You’d be forgiven to think that after the really good show with Doctor Who‘s “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar,” we would be subjected to something of far less quality. But “Under the Lake” proved to be something else entirely.
It doesn’t start with Clara and The Doctor in 1920s finery on a cosmic Orient Express, or even with The Doctor bungling his cover as a janitor with something that looks awfully and suspiciously like a proton pack. It does start with a team of scientists, not unlike “Into the Dalek.” But instead of automatically dealing with some people we have no sympathies or connections towards either way, we actually get introduced to the basic personalities of the team exploring a sunken city and an alien craft they found there in the not too distant future all things considered.
The episode starts off creepily enough: with a withered old Tivolian ghost and what seems to be the spirit of the group’s recently deceased leader.
They have no eyes and they seem to be repeating a phrase, silently, over and again. Sometimes they want to kill people with physical objects, and other times just talk to them. And, of course, they come out at night: or the artificial night of their own facility under the deep sea.
The Doctor and Clara do make it into this situation and it is here that you begin to notice something different. It starts off similar to most of their adventures: with Clara rather being somewhere else and questioning why they are there, but the Shut Up Clara element seems to be a bit more subdued this time around.
What’s even more refreshing is that the crew is already familiar with UNIT and know who The Doctor is: making his psychic paper pretty much redundant. At the same time, they take no sass from him: making it clear that while he finds the prospect of the afterlife fascinating, it did cost them their captain and comrade’s life. It shouldn’t be too surprising as well that even as The Doctor dismissively subverts the convention of the exploratory horror genre by already asking for the person in charge whom he should ignore, he also has Clara with cue cards to help him empathize with people and cover his own faux pas.
After all, The Doctor’s bedside manner is only exceeded by that of House.
You would think that a group of scientists would have learned to examine details that stand out, right? Of course, you would also think that The Doctor would learn from his own experience: especially when the TARDIS herself wants to be out of that entire situation.
The Doctor should remember never to ignore Sexy.
Even as The Doctor is utilizing the minds of the crew and his Companion around him to figure out what the ghosts are and how to deal with them and just why they are there, it is the ranking member of the facility’s team — Cass — that clarifies some matters.
Cass is second in command of the Drum facility. She is also one of those individuals that, while reasonable and is quite willing to take The Doctor’s lead, has no issue taking him to task or calling him on his behaviour if it gets in the way of the mission and the dynamic she has with her crew. Cass is also deaf: a fact which eventually allows her to actually make out with the silent ghosts are actually saying.
But that information is not enough. There is also a suspended animation capsule from the craft that they recover from the ruins of the town under the lake: which they can’t open. And even though they manage to trap the ghosts in a Faraday cage, the ghosts manage to flood the station. The Doctor goes back in time to see where the craft came from and why the ghosts are being used as transmitters to summon or communicate with … something.
One thing you might notice, from the last two episodes, is that Clara is almost uncharacteristically quiet. Aside from a very forced and stilted conversation about her mental well-being by The Doctor in the TARDIS, her introductory lines, and the cue cards she is mostly passive and just letting others do the talking. And while this is definitely another refreshing moment when you consider all of the “it’s all about Clara” moments the last seasons had, it is sad that she isn’t actually … doing anything. So far we’ve seen her get “acted upon” and now go along with anything she’s told. It’s kind of disappointing that, at this stage in the game, it looks like this is the place to which her character has finally been reduced.
Yet this might change. Usually, in this kind of episode, The Doctor solves the mystery in an hour’s time. But he hasn’t. What’s worse is that another ghost has appeared in the water. And so now half the crew that left with The Doctor on his TARDIS seems to be gone, leaving Clara with the rest of them … and the hollow eyes of what seems to be her dead friend.
But nothing is as it seems and perhaps there might be … something to that capsule they can’t open. But maybe we will get to see Clara step up, or the plot work out in a “Timey-wimey” sense next time, on Doctor Who, in “Before the Flood.”