“Under The Lake / Before The Flood” is written by Toby Whithouse, who previously penned “School Reunion“, “The Vampires Of Venice“, “The God Complex” and “A Town Called Mercy” during the David Tennant and Matt Smith years of Doctor Who. For the show’s ninth season, he takes a stab at writing a base-under-siege story. The base-under-siege genre is a pretty classic formula for the series that has endured for decades, and how well it holds up usually depends on the guest cast. The audience needs to get to know them well and form an attachment to them, so that we actually care when they start to get picked off one-by-one. In that regard, Toby succeeds in creating a likable and charismatic group of characters across these two episodes, the same way Matt Jones did with “The Impossible Planet” and Matthew Graham with “The Rebel Flesh“.
For the main premise of this two-parter, Mr. Whithouse sticks with a topic he’s already very familiar with, and very fond of (if his time as “Being Human’s” showrunner is any indication): the world of the supernatural. “Under The Lake” feels very reminiscent of a Steven Moffat script: it tells a fairly complex, non-linear mystery that’s clearly had a lot of thought put into both the pacing and the structure of it. The audience is given plenty of clues about the ghostly mystery on early on – like the state of the flooded town, the specters being repelled by electro-magnetism, the TARDIS’s weird behavior, the missing power cell, and the suspended animation chamber – all of which are seemingly unconnected elements that coalesce together quite nicely in “Before The Flood”, when our heroes travel backwards in time. Lastly, while this adventure can easily be enjoyed as a standalone story, it also contains a lot of thematic foreshadowing for the events of the Series 9 finale, as we start to get a deeper look at what the Doctor and Clara’s character arcs will be about this season.
In “Under The Lake”, the Twelfth Doctor’s (Peter Capaldi) TARDIS is pulled off course when it senses a temporal disturbance. He and Clara are deposited inside an underwater base in the 22nd century, that’s apparently being haunted by ghosts. As per usual for him, the Doctor is initially very skeptical when the base’s crew claim they’ve been visited by phantoms, even after seeing the transparent apparitions for himself. But when he’s unable to think of a rational explanation for the supernatural phenomenon, the Doctor is thrilled to realize that he might have discovered actual, real ghosts. From that point onwards, he’s completely spellbound and mystified by the spooky specters, and he tries to get everyone else just as excited as he is. When they balk at the potential danger, he entices them to stick around the haunted base so they can solve the mystery of a lifetime.
While the Doctor has a lot of fun trying to solve his latest puzzle, he also starts to grow concerned about Clara, who’s becoming a bit too stubborn, reckless, and addicted to thrill-seeking for her own good. What’s more, she refuses to listen to his warnings whenever he advises her to reign herself in. No matter how many clues he finds, the Doctor is completely stumped when it comes to the origin of the ghosts, and eventually he realizes it’s because the events of this two-parter are not happening in a linear order. The Doctor and his friends are caught in the middle of a bootstrap paradox, where the past and future influence each other. When our heroes are forcibly separated into two groups by a flood, the Doctor decides to go back in time with Bennett and O’Donnell to follow some new leads, while Clara holds down the fort with Cass and Lunn in his absence, and then things really start to get interesting.
While the Doctor is away in the past, Clara discovers he’s joined the ranks of the ghosts in the present day, which means he’s going to die soon. His ghost provides a cryptic list of people who are going to shuffle off the mortal coil soon as well, including the ones he’s currently with. He tries to stop O’Donnell from going to her doom without letting on what he knows, but it’s only a half-hearted attempt, and Bennett (lashing out in grief) later accuses him of letting her die to test his theory, which he neither confirms or denies. The Doctor grimly accepts his own fate, because he knows from experience that the laws of time are a dangerous, wrathful force that shouldn’t be tampered with. However, while he won’t break the rules to save himself, he will do it to try to save Clara when she’s next in line, since she’s incredibly important to him – which stealthily foreshadows what’s to come in the Series 9 finale, “Hell Bent“.
The Twelfth Doctor is pretty hypocritical twice over in this story. First, he scolds Bennett for trying to change the past and cut off tragedy at its root to heal his own heartbreak, giving him a stern warning that they have no right to play god like that. Then he calls out the Fisher King for messing with the natural order of things and robbing people of their deaths for his own selfish reasons. Both of these scenes are very righteous and powerful in insolation, but they’re also very ironic in hindsight, considering what the Doctor will put Clara and Ashildr through later this season, when he makes their deaths all about himself and his own issues. As it turns out, the Doctor is a major player in this story’s bootstrap paradox, so he defeats the Fisher King in the past and reverse-engineers everything his friends will need to survive in the present, saving the day once more with his ingenious mind.
In “Under The Lake”, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) is officially starting to go native when it comes to her traveling in the TARDIS all the time. She’s pretty much an adrenaline junkie now, and even the Doctor is starting to grow worried about her. Clara’s addiction to time-traveling adventures has grown significantly over time. In the past, she did try to keep her roots planted in contemporary Earth, so she wouldn’t lose sight of her other priorities back home. But Danny’s gone now, and she’s lost the last thing that was keeping her grounded, since she’s grown apart from her friends and family and she doesn’t seem to have much of a life outside of her wanderlust anymore. She’s thrown herself into her travels with the Doctor with reckless abandon, enjoying every minute of it (even the nearly fatal parts), as a nice way to take her mind off her loss.
This really isn’t a healthy way for her to cope with her grief, and eventually it will catch up to her. Whenever the Doctor tries to voice his concern for her, she just gives him the brush-off and assures him that she’s perfectly fine, when she clearly isn’t. Throughout “Under The Lake”, Clara trusts the Doctor’s judgment when it comes to his mystery-solving technique, and she encourages the others to have a little faith in him too (though she also has to reign him in when he’s being insensitive). She even takes part in the Doctor’s plan to capture some ghosts, by acting as a decoy with Lunn and Bennett. While the Doctor goes back in time to find some more clues, Clara gets stuck at the base with Cass, Lunn and the ghosts. To her horror, she discovers the Doctor seemingly died in the past and became one of the ghosts, and just like that, this mission just became a lot less fun for her.
While Clara seems to be doing better these days compared to how miserable she was in “Death In Heaven” and “Last Christmas“, the scars of Danny’s death still linger underneath the surface. After it was previously hinted at in “The Magician’s Apprentice“, “Before The Flood” confirms that her relationship with the Doctor is becoming a lot more codependent now on both ends. When she’s faced with the possibility of losing the Doctor too, the way she lost Danny, Clara completely snaps, refuses to accept it, and demands he change the future at all costs. She has little to no respect for the laws of time the Doctor must defer to: which makes sense when you remember that her first major storyline was the war on Trenzalore, where she changed the future to save someone she loved and everything worked out fine then, so why shouldn’t they be able to pull off feats like that more often in her eyes?
When she loses her only way to stay in contact with Twelve, she sends Lunn to go get her phone back, potentially risking his life in the process. The Doctor and Clara have been mirroring each other a lot as of late, and we certainly see a more selfish side of their personalities this week, where they almost seem to be more concerned about saving each other than the people they’re supposed to be helping. Bennett and Cass both pick up on that, and quite rightly call them out on it hard – and to her credit, Clara quickly realizes that she needs to do the right thing and go after Lunn with Cass. Afterwards, I think it’s a nice touch that Clara understands Bennett’s pain and regret over losing O’Donnell and the future he might have had with her, if he had only acted on his true feelings sooner. Clara encourages him to mourn her, but to also move on with his life instead of drowning in his grief, the way she’s tried to do – which is a nice way of showing how she’s taken Danny’s advice to her from “Last Christmas” to heart.
Each member of the base’s crew is fleshed out well across the two episodes, starting with Cass. Cass is the compound’s acting captain after the previous captain’s death, and she is notably deaf. Her disability is handled tactfully and respectfully in this story: it can certainly make communicating with people more challenging for her, but she’s still shown to be a very competent leader, and she won’t let that hurdle get in the way of doing her job. She runs a tight ship, and she has no problem calling out the Doctor when she thinks he’s not taking their predicament as seriously as he should. The safety and well-being of her crew is her top priority throughout this story, especially Lunn’s, since she and her interpreter have mutual feelings for each other.
In fact, her protective nature winds up bringing her into direct conflict with Clara in “Before The Flood”. When a ghost steals Clara’s phone, cutting off all communication between her and the Doctor, Clara insists that Lunn venture further into the base and go get it, because he’s the only member of the group who the ghosts can’t touch. Lunn is very afraid of the murderous specters, but he’s also very courageous, so he’s willing to take one for the team. Cass however is furious with Clara for putting his life in danger to sooth her own fears about the Doctor, and if she wasn’t mute, she’d have a lot of things to say to her that are not G-rated. Cass refuses to hide in the Faraday cage while the man she loves is out there risking his life, and she shames Clara for her selfishness until she comes with her. During the rescue mission, a ghost tries to take advantage of her hearing loss to ambush her from behind, but she still manages to get the better of him by being sharp and crafty, and both women manage to escape to safety with Lunn.
Cass and Lunn’s direct foils are Bennett and O’Donnell. O’Donnell is a brash, outspoken tomboy with a military background. She’s heard of the Doctor’s work with UNIT, and like Osgood she’s a bit of a fangirl. She tries to be cool about it, but she loves working with him on this case, which means she’s totally gonna die soon. Bennett by comparison is the reserved scholarly type with a dry, deadpan sense of humor. He keeps to himself a lot more often than his co-workers, and he’s usually the one who’s the most reluctant to take a rash, impulsive course of action, though he’ll still pitch in and help the rest of the team to the best of his abilities. Over time, it’s revealed that he likes O’Donnell, and she likes him back. Even though they try to maintain a professional working relationship, they do look out for each other whenever things get dangerous.
A nerdy guy and jockish girl being paired up is a pretty common dynamic in Doctor Who: Bennett and O’Donnell are another would-be couple that fit that mold, though they sadly never get a chance to really act on their feelings. When the Doctor takes them back into the past to investigate the mystery of the ghosts, O’Donnell falls victim to the Fisher King on a rampage – which means that her dream of traveling in the TARDIS tragically winds up getting her killed. A heartbroken Bennett doesn’t waste any time lashing out at the Doctor for not doing more to save her, and when he’s forced to relieve the events of the day all over again, he’s completely unable to do anything to change them. When they return to the present, Bennett is still haunted by what could have been if he’d acted sooner. But after he receives a pep talk from Clara, he encourages Cass and Lunn to be together, so they won’t make the same mistakes he and O’Donnell did, which is a satisfying, if bittersweet, ending to his character arc.
The primary antagonists of this two-parter are unleashed upon an unsuspecting crew when the humans discover a spaceship that’s been buried underwater for over a century. Inside it, they find some cursed writing that imprints a certain set of words inside of their minds, and makes them the target of murderous phantoms. Whenever the ghosts kill them, they become ghosts themselves and immediately set out to create more ghosts, building up an army. The ghosts are fierce and relentless predators when they’re on the prowl, and even though they’re nothing more than a hollow shell of their former selves, they should not be underestimated. As time goes by, the ghosts start using the inner-workings of the base to set traps for the crew members. Even when the Doctor and his friends manage to outsmart them a few times, they learn from their mistakes and get craftier as well in return.
Interestingly enough, Lunn is the only member of the crew who isn’t on the ghosts’ personal hit list, and eventually it’s revealed they have no interest in him because he’s the only one of the group who didn’t get to read the cursed writing earlier, due to Cass’s overprotectiveness. The ghosts prove to be a very spooky and formidable force, since the first episode spends a lot of time building up the mystery of what these creatures are, what their motivations are, and what their limitations are – for the longest time, the only thing that’s really confirmed about them is that they’re aberrations. Eventually, the Doctor deduces that they’re not a natural phenomenon: someone engineered their torturous existence. The ghosts are repeating the same message, over and over again, and beaming out coordinates as transmitters: which means that someone has callously hijacked the souls of the dead and used them for their ends (Missy would totally approve).
In “Before The Flood”, the Doctor decides to venture into the past to find the mastermind of this nefarious plot, where he’s introduced to the Fisher King (Peter Serafinowicz), the other main antagonist of this two-parter. We never learn that much about the Fisher King’s background, though when it comes to his characterization and his social status back home, he seems to be a far less sympathetic counterpart to the minotaur from “The God Complex”, which is a fitting parallel since “Under The Lake / Before The Flood” feels like a spiritual successor to that episode. Toby Whithouse even brings back the Trivoli race, an alien species he created for “The God Complex”, when one of them accompanies the Fisher King to Earth, to honor his deceased tyrannical ruler.
The Fisher King is a beastly alien warlord who seemingly died a while ago, and was delivered to Earth in the 1980’s so he could be buried there – but there’s only one problem, he’s not actually dead yet. Once he’s on foreign soil, he decides to claim the Earth for his own and calls in his armada so he can conquer the planet. The Fisher King looks and acts likes a vicious, mindless brute, but he’s actually very intelligent and knowledgeable – he recognizes the Doctor as a time lord and a potential threat to his plans as soon as he sees him. He’s completely unrepentant about how he’s destroyed the lives of several people and defiled the peace and sanctity of their afterlives for his own gain, because he feels he’s well within his right to do so. The Doctor eventually defeats him by drowning him, and his death plays into the non-linear nature of this story. Even though the Fisher King died centuries back, the consequences of his actions still lingered into the present day and set off a chain reaction of events that eventually (and ironically) led to his downfall.
“Under The Lake” is directed by Daniel O’Hara, a newcomer to the series who films this story like a slow-burning horror movie. The overall mood of this two-parter is heightened greatly by the approach the lighting department took, as well as the color-grading that was done in post-production. Whether we’re inside the underwater base or exploring the old abandoned town, the lighting is visibly colder than usual, which creates a grey, wintry and unwelcoming atmosphere across both episodes. It always feels like the ghosts are never that far away, constantly waiting to strike out at our heroes from out of the shadows – to say nothing of the Fisher King himself, when he finally becomes an active player. Even inside the TARDIS’s console room set, the shadows are noticeably sharper and more pronounced than usual, which makes the Doctor and Clara’s scenes inside that environment feel very anxious and uncertain.
Some of the tenser moments from this adventure include Pritchard and O’Donnell’s death scenes; Lunn being cornered by a ghost and emotionally tortured by it for a few moments before it decides to spare him; Cass being stalked by a ghost with an axe through the darkened hallways of the base; and the final stand-off between the Doctor and the Fisher King underneath a church, where the pair are completely isolated. The design for the Fisher King is one of the most elaborate creations that the show’s costume and wardrobe department has cooked up since the minotaur in Series 6, and it’s suitably imposing. Murray Gold’s score creates a nice spooky atmosphere this week, blending electronic elements into a traditional orchestra, in tracks like “Some Kind Of Submarine“, “The Ghosts“, “The Bootstrap Paradox“, “Finding The Fisher King“, “Another Ghost Has Appeared“, “We Need To Get Back To The TARDIS” and “Directions From The Ghosts“.
“Under The Lake / Before The Flood” is probably my favorite two-parter from Series 9. It’s easily digestible as a standalone story, it’s a great character study for the Twelfth Doctor and Clara Oswald when it comes to their respective personality flaws, and it foreshadows the events of the Series 9 finale remarkably well.
* “Wait, you think the army would just lose a prototype weapon?” “You’re new to the military, aren’t you, son?”
* This two-parter takes a lot of inspiration from horror movies, and unfortunately for Moran, that includes the trend of black guys being the first ones to get the axe.
* “Oh, hey, can we go back to that place where the people with the long necks have been celebrating New Year for two centuries? I left my sunglasses there, and most of my dignity”.
* “Hello! Did you want to show us this? It’s very nice” Actually Doctor, they wanted to show you all the nice tools they’ve prepared for your demise.
* “The weird thing is, they’re not violent. They’re too cowardly. They wouldn’t say boo to a goose. They’re more likely to give the goose their car keys and bank details”.
* “What? If it all goes pear-shaped, it’s not them that lose their bonus!” “It’s okay, I understand. You’re an idiot”.
* Real talk though, Pritchard checks off every greedy businessman stereotype in the book in the short amount of screentime he has, to the point where he almost feels like a parody.
* When the Doctor is checking his cue cards for something to say, there’s a nice little Easter egg buried in there for Sarah Jane Smith fans. One of the cue cards is about giving someone an apology for stranding them in Aberdeen.
* “Calm, Doctor, calm! You were like this when you met Shirley Bassey”.
* “I’m beginning to think we should have let the ghosts in on the plan!”
* Clara and company being chased down hallways by the ghosts, as they try to lure them into a trap, reminds me a lot of “Time Heist” from last season, another high stakes adventure that was structured around a boostrap paradox.
* “Really? Come on. None of you? Surely just being around me makes you cleverer by osmosis?”
* “Well, at least if I die, you know I really will come back and haunt you all”.
* “Clara, why don’t I have a radio in the TARDIS?” “You took it apart and used the pieces to make a clockwork squirrel”.
* “And because whatever song I heard first thing in the morning, I was stuck with. Two weeks of ‘Mysterious Girl’ by Peter Andre. I was begging for the brush of Death’s merciful hand”.
* “Wait, you’re going to go back in time? How do you do that?” “Extremely well”.
* It’s funny, I just criticized “The Magician’s Apprentice” for having a cliffhanger that was built around something that obviously wouldn’t happen. You could say the exact same thing about “Under The Lake’s” cliffhanger, and yet I would say I enjoyed it a good deal more. The terrified look on Clara’s face as she lays eyes on the Doctor’s ghost does a great job of building up tension, as she realizes just how screwed they all are.
* “My question is this: who put those notes and phrases together? Who really composed ‘Beethoven’s Fifth’?”
* Every once in a blue moon, the Doctor will break the fourth wall and start talking to the audience at home. He did a few times in the classic series, and the teaser for “Before The Flood” is the first time he does it in the revived show. This scene could easily have been cheesy or goofy, but Peter Capaldi’s performance is very charming and earnest during the Doctor’s witty lecture. The fact that it ends with a rock version of the Doctor Who theme song, performed by Peter himself, just makes it even better.
* On that note, the fact that the rock version of the show’s theme song was never given an official release is very disappointing, in my opinion.
* “I was demoted for dangling a colleague out of a window” “In anger?” “Is there another way to dangle someone out a window?”
* “My first proper alien, and he’s an idiot”.
* “Although, at the risk of starting a bidding war, you could enslave me. In the ship I have directions to my planet and a selection of items that you can oppress me with” How kinky.
* “Oh, there’s a problem” “Problem? What problem? Oh, really? Because everything else is going so smoothly”.
* “Someone needs to stay here and mind the shop. What if Clara calls?” “The last bloke that said something like that to me got dangled out of a window”.
* Much like in “The Age Of Steel“, I’m not sure why our heroes thought splitting up while the Fisher King was on their heels was a good idea. It doesn’t look like it accomplished anything except getting O’Donnell killed.
* “This isn’t about saving me, I’m a dead man walking. I’m changing history to save Clara”.
* “You can’t cheat time, I just tried. You can’t just go back and cut off tragedy at the root. Because you find yourself talking to someone you just saw dead on a slab. Because then you really do see ghosts”.
* “Okay, didn’t need anyone to translate that” I think we can all make some good guesses about what that hand gesture from Cass meant.
* “You robbed those people of their deaths, made them nothing more than a message in a bottle. You violated something more important than Time. You bent the rules of life and death. So I am putting things straight. Here, now, this is where your story ends!”
* “The time lord lied!” Rule one, sweetie.
* “Lunn, will you translate something to Cass for me? Tell her that you’re in love with her and that you always have been. Tell her there is no point wasting time because things happen and then it’s too late. Tell her I wish someone had given me that advice”.
* The big damn kiss that Cass and Lunn share at the end, with Murray Gold’s music swelling in the background, always puts a big smile on my face. At least someone got a happy ending out of this experience.
* The Doctor and Clara’s final scene together is a bit odd. Clara seems to have trouble wrapping her head around a boostrap paradox, even though she’s been involved in several of those by now (“The Name Of The Doctor“, ‘The Time Of The Doctor“, “Listen“, “Time Heist”). In fact, her very first storyline – the Impossible Girl arc of Series 7 – was one great big bootstrap paradox.