that a bunch of disconnected words mean a set of coordinates.

    My overall point is that I feel you’ve become so embittered against Moffat, you’re nitpicking every episode that comes out now, whether he has much to do with them or not. Perhaps if you just took him out of the equation and accepted the fact that the 12th Doctor isn’t the man his predecessors were(being literally twice as old as any of them), you wouldn’t be so angry.

    The way I see it, the Doctor’s character in the new series has remained consistent(minus the nonsense in Series 8). The more time passes, the less he seems to remember or care about who he really is and what he stands for because it’s just too much. It was already apparent as early as Series 7(the Solomon and Jax incidents).

  • bronxbee

    Toby Whithouse was a guest at ComicCon last night and discussed how he gets his “assignment” for stories on DW — he gets a “two-line” pitch from moffat, then spends time doing an outline, which goes to moffat, and then there is a lot of back and forth between moffat and whithouse before he actually finishes writing the script. the implication is that no story goes out for filming until moffat has had a hand in it and approved it. so, as good a writer as whithouse is (i mean, Being Human!) he is also subject to moffat’s ideas and direction of the show.

  • Stephen Robinson

    I disagree with the idea that the companion has always been “sort of a guide for the Doctor to deal with humans.” That describes the 6th Doctor and Peri relationship (and even then, it didn’t last long).

    Even the most eccentric Doctor was still good with people. The 2nd Doctor consoling Victoria in “Tomb of the Cybermen,” the 3rd Doctor with Jo in almost every episode, the 4th Doctor and Leela, the 5th Doctor and Teegan (he was incredibly patient with her).

    What bothers me most about how Moffat has depicted the 12th Doctor is that he *chose* to write TIME OF THE DOCTOR in which the character spent *centuries* (if not arguably half his entire life) on a planet with human beings. He even showed that the Doctor had developed a relatively close relationship with them. If none of that mattered ultimately — if all that experience “died” with the 11th Doctor — then it feels like a narrative waste.

    The 12th Doctor is *not* the 1st. You can’t suddenly write him as having no experience with other people. And I just loathe the conceit that he’s too “brilliant” to bother with other people’s feelings, so he gets frustrated and calls people “idiots” and can’t really be bothered to motivate anyone. That’s not The Doctor we’ve seen in just the past 10 years.

  • Stephen Robinson

    The interaction bothers me, as well, because a big point made last season was that Clara should see past the exterior and realize the Doctor is still the Doctor. But how? I can’t see any similarity between the two men. (Heck, the 11th Doctor and Danny Pink probably would have gotten along well)

  • Stephen Robinson

    A key part of the personality of the 12th Doctor is his lack of patience for standard human interactions and niceties.


    As I mentioned upthread, that’s a frustrating character direction when the Doctor spent *centuries* with human beings — day to day contact, much of it without the TARDIS.

  • Stephen Robinson

    I’d commented on how the 12th Doctor is written alternately as either the 6th or 1st Doctors. He’s no longer even the character who can take charge based on the force of his personality or his own wisdom (the psychic paper instant authority cheat).

    Last season, it seemed like they were possibly developing a TARDIS crew that was very much like the 1st Doctors: Clara and Danny, the school teacher couple, and the young student (a less alien version of Susan). That might have had potential but instead they are taking the Doctor/Clara “best mates” approach. This is problematic for reasons others have stated (Clara behaving like the Doctor’s babysitter, which is more tolerable with the Doctor and Susan because Susan was the Doctor’s granddaughter). But it’s especially of concern for Capaldi’s Doctor. The bulk of his tenure might wind up having been with a “crossover companion.” Why is that a problem? We never see the 12th Doctor *build* a relationship with someone who didn’t have already an attachment to him through his previous (much more sociable) incarnation. That was a big problem with the 6th Doctor. We can understand why Peri would travel with the 5th but would anyone *choose* to travel with the 6th Doctor? And we never saw how he met Mel.

    Moffat’s desire to paint Clara as the perfect companion has the drawback of always making her the only person the Doctor gives a damn about — the only one whose loss of life would actually matter to him beyond the theoretical.

  • I doubt Moffat is the kind of guy who pores over every script he gets.

    Moffat is the showrunner. Of course he is all over the scripts.

    whether he has much to do with them or not

    Moffat has everything to do with everything that happens on his show.

  • Thanks for the info. But I still think this episode felt very RTD(haven’t seen Before The Flood yet) or even classic series and the review was too nitpicky.

  • Can’t you spare 25 minutes a week or so? It’s not like we need those reviews every day. You don’t even have to do them in order.

  • I feel like the whole new series is a repeat of the 70s and 80s of the classic series.
    Eccleston = Pertwee, the slightly grumpy hero whom everybody loves.
    Tennant = Tom Baker, the iconic Doctor of their respective eras.
    Smith = Davison, the younger successor whom everyone is overall okay with.
    Capaldi = Colin Baker, the guy who was promised as the “dark Doctor” and ended up being just really really mean in his first season and really really over the top in his second(to compensate).

    Think about it. Season 22 = Series 8 and Season 23 = Series 9. It makes so much sense.

  • Danielm80

    You’re hilarious. You think it takes 25 minutes to write an in-depth analysis with screencaps and exact quotations? It sometimes takes me 25 minutes just to write a really lengthy post on a comment thread. In the world that you live in, do we have jet packs and flying cars?

  • RogerBW

    Just for reference, I’ve been writing reviews of classic Doctor Who on my blog. It’s a spare-time activity for me as has been proposed for MaryAnn. I’ve recently completed series 24. I started in late 2011.

  • Stephen Robinson

    Yes, and Moffat has made I think the same mistake that JNT did with Colin Baker: Not giving us a “fully formed Doctor” from the start, but one who relied on our affection for his previous incarnation to see us through.

    Troughton, Pertwee, and Tom Baker were all very different from their predecessors but they were distinctly “The Doctor” by their first episodes or so. You didn’t need to have watched previous seasons to appreciate this current Doctor.

    So, by HIGHLANDERS, DOCTOR WHO AND THE SILURIANS, and ARK IN SPACE, the Doctor is the Doctor. There’s no more “growth” needed — none of the “am I a good man” of INTO THE DALEK.

  • You may take my too-nitpickiness as an indication of how unengaged I am by the story and the characters.

  • Are you kidding?

  • I was referring to the time it takes to watch a classic episode, not write the actual review itself. What I proposed was that she see one episode per week and then write the review whenever it is convenient(perhaps also a small portion per week or however she prefers).

    My sincere apologies for failing to clarify.

  • Danielm80
  • Well, my bad then. I don’t get why it can’t be done, but I’ll back down.

  • I’ve been doing the same thing and am currently at season 14. It’s pretty great and doesn’t take up a lot of time or energy.

  • You really don’t have a clue how much time all of this takes. Just as you don’t have a clue about how TV gets made.

  • I’m already working nonstop. There are no more hours in the day.

  • You must have more time and energy than I have, then.

  • Get hyped for Series 10! Written by Steven Moffat, starring Peter Capaldi and that girl who looks and acts exactly like Jenna Coleman!
    Will feature Missy and the Doctor finally shagging and the Sontaran-Rutan war being revealed to be a ruse invented by the Doctor to provide Missy with a wedding ring.
    Oh yeah: the drama this season is whether the Doctor should choose River or Missy.

    *waits eagerly for a letter from Moffat*

  • No, I guess not. Thank you for explaining it in such an understanding fashion.

  • Well, to be honest, I wasn’t completely on board with Troughton until The Moonbase.

  • A

    I loved this episode, because it felt kinda classic to me. And it was less convoluted than recent ones have been. I was less mad about the second half, but this one I loved.

    I think the flashcards were fun, and I don’t think they were out of the doctors wheelhouse. There have been several times that the doctor’s companion has reminded him that excitement is not always the appropriate response.

    The one that comes to mind is Jack reminding Ten that sorry is the correct response to Chantho being the last of her kind.

    The fact that there hasn’t been cards before has more to do with the fact that Clara is a compulsive organizer, and she has down time away from the Tardis.

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