Season 9 of Doctor Who continues to offer us new drama grounded in the tradition of classic Who. “Under the Lake” was written by Toby Whithouse and directed by Daniel O’Hara, who worked together on the series Being Human. “Under the Lake” provides us with a captivating cliffhanger as Doctor Who continues with the series of two-part stories expected in Season 9.
“The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar” connected us back to the Doctor’s long past with the Daleks, Davros, and Missy/the Master. We revisit the framework of classic Doctor Who in “Under the Lake.” The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) find themselves on an isolated base with a small group of scientists, running down long corridors while being hunted by mysterious and deadly creatures. The style of the episode is as classic as Doctor Who gets, but with the fantastic special and visual effects only seen in the modern series.
Telling the story in two episodes gives this supernaturally flavored Monster of the Week tale an exciting pace without feeling rushed. We have a chance to get to know the crew of the base, including the intolerable capitalist Prichard (Steven Robertson) who is inevitably doomed to die. Though Whithouse and O’Hara fall short with Prichard’s two-dimensional role, the rest of the crew provides an engaging and diverse mix of characters. In most isolated base stories, such as “The Waters of Mars” or “The Impossible Planet,” no one knows who the Doctor is when he suddenly arrives seemingly out of nowhere. In “Under the Lake” the crew is familiar with UNIT, and O’Donnell (Morven Christie) is a “huge fan” of the Doctor. Providing a parallel for the audience’s experience, it was fun to watch the pleasure O’Donnell got from watching the Doctor work. Cass (Sophie Leigh Stone) is deaf, so is accompanied by Lund, who signs for her. Lund (Zaqi Ismail) may be key, because his focus on signing for Cass means that he might not have looked at the symbols the others have been imprinted with.
“Under the Lake” ends with Clara seeing the Doctor floating in the flooded village. His ghostly visage leaves us wondering what went wrong after he returned to the past. Doctor Who gives us a cliffhanger that whets our appetite for the second part of the story, “Before the Flood.”
Recap — Killer Ghosts in an Underwater Base
A team of soldiers and scientists at The Drum, an underwater mining facility in Scotland, has found a craft buried at the bottom of the lake. There is some debate as to whether or not it is actually a spaceship. Corporate lackey Pritchard claims that his company owns the newly found ship. Watch out, Pritchard. Capitalist greed is never rewarded in the world of Doctor Who. The commander, Moran (Colin McFarlane), identifies some writing on the wall of the ship, and we see the symbols reflected in his eye. There is someone else in the bay along with the crew. While Pritchard is alone inside the ship he finds himself face to face with this shadowy creature, and then one of the engines fires up. Commander Moran steps in to push Cass out of the way, and he’s killed. The crew escapes the fire and finds themselves looking into the face of the dead Moran, but this Moran is translucent with big black holes where his eyes once were. He is joined by a Victorian-looking friend, and the two of them begin to go after the crew. A creepy underwater base and spooky ghost-like creatures—Doctor Who is off to a great start with “Under the Lake.”
The Doctor and Clara arrive at the underwater base three days later. The Doctor has his hands full, because the TARDIS is not happy and Clara is itching to go on an adventure. They find the base seemingly abandoned. The Doctor’s greeting, “Hello sailors,” brings the two ghostly creatures over to inspect the new arrivals. The Doctor has no idea what kind of creatures they are, but seems confident they’re just curious. We’re not so sure. Clara and the Doctor find the alien ship in the bay, and see the symbols carved inside, which are not being translated by the TARDIS.
When the creatures return, the Doctor speaks patronizingly to the pair, and this time they attack. As the Doctor and Clara run down a long corridor, they find themselves being bidden into a Faraday cage where the crew is hiding. The ghostly creatures stand outside the door, unable to enter the room. The Doctor tells the others that they are not ghosts, and the Victorian-looking one was originally a timid alien from the planet Tivoli. The Doctor asks who’s in charge so he can figure out who he should be ignoring. Cass makes it clear that she is in charge, and the obnoxious Pritchard claims to have authority since his company is paying for the mining rights. When the ship reverts to daylight, the crew tells the Doctor it is save to leave the safety of the Faraday cage because the creatures only come out at night. Well, that’s handy.
Once they’re out of the Faraday cage, the Doctor heads back to the alien spaceship. He finds that the suspended-animation chamber of the pilot and one of the power cells is missing, though the team didn’t remove anything from the recovered ship. Corporate weasel Pritchard is wondering about the value of the power cell.
Meanwhile, the Doctor has an epiphany: “They can walk through walls. They only come out at night … and they’re sort of see-through … They’re ghosts!” Suddenly the Doctor is gleeful as a schoolboy, as he’s never met a proper ghost before and thinks it’s amazing. He manages to offend the crew, whose commanding officer is one of the ghosts. Luckily Clara has created some cards to help the Doctor with his social skills, which include:
- “I completely understand that it was difficult not to get captured.”
- “It was my fault, I should have known you didn’t live in Aberdeen” [Referring to past companion Sarah Jane Smith’s complaint to the Doctor in Toby Whithouse’s first episode “School Reunion.”]
- “I didn’t mean to imply that I don’t care.”
- “No one is going to get eaten/vapourised/exterminated/upgraded/possessed/mortally wounded/turned to jelly. We’ll all get out of this unharmed.”
After the proper card is identified by Clara, he reads it to the crew: “I’m very sorry for your loss. I’ll do all I can to solve the death of your friend slash family member slash pet.” But the Doctor can’t hide his fascination with ghosts:
“But don’t you see what this means? Death! It was the one thing that unified every single living creature in the universe, and now it’s gone! How can you just sit there?! Don’t you want to go out there right now, wrestle them to the ground and ask them questions until your throat falls out? What’s death like? Does it hurt? Do you still get hungry? Do you miss being alive? Why can you only handle metal objects? Oh, I didn’t know I’d noticed that. OK … So, they’ll try to kill you, blah, blah, blah. What does that matter? You come back! A bit murder-y, sure, but even so!”
Is the TARDIS Scared of Ghosts?
Before they get a chance to discuss what the ghosts are and what they want, the base unexpectedly goes into night mode. As O’Donnell tries to get the computer back into day mode, the Doctor hears the TARDIS Cloister Bell. The TARDIS finds the ghosts to be unnatural aberrations and wants to get away from them, but the Doctor puts the handbrake on, forcing her to stay. Clara is eager to leave the TARDIS and get back to the action. The Doctor is concerned about her cavalier attitude, telling her not to “go native” because “there’s a whole … dimension in here, but there’s only room for one ME.” The Doctor wants to ensure his warning has satisfied his “duty to care” responsibility, which Clara, perhaps insincerely, acknowledges that he takes very seriously. We can’t help but think of the news that Jenna Coleman will be leaving Doctor Who after this season. Sometimes just when companions become highly competent and confident is when they end up dying, having their memory erased, or being left in Aberdeen.
Naturally, the sneaky Pritchard is the first to die after he returns from looking for the missing power cell in the flooded village. Clara and Bennett (Arsher Ali) are in the cafeteria gathering supplies when they see Pritchard standing with his back to them (never a good sign in Doctor Who). It’s when they see his floating dead body outside the window that they realize that there’s a ghost is the room with them.
It becomes clear that the ghosts are using the base against them. Cass makes the decision to abandon the base. When she calls in to Topside, it comes out that someone has already sent a message in Morse code asking for a rescue sub with a full paramedic team to pick the crew up. The Doctor overrides the request for a rescue sub, using his UNIT security code. He puts the base under quarantine, telling Topside that there’s “a hazardous and undefined contagion on board.” He tells the shocked crew:
“None of us sent the message, did we? So that means the ghosts sent it, which means they want that crew down here. Why would they do that? I don’t know, but I’m pretty certain it’s not so they can all form a boy band.”
The Doctor comes up with a plan to trap the ghosts. Clara, Bennet, and Lund play the role of the bait as the ghosts chase them down the long corridors. Lund doesn’t get away in time from the Pritchard ghost. Pritchard grabs a wrench and looks closely into Lund’s face, but then drops the wrench and walks away, leaving Lund alive. Using a hologram of Clara, they are able to trap the three ghosts in the Faraday cage. The Doctor goes in for a chat, and the ghosts are all trying to say the same thing. Cass is able to read their lips and tells the Doctor they’re saying, “The dark, the sword, the forsaken, the temple.”
The Doctor recognizes the words are coordinates being transmitted through the ghosts. He realizes that it’s not a natural phenomenon, but that someone is killing people and hijacking their souls in order to transmit these coordinates. The last coordinate, “the temple,” refers to a church in the flooded town outside the base. Though the crew can now leave the base because the ghosts are locked in the Faraday Cage, the Doctor maneuvers the crew into staying on board to help investigate the flooded church. They manage to recover the spaceship’s suspended-animation chamber from the church, but it’s sealed and can’t be opened. The Doctor comments, “It should be the pilot, it should be. So why do I think it isn’t? More questions. Everything I solve, just more questions.”
The Power of Words
The Doctor realizes that the symbols in the spaceship are important. They are the same words being spoken by the ghosts: “The dark. The sword. The forsaken. The temple.” They’re not just words, but magnets. The Doctor tells the crew that the words on the spaceship rewrite the synapses in their brains. He describes the words as an earworm: “A song you can’t stop singing even after you die.” The pilot has left the writing on the spaceship so that whoever sees it becomes a beacon after dying. The Doctor exclaims, “Every time I think it couldn’t get more extraordinary, it surprises me. It’s impossible. I hate it. It’s evil. It’s astonishing. I want to kiss it to death.” When the Doctor is impressed with a strategy, we know we should be too, even if we don’t quite understand it.
The ghosts get into the machinery again, flooding the base. Those still living head toward the TARDIS, but Clara, Cass, and Lund get separated from the Doctor, O’Donnell, and Bennett. Through the intercom the Doctor tells Clara that he must go back in time to when the spaceship landed in the town, before the flood. He needs to go back to understand what’s happening, and to save her. Hmmm … just because he’s not going back in time to change events, it stills feels a little like cheating to go back in time to gather information. And how does that not end up changing the timeline somehow?
Clara, Cass and Lund head back to the cafeteria to wait for the Doctor’s return. Clara tries to breezily reassure the other two, but she appears to be a bit shaken under the surface. When Clara sees the Doctor’s ghostly figure floating out in the water, it becomes clear that something has gone wrong in the past.
Despite the unusual tack of going back in time to learn more about the present situation, “Under the Lake” leaves us with an exciting cliffhanger. Though we love a good series binge-watch as much as the next viewer, we can also appreciate the anticipation Doctor Who gives us with these two-part episodes. For those of us who watched the multiple-part episodes of the classic series, it reinforces the nostalgic feel of the episode. “Under the Lake” was both fun and scary, and it’s gratifying to have some stand-alone Doctor Who episodes that don’t have the baggage of the overall series arc weighing them down. “Under the Lake” is an entertaining Doctor Who episode that makes us feel like children hiding behind the couch once again.