lake

When those two Patrick Troughton stories, Web of Evil and Enemy of the World were recovered – the biggest haul of missing episodes to date – I couldn’t wait to watch them and immediately bought them on iTunes. I’ve since rebought them on DVD and watched them both twice. They’re just fantastic. It’s my favourite era of the show and these are two terrific stories that it’s astonishing to have back.

I remember having the same conversation with a couple of other fans. Which do you prefer and why? Both are significant stories in their own way. Web is the debut of Nicholas Courtney as Lethbridge-Stewart, whose influence on the programme is still being felt today. It paved the way for the UNIT era of the 1970s and solidified the appeal of the Yeti (although they would not reappear save for a fleeting guest-appearance in The Five Doctors). Enemy has the thrill of Patrick Troughton’s dual role and represents the first association with the programme of one Barry Letts, who would run the show for five years, return for Season 18 and still be contributing audio stories in the 1990s.

But, in terms of their content, they are wildly different. Web is a base-under-siege story, which had become the go-to template for last-sixties Doctor Who, combining as it did attacking monsters, all the money spent on one big set, and guest stars going happily bonkers as the threat closed in. Depending on exactly how you count, around one half to three quarters of all Patrick Troughton stories adhere to this model. Enemy is one of the exceptions. Possibly the most ambitious second Doctor serial, certainly one of the most “out-there” in terms of its plotting, and that’s even before you factor in the star also playing the villain.

And yet, it’s Web that I preferred – and for this reason. Firstly, I rather like a base-under-siege story. Secondly, and more importantly, Web achieves absolutely everything it sets out to do. The London Underground setting is completely convincing (so much so that the BBC received angry letters about what they hell they had been doing filming down there without permission), the newly redesigned Yeti are utterly terrifying, the supporting cast are wonderful and the set pieces are immaculately staged. For all its imagination and ambition, however, the problem with Enemy is that its reach exceeds its grasp. Too many of the things the story wants to happen, neither the budget nor the detail of the script can actually convince us are real, and so watching it is occasionally awkward when it should be a delight.

Thus, I am unmoved by claims that Under the Lake is a rehash of earlier stories. Yes, it’s a bit of a mash-up of The Impossible Planet and The Waters of Mars with bits of The Unquiet Dead, The Rebel Flesh, The God Complex and even Last Christmas (only two stores ago) stirred in – but it feels completely fresh and the pieces have been assembled with uncommon skill and care.

At first I was a bit concerned, since the gang of undersea explorers seem a bit of a bland bunch, and differentiating a clutch of cannon-fodder has been an issue for more than one episode of the revived series. At a glance Colin McFarlane seemed the most charismatic, which is why it was both a delightful shock and rather a disappointment when he was the first to go. Having a deaf character accompanied by an interpreter is also fresh and managed not to feel like tokenism, although I did wonder exactly what year we were meant to be in, if the best solution to the problem of deafness is the same as it is now – having a hearing person who also understands sign language follow you around. Especially as it turns out she can lip-read.

I was less sorry to see the back of Steven Robertson’s Pritchard who was an entirely standard-issue company man, in the mode of Paul Reiser in Alien and countless other corporate ne-er-do-wells from modern genre fiction, but the remaining crew managed to at least begin to establish roles, relationships and attitudes. What was really rewarding about this episode, however was the carefully paced, very suspenseful and constantly surprising working out of the puzzle. As more and more pieces started to come together, I was more and more captivated, until we were delivered neatly to one of the best cliffhangers the new series has ever done. Far more interesting than Missy and Clara being zapped by Daleks, the suspense here has nothing to do with whether the Doctor will survive and everything to do with how.

The throw-forward, promising a second episode with an entirely new slant on the same events, location and scenario if anything makes this first episode seem even better, so I’m not at all concerned about the fact that some familiar ingredients have been recombined and I’m eagerly looking forward to next week (i.e. tomorrow’s episode).

Capaldi and Coleman did good work as ever, and the ghost effects were very nifty, but I do have a few gripes. I’m not a fan of those cue cards which make the Doctor seem a bit of an idiot, a Faraday cage is not a complex technical device, it simply describes one of properties which a space enclosed in conductive material possesses, and I don’t buy for a second that the TARDIS would refuse to pop over to the other air-lock and pick up Clara, but I suppose the two leads have to be split up somehow.

Four-and-a-half stars. Bring on part two!

So... what did I think of The Witch's Familiar?
So… what did I think of Before the Flood?