This review contains spoilers.
The Doctor and Clara arrive in an underwater base in the year 2119. The military team on the base have discovered a haunted alien space ship. With the ghosts ready to kill off everyone on board, they must discover their purpose in order to survive.
At the start of this episode, Clara has gone right back to being an adrenaline junkie and basically a spoilt child, demanding shiny new adventures to play with. I really dislike seeing this return to Clara’s time travel addiction. That was such a promising part of last season before it collapsed into nothing. I’m already annoyed that three excellent exit opportunities were ignored for Clara last season so if we just watch her build up to the exact same point all over again, I’m going to want to punch birds out of the sky.
The Doctor is doing very little to try and rein Clara in. It’s clear that Twelve is still supposed to suck at human interaction (as evidenced by the clunky response cards gag) but even he can see that Clara’s getting too obsessive again. Unfortunately, that concern doesn’t manifest itself beyond a few cautionary words. The roles have reversed and the Doctor has unwittingly become Clara’s companion. He’s also her chauffeur and enabler, giving Clara whatever she wants to avoid her throwing a fit if a planet or adventure isn’t quite up to her standards.
Thankfully, there’s relatively little time spent on Clara. Once the real ghost story begins, the tone immediately changes. Clara remembers she’s not as smart as she thinks she is and takes a backseat while the Doctor hashes out the details. In fact, for the most part, Clara could just be another member of the crew and perhaps that’s why this episode works so well. A good deal of time is spent focusing on new and interesting guest characters rather than Clara’s shoddy storyline.
I haven’t been overly impressed with Toby Whithouse’s writing in the past. However, surprisingly, this might just be the best Twelfth Doctor episode to date. Under the Lake feels new and fresh. The narrative structure is so well-conceived that, with some adjustments, it could even stand as a single episode rather than part of a serial. But I’m glad that we get this story drawn out because it’s really working. I love the diverse cast and I especially love what Cass brings to the episode. I actually think a large part of the episode’s success hinges on Cass. She manages to convey so much with just her facial expressions and her movements as she signs.
Rather than being just another voice in the crowd, demanding answers from the Doctor, Cass slowly comes to her own conclusions. Like the Doctor says, she’s the smartest person in the room apart from him and I get the impression that Cass could probably solve the mystery herself if given adequate time (and time travel). Her compassion also seems to have helped her find one of the chinks in the ghosts’ armour: she prevented Lunn from entering the ship and laying eyes on the carved coordinates; later, Lunn was somehow passed over by the ghosts. Hopefully I’m right about this because it would explain why the Doctor and Clara weren’t attacked by the ghosts until they had seen and were capable of transmitting the coordinates.
This episode feels out of place in Moffat’s Doctor Who perhaps because it seems to actually be going somewhere. With allusions to The Sphere and popular ghost story tropes, Under the Lake manages to create and sustain suspense and intrigue. I can only hope that The Magician’s Apprentice isn’t going to set the tone for the entire season by starting each serial with a strong episode and finishing with a lacklustre follow-up. If Before the Flood maintains this standard of writing then this may mean great things for season 9.