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I’ll Do All I Can to Solve the Death of Your Friend/Family Member/Pet. Doctor Who: “Under the Lake”

We’ve got a fun closed-set two parter up for Doctor Who’s next outing. What happens when you’re underwater and find yourself surrounded by ghosts? Let’s head “Under the Lake”…

Summary

Doctor Who, season 9, Under the Lake

The Drum, an underwater mining facility in Scotland (in the year 2119), discovers something that looks like a spaceship under the water and brings it on board. The crew argues about where the ship came from (there’s writing etched on the wall inside it), and a fire starts in the hanger, killing their captain, Moran. The crew escapes the hangar and finds their captain and another top-hatted man as ghosts with no eyes.

The Doctor and Clara arrive on the facility and begin investigating. They find the “ghosts” and follow them into the hangar—the Doctor notes that the writing inside the alien ship hasn’t been translated by the TARDIS. The ghosts attack them with solid weapons, though they can’t carry them through walls. The Doctor and Clara find the crew in a faraday cage (put on the base because of the nuclear fission powering the place); it doesn’t let in radio waves and the “ghost” can’t get into it. The Doctor asks what’s happened and talks to the new commander, Cass, who is deaf and only speaks sign language; he thinks that he remembers sign language, but it got deleted, so he has to rely on her translator, Lunn. She explains the situation and the Doctor explains that the the top-hatted ghost is from an alien race that isn’t hostile (the Tivoli, last seen in “The God Complex”), so his murderousness doesn’t make sense. Then the base moves to “daylight time” and the ghosts disappear. They only come out at night.

Doctor Who, season 9, Under the Lake

The Doctor is busy trying to ignore the man who claims he’s in charge, named Pritchard; the guy who’s company is funding the expedition in search of oil. The place where the base is stationed used to be a town, but the dam near it broke, putting the place underwater. They head back to the spaceship and the Doctor realizes that something is missing from it—a power cell perhaps— but the crew insists that they never moved anything. The Doctor considers all the facts and comes to the conclusion that that figures they’re seeing are real ghosts. He gets excited, and Clara has note cards prepared for him to apologize. The base goes back into night mode unexpectedly. Pritchard gets killed in the meantime, and becomes a ghost. Allison O’Donnell puts the base back in day mode and the ghosts disappear. They try to call a rescue submarine, but find that one had already been called—by the ghosts. They are clearly looking to create more ghosts, so the Doctor asks the topside base to cancel the rescue.

The Doctor figures that the ghosts put the base in night mode to come out and learn; something about the day mode keeps them from materializing, probably having to do with the electromagnetic locks on the doors. The ghosts are speaking, but no one can read their lips except Cass, so the crew make a plan to trap the ghosts in the faraday cage, putting the ship back in night mode. The plan works and Cass reads the ghosts’ lips. They are repeating the phrase “The dark, the sword, the forsaken, the temple.” The Doctor realizes that these are coordinates pertaining to the earth and the town.

Doctor Who, season 9, Under the Lake

They follow the coordinates and find a deadlocked pod, possibly containing the pilot (though the Doctor isn’t convinced on that front). The murders are occurring to use people as transmitters to get the coordinates out—they are the untranslated words on the wall of the spaceship, which the Doctor compares to an ear worm, designed to get in your head and stay. Cass wants to evacuate the crew, and the Doctor suggests that she’s right, but also thinks that the crew probably wants to stay, being scientists. The base begins to flood to cool the nuclear reactor, so everyone runs to the TARDIS, but Clara, Cass, and Lunn are trapped on the other side of the corridor in the escape attempt.

The Doctor tells Clara that he has to go into the past and find out what happened when the ship landed in the town, and promises that he’ll come back for them in the TARDIS. Clara says goodbye, and insists that they’re safe when a ghost appears outside the base window. She can’t understand how one of them could have gotten out of the faraday cage until she gets a better look at the ghost—it’s the Doctor.

Doctor Who, season 9, Under the Lake

Commentary

So… bets on whether Clara is going to die at the end of the season? Or at the very least end up saved in the Library archives with River Song? (I say this because River has been confirmed for the Christmas special, and this is Jenna Coleman’s final season.) There have been several compelling arguments for Clara’s demise—one expertly hidden in the show’s recent Beatles Abbey Road crossover ad—but I think the real nerve-wracking thing we’re given here is the conversation between the Doctor and Clara on the TARDIS. The Doctor is worried for Clara; he knows that she’s getting a little too complacent, feeling too cavalier about their adventures together.

Doctor Who, season 9, Under the Lake

If that’s where this season is going, I’m pretty much okay with that; I think it’s an interesting point to make within the show, what can come from feeling too safe alongside the Doctor. Even the Doctor’s most doting and devoted companions have never felt as untouchable as Clara. They all had adventures where they felt certain that they had finally gone too far, but Clara seems to have moved bend that cursory regard. Maybe she’s just survived too much already, maybe Danny’s loss has altered her perception of appropriate risk levels. It’s an interesting journey either way, and since companion deaths are relatively rare on Who, it’s sure to have impact if they go that route.

This episode is the first of Toby Whithouse’s two-parter and he is, far and away, one of my favorite Who writers (and just television writers in general). He has that special knack for taking tried and true sci-fi plots and adding that special something to make them sing. In this case, the mystery is puzzling and suspenseful, and the crew of the base is diverse and engaging, so that we’re not relying on the Doctor and Clara solely for our entertainment. As underwater settings go, it’s a vast improvement over Mark Gatiss’ “Cold War,” and while two-part Who episodes don’t always play, this story actually seems as though it requires two whole episodes to pan out.

Doctor Who, season 9, Under the Lake

The real applause clearly belongs to Cass, the de facto commander following Moran’s death, who is a deaf woman using sign language to communicate. If I’m not mistaken, this is the first time we’ve seen sign language employed on the show, and it’s wonderfully done here; Cass has a translator for assistance, but her competence, intelligence, and ability to lead are never questioned. The Doctor respects her input and her ability to read lips proves vital to the plot without seeming too convenient. In addition, while it’s a shame that regeneration seems to have deleted the Doctor’s ability to understand sign language, the fact that he clearly knew it before points to its importance as a skill. (Moreover, it’s just as well that the Doctor can’t recall it so that Lunn continues to have a purpose within the script.) Of course, we are left with the important question—why didn’t Pritchard’s ghost kill Lunn? He had the chance and ultimately doesn’t take it. So that’s probably something for part two to clear up.

There are some fun pop culture references within the script, from ghostbusters to Shirley Bassey to Cabin in the Woods, and shout-outs to previous Who episodes as well: the Tovoli are from a previous Whithouse Who episode “The God Complex,” and the Doctor also mentions Autons, the Nethersphere, and the Flesh avatars we saw in season six. Then there were the notecards that Clara fishes out for the Doctor to help him apologize, and one of them very specifically pertains to Sarah Jane Smith; she scolds the Doctor for dropping her off in Aberdeen during “School Reunion,” another Whithouse-penned episode. (Which I guess means that Clara told him to create the cards for these occassions? Because she wouldn’t know about Sarah Jane so she couldn’t have written them herself… unless they came up with them together and she wrote them down for him? Either way, it’s easily the cutest thing that’s happened in this season thus far.)

Doctor Who, season 9, Under the Lake

Doctor Who, season 9, Under the Lake

Doctor Who, season 9, Under the Lake

Doctor Who, season 9, Under the Lake

The technology in general throughout this episode was smartly executed. Taking place in the near-future allowed for a lot of thought to go into how the tech would function, and much of what we see is clearly spun from technology that already exists. It gives the episode a sheen of realism that Who doesn’t necessarily need, but benefits from all the same. The fact that the psychic paper tells the crew a relative truth for once (that the Doctor was sent by UNIT, giving O’Donnell a moment to fangirl a little since she’s heard of his work) was an extra bit of fun. I was worried that the sunglasses from the former episode were going to bother me as a piece of tech but so far they’ve proved a cool little upgrade and give the Doctor something different to do when he’s trying to piece together the puzzle.

Obviously the Doctor isn’t going to truly die, but having him show up as a ghost at the end was a good way of ramping up suspense for next week’s turn. Let’s hope that the next episode lives up to this first half—if it does, this season will be two-for-two in the success department so far.

Doctor Who, season 9, Under the Lake

Emily Asher-Perrin is sad that we’ll never see the Doctor read that card to Sarah Jane. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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