After the opening bohemian that was ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ and ‘The Witch’s Familiar’, there was just no way that Doctor Who was going to be able to follow that story up. We had Davros, Daleks and Missy, whereas this week we have a lacklustre cast (for the most part) and eyeless ghosts. But somehow, somehow, ‘Under the Lake’ is every bit as thrilling as the opening story.
Of course, that’s not to say it’s on the same level as the Davros two-hander, because it isn’t. But ‘Under the Lake’ was so much better than anticipated.
It’s a staple premise for Doctor Who: a base under siege, a supporting cast that acts as fodder, and a mystery only the Doctor can answer. Take that premise, and it could easily be the Ood two-parter from series 2, or the Flesh two-parter from series 6.
But writer Toby Whithouse somehow manages to produce something different, and that is chiefly down to the fact that there is no cop-out (well, yet, anyway) with regards to the ghosts. Yes, they may be satellite signals for a hiding alien, but the ghosts are categorically ghosts. None of the ‘Cybermen bleeding into our world’ nonsense from series 2. No, these are REAL ghosts. And that’s what makes ‘Under the Lake’ scary.
Because it is scary. Yes, we’re shown the same corridor countless times as one character runs down it over and over, but the ghosts are very frightening.
Given the year this is set in, the fact that the follow-up episode is titled ‘Before The Flood’, and the fact that the ghosts appear to have very cracked skin, I wouldn’t at all be surprised to find out that the Flood, which featured in the sublime ‘The Waters of Mars’, plays a part in the proceedings. But maybe that is wishful thinking?
But back to this week. The majority of the supporting cast is underdeveloped. Moran, in particular, is sorely underused as he is the first to be offed, and even the return of the Tivoli from ‘The God Complex’ is wasted, given that Prentis spends the entirety of this episode aimlessly walking around.
But Sophie Stone as Cass absolutely excels. She managed to convey such conviction when arguing with the Doctor that she steals most of the scenes she appears in.
Likewise, the relationship between the Doctor and Clara is also pivotal this week, as their roles appear to have been reversed. The Doctor is reserved and remaining on the fence, whilst Clara is desperate for danger and excitement.
I still stand by my theory that this newfound love for danger will lead to her death later in the series. I just can’t see any other outcome, unfortunately. Clara loves travelling with the Doctor – so why would she leave?
As is always the case with Doctor Who, there’s an alien explanation to the apparitions, and Cass soon discovers that the ghosts are repeating the same phrase over and over: ‘the dark, the sword, the forsaken, the temple’. This somehow leads the Doctor to discover the answer lies in a flooded church, and there they find a deadlocked stasis pod with, presumably, the originator of the ghosts inside.
But that’s an answer for next week, as the Doctor decides to travel back in time to find out what is in the pod, leaving Clara trapped in the future. Only she, Cass and Cass’ translator aren’t entirely alone, no, because a new ghost has just appeared. Someone dies in the past, and yes, you guessed it – it’s the Doctor!
The Doctor clearly doesn’t die, but I’ll be interested to find out why there’s a ghostly form of him appearing. My guess is those that die don’t really die at all, which would lead to the aforementioned copout with regards to the ghost theory. But we’ll have to wait and see.
I’ll leave you with my standout scene of not just this episode, but perhaps Peter Capaldi’s entire tenure thus far: the Doctor’s cue cards, which include this apology: ‘No-one is going to be eaten/vaporised/exterminated/upgraded/mortally wounded/turned to jelly,’ and my personal favourite: ‘It was my fault, I should have known you didn’t live in Aberdeen‘ – a reference to the beloved Sarah Jane Smith. Pure TV gold.