Previously on Doctor Who, ‘The Witch’s Familiar’
Near a Scottish military base at the bottom of a man-made lake (In Dreams, anyone?), an underwater mining facility brings an unknown craft on board. As they investigate its alien markings and squabble over origin, crew members spot a Victorian-looking ghost. Suddenly the engines fire, torching the commander, and he reappears as a dark-eyed, silently muttering ghost.
3 days later, the TARDIS lands in the resulting mayhem.
The Doctor dotes over the moody TARDIS who wants to GTFO of there, while Clara obliviously natters on about another adventure. Taken in by the mystery, the Doctor leaves Clara’s high five hanging and heads down the hallway, where they bump into the OG (original ghost) and former commander who check their eyes, then lead them to the craft.
The Doctor can’t get a read on the etchings and cheerfully makes nice, but the ghosts grab weapons and chase them into the crew’s hiding place—a lead-lined Faraday cage the ghosts can’t breach. Among the bunch: Pritchard, a petroleum company representative; Cass, the deaf commander; Lunn, her translator (Cass didn’t allow him inside the craft); Bennett, a scared scientist; and, O’Donnell, a Doctor fangirl. For once, the psychic paper tells them that he is, in fact, the Doctor and works for UNIT, so we don’t need any long speeches about that. Whew!
Fortunately the ghosts don’t come out during the generated daytime, so they all disperse. Facts: The underwater base is a nuclear reactor, and the Tivoli spacecraft is missing a power cell and suspended animation chamber. Finally the Doctor realizes that, yes, these are actual, real ghosts, enthusing,”Wow! I’ve not actually met a proper ghost!” Wrong audience for this excitement, seeing as how their friend is dead and all. Clara refers him to The Cards. They huddle, sorting through empathy flash cards, and he reads, “I’m very sorry for the loss of your friend/family member/pet…” He pronounces the slashes. Oops.
But, seriously, ghosts! Isn’t this amazing? “You come back! A bit murdery but still!” Time to get a grip, dude. What do they want though? We’ll find out shortly because BAM it’s night mode again. What is this, The Strain?! The TARDIS totally freaks out and wants to leave, so he has to throw the hand brake on her and lecture Clara about “going native” and potentially getting herself in trouble. “There’s only one me.” Oh, stahp. You love it.
Not shockingly, greedy bastard Pritchard had snuck out to search for the missing power cell and returns too late, because hubris. The ghosts of course are waiting for him on the other side of the lock, and he can almost make out their muttering, but too late: the ghostly commander lets the water in. Guess who appears in the cafeteria where Clara and Bennett are grabbing provisions? They don’t realize he’s a ghost until they spot his body floating by. He almost assaults the crowd with a chair, but Fangirl O’Donnell gets day mode back up just in time.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#4A7097″ class=”” size=””]“It’s impossible. I hate it. It’s evil. It’s astonishing. I want to kiss it to death.” – The Doctor[/pullquote]
It seems the ghosts are learning to use the base against them. The commander says it’s time to abandon base, so if the Doctor wants to “stay and do the whole Cabin in the Woods thing” it’s up to him. But when they call topside, a sub has already been sent out, requested a half hour ago by Morse Code. Ruh roh… Cancel that sub!
Why night? The diagnostic sweep runs during the day, constantly testing electromagnetic system locks. The Doctor asks Fangirl O’Donnell to put the base back into night mode so they can figure it out. The ghosts, currently floating in creepy angles in the cafeteria, are distracted when Bennett yells to them and runs down the hallway, passing off to Clara, then Lunn. At that point though the ghosts separate, sending two after her and one after Lunn who gets cornered. Ghostly Pritchard starts to kill him but inexplicably moves on. Finally Bennett lures them into the Faraday cage and slams the door.
The Doctor steps inside so that Cass can attempt to read their lips via sonic sunglasses video. He feigns being disturbed by one putting its hand into him—probably the only being ever to taunt a ghost. At last Cass deciphers their mutterings:
“The dark. The sword. The forsaken. The temple.”
The Doctor determines these are coordinates: space, Orion’s sword (ending with Earth), and the empty town. The more ghosts repeating the coordinates, the stronger the transmission, to whatever purpose that may be. Whatever it is, hijacking souls to use as radio transmitters is pretty nefarious. So what’s the temple? Anyone? Bueller? “Surely being around me makes you clever by osmosis.” A church in the drowned town. The Doctor gives them a very guilty speech about staying to investigate, which of course they do.
Bennett: “Well, if I die, at least you know I will come back and haunt you all.”
They send out a sub driven by fancy virtual controls into the church and find the suspended animation chamber, deadlocked. The Doctor doesn’t think it’s the captain, so he reviews the facts—the ghosts didn’t try to kill anyone until they saw the ship. He stares at the alien etchings again, then checks with the commander to make sure she’s independently thought of the same thing: the markings are electromagnets, rewriting the connections in their brain with the coordinates upon sight, so that when they die, their bodies are instantly transformed into a perpetual beacon.
The Doctor expounds on the problems with radios on the TARDIS, most notably having Peter Andre’s “Mysterious Girl” stuck in his mind for 2 weeks. Mine is “Shut Up and Dance With Me.” Truly the worst. “I was begging for the brush of death’s merciful hand.” And so, the most nefarious weapon of all is revealed: a visual earworm.
“It’s impossible. I hate it. It’s evil. It’s astonishing. I want to kiss it to death.”
The ghosts start flooding the base, so the crew dashes towards the TARDIS and gets separated by the water—Clara, Cass, and Lunn stuck away from the TARDIS, while the others prepare to go back in time to before the town was flooded and figure this out. As Clara reassures Cass and Lunn that they roll like this all the time, a new ghost appears in the water outside. The Doctor. Annnd series over. Just kidding! Part 2 next week.
Under the Lake is promising start to another two-parter with a twist ending, employing the typical Whovian space station formula of a diverse beautiful, brilliant crew trapped in endless corridors of horror. Despite their obvious tropes (craven, traitor, capable fangirl, heroic leader, etc.), the crew members are likable, less grating than usual in fact, particularly the commander, who is the first deaf character on Doctor Who (Sophie Leigh Stone). The Doctor not only treats her as an intelligent equal, but recognizes that she can do something he can’t—speak in signs and read lips—which becomes the necessary skill for deciphering the mutterings. The interpreting and emotive facial expressions between her and Lunn add depth to every conversation and, at times, comedy. Her character’s extrasensory instincts save Lunn by feeling there is something wrong with the etchings and keeping him out of the craft. Incidentally, this is the first TV role for Zaqi Ismail (Lunn) whose sister is deaf.
The creep factor was well done, between the eyeless ghosts and the transformation of the dead into radio transmitters, and it will be interesting to see the big bad reveal. While the original ghost is Tivoli (previously in “The God Complex,” same writer), considering these antenna ghosts are dead, the alien behind all of this is probably a different race altogether. And with the Doctor apparently dead in the past, it seems as though we’ll require significant timey wimeyness to get this resolved.
Clara’s insatiable drive for adventure over relationships is responsible for the one clunky scene in this episode—when the Doctor essentially tells her to chill out and not get herself killed. Because it felt out of place, I have to imagine that this is part of the season story building as we head toward her retirement/end/death. Once again he leaves her behind to solve something crucial, a hallmark of 12’s relationship with Clara starting in “Deep Breath.” It is nice, however, to see the Doctor a bit more generous with his admiration of her spirit. Unlike the start of last season where he constantly pretended not to notice her, he now pointedly reveals her importance in each episode. I also liked seeing him fuss over the TARDIS as a being, something he hasn’t done in a while, and the TARDIS actually growls a bit in the background of his speech to Clara like an unhappy cat. Very cute.
- The TARDIS sounded the Cloister Bell, its last-resort warning signal, to get the Doctor’s attention. The first time this rang was when the 4th Doctor regenerated into the 5th in “Logopolis.” This joins the many Tom Baker-era references this season, including Capaldi’s overall performance which seems to be drawing heavily from the 4th
- The ghosts are based on Grimdyke from Tales from the Crypt, played by Peter Cushing who also played the Doctor in Dr Who and the Daleks and Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 AD
- The Doctor mentions he “deleted” his knowledge of sign language in favor of semaphore, a nod to a Monty Python gag. British Sign Language (BSL) was used.
- Clara says the Doctor disassembled his radio and made a clockwork squirrel. Missing Madame du Pompadour?
- One of the apology cards says, “It was my fault. I should have known you didn’t live in Aberdeen,” referring to when the Doctor abandons Sarah Jane in Aberdeen rather than the agreed-upon Croyden.
- The cafeteria mural gave me a chuckle with its three figures on a boat beset by a dragon, one in a gold shirt, one blue, and one red. I wonder which one will die…
- The Doctor’s UNIT Security Visa is #710A00. Now you can win Whovian Trivial Pursuit.