This episode review is brought to you by Vector Petroleum “Fueling our Futures”
“Same old, same old. Just the Doctor and Clara Oswald in the TARDIS!”
Not quite, Doctor.
The Doctor and Clara are, indeed, heading for trouble in the TARDIS. It was anything but “same old, same old” when “Under the Lake,” the third offering of the new season, aired Oct. 4.
Doctor Who seems have achieved personality equilibrium. Fans, rejoice!
Writer Toby Whithouse gave Peter Capaldi’s Doctor the biggest share of the personality pie, this time around. Jenna Coleman’s Clara Oswald got a smaller portion. A small slice was even awarded to the TARDIS, whose sentience had not manifested itself of late.
The available screen time and lines were in much greater abundance this episode, with the absence of the masterful Missy. The Time Lady formerly known as the Master is presumably still vacationing with her Dalek friends at that top vacation destination, Skaro. Could she possibly be working with Davros to create the foretold hybrid? Hmm. That would be a very clever idea.
All right. Back to “Under the Lake.”
The TARDIS delivers the Doctor and Clara to an oil company base sitting on the bottom of an artificial lake on top of a flooded village in the year 2119. The Doctor doesn’t know why they have been brought to this site. He does know that the TARDIS has taken them to the base against its better judgment. Clara, with her hair casually tied back and looking very girlishly companionlike, is challenging the Doctor to find something exciting for them to do.
“I want another adventure, Clara tells him. “Come on. You feel the same. You’re itching to save a planet. I know it.”
The look that passes across the Doctor’s face indicates that she is right. It doesn’t take too long before they discover the adventure has already begun.
Things have not been going well for the base and its crew. They’ve just brought a mysterious alien spaceship discovered on the lake bottom aboard the base. The base commander has just been barbecued by one of the ship’s engines. The ship seems to have come with a ghost dressed as an undertaker, complete with a black suit and mourning-veiled top hat. The crew calls the ghostly figure “Mole Guy.”
The Doctor identifies Mole Guy as an alien from Tivoli, That doesn’t explain the death of the commander, he adds, because the species is non-violent cowardly by nature.
“They wouldn’t say ‘boo’ to a goose,” the Doctor elaborates. “More likely to give the goose their car keys and bank details.”
Immediately after his death, the base commander reappears as the Mole Guy’s new ghostly partner. The crew has taken refuge in the Faraday Cage, a lead-lined compartment designed a shelter from a possible radiation leak. The room seems to have the only walls through which the ghosts cannot pass.
“So, we are fighting an unknown homicidal force that has taken the form of your former commanding officer and a cowardly alien, underwater, in a nuclear reactor,” the Doctor summarizes. “Anything else I should know? Somebody have a peanut allergy or something”?
Clara nervously giggles and gives the crew an apologetic look, as if to say “Hey, I’m only the companion. I have no control over this guy.”
Apparently, allergies will not be added to the base problems. The pair of ghosts have begun turning the ship’s systems against the survivors. Soon, another crewman is “ghosted.”
The key to solving the mystery is a series of alien symbols etched on one of the alien ship’s bulkheads. The symbols appear to embed themselves in the human brain when read. They’re translated by the hearing-impaired, lip-reading acting base commander into four cryptic phrases being silently and continuously mouthed by all three ghosts.
Once he has been told who’s in charge so he knows “who to ignore,” the Doctor declares he can bypass the interpreter and “speak” directly with the deaf officer. He quickly discovers that his command of sign language has been deleted and replaced with semaphore.
“Someone get me a selection of flags,” he demands.
The Doctor initially denies that the apparitions are ghosts. After he deductively comes that conclusion on his own, he announces “they’re ghosts,” as if he is the first to make that discovery. Clara points out that he had declared that ghosts do not exist.
“Yes, well-well-well, uh, there was no such thing as socks or smartphones and badgers, until they suddenly were,” the Doctor counters.
The Doctor becomes quite excited upon contemplating the possibilities of questioning real ghosts.
“Calm, Doctor, calm,” tells himself. “You were like this when you met Shirley Bassey.”
The Doctor eventually deciphers the alien symbols, then takes a professorial stance and runs the crewmen through the process. In true classroom lecture fashion, he wants his “students” to do some of the reasoning.
“Surely just being around me makes you clever by osmosis,” he says, after giving them opportunity to come up with the answer to the last phrase.
The Doctor’s apparent lack of sensitivity to the death of the base commander leads to a feature I don’t recall ever seeing — “the cards.” It seems as if the Doctor, for at least several generations, has been writing cue cards to guide him through situations he could expect to re-encounter. Clara suggests that he use them and selects the one that seems most appropriate.
She makes a good choice, but the Doctor needs to polish his delivery style a bit. He reads the card verbatim.
“I’m very sorry for your loss. I’ll do all I can to solve the death of your friend/family member/pet.”
Waiting in the wings for a matching situation is The Swiss Army Knife of cards: “No-one is going to be eaten/vapourised/exterminated/upgraded/possessed/mortally wounded/turned to jelly. We’ll all get out of this unharmed.”
Also on tap, the slightly less multi-purpose: “It was my fault. I should have known you didn’t live in Aberdeen.”
The show may have inadvertently given away its writing secret. Take a pack of cards, shuffle and voila! A new episode is born.
Again, going back to the plot, the crew discovers that a rescue sub has been ordered by the ghosts, a request sent in Morse Code (nothing suspicious about that). A crew member asks why the ghosts would do that.
“I don’t know,” the Doctor responds, “but I’m pretty certain that it’s not so they can all form a boy band.”
Along with the Doctor’s and Clara’s personality adjustments, it was great to see the TARDIS again play a role beyond time and relative dimension in space transportation. Still uneasy about its location, the TARDIS sounds the cloister bell alarm.
The Doctor is forced to apply the “handbrake” to keep their skittish ride from leaving on its own. The TARDIS also refuses to go near the ghosts, an issue that plays a part in cliffhanger ending.
Other high points of “Under the Lake” include the Doctor initiating an awkward conversation with Clara about their roles and taking risks, suggesting that she might do better to find another relationship. (Oh, God; no! Not another Danny Pink!). He notes that humans are “bananas about relationships. You’re always writing songs about them, or going to war or getting tattooed.”
We also get the answer to the question: Why did the Doctor turn the TARDIS radio into a clockwork squirrel?
Answer: “Whatever song I heard, first thing in the morning, I was stuck. Two weeks of Mysterious Girl by Peter Andre. I was begging for the brush of death’s merciful hand.”
As the episode drew to its exciting finish, the Doctor was about to employ a bit of time travel trickery to resolve what looks like certain death for Clara and the base crew.
“You’re gonna go back in time?” a crew member asks. “How do you do that?”
“Extremely well,” the Doctor responds.
The rescue plan leads to Clara’s best line of the episode.
“Guys, look, this is how we roll. He’s gonna go away, come back; and we’ll have to listen to how he did it.”