With “The Magician’s Apprentice/Witch’s Familiar” two-parter having channeled Doctor Who history via the Doctor/Davros relationship, “Under the Lake” taps into another Who tradition via a classic base-under-siege scenario. A popular staple of the show in its early years due to the limited amount of set work required, these stories typically involved The Doctor and his companion arriving at a base filled with a motley crew of scientists, soldiers or other highly specialized groups, which would inevitably be under attack by some kind of invading alien force. In the wake of New Who’s increased budgetary capacities and more sophisticated special effects, the revised series has seen these stories play out in environments that manage to feel more atmospheric and tangible and less like the same cardboard corridors used over and over.
On paper, the idea of a base-under-siege storyline as a two-parter is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the increased runtime allows more real estate in getting to know the cast of characters who will serve as The Doctor’s allies (thus, we care more, in the event they end up dying); moreover, if done properly, there’s room for the central threat to continually elevate (as seen in the fantastic Season Two entry “The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit”). Unfortunately, if either the threat seems overly pedestrian or the characters come across as bland, such an experiment can end up feeling more like a padded slog (see Season Six’s “The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People”).
The central location this time around is a 22nd Century underwater base near a submerged city in Scotland. In the teaser, we find the base’s crew exploring what appears to be some kind of alien vessel. As they poke around, a being that looks to be some kind of ghostly Victorian gentlemen (complete with a top hat and muttonchops) phases in and out of sight around them. Suddenly, the ship’s boosters are activated and the base’s captain sacrifices his life pushing a crewmember out of the way of its fiery blast. The crew has barely had time to process this loss before their captain appears alongside the Victorian gentlemen looking just as transparent and ghost-like, with large black craters where his eyes should be.
Soon after, The Doctor and Clara arrive at the base where they are attacked by the two ghostly figures. Though The Doctor at first pooh-poohs the idea of their attackers being ghosts, he soon comes to the conclusion—after some standard mental gymnastics—that “ghosts” may indeed be the most reasonable explanation. What’s more, the alien responsible for this mess is from the planet Tivoli, a species previously explored in Season Seven’s “The God Complex.” The remainder of the episode finds the gang hatching a plan to trap the ghosts and figuring out what they want.
As is the case with “The Magician’s Apprentice” much of the episode’s runtime centers around set-up—namely, establishing the rules of the ghosts (i.e. the ghosts only come out during the “night” segments of the base’s timeline, plus the only location they cannot phase through walls is a lead-laced Faraday Cage) and deducing what their motivations could possibly be (The Doctor quickly figures out that the mysterious creature is making ghosts in order to extend some sort of signal—whether it’s a distress signal or declaration of war, he’s not sure). Unlike that premiere episode, however, “Under the Lake” has a much tighter focus, with veteran Who writer Toby Whithouse and director Daniel O’Hara maximizing the episode’s runtime by perfectly melding bouts of exposition with suspenseful set pieces.
What certainly helps the episode along is the casting of the crew. While it’s unfortunate that, for the second week in the row, the lone black character is the first one to bite the dust, the characters remaining quickly prove to be more than helpless peons that The Doctor must herd like sheep. This is especially the case with Cass, the team’s de facto leader and a deaf woman (Sophie Stone, the actress who plays her, is apparently deaf in real life). Boasting a vibrant and strong-willed personality, Cass has the know-all to question The Doctor’s tactics and instantly shoot down any plans that could involve getting anymore of her colleagues killed. Granted there’s also the stereotypical red shirt—a company man named Pritchard—whose every mention of risking lives for the sake of profits puts him one step closer to the grave, but it’s a solid group for the most part.
Also helping to spice up the proceedings is some great character-based humor. Unlike his previous incarnation, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor appears to have some general issues with empathy. Upon learning that the figments tormenting them might actually be ghosts, he reacts with childish glee, exclaiming, “Wow, this is amazing, I’ve never met a proper ghost!” Clara must then cue him to look through a series of cards with pre-written apologies. He’s obviously been making these faux pas a lot lately. Finally, The Doctor settles on, “I’m very sorry for your loss. I’ll do all I can to solve the death of your friend-slash-family member-slash-pet” (other available card options—“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” and “No one is going to get eaten/vapourised/exterminated/upgraded/possessed/mortally wounded/turned to jelly—we’ll all get out of this unharmed”).
As a whole, “Under the Lake” really does feel as though, with a few tweaks, it could make for a fairly solid stand-alone story. It’s only in the final minutes that the episode pulls back and reveals its true scope. Separated from the group, The Doctor decides to travel back in time to before the flood (incidentally, the name of next week’s episode) in order to fix whatever happened that resulted in this ghost rampage. No sooner has the TARDIS disappeared, than Clara looks out the window to discover that a new ghost has manifested itself in the ocean depths. She is further horrified to discover that it’s the ghost of The Doctor.
Much like “Magician’s Apprentice,” this is the kind of cliffhanger that seemingly re-contextualizes the focus of the episode. In the case of “Under the Lake,” we’re now left wondering both what happened to The Doctor in the past that resulted in him getting ghosted and how Clara will navigate a path to survival without his immediate assistance. It’s a hell of a way to pivot a seemingly straightforward adventure yarn and has me ansty for next week.