Here we are, week three of Doctor Who’s newest season and this week The Doctor is back to one of its strengths: horror. This week’s episode, “Under the Lake,” finds The Doctor and Clara in an underwater nuclear base, one that is being terrorized by ghosts.
This week was one with a lot of small touches that worked extremely well in elevating what is otherwise a pretty by-the-numbers episode. For the first time in a long while The Doctor talks about the TARDIS as a living organism again. First in asking why it brought them to this base, and then saying it’s scared and trying to run from the “ghosts.” This being yet another two-parter, I’m going to bet the TARDIS’ apprehension and fear will be further explained in next week’s conclusion.
As the episode develops, a few things quickly come into focus. First and foremost are the crew’s roles in this adventure. There’s the science guy, the brash one, the greedy one who is just begging to be killed (and is in quite a terrible way), along with the leader and her first mate, with the twist here being the leader is deaf and her right hand man is her interpreter. The ghosts they’re being haunted by have no eyes and keep mouthing words but without saying anything. Hmm, a mute ghost and a deaf woman? I wonder if that will pay off later. Yes, some of the twists this week were a little too obvious. Ghosts who aren’t really ghosts is pretty standard for Who. It is a nice moment when The Doctor accepts them as real ghosts and becomes practically giddy at the thought. I was almost disappointed when they realize that once again a spirit is not quite what it seems.
Peter Capaldi’s Doctor always seems to shine best when he’s being cold and aloof when it comes to other people. Here again the writers use that to great effect. His frustration with everyone else’s stupidity is as funny as ever, as is his over inflated ego. Especially funny this week is the moment where The Doctor brushes off the deaf woman’s interpreter, condescending that of course he knows sign language. Quickly we see that he most definitely does not and backpedals saying “it’s been deleted,” all while Clara rolls her eyes at him. I really love these little moments of hubris. Capaldi’s arrogance works both in impressing in one scene and then as amusing in the next.
Another item we haven’t seen in a bit is The Doctor’s psychic paper. While overused for a time, in recent years there have been less and less uses of it even when it seemed completely appropriate. Here it helps move things along since the crew is familiar with UNIT and The Doctor himself so there’s no need to explain himself and we can get right down to business. It’s like the writers found a cheat code to skip ahead and bypass boring exposition. A great use of an old story device.
My favorite addition to Who this week is a tiny but fantastic detail. While being his normal prickly self while speaking of a dead crew member, Clara reminds him about “the cards.” These end up being pre-written responses, I assume written by Clara, for The Doctor to use in situations where he needs to have some common human decency or in this case he’s just gonna fake it till he makes it. His wooden delivery of “I’ll do all I can to solve the death of your friend, slash, family member, slash, pet” was perfect Capaldi. Even when trying to be comforting he’s just that much more off putting.
We also saw the return of Sonic Shades this week. It appears that instead of just a one off, The Doctor will be abandoning his sonic screwdriver for the foreseeable future in favor of this new tech. What he didn’t change this week was his usual manipulative style. When, at the end of the episode, they’ve successfully locked up the ghosts and are free to escape, the Doctor encourages them to do so. He tells them to leave. He quickly follows this up, however, by telling them to be aware that as explorers and people of science, by escaping to safety they also abandon the chance to discover something unique that no one else has ever seen. Playing into their egos or maybe their sense of duty, they decide, however unwise, to stay and learn what’s happening rather than doing the smart and sensible thing which of course is getting the hell out of there and back to safety. Funny that The Doctor does this after practically admitting that he went too far in doing just the same thing with Clara. When she jumps at the chance to have a dangerous adventure with ghosts and death around every corner, The Doctor says “there’s only room for one me in the TARDIS”.
A running theme last year was Clara struggling with her normal life and her life with The Doctor, and just how much like him she was becoming. Perhaps now he sees just a bit too much of himself staring back and the darkness that it will lead to. Darkness like what we saw in the last moments of this week’s show, The Doctor and Clara get separated and he tells her he’s going back in time to figure out what started everything. Then Clara and the crew see one more ghost drift at them through the murky waters, eyeless and mouthing the same words as all the other ghosts, The Doctor apparently dead and stuck as a spirit from whatever happened to him when he went back in time.
This week really took what is a very basic Doctor Who story, adding just the right amount of special touches to elevate it above mediocre. Definitely an episode that is more about the subtext than the text, plus a great hook to bring us back next week for the resolution. While it’s hard to judge these two-parters without seeing where they’re leading us, my interest is definitely piqued, and if that’s not success I don’t know what is.