If there’s one thing Doctor Who does really well, one trope it knows can always fall back on, it is the “monsters on a remote base” storyline. The TARDIS lands the Doctor inside a sealed-off facility, like a craft in deep space or a research station on Mars, whose small crew is being threatened by a mysterious menace that the Doctor will save (some of) them from.
It’s a well-worn standby, and the fact that it rarely feels clichéd or repetitive is a testament to clever writing, and even better acting. In particular Capaldi, who seems to get even more riveting with each passing episode, elevating the material in ways that continue to astonish.
The remote-base scenario, of course, is modeled after the classic haunted house story. Doctor Who has also done its fair share of those as well; series 6’s “Night Terrors” and series 7’s “Hide” come to mind. But in all of these, the monster lurking in the walls always turns out to be an alien or a psychic human or some technological mumbo-jumbo. It’s never been an actual dead person come back with malevolent intent. Because in the Doctor Who universe, ghosts don’t really exist.
Or rather, they didn’t until last night’s episode, “Under the Lake,” in which we got to see a formerly skeptical Doctor positively squee with fanboyish joy over the fact that he gets to interact with actual ghosts. I mean, yeah, sure, they’re really transmitters created by an alien being to contact his home world, whose mission is to kill more people to create more transmitters and boost their signal. But they’re also actual people who have come back to life, actually walking among us! We can actually ask them what death is like!
Unlike, say, Danny Pink who died at the end of last season and came back to life, and then actually had a whole conversation with the Doctor. Or River Song, who continued to interact with the Doctor as a telepathic echo through Clara. Or any one of a dozen other dead people who we’ve heard from Remind me again why the Doctor is so excited this time in particular?
Echoing his excitement is Clara, who is practically giddy with eagerness to get into crazy Doctor-style scrapes and escapades. Some time has clearly passed since we last checked in with them, and Clara has shifted into All-of-Space-and-Time Constant Tourist mode. The Doctor is a bit concerned, accusing her of “going native,” i.e. turning into him. The Companion is supposed to be the levelheaded, freaked-out one, after all; can’t have two Doctors in the TARDIS. He cloaks it all in a paternalistic need to care for her, but there is a definite “know your role” admonition there.
Dude, this is the girl who literally jumped into your timeline. She’s lived 100 lives alongside you. And do you even remember how many times she’s had to impersonate you? If you’re really concerned about her “going native,” you’re about a series and a half too late.
From my side, it is a bit concerning that Clara has become a bit more happy-go-lucky, as it seems to come along with a diminishing of her character. She’s grown into a very capable associate for the Doctor over her tenure, but in the last two episodes she has been used as bait twice, and not once for her brains or abilities.
In this case, she is one of three runners who flee down the halls of the underwater base to lead the ghosts into a Faraday cage where the Doctor can question them. Oh yeah, did I mention that we’ve been underwater this whole time? This version of the remote base is under a lake in Scotland that formed when a dam burst and covered up an old military training site. And one of the most interesting things about “Under the Lake” is the fact that the underwater setting has almost nothing to do with the plot of the episode. They might as well be on the moon.
This is one of my favorite things about Doctor Who: Some details are really important, while others turn out to just be cool. So you never know what you have to pay attention to. In this case, the underwater setting? Irrelevant. The fact that one of the crewmembers, Cass (the remarkable Sophie Stone), is deaf and can read lips? Crucial to the story.
As is the seemingly minor fact that Cass’s interpreter, Lunn, has never been inside the alien ship that is causing all of this chaos. Because the words that the ghosts turn out to be repeating are four words that are scrawled onto the inside of the ship. They turn out not to be simply words, but a kind of brain computer virus that causes your mind to repeat those words over and over forever—even after you die. The Doctor compares it to an earworm, a song you can’t get out of your head, but it’s actually more like Snow Crash, which is infinitely more interesting, the idea of hacking the brain.
This convinces the Doctor that he has to go back in time to before the flood, when this ship landed, to see what happened back then. He and Clara get separated, Clara trapped with Cass and Lunn while the Doctor gets to the TARDIS with the two remaining crewmembers. He promises to get to the bottom of the riddle and get back to save her—and then comes back as a ghost. And sends us into yet another “Oh shit is our hero dead?” cliffhanger.
This is a fairly rare move for the Doctor, traveling back in time to visit the origins of a mystery. He uses the TARDIS to get out of tight spots all the time, but usually not to go back and try to see/change the past. As loose with ideas of paradox as the show gets sometimes, the Doctor is still all too aware of the risks of mixing himself up in them in this way. And it seems that he pays the ultimate price for doing it this time, as his black-eyed avatar floats toward Clara out of the depths.
As for how he’ll get out of it this time (has anyone kept track of how many times the Doctor has supposedly died?), we’ll have to tune in next week for the appropriately titled “Before the Flood.”