After a breathtaking two-part opening act that reached deep into Doctor Who lore, the next dangerous romp through space and time is the first act of another two-parter. I’m glad these longer stories are back. They allow for better pacing, allowed to play out without having to “wrap things up”. Under The Lake also continues the shows notably more sinister tone in Season 9, something else I’m glad seems to be here to stay.
In recent years Doctor Who has really taken to telling really good ghost stories, or what seem like ghost stories until the techno-babble explains their true nature. Classic Who had a few great ghost stories of its own, most notably the Seventh Doctor story, Ghost Light. Under The Lake is a great addition to the Doctor Who paranormal pantheon. Set on an underwater base, claustrophobia, paranoia, and fear already run rampant from the start.
Oh, and the ghosts, of course. Creepy, relentless, and with a hint of malevolence, these specters are messing with the crew of an underwater mining facility with cryptic signs, and terrible apparitions. The ghosts created for Under The Lake are some of Doctor Who’s best SFX work in recent years. They’re legitimately creepy. Perhaps their excellence lead to this episode’s later than usual airtime in the UK. Push it back a bit to spare the kiddies? Another good sign of the show’s maturation.
When the Doctor and Clara arrive to find the base seemingly devoid of the living they eventually find some of that cryptic writing, only they can’t read it. The TARDIS not being able to translate the writing for them is a great moment. It implies an actual threat for the Doctor. What is this that even the TARDIS can’t help them?
A group of surviving crew members tell the Doctor that things haven’t been going great lately. Sadly, they can’t offer any insight into the ghosts or writing. They can only watch as the Doctor investigates. The Doctor eventually comes to terms with the truth of the situation; ghost do indeed exist! But as he mulls over the possibilities the TARDIS cries out a warning via cloister bell. When the Doctor and Clara run inside he slams the handbrake, effectively “shutting up” the TARDIS. I thought this was a rather interesting scene for some reason. It actually felt like he disrespected the old girl bit.
A really great moment between Clara and The Doctor occurs when Clara is about to run right back into the fray without a moment’s hesitation. The Doctor feels compelled to warn her that she might be becoming a bit too comfortable with all the danger they encounter. It’s as if she’s not just addicted to it, but that she’s becoming a little too like The Doctor with her complete disregard for the risks. Much of Clara’s development over the course of Season 8 focused on her becoming more like The Doctor. This theme must come to a head at some point this season, probably when Clara pushes headlong into some insurmountable danger. Knowing Clara will depart the TARDIS this season, I’m beginning to suspect she might meet a tragic end.
Urgency sets in when the ghosts start murdering more of the crew. Things get really creepy as we see a recently killed crew member appear in a different part of the station. The recently dead are popping up in places they shouldn’t… like anywhere at all… and undead. They’re turning into the ghosts, of course. Something strange about their method of murder doesn’t go unnoticed by The Doctor. The ghosts are using the environment to kill. Very un-phantom like!
From victims to Ghostbusters, the Doctor and gang go on the offensive. The investigation eventually leads to a somewhat underwhelming plot point being used as an easy way out. One of the crew members being deaf leads her to lip-read what the ghosts appear to be saying, although nobody can hear them. It becomes key to solving the whole mystery, and even though it’s a little too convenient as far as writing goes, it doesn’t damage the overall story.
What the ghosts actually are turns out to be a really good story, even if we don’t really know why they’re actually in the facility. How The Doctor convinces the crew to stay and help is something rather wonderful. He evokes each of their sense of honor and service as a reason to stay when they could easy flee. Again we see The Doctor make ordinary people into soldiers, but it’s a nice message of what makes someone heroic.
Under The Lake isn’t a spectacular episode, but it is a good one, and it’s a great echoing of Classic Doctor Who. Again we get an episode with composition very similar to the old stories, but with modern polishing that results in a fun, mysteriously spooky ride. My only real criticism is Steven Moffat’s continued, relentless, and now completely eye-rolling use of The Doctor’s death as a plot point. It’s beyond getting old. Time to stop.
I nominate Under The Lake as the episode where Peter Capaldi’s Doctor really becomes something magical. It’s his best work in the role so far. This episode gives a very good look at who the Doctor is now, and how he’ll go about “Doctoring” from now on. Capaldi brings a really great sense of authority to the role, albeit with a troubling sense of uncertainty bubbling just below the surface. It’s evident from this episode that Capaldi needs to be The Doctor for a long time.