Timestamp #265: Under the Lake & Before the Flood

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Doctor Who: Under the Lake
Doctor Who: Before the Flood
(2 episodes, s09e03-04, 2015)

Timestamp 265 Under the Lake Before the Flood

A creepy twisty time travel tale.

Under the Lake

In the year 2119, Captain Jonathan Moran records a private journal entry. He is the leader of an underwater mining facility in Caithness, Scotland known as the Drum. The team has discovered a strange craft and has brought it aboard to investigate. The team – Cass, her sign language interpreter Lunn, and Bennett, Pritchard, and O’Donnell – discuss the vessel as they are stalked by a shadow. When a fire breaks out, it consumes Moran as the team runs to safety. Moments later, they are confronted by the ghost of Moran and another figure.

Three days later, the TARDIS arrives in the middle of the abandoned complex. The Doctor notes that the TARDIS is unhappy and wonders why it brought them here, but Clara is excited about the adventure. They investigate the nearby mess hall, noting the signs of a fight that happened mere hours before. The travelers find the ghosts of Moran and the mystery man and follow them to the mysterious craft. The Doctor recognizes it as alien but cannot decipher the writing within. He’s also concerned that the TARDIS hasn’t translated the language.

The ghosts reappear and arm themselves before attacking the travelers. A chase ensues and the Doctor and Clara eventually find themselves in a chamber with the human survivors. Posing as members of UNIT courtesy of the psychic paper, they begin to unravel the mystery.

The Doctor also has a terrible moment here when he claims to understand sign language but doesn’t.

The room is a Faraday cage designed as a shelter in case of an accident with the base’s nuclear reactor. While Cass claims to be in charge of the people, Pritchard steps in as the representative of Vector Petroleum. Since it’s the company’s site, he takes responsibility. When morning comes, the group ventures into the base.

Apparently, the ghosts recognize the artificial day/night cycles of a base housed deep underwater.

The Doctor recognizes the second ghost as a Tivolian, a species known for their cowardice, and questions where the power cell and suspended animation chamber have been moved. The humans claim to have no idea, so the Doctor begins thinking out loud.

The Doctor comes to the conclusion that these beings are indeed ghosts and is overjoyed until the survivors explain that Moran was their friend. Clara reminds him to take out his cue cards, a stack of reminders with kind and apologetic things written on them. Clara takes out the correct one and the Doctor reads it, promising to solve Moran’s murder. With that done, the Doctor resumes being excited about wrestling a ghost and exploring the states of existence.

His musings are interrupted as the base shifts itself back into night mode.

The TARDIS sounds the Cloister Bell and the travelers return to the time capsule. The TARDIS wants to get away but the Doctor locks the ship in place. The Doctor then tells Clara not to “go native” and start acting like him. He doesn’t want her to get hurt.

Pritchard has gone out looking for the missing power cell. When he returns, the Moran ghost ambushes him in the airlock, mouths something, and then floods the lock. He later appears in the galley where Clara and Bennett are gathering supplies. They notice Pritchard’s body floating outside the base and that their new visitor is a ghost. Pritchard attempts to attack but O’Donnell shifts the base back to day mode, forcing the ghost to vanish.

Back in the control room, the Doctor asks Cass what they should do. Cass’s priority is to abandon the base and protect her crew, but the Doctor is eager to investigate. The crew is stymied when they get word that a rescue submarine is en route, and the Doctor uses his UNIT credentials to cancel the rescue and prevent the ghosts from escaping.

They then start determining why night mode is so important to the ghosts. He asks O’Donnell to place the base back in night mode so they can capture a ghost. Lunn, Bennett, and Clara lure the ghosts toward the Faraday cage as the Doctor, Cass, and O’Donnell coordinate from the control room. The plan goes well until the ghosts split up.

Lunn ends up cornered by Pritchard but the ghost doesn’t kill him. Pritchard rejoins the other ghosts as Bennett corners them in the Faraday cage with a hologram of Clara. The Doctor begins to investigate, eventually joining the ghosts in the cage to get a better look with the sonic sunglasses. Cass recognizes the lip movements. They are repeating the same four words: “The dark, the sword, the forsaken, the temple.”

The Doctor recognizes that these must be coordinates leading to the flooded town outside the base. He can’t figure out if the message is a call for help or a signal for invasion, but he notes that the temple is an old church. Something there must be commanding the ghosts and waiting for something to happen.

The team decides to solve the mystery and use a remote submersible to explore the church. The missing stasis chamber lies within. They bring it aboard but the Doctor cannot open it with his sonic device, so the Doctor starts retracing his steps. The ghosts didn’t try to kill anyone until they read the symbols on the spacecraft wall.

He asks Cass about them. With her help, he deduces that the writing acts like a magnet. They were not surprised by the message because it was already in their heads, like a song that gets stuck on repeat in your head. The words act as a beacon as each new ghost is generated, waiting for the being in the stasis chamber to awaken.

Alarms sound throughout the base. O’Donnell explains that messing with the day mode so often has caused the system to malfunction and assume that the reactor is about to go (super)critical. As the computer system floods the base to cool the reactor, the team is split up. Clara remains with Cass and Lunn as the Doctor, Bennett, and O’Donnell end up at the TARDIS. The Doctor takes them back to the time before the flood.

As the TARDIS dematerializes, Clara’s group returns to the galley where they are shocked to find another ghost. This time, it is the Doctor.

Before the Flood

The episode starts not where the story left off, but with a break of the fourth wall. The Doctor literally addresses the audience and explains the bootstrap paradox. An unspecified time traveler wanted to meet his favorite musician, Ludwig van Beethoven, but when he arrived in 18th-century Germany, the man literally did not exist. The time traveler panicked but recalled that he brought a piece of sheet music for Beethoven to autograph. Thus, he copies out the music, gets it published, and becomes Ludwig van Beethoven, keeping history on track without ruffling a feather.

However, one question remains: Who really composed Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony?

With that, the Doctor plays the symphony’s opening bars on his electric guitar, and Peter Capaldi plays the Doctor Who theme to open the episode.

Returning to the story, the TARDIS materializes in 1980. While Bennett throws up from the trip, the Doctor and O’Donnell exit the TARDIS to look around. O’Donnell explains her fandom of the Time Lord: She was once military intelligence but was demoted. As Bennett joins them, she has her “bigger on the inside” moment as the Doctor walks away.

The team finds the ship, which the Doctor identifies as a hearse, and they note that the body, stasis chamber, and power cell are still on board. They are greeted by Albar Prentis, the Tivolian who will become the ghost and identifies the body as the Fisher King. The Fisher King ruled over the Tivolians for a decade before the Arcateenians liberated them.

When the Doctor can’t determine who sent the signal to the future, his team returns to the TARDIS to contact Clara. Back at the base, Clara, Cass, and Lunn note that the Doctor’s ghost is not hostile. Cass also sees that it’s saying something different. “Moran, Pritchard, Prentis, O’Donnell, Clara, Bennett, Doctor, Cass.”

Clara takes the Doctor’s call and is shaken by the knowledge that he will die. He talks to Clara privately about this supposed fixed point in time, and Clara convinces him to try. The Doctor analyzes his ghost as it moves into the base and opens the Faraday cage. The ghost’s message changes to “The chamber will open tonight,” prompting the Doctor to instruct the survivors to take shelter in the cage but to leave the phone outside to monitor the ghosts.

Meanwhile, the Fisher King has risen from the dead and has engraved the words on the wall. When Prentis reads them, the Fisher King kills him, giving rise to the first ghost. The Doctor, O’Donnell, and Bennett return to the ship to stop the chain of events. They determine that the Fisher King faked his death to escape the Arcateenians, and after hearing the Fisher King roar, decide to return to the TARDIS.

Unfortunately, they get cut off and spilt up. O’Donnell is soon killed by the Fisher King. O’Donnell’s ghost appears in the base and takes Clara’s phone.

The Ghost Doctor’s names are the order in which everyone will die. The Doctor and Bennett move to save Clara, the next person on the list, but the TARDIS will not travel to the future. Instead, it takes them 30 minutes back in time, locking the Doctor in his own time stream. While trying to avoid their past selves, they see that Prentis is still alive, but the Doctor stops Bennett from trying to change history: “If you save them, then somebody that was supposed to be dead is alive. Then you really are seeing ghosts.”

In the future, Clara figures out that the Pritchard ghost didn’t hurt Lunn because he wasn’t exposed to the signal. Clara notes that Lunn can retrieve the phone, though Cass objects while questioning if traveling with the Doctor has changed Clara. Lunn proceeds on his mission, leaving Clara and an angry Cass behind.

In the past, the Doctor orders Bennett back to the TARDIS and goes to confront the Fisher King. As they talk, the stasis chamber in the future engages. The Fisher Kind knows that the Doctor is a Time Lord, and he knows that the Time Lords battled in a war so great that the entire universe felt the effects. The Fisher King sees that he can make a strong transmitter out of the Doctor, and once enough Ghosts are created, the signal will reach the Fisher King’s people. They will bring an armada to conquer Earth.

The Doctor notes that the plan could work, but he erased the words on the ship. The Fisher King calls his bluff, but the Doctor points out that any change that prevents the Fisher King from conquering the planet is a good one. The Fisher King races to his ship but finds the words intact, realizing that he has made a critical error.

He has left the Doctor alone with the stasis chamber. One of the power cells is missing and is attached to the dam. When it explodes, the town is flooded and the Fisher King is killed. Meanwhile, the TARDIS activates Security Protocol 712 with Bennett trapped inside.

Lunn finds the phone in the galley, but it ends up being a trap. Clara and Cass decide to go after him but end up separated. After Cass narrowly avoids death, she, Clara, and Lunn regroup in the hangar. As the stasis chamber pops open, the Doctor leaps out and connects his sonic sunglasses to the base’s speaker system. It projects the call of the Fisher King, luring all of the ghosts to the Faraday cage where the Doctor ghost awaits.

As a hologram. As it has been all along, courtesy of the Doctor being in the chamber.

The Doctor uses the sonic sunglasses to erase the signal from everyone’s minds. He also tells them that UNIT will cut the cage free of the base and eject it into space. The lack of a magnetic field will kill the ghosts. Bennett asks Lunn to translate a message for Cass: Lunn complies, finally admitting his love her Cass, and they kiss.

As the Doctor and Clara leave in the TARDIS, he explains that the order of deaths after O’Donnell was entirely fictional. He placed Clara’s name where he did to motivate himself into action. Clara asks the Doctor how he knew what to make his ghost’s hologram say. He only knew what he had to do because he found out through future knowledge of what had been done.

Which leaves the question: Who composed Beethoven’s Fifth?

It was a really fun idea to play with paradoxes and the crossing of time streams again. This story also had some great special effects and costume work, especially with the creepy Fisher King.

The Doctor continues his detached attitude toward humanity and the universe at large. His first impression upon meeting Cass was terrible, but his respect for her throughout the rest of the episode is great. He talks to her, not her translator, and admires her perspective of the world. The visual twist is that he correctly signs “you’re beautiful” to her when he attempts to communicate, even though he thinks that he’s saying “go ahead”.

The theme carries forward with the apology cue cards. I got a laugh out of “It was my fault, I should have known you didn’t live in Aberdeen” and its callbacks to The Hand of Fear and School Reunion. Is he expecting to run into Sarah Jane again?

Speaking of, take note of the Arcateenians. They are original to Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, so this marks the second time in this series that spinoffs get a nod in the main show. Another spinoff gets a tip of the hat as well with O’Donnell’s musings about 1980. She noted that they were in a period before Harold Saxon and the Moon exploding, both of which the Doctor was aware, but she also mentioned the Minister of War. This was explored in a Third Doctor audio adventure called The Same Face.

I loved the quiet point of view for Cass being stalked by Moran. I also noted the minimal and more deliberate use of sonic technology. This was the first episode since The Unicorn and the Wasp not to feature the sonic screwdriver, but it does feature the sonic sunglasses.

Finally, let’s talk once again about nuclear reactors. One of my biggest pet peeves in science fiction is when a reactor “goes critical” because it’s just not accurate. In general, nuclear reactors have three basic states in relation to criticality – subcritical, critical, and supercritical – which is just the measure of the chain reaction within the fuel. The reality is that a reactor “going critical” is good. It means that the chain reaction is self-sustaining and controlled, which is where a reactor is happy and doing its job. In fact, most reactors in the world today naturally tend toward subcriticality. Given enough time and lack of operator action, they are designed to shut themselves down for safety.

What most science fiction writers mean to say is that the reactor is uncontrollably supercritical, which would imply that the chain reaction is growing too fast and cannot be stopped. The writer in me understands the shortcut. I know what they mean to say. But the scientist, engineer, and fan in me all scream that we are smarter than the writers are willing to give credit. It’s okay to say supercritical (or even prompt critical) if you really mean it.

I won’t hold that against the overall score because it’s not Doctor Who‘s fault. It’s just another opportunity to beg writers to be better.

Rating: 5/5 – “Fantastic!”

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Girl Who Died and Doctor Who: The Woman Who Lived


The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

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