Doctor Who: Tardis Afraid as Rising Damp Incurs Spirits
Some episodes of Doctor Who are bad (Deep Breath, Kill the Moon, whatever last week’s fiasco of an episode was called). Some Doctor Who episodes are fiendishly clever (Name of the Doctor, Listen). But some episodes are just good- deliciously, deliriously, simply good, and that’s what this week’s outing, which should so obviously have been called Under the Sea in order for me to hum the best Disney song ever through it’s entire run, staked it’s claim in.
I’m not getting my hopes up too high just yet, because the last couple of two-parters the series has done with Capaldi’s Doctor have had amazing first halves and a funeral dirge of a second half. But right now I can linger in that lovely space between knowing and not knowing, without having to qualify any discussion of Under the Lake (the episode’s actual, less exciting title) with “…but the second half was pish”.
So let’s discuss what worked about this episode, shall we? Firstly, it was written by Toby Whithouse, he of the patchy but very creative supernatural dramedy Being Human- his Doctor Who episodes have been equally all over the place. For every School Reunion (brilliantly touching), there’s a Vampires of Venice (trudgingly unfunny), for every God Complex (sublimely excellent), there’s a Town called Mercy (??????). But whatever his episodes have been, they’re usually memorable- maybe for some cool new monster, an interesting concept, or fabulous world-building. I’d wager that this episode had one major advantage over the host of recent DW episodes, and that’s the fact that it got the Doctor pretty much spot-on.
What I’m saying is, in short, fuck Moffat’s version of the Doctor, who swerves between calculating self-preservation and grating silliness that’s the equivalent of the show refusing to stop tooting a kazoo right in your ear, and give me this version instead. Capaldi careers around a hilarious script, one that matches decent laughs with pretty impressive horror, and for once he’s not ahead of the game, he’s figuring it out along with everyone else. Something about the slapdash nature of this Doctor is really charming and balances out the ever-present arrogance that oozes off him at every turn.
But ah, I’m getting ahead of myself. What about the story? After the crew of an underwater base haul an alien ship on board, they find themselves infested with ghosts- not the benign, wise-cracking, Hogwarts kind, but the kind that threateningly pick up spanners and brutally drown various crew members to make new ghosts. The Doctor has to try and figure out why they’re collecting the souls of the base’s crew. but as the base starts going a bit haywire he’s forced to leave Clara behind and travel back through time to work out a way to keep everyone alive. As I said earlier, it’s the first part of a two-parter, so I fully expect them to fuck this up royally next episode, but this was a fun, tight, rollicking script that didn’t let the action drop for a moment, and I can respect that. And let’s take no notice of the fact that it seemed to be ripping off previous well-respected Who episodes, with obvious visual nods to The Satan Pit with the corpse floating past the window plus the fact that the Prentis character had very obviously appeared in Silence in the Library. Don’t even think about it. It’s gone.
It was also bloody scary- well, when I say that, I mean that I would have been shit-scared by this episode ten years ago, which is my watermark for how scary a Doctor Who episode is as now I sit around watching House of 1000 Corpses over breakfast so my current scary-radar is kind of skewed. Even the Tardis was too scared to get near the creatures in a cool touch that really spooked me. The ghosts looked legitimately cool-
-and I appreciated the fact that they didn’t go for the traditional bloodless DW deaths (which, when you think about it, only really come in the form of deadly zaps- the Autons, the Cybermen, the Daleks…) and had the ghosts committing straight-up murder. I’ve written before about how keen I am for Doctor Who to terrify kids, partly because it stops them running around with their sticky hands smelling of yoghurt and trying to come near me all the time, but mainly because it gives kids an easy way into good horror, the same way it did for me. Part of Doctor Who’s legacy is sending generations of kids cowering behind the sofa, for Christ’s sake, and it’s about time they upheld that.
A solid supporting cast really helped up the ante and give the episode some stakes, and the addition of a character who communicated through sign-language could have felt tacked-on but just doesn’t. Clara also works best when she’s got some normal people to interact with, and she had a genuinely decent episode for once. I know this show likes to bring the Doctor and his companions together only to brutally rip them apart-
-(ugh, maybe I’m due my period or something, but the memory of David Tennant getting cut off just before he tells Rose that he loves her made me choke up a little) but it’s nice to have them on the same side for once, especially when they seemed to spent so much of last season at odds with each other.
Look, sometimes I just don’t want to criticise Doctor Who because it is, after all, my favourite show, and this episode didn’t make me want to pick it apart at the seams. I’m sure most of the plot would collapse if I took a closer look at it, but I have no intention of doing so because this episode provided everything I wanted-scares, laughs, an interesting story, and apparently next week a monster voiced by Corey Taylor. Because yeah, the big twist set up by this episode is basically resolved by clicking on the Wikipedia page. I’ll have you yet , Moffat.