Niels Bohr would be intrigued by Toby Whitehouse’s refreshing, back-to-the-basics episode. “Under the Lake” is far less “accept it” showy entertainment and more sci-fi story. What a novel concept for Doctor Who. Whitehouse has an ongoing history with the show. He began writing episodes in 2006 (“School Reunion“), beginning under Russell T. Davies and continuing under Steven Moffat. And for that, the Who fandom is grateful. He has frequently been touted as a potential successor when Moffat leaves. Currently, however, Whitehouse keeps himself busy with his own projects, including BBC Three’s Being Human.
Closing in on the Halloween season, Whitehouse chose to offer us a ghost story. And who knew the Tardis would be afraid of ghosts? Then again, it’s far more likely that she’s afraid of the electromagnetic energy of the ghosts rather than any supernatural powers. Imagine if the ghosts entered into the Tardis and could wreak havoc with the electrical system? We open the episode with the Doctor knowing that she is unsettled, while Clara tries to convince him to leave for another adventure (one would think that Clara knows that where they land adventure will follow). The Tardis is so frightened of the ghosts that later in the episode the Doctor has to throw on the hand brake.
I was confused that the two ghosts the Doctor and Clara first encountered were merely curious and did not attempt to kill them. (And I was more confused later in the episode when a ghost chooses not to kill another crew member.) Given the storyline, it appears that they were programmed to kill in order to convert and harness more energy. Perhaps, I thought, there was some supernatural, metaphysical aspect of them that took over in order to lead the Doctor and Clara to the ship. Then, sadly disappointed that the Doctor was not able to immediately assist, they went into aggressive mode. Then it hit me, none of these characters had yet been into the space ship when they first encountered the ghosts. Quibble resolved.
From the get-go, I felt a nuanced difference in Clara and the Doctor’s characters and found it both intriguing and beneficial to their working together as a team. The Doctor introduces himself by use of psychic paper that declares him UNIT and lets everyone know that he’s in charge in an oh, so subtle way (“So, who’s in charge now? I need to know who to ignore.”). Simulated day returns and the underwater team (which includes the insufferable, greedy Pritchard), the Doctor, and Clara gather in the control room to conference. The Doctor, as we know, has few filters. He has rarely been known for the ability to engage in what is considered appropriate social interaction, and endearingly we see that Clara has devised cue cards. Of course, they cannot be beneficial if read verbatim. Throughout the episode, it appeared that the connection between Clara and the Doctor flowed more easily and each character felt a bit more defined. Or, have I lost my mind? I have read one other account wherein the author would take issues with this contention. The scene in the Tardis where the Doctor reminds Clara that there is only one of him and that he has a duty of care, is in my humble opinion, geared toward definition. And you have to admit that the Doctor’s lovable arrogance shined brightly. This may be my personal perception and other viewers will have their reactions and preferences to this scene.
Far be it from me to ever say that Doctor Who contains social commentary (but it does). It certainly seemed appropriate that Pritchard was flushed out of the ship after leaving to seek the missing power cell strictly for monetary reasons. Who else guffawed when his early response to the Doctor about leaving the ship was: “…It’s not them that lost a bonus.” Of course the Doctor’s brilliant response was: “It’s ok, I understand. You’re an idiot.”
Things are made more interesting by the symbols that have been found inside the ship. We are shown that once they are looked at they register on the eye. Later, we find out that their magnetic imprint programs the individual so that when dead, the words (which are coordinates) will be repeated over and over as transmission. Without the imprint, an individual would be useless. Brilliant. I want to meet the species that designed that.
I should state that the Doctor doesn’t believe that ghosts are a natural phenomenon. Or didn’t. Or doesn’t. And the way that he announces that the “monsters” are ghosts is every bit what my idea of the 12th Doctor is — frequently oblivious to others. Typically it does not appear that this is an intentional slight of others, it may be that the Doctor is simply so lost within his own processing that he frequently dismisses what others say even if there may be some underlying sense. Or am I romanticizing this potential fault? We have likely all encountered people like this and it can be annoying, but the Doctor’s character tends to make it embraceable on some level.
From a paranormal perspective, it is thought that ghosts have the ability to manipulate energy and electricity. From a quantum physics perspective, energy never dies, it simply changes form and that form remains part of the four fundamental reactions. The ghosts that plague our characters in “Under the Lake” had the ability to manipulate the system controls to bring on night and give them an advantage in being able to use the ship against its inhabitants. Were ghosts actually at play? Or is there an intelligent being who is able to harness the shifted energy of the dead?
Indeed, Whitehouse has taken us back to basics. A base under siege story with plenty of walks/runs down dark corridors and a storyline where the characters can shine through performance and dialogue was a perfect prescription. Visuals, production, and direction may remind many fans of classic Who as well as an allusion or two to modern Who. The Doctor and Clara saying good-bye through porthole windows, behind flood doors, reminded me of the Doctor and Donna saying hello through windows (Series 4, first episode, “Partners in Crime“). Throughout the entirety of Doctor Who, the Doctor and his companion have been partners. Whitehouse made this connection apparent, once again, in “Under the Lake.” I couldn’t help but wonder if his I’m the only Doctor reminder to Clara was a throw-back to the Doctor Donna days. And, by the way, who knew that Clara wrote songs?
A poignant part of the episode is that the individual next in charge following the death of the commander of the base is deaf (as is Sophie Stone, the actor who portrays her). Through the use of sign and her interpreter she was both quiet and vocal when necessary in order to lead. Though the Doctor appeared to dismiss her, along with the others, when issuing his own orders, he was very aware of her thought processes and, perhaps, some heightened intuitive sensitivities. She knew it was unsafe to go into the space ship and insisted that her interpreter not go, why? She realized that the symbols in the ship were not merely words or symbols. Again, not to overplay social commentary, but is this a nod to accepting disability in the social structure, rather than labeling or ostracizing?
Having said that, it is thought-provoking and irritating that the one black member of the crew gets about 15 seconds of air-time, and is then killed. There is an unfortunate history in Doctor Who with black, male characters receiving the short end of the stick. Is the BBC really oblivious to this fact?
Overall, this episode was a refreshing drink of water and, thankfully, not the poisoned water on “The Water of Mars.” We stay alive quite well through the ghostly ordeal and the quibbles are few. Those storyline quibbles that may exist can wait until the second of this two-parter where they will hopefully be resolved. I, personally, found that the dots were easier to connect in this Whitehouse episode and that far fewer dots went missing. On to next Saturday — Geronimo!
Sophie Stone talks about “Under the Lake”