A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Doctor Who has prohibitively avoided going full supernatural before, largely staying within the realms of rational, scientific explanations that may not be completely accurate but largely work within its own universe. There is the occasional detour, to be fair, but it always rings closer to reason than otherwise. The appearance of ghosts in this two-parter opener was thusly surprising. But I was more than willing to along with it, despite the nagging voices in the back of my head telling me otherwise, and it wasn’t just because Peter Capaldi’s Doctor interacting with ghosts sounded amazing on its own. There is a willingness in this season of Who to go in daring directions, even if the payoff isn’t as daring as it could have been and that sort of rebellious attitude could have gone there and I would have been okay with it, as long as the story and characters made sense. Under the Lake is a much more intriguing set up than usual Who two-parter starters receive and that’s not necessarily from the vantage point of quality, but in the sense that there almost didn’t need to be a second part of the story so I’m hoping that what Moffat has in store is truly worthy of matching that shocker of a cliffhanger. For all of the expectations and realities the audience has come to expect with Moffat’s tenure as the storyteller, Who remains capable of delivering true shockers to the audience and the Doctor’s ghost floating through the water and towards Clara certainly qualifies as one.
The episode begins with a terrifically diverse cast on what appears to be a station of some sort. The ambience of the surroundings as a whole are quite reminiscent of the David Tennant/Billie Piper two-parter The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit. There is the seemingly idyllic day disrupted without warning on what appears to be a station of some sort. There’s the symbolic markings, except they’re coordinates and not on someone’s body. Then there’s also the crew members being targeted by a mysterious force seemingly hell bent on their destruction, picking them off one by one as if they were mere chattel. Everything seems fine for a singular moment and then, with the first death, the chase is on. An eerie silence settles in before the theme song kicks in and the whoosh of the TARDIS is heard reverberating throughout the empty hallways. Clara is notably enthusiastic in comparison to the Doctor, perhaps expecting a far more congenial adventure than the previous outing with the love Daleks for company. If so, she would be mightily disappointed by the end of the hour. The Doctor, meanwhile, storms in with full authority, with the expectation of taking control of whatever confounding quagmire he’s come into contact with. That that happens is of absolutely no surprise, coupled with the Doctor meeting a huge fan of his. Immediately the Doctor encounters a sense of urgency coupled with anxiety, bemusement, and a little bit of defiance and hope. In other words, his perfect recipe.
There is at least one prime opportunity for the Doctor’s snark to be exerted in the best fashion possible in a clear Alien homage. As it turns out, the station is harboring a corporate weasel whose highest priority is ensuring that Vector Petroleum garners all of its investments back, whatever the cost otherwise may be. the Doctor’s heightened scorn in particular is enjoyable here. But in other matters, the Doctor may truly be grateful for Clara’s company. The Doctor, regardless of the incarnation, has always been a sort of oddity in his interactions with the human populace. For Doctor Capaldi, that interaction has generally been imbued with a snark and smart assery nearly unparalleled. So to see him shed that completely and sort of drown into the opposite was wonderful. Capaldi’s Doctor, perhaps more so than any other, values knowledge above all else. The pursuit of knowledge is his favorite sort of adventure, each kernel of information trickling into his mind a bonafide treat that couldn’t be matched. For all of his logic and reasoning, the mere idea that he might be encountering actual ghosts for the first time is something that excites him beyond all palpable measure. There’s something, he thinks to himself, something that is so perfectly fantastic about uncovering this hidden piece of intelligence he had thought to be so utterly inane and insane that he just has to know. The snark and grouch all but disappear and he becomes a veritable child, a delightful sight to behold. In his delight, however, he forgets that the ghost he’s so excited to meet was a friend of everyone standing there and in that awkward moment, Clara comes to the rescue. In what might very well be one of the best scenes in all of Who, Clara presents him with cue cards he had written in exactly those situations where he ends up saying something remarkably standoffish. His cue cards include the following gems:
“I completely understand why it was difficult not to get captured.”
“It was my fault, I should have known you didn’t live in Aberdeen.”, “I didn’t mean to imply that I don’t care.”
“No one is going to get eaten/vaporized/exterminated/upgraded/possessed/mortally wounded/turned to jelly and we’ll all get out of this unharmed.”
The one he ends up going with is: “I’m very sorry your loss. I’ll do all I can to solve the death of your friend/family member/pet.” Clara’s immediate expression of sheer disbelief and exasperation is beautiful to behold.
If Planet/Satan provided the inspiration for the setting, then the thematic callback is taken from the seminal series eight episode Flatline. That episode was famed for being the most revealing as to who Clara is: she’s a Doctor. She has that ability to navigate tough choices, she’s commanding (a trait that fits in neatly with her stated profession as a teacher), and she’s clever in circumstances where it often appears that there is no way out. She saved the day in Flatline and made her Doctor title proud, but it troubled the Doctor in many ways that were never made explicit but played out across Capaldi’s face in obviousness. The Doctor has always tried to save those around him not just from the monsters or elements around them, but from their own selves. He has little right to do that in a sense, and he’s confronted with that when Clara wanted some validation for being a good Doctor. In that moment certainly, the conversation went beyond the Doctor wanting Clara to not have to make the terrible choices he’s confronted with. It’s that baggage he’s accumulated over the millennia, the horrors he has faced and seeing his closest companion swerve so close to that path is something he simply can’t bear. Throughout the hour he’s dampening Clara’s enthusiasm to little effect, but he remains persistent. That persistence may have been in vein, but it has the effect of making his final line of the evening all the more poignant. Trust him, Dr. Clara, for you’re their only hope.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+“You’re itching to save a planet, I know it.”
+“Oh yeah, you see, this is more like it.”
+“You’re really the Doctor? Big fan!”
+A deaf character being played by a deaf actress (Sophie Stone) was fantastic
+“So who’s in charge now? I need to know who to ignore.”
+“They only come out at night.”
“Weird, that’s somehow not comforting.”
+“It’s okay, I understand. You’re an idiot.”
+“Don’t go native.”
+“I’m beginning to think we should have let the ghosts in on the plan.”
+“Surely being around me makes you clever by osmosis?”
+“You’re going to go back in time. How do you do that?”
Episode Title: Under the Lake
Written by: Toby Whithouse
Directed by: Daniel O’Hara
Image Courtesy: BBC UK