NOTE: Full spoilers for this episode of Doctor Who are present in this review
After the two-part Series Nine premiere gave us a fantastic Davros/Daleks storyline, we go back to creature mysteries this week in Doctor Who, with “Under the Lake”, another two-parter that puts The Doctor and Clara up against some undead spooks! Boy, the Twelfth Doctor seems to run into undead apparitions quite a lot, doesn’t he?
In any case, the TARDIS drops The Doctor and Clara in a 22nd Century underwater base of some kind, which is mining for oil that was recently discovered in the area, after a vessel of unknown origin landed there. They discover that mysterious beings have invaded the base, and manage to make it to safety with the rest of the crew, who hide until the base returns to replicating daytime, at which point, the creatures vanish.
If you’re a longtime fan of Doctor Who, you’re no doubt used to The Doctor debunking any sort of magic or spiritual phenomena, despite the fact that these beings sure do look like undead spirits, and the episode begins with the crew’s captain being killed by a flame jet, and showing up as one of the baddies, complete with eerie dark eyes. Surprisingly though, the show throws a surprising curveball when The Doctor just flat out says that the beings are ghosts! That can’t be though, right? Well, we have no choice but to take The Doctor’s word for now, with The Doctor giddy at possibilities over something he doesn’t understand.
On this note, the scene with Clara handing The Doctor a set of cue cards that comprise socially appropriate responses to what humans view as a tragedy is absolutely hilarious. If you look carefully, you’ll also see a couple of other cards where The Doctor says that it’s ok to be captured (no doubt a clever jab at so many Classic Who companions), and another with generic assurance that everyone will get out alive, with references to scenarios like being exterminated or upgraded that specifically reference top-tier Doctor foes like the Daleks and the Cybermen. It was especially funny to see The Doctor also forced to share sympathy for pets, which he reads out alongside friends and family members to the exasperated base crew at Clara’s behest.
Moving on, the oil rep, who is predictably a greedy, slimy bastard, wanders off and ends up getting killed after the ghosts switch the base to Night Mode (somehow), and crush him in a flooding chamber. This leads to a nicely chilling moment where the crew finds his ghost facing away, then discovers his body floating outside the window at the same time.
The Doctor hatches a risky plan to try and get answers regarding the ghosts, namely by talking to them. He has Clara and a couple of crew members lead the ghosts around, with one narrowly escaping death by wrench after being cornered (the episode doesn’t explain this, but maybe the second part will next week), and a clever use of a Clara hologram ends with the ghosts being imprisoned in a lead chamber, with all three of them being unable to pass through lead.
The Doctor enters the chamber, and proves that the ghosts are helpless without any weapons nearby. He sees that the ghosts are constantly mouthing the same silent phrase, and the crew’s conveniently deaf-mute officer, who reads lips, tells them that the ghosts are talking about, “The dark, the sword, and the temple.” On paper, it’s gibberish, though The Doctor quickly deduces that it must be coordinates.
Apparently, get this, someone is beaming a signal across the universe that is somehow powered by trapping the souls of the dead, and this is why the ghosts have been trying to kill people to increase their numbers, as that makes the signal stronger. It’s a bit of a far-fetched explanation, but hey, this is Doctor Who. Despite apparently solving the puzzle however, The Doctor is uneasy, since there’s a detail that’s sticking out. The deaf-mute officer then suggests that it’s odd that the mysterious, untranslated lettering (apparently, it’s very ancient, so the TARDIS can’t translate it) is only appearing on the inside of the base. The Doctor then puts together that the coordinates are meant to stick out in the minds of those nearby, like an earworm, which is why no one was surprised that The Doctor claimed the words were coordinates. Apparently, everyone already knew that sub-consciously.
The source of the signal is apparently some sort of being in stasis, predictably sitting in the unknown vessel, who is attempting to draw some other mysterious force to Earth for reasons unknown. Left with no other option, and the ghosts contained, The Doctor then decides to go back in time. Unfortunately, the ghosts (again, somehow) activate more flooding responses, faking a reactor meltdown, which separates The Doctor and Clara, who each have separate crewmates at their side. The Doctor tells Clara to wait for him to return from the past with the TARDIS, and Clara and her crew members decide to return to the bridge.
This is the one part of the episode that felt a little shaky, beyond the expected plot-convenient capabilities of the ghosts, but again, some of that is to be expected when you’re dealing with Doctor Who baddies by this point, especially when some of these apparent plot holes with the ghosts may be filled in next week during the second part. The hiccup though is, if The Doctor wanted answers about who and what piloted the ship, and what it was drawing to Earth, why didn’t he go to the past earlier in the episode? Why did he wait for the ghosts to separate him from Clara? It smacked a little of the writers just wanting to separate The Doctor from Clara to create more drama next week, and the excuse was a little iffy.
Still, “Under the Lake” was another great episode for Series Nine overall, with a strong creature mystery that felt very compelling to watch. The episode’s ending was especially strong, with Clara and her crew members witnessing a new ghost, which turned out to be The Doctor himself! Uh oh! Looks like something has gone very wrong in the past, and with no TARDIS, Clara doesn’t have a lot of options back in the 22nd Century!
There’s some explaining to do with the ghosts and their capabilities in next week’s episode, but even with the Twelfth Doctor having had some run-ins with the undead already in Series Eight, the show is still managing to keep Doctor Who ghost hunting fresh and interesting, and that’s awesome!
Doctor Who returned to a more traditional creature mystery this week with the start of another two-parter, introducing another compelling undead encounter that was engaging to watch, and had a great balance between suspense, humour and excitement!
THE GOOD STUFF
Good, chilling ghost mystery
Effective funny moments, especially the cue cards
Ghost Doctor ending is a great twist
THE NOT-SO-GOOD STUFF
Why did The Doctor not travel to the past right away?