03 “Under the Lake” (Doctor Who series 9) [SPOILERS]

doctor who peter capaldi

So the new series of Doctor Who has gotten off to a bang with the opening two episodes, which in this blogger’s opinion managed to do the impossible by making the Daleks feel, if not shiny and new, then at least not groan-worthily stale.

It’s more than that, though. It finally feels like Peter Capaldi has found his version of the Doctor. Grouchy, but all heart under a tough exterior. And it works, even if part of me will always want to see the Doctor via Malcolm Tucker.

We also seemed to have come into a different style of episode format. The two-part episodes are an innovation that I am very much behind, expanding the storytelling ability. It felt, with the first two episodes of the series, to have slowed down the often frenetic pace. Which makes a nice change. It’s like the series, as well as the Doctor, is growing up.

In the hunt for monsters and adventure, the Doctor and Clara end up on an underwater army base, where the crew have recovered an alien ship from the lakebed, and are being terrorised by ghosts.

This is more like it. Claustrophobic, weird, with a sinister edge of horror. This is the Doctor Who I grew up on.

And this is one of the best constructed Doctor Who stories I’ve seen in a long time, actually. From the moment that the Doctor and Clara arrive on the underwater base, and come face to face with something that the Doctor insists can’t be possible, there’s an air of real inescapable mystery to it. Unlike with a lot of stories, I genuinely have no clue where it’s going.

So what we have is the Doctor and Clara, with a gaggle of scientists and military, and one greedy corporate bloke keen to lay claim to just about everything, looking to find out what is going on. The ghosts only come out when the station is in night mode, can only interact with metallic objects, and seem selective about who they kill. Not to mention that anyone they kill returns as one of them.

The figuring it out is fun. First working out what they were saying — “The dark, the sword, the forsaken, the temple” — and what it meant — the church at the abandoned and flooded army base on the bottom of the lake. Then that the ghosts are broadcasting a signal. And that there’s a cryogenic pod on the bottom of the lake, which the Doctor doesn’t think contains the ship’s pilot.

There’s also something deeper, around a shift in Clara’s character. Previously she had resisted the Doctor’s adventurey lifestyle, but now she’s seeking it out directly. More than that, the Doctor actually stops her and warns her not to become him. This is big, no? The Doctor’s companions are his anchor to the real world, to conscience and humanity. The moment where Clara produces multi-purpose apology cards for the Doctor to read off are evidence of that, but it’s not really good enough. The Tenth Doctor’s “Time Lord victorious” moment in The Waters of Mars showed the importance of companions to the Doctor, and that role is not one being played by Clara presently if she’s charging ahead of the Doctor into danger.

Because that’s what the Doctor is doing here. To be fair, he’s always doing the same, but recklessly putting everyone else in danger for the sake of satisfying his own curiosity seems unsettling when there’s no one pulling him back. In last series’ rather brilliant episode “Flatline”, Clara had to be the Doctor. Is that what this is?

My favourite part, though, is the final stage of this episode. The Doctor does something new, something which I have always, always thought would solve so many of his problems. Faced with a mystery which started a few hundred years earlier, before the base was underwater, the Doctor jumps into his TARDIS and heads back to take a look at what happened. Rather than trying to retroactively piece the puzzle together, he goes and takes a look at the box art showing the finish product.

Now, why on earth isn’t this the first port of call? You’re a time traveller for crying out loud!

The answer, though, might very well be laid out in the final scene, as having captured the three existing ghosts in a Faraday cage, Clara watches a new ghost glide closer in the murky water. And, surprise surprise, it’s the Doctor himself.

This was a brilliant episode. It had tension throughout, as well as science-fiction mystery with a deeply creepy edge, well acted and well paced throughout. I’m not sure how exactly it did it, but this is about as close to my ideal Doctor Who episode as I can imagine — usual caveats apply: it could all go pear-shaped with the concluding part. But if this is the sort of thing we can expect from this series, then it’s going to take some ruining on the other end.

I don’t like making predictions, as I almost always turn out to be wrong, but I do have a lingering suspicion that the contents of the cryogenic pod will be, in fact, the Doctor, in a form of suspended animation which allows his ghost to wander around being all see-through and shimmery. What the rest of it is all about, though is anybody’s guess at this point.

Closing thoughts:

  • Still not a fan of the sunglasses. And there’s a petition to get rid of them.
  • The deaf commanding officer, along with her dependence on her sign language guy, was a very nice touch indeed.
  • It’s always a good episode when the TARDIS cloister bell makes an appearance.
  • The Doctor can keep his fingers out of my beverages, thank you very much.
  • The TARDIS has better sense than the Doctor. Or Clara.

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