Doctor Who Recap: Ghosts in the Machine

Picture shows: Peter Capaldi as The Doctor Photo: Simon Ridgway/BBC/BBC Worldwide 2015
Doctor Who
Doctor Who
Episode Title
Under the Lake
Editor’s Rating

The base-under-siege trope has been a Doctor Who chestnut since the Patrick Troughton years. It got a particularly heavy series of workouts in his second season, where the majority of the stories fit the paradigm. The problem with whipping out base-under-siege at this point — after exploiting it ad nauseam for decades — is that you really do need to find a way to do something a little different with it. That is unfortunately the failure of “Under the Lake,” which feels so rote in its execution, that on my initial viewing, at one point I nodded off. At this stage in its long history, running up and down and back and forth through corridors, to and fro after ghastly villains, does not a satisfying episode of Doctor Who make. And let’s be honest, that’s what the bulk of this episode was. This is the possible ugly side of any two-parter: Sometimes there isn’t enough story to fill 90 minutes; the flipside of cramming too much narrative into 45 minutes.

“Under the Lake” also dips into another familiar Who well, and that’s the ghost story. Of course, the thing with Doctor Who ghost stories is that they never, ever turn out to be actual ghosts; instead, typically aliens of some kind. To be fair to “Under the Lake” and its writer Toby Whithouse, there’s an effort here to make these projections actual ghosts, despite the knowledge early on that they’re products of alien technology. The Doctor in one scene asserts that they’re “unnatural — an aberration; you live and then you die.” Later on he accuses the unknown aliens of “hijacking souls,” which I’m unsure makes much sense (it certainly doesn’t to an atheist like me).

The action takes place in an underwater mining facility called the Drum, in Scotland in the year 2119. A half-dozen or so reside and work there, and after pulling an alien ship on board from the murky depths below, everything starts to go kerflooey, including the near instantaneous death and resurrection of the team leader, Moran (Colin McFarlane, whom you may recognize from Torchwood: Children of Earth). It’s a motley crew of scientists and military, and one character, Pritchard (Steve Robertson), is traced directly from the Burke/Aliens blueprint. The writing suggests that in 2119 we’ll still have some sort of dependence on oil, which surely is the most frightening assertion in this episode rife with death and uncertainty. On the plus side, there’s the hearing-impaired Cass (Sophie Stone), who appears to be the sharpest member of the crew, and is loads more interesting to follow than the other crew members. It’s refreshing to remove the rapid-fire dialogue from the series and see a character like Cass blossom.

The Doctor and Clara arrive and are greeted with almost shockingly open arms by the crew, though perhaps that’s because the first time they’re seen, they’re running from the ghosts. My enemies’ enemies are my friends? Also, the Doctor whips out the psychic paper, confirming that he’s part of UNIT. It’s mildly reassuring to discover that UNIT still exists in the 22ndcentury, seemingly more powerful than ever. Did I understand correctly — O’Donnell (Morven Christie) knew the Doctor not only by reputation, but also that there were different versions of the same man?

Steven Moffat promised that this season would see more of the Doctor and Clara enjoying their adventures together, and from the moment they appeared here, that promise was fulfilled. (In the previous two-parter, the time-traveling duo spent very little time on-screen together.) Call me crazy (and some of you will), but I miss all the character drama and friction from last season. Once the series has gone down characterization roads as complex as what was served up in season eight, this sort of fun isn’t as, well, fun. I was stoked by all of the strife of last year. This relationship is less engaging. Perhaps it really is time for Clara to leave.

Of course, Moffat isn’t making the show specifically for me, and I think of all the Clara-haters out there from who we so often hear, and I wonder if they prefer this version of Clara to the one presented last year? Really, what’s to dislike? She fulfills the classic companion role here, which is to aid the Time Lord, cheerlead his brilliance, and ask “What is it, Doctor?” There is one curious, fleeting moment between the pair, when the Doctor declares that she needs a relationship. She insists that she does not, and that she’s fine. But in that insistence appears some deep denial. That was a seed, and maybe the only long-term one in the episode.

The final minutes of “Under the Lake” ratchet up the tension, and the story finally feels as though it’s taking off. The scene where the group was split in two, and the Doctor and Clara communicated through the windows and the waters rose, had serious poetry to it. The Doctor is off to the distant past to get to the bottom of the situation, while Clara stays in the present. In the final moments, the Doctor’s ghost is seen outside the base, with those gaping eyeholes. Bit of a shame they couldn’t find a way to reveal that with the ghost taking off the Doctor’s shades, showcasing the empty eye sockets beneath. It seems as though next week will be a race against time, with most of the episode taking place away from the base. Surely there’s no place to go but up for this tale? It’s not that “Under the Lake” is bad Doctor Who, just terribly average.

Odds and ends

  • Ace bits: Clara once got into an argument with Gandhi; the flash cards — God yes, those flash cards were wonderful; the Doctor was apparently giddy and effusive when he met Shirley Bassey; perhaps because I was less interested in the goings-on here, but Murray Gold’s score felt more innovative than usual; the projection of a hologram Clara by the Doctor’s shades (some will say that should go under naff bits).
  • Naff bits: The Cabin in the Woods is still a pop culture reference in a hundred years!?; The Dark. The Sword. The Forsaken. The Temple — if you got whatever that was all about you’re a smarter Whovian than I, or perhaps you just cared more about that development.
  • The ghosts were never particularly frightening, despite the production team’s efforts to make them so. The only truly effective ghost scene may have been Pritchard terrorizing Lunn (Zaqi Ismail) with that enormous wrench, and the look on Lunn’s face when nothing happened. The incongruity of Moran’s modern-looking ghost and the Victorian-looking Tivolian ghost, stalking side by side, was an effective artistic choice.