Doctor Who 9.03 and 9.04: “Under The Lake” and “Before the Flood”

A whole episode set underwater (or in places that are soon going to be underwater), but it’s a submerged lake so my pedantry forbids me to make a single Harold Holt joke.  Truly Moffat is evil.

When I was fifteen, I wanted to become a marine archaeologist.  I was quite into reading about shipwrecks, which is a perfectly normal hobby and not morbid at all, and a museum exhibit about the salvage of the Mary Rose made a profound impression on me.  The fact that I’m a weak swimmer and have a bunch of chronic illnesses that make any kind of physical work difficult didn’t hold me back … until, you know, I went to university.

But I’m still quite into shipwrecks and submerged cities.  There is something oddly haunting and fascinating about environments which were once homes, and now aren’t even habitable (Steph notes: BY HUMANS. Penguins and cepholapods though).  I may not be a marine archaeologist, but I still look at a large body of water and think of secrets.

Come to think of it, that might explain the Harold Holt thing, too.  May The Sea Return Him.

(Drive-by reiteration of my strong recommendation for Surface Tension, aka Below, by Meg McKinlay, a fine piece of middle grade fiction about the secrets hidden in a submerged town.)

What I’m saying is that “Under The Lake” has the sort of set-up that I get enthusiastic about.

the impossible underwater Base pit under SIEGE

This felt familiar — base under siege stories have been a Doctor Who staple since Troughton came along — and hit some of the same notes as previous New Who stories, most notably “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit”.  Impossibly smug Doctor and companion turn up, giggle like idiots in the face of death and disaster, and it’s generally unpleasant to watch.

What made this work for me was the characterisation of Clara.  And here I’m going to admit that I’m really glad I decided to switch to fortnightly posts, because had I just been covering “Under the Lake”, I’d be pretty uncomplimentary to Clara.

Clara here reminds me a lot of Rose in season 2: her capacity for compassion completely subsumed by her relationship with the Doctor, and if people outside of their tiny clique are hurt or killed, well, that’s sad, but it’s just too bad, WHEEEE, ADVENTURE.

(No, I don’t have good memories of season 2, why do you ask?)

That’s what I thought they were doing with Clara, but with the promising sign that even the Doctor recoils from her a little.  I don’t mind a dysfunctional Doctor/companion relationship, you understand, I just need to be sure the writers know it’s dysfunctional.

By the point in “Before the Flood” where she was emotionally blackmailing the Doctor and sending Lunn — the only person who can communicate with Cass, who is Deaf — out to possibly die, I was pretty unhappy with Clara.  I was glad that the writing recognised how toxic she was, but I just straight up didn’t like her.

And then, the end, when — look, maybe it was obvious to everyone else all along, but I was so impressed when it became clear that Clara was still grieving deeply for Danny, and was also in denial about her grief, and pushing it aside in favour of the adrenaline rush of adventure with the Doctor.  That’s interesting, and sympathetic, and all around good writing.

(I still don’t have much time for Clara, who was quite horrible to Danny when they were together, but I recognise that part of my problem is the awareness that Danny is one of several characters of colour who were treated really badly by their white love interests before being written out.  Doctor Who has a race problem, and Clara is the latest in a long string of white women being privileged over any person of colour.)

I still suspect that Clara’s time with the Doctor is going to come to an end in difficult circumstances that they’re both partly responsible for.  I can practically hear Queen Victoria setting up Torchwood.  But if this quality of writing continues, I feel sure that Clara and the Doctor will get a chance to redeem themselves before they’re separated for good, and that Clara will have more agency in her departure than Rose ever got.

If nothing else, she’s far too egotistical to declare that her life began and ended with the Doctor.

The dark. the Sword. The forsaken. The temple.

Speaking of Doctor Who and race, we all spotted that the black guy was the first to die, right?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted that, of the guest cast, the survivors were two men of colour and a Deaf woman, and that every member of the supporting cast had a moment to shine and be individuals (except the poor old Company Man, but he was basically Paul Reiser in Aliens and therefore no one cared that he was doomed).

Writer Toby Whithouse has tweeted a lot about diversity and the importance of representation with regards with the Deaf community, and these episodes have deservedly got a lot of praise for the presence and writing of Cass.  (From the Deaf community, that is.  All the criticism I’ve seen has come from Hearing people.  Funny, ain’t it?)

(Steph asks: Tell me more! This is way more interesting than some white time traveller, Liz!)


Since the ’60s, Doctor Who has had Issues with disability similar to those around race.  There have been positive characters with disabilities, but they nearly all end up dead, while Davros, the series’ most prominent wheelchair-user, just lives on and on and on.  We could give the Daleks points for having wheelchair accessible spaceships, but, um, no.  The whole concept behind the Cybermen was the hoary old Prosthetics Make Us Less Human trope, which really needs to be killed off.

So it’s really exciting to have Cass, a Deaf character, played by a Deaf actress, with an actual fluent-in-Sign actor playing Lunn, her interpreter.  (Actress Sophie Stone was the first Deaf person to study at RADA, incidentally, and she and co-star Zaqi Ismaeli created new signs where existing BSL vocabulary lacked words in the script.)

(I recognise that the Deaf communities of the world take issue with Deafness being classed as a disability, but “Tomb of the Cybermen” in the ’60s linked Evil Horrifying Cybermen with Prosthetic Hearing Devices Used By A Deaf Man Of Colour, giving us the context for this discussion.)

There are worldbuilding issues here, in that it’s hard to believe that out of a team of more than half a dozen, Lunn is the only character who can communicate with Cass.  Setting aside the fact that Cass is second in command on a dangerous mission, surely they would have at least picked up some common signs for social situations?

But the main criticisms I saw were from Hearing people, that it’s just sooooooo convenient that Cass can lip read (in a realistic way, I add, having trouble with homophones and unfamiliar names), and — worst of all — that having Cass and Lunn enter a romantic relationship at the end of the two-parter was “pairing the spares”, as if they weren’t significant characters with their own arcs.  Come on, guys.

Stone herself says, re her character:

“The fact that he’s written for a deaf character that isn’t vulnerable, who isn’t a victim, or typecasted as someone who can’t – she was definitely a can-do girl.”

Honestly, to me, that makes her sound a bit like a Strong Female Character — because Cass does have vulnerabilities, but she works to overcome them — because that’s what well-written characters do.

But it means a lot to me to see a Deaf character whose Deafness is simply one factor of who she is.  She’s also wary, cautious to trust newcomers, but willing to risk her life for the people on her team, for whom she is responsible.

Also, it was really funny to see American fans going, “I know ASL!  She’s saying the Doctor and Clara are in love and need to get married!” and being politely reminded that, you know, it’s British Sign Language.

Whithouse deserves praise for what he’s achieved here, and it speaks well of him as a possible replacement for Moffat down the line.

But at the same time, nothing happens in a vacuum, and the series has been killing black men before the opening credits since 2005.  Not Whithouse’s fault, but it’s a trend that needs to change, like, yesterday.

 If you occupied us, you’d be home by now

Prentis and the Tivolans offered a small bit of amusement, then I decided I hated them.  Which, to be fair, seems to be what they’re into.  Nice throwaway joke, sets up the plot, I hope they never reappear.

If the legendary Doctor Who kinkmeme was still alive (if you don’t know, it’s probably best not to ask), it would have been home to fourteen Doctor/Tivolan fics by midday Sunday (Melbourne time).

I felt the same way about Clara’s social graces flash cards: slightly amusing, best not thought about too much.  Except possibly for the bit that flash cards are of limited use in a teaching concept — they don’t necessarily teach the student to recognise that concept in a different context.

As a teacher, Clara should know this.  I’m not a big fan of the idea that the companion’s job is to teach the Doctor social graces — as long as the Doctor’s played by a man, it’s going to put a lot of emotional labour on the female lead — but, setting those reservations aside, it’s another signal that Clara has been more interested in the adrenaline rush than other aspects of travelling with the Doctor.

Aaaaaand now I’ve gone and thought about it too much.

The fisher king

Nice design, good monster concept, but let’s face it, he was a bit underused.  Did the Fisher King need to be a character rather than a force of nature?  Probably not, but if nothing else, he could have been scarier.

Who wrote beethoven’s fifth? *guitar squeal*

I like a bit of timey-wimey in my time travel-themed science fiction.

2 thoughts on “Doctor Who 9.03 and 9.04: “Under The Lake” and “Before the Flood”

  1. “Prentis and the Tivolans offered a small bit of amusement, then I decided I hated them. Which, to be fair, seems to be what they’re into. Nice throwaway joke, sets up the plot, I hope they never reappear.”

    Yeah, I didn’t like them all that much the first time they appeared, but this time was WORSE. Downright distasteful. Ugh.

    1. I’m inclined to put the Tivolans in the box with Jack Harkness that’s labelled Doesn’t Get Consent Before Engaging In Kinky Discourse, and then pretend they never existed.

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