From the very first time we see the ghosts in this week’s Doctor Who episode, we know there’s something a little bit off. For starters, Doctor Who doesn’t do ghosts. Several times we’ve been given “ghosts” in episodes, but always it’s something else. The show’s DNA, it would seem, doesn’t work with ghosts. So, when an eyeless alien creature approaches the Doctor and Clara in an underwater building, we know something deeper is going on.
“Under the Lake” has all the makings of a good mystery-suspense story: we’re quickly introduced to all of the elements needed to figure out the mystery, the Doctor never appears to pull one of his “I know but I won’t tell you” moments, and the mystery itself is apparent to attentive viewers long before it’s introduced to the rest of us. As an avid mystery reader, I took a special delight in putting the pieces together to realize how person A and happening B would work together to provide the answer to my question. Even with details that, on first glance, seemed inconsequential, writer Toby Whithouse plants seeds for how the story will be explained.
To me, it’s episodes like these that give a much-needed breather in a Doctor Who season. Too often, in episodes full of flash and awesome, we’re left with solutions that the audience couldn’t possibly have seen coming. While these are nearly always awesome, it does sometimes leave elements of the show like the sonic screwdriver feeling like handheld deus ex machina generators. This episode, by contrast, shows us nearly everything up front, allowing the audience to take the same roles as the humans trapped underwater, trying to figure out the mystery. Even the mysterious runes aren’t translated for the Doctor, leaving him as clueless as we are.
Ultimately, this was an episode with some great humor (I really want a clockwork squirrel companion now), some really creepy moments, and a ton of great mystery. I’m enjoying this season’s string of two-parters, much to my wife’s displeasure as she hates cliff-hangers. For fans of the classic series, we’re just glad the average story has a maximum of one cliffhanger nowadays.
A far cry from the first two parter, which felt in many respects like a series finale, this episode for me still shows the strong acting of Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman playing off of Toby Whithouse’s distinctly different writing style from Moffat’s. I’m loving the mystery, and I have some theories brewing in my head. I can’t wait for next week’s episode to see if I’m right.