Season eight of Doctor Who had a pretty strong character arc for Clara, the ageless Doctor’s traveling companion. She started out distressed by the Doctor’s callousness, but then she learned to be more like him. And now it seems maybe she learned too well.
Tonight’s episode, “Under the Lake,” is the first half of a two-part adventure. (I guess this season is all two-part adventures, after a couple seasons dominated by one-offs.) And it’s filled with a sense of foreboding—not just because of the scary ghosts, mysterious spaceship, and claustrophobic base at the bottom of a lake in Scotland, but because of the way the Doctor is acting. The Doctor keeps goading the people inside that base to put themselves in more and more danger, to satisfy his curiosity or provide him with helpers as he deals with the ghost infestation. You become increasingly convinced that someone is going to suffer a terrible death that could have been avoided. And in the end, it’s the last person you expect.
The thing is, Clara does almost nothing to try and temper the Doctor’s zeal for danger and his tendency to put innocents in harms’ way for the greater good. Apart from one notable scene where she gives the Doctor one of a set of cue cards aimed at making him communicate more sensitively—after he’s just disrespected the base’s recently-dead captain—she seems perfectly happy to watch the Doctor treat the lives of these humans in a cavalier fashion.
First the Doctor seems so thrilled at the prospect that there are actual ghosts on this underwater base, and he’s finally found something totally new and mystifying (which is when Clara makes him read off the aforementioned card, apologizing for his insensitivity to the recently dead.) Then, when the people in the base have achieved a temporary safety by putting the base back into “day mode”—which puts the ghosts out of action for some reason—he goads them into putting it back into “night mode” so the ghosts can come back out and he can trap them. Finally, he puts pressure on the people inside the base to stay and learn the truth about the ghosts, by appealing to their responsibilities as soldiers and scientists. (Even using a bit of reverse psychology, when he says that he’d be happy for them to go, because they’ll only get in the way.)
The Doctor is so keen on discovering the truth about this fascinating phenomenon (and also possibly stopping a potentially huge threat) that he’s willing to put everyone in danger. It’s a bit of a throwback to the second Doctor Who episode ever, when he sabotaged the TARDIS, to force his companions to explore the Dalek city.
And the thing is, Clara does nothing about this. She’s even more gung-ho than the Doctor is, to get swept up in the adventure.
This bothers the Doctor so much he tries to leave Clara inside the TARDIS at the first sign that things are getting out of hand. He tells her that there’s only room for “one me” inside the TARDIS, and she shouldn’t “go native.” The Doctor makes a serious effort to shut down Clara’s Doctor-ish tendencies, but then gets sidetracked into trying to convince her to find a new love interest, and the whole conversation goes sideways.
It’s been a huge trope on Doctor Who, in recent years, that the Doctor’s human traveling companions keep him anchored and connect him to humanity. (This point was made as recently as last year’s “The Caretaker”) The companions are the Doctor’s conscience as well as a check on his mania. We even got to see what tends to happen to the Doctor if he travels alone too long, in “The Waters of Mars.” So now the Doctor has a companion, but she’s too busy being another Doctor to fulfill her usual role in the grand scheme of things, and that spells trouble.
The ghosts, meanwhile, are a genuinely spooky mystery. They appear right after the crew of the underwater base finds an alien spaceship, which has mysterious markings on its wall. The ghost of an alien appears and causes the death of their captain, who also becomes a ghost. (And the corporate stooge among them, a guy named Pritchard, keeps trying to claim ownership of everything, until his greed and stupidity finally get him killed.)
The ghosts keep repeating the same four words: “The Dark. The Sword. The Foresaken. The Temple.” And the Doctor deduces this is a set of coordinates, for someone to find this place on Earth. (Someone who recognizes the same constellations as humans, including Orion’s Sword.)
It turns out the markings on the spaceship wall rewrite the connections in your brain, like the worst earworm ever. And once you see them, you’re killed by the other “ghosts” and start repeating the words, setting off a beacon to bring the aliens to Earth.
After how keen Clara is on having a grand epic adventure, no matter what the cost, there seems to be some pretty heavy foreshadowing that she’s going to wind up apparently dead or dying—but instead, it’s the Doctor. After the ghosts flood the base using a nuclear reactor protocol, the Doctor gets separated from Clara. So the Doctor decides to go back in time to before this town got flooded and became a lake, to discover just why the alien spaceship was here in the first place.
And as soon as the Doctor goes back in time (along with two of the crewmembers, O’Donnell and Bennett), a new ghost appears: The Doctor’s. Apparently, something terrible happened in the past and the Doctor was killed.
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