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Under the Lake Reviewed: What is a “Ghost” anyway?

October 3, 2015


What’s the difference between thinking you’ve seen a ghost and “actually” seeing one?

How many people have to see the same ghost to make it “real”?

If ghosts are “immaterial” then how are they separable from mere belief or sincere hallucination (solo or collective)?

If ghosts are “material” then how are they really ghosts?

When someone claims to have “actually” seen ghost – what does that mean?

All these questions and others are prodded and teased in the course of the story Under the Lake – Part One of an extended adventure.

When The Doctor and Clara arrive in their undersea haunted house, we know that we’re up for the best kind of claustrophobic drama, akin to Midnight or Horror of Fang Rock.   Every so often you need to vary the stakes a bit in a season of adventures.  You can’t be saving the very nature of Time and Space on a weekly basis and this weekend we’re focusing on half a dozen people.  Perhaps the very nature of Time and Space will be drawn into play next week.

Ghosts in an underwater base are all the more scary, because there’s no “outside” to escape to.  Likewise – monsters on a spaceship.  (This episode even came with corporate idiot  straight from James Camerons’ Aliens movie.)  Perhaps even more frightening than malevolent spirits are spirits who may or may not be malevolent, who may or may not be appeased by any traditional means.

Clara is in a disturbingly bouncy mood at the beginning of this one – all up for any kind of adventure and all that.  Of course, this buoyancy (buoyancy underwater?) is disturbing largely because we know she’s not going to see out the season.  Now of course, any real human being who underwent as many near death experiences as a Doctor Who companion would be a complete basket case, a gibbering shell of a viable human being.  Perhaps Clara is going rationally crazy at last.  I think we’re dealing with a long delayed form of disintegration here – her grief for Danny seems to be making her reckless.  Survivor’s Guilt?

The joke about Clara handing The Doctor cue cards so that he can pretend to empathise with humans made me chuckle, but I’m reminded that he has been hanging out with humans a LOT over the past fifty or more years.  Any moderately curious visitor to earth ought to have learned a bit more about human behaviour by now.  Even Bjork has.

I love cliff-hangers.  I was brought up with cliff-hangers.  From 1963 to 1989, every Doctor Who writer had to structure their writing over usually three but sometimes many more cliff hangers.  And many of the very best of the revived series since 2005 have been two parters with cliff hangers.  Averaging around 90 minutes in total, a twenty-first century two-parter offers roughly the same number of minutes per adventure as a twentieth century four parter.

Generally speaking, the ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth Doctors have done well with two parters (90 minuters).  Here are some of my favourites.

The Empty Child-Doctor Dances

The Impossible Planet-Satan Pit

Human Nature-Family of Blood

Time of Angels-Flesh and Stone

Magician’s Apprentice-Witch’s Apprentice

All of these are viable contenders for top ten lists of twenty-first century Doctor Who adventures.  They are properly paced and emotionally involving.  They are all the more frightening because you’ve been given time to get to know and therefore care about the people being threatened.

Intriguingly, the ghosts are treated as ghosts rather than something else.  They are not holograms, they are not temporal echoes and they are not flexible concentrations of malleable subatomic particles.  There is something about these ghosty dudes that connects with the very nature of death itself and the very nature of what we’ve always vaguely and inexpertly thought we meant when we thought of ghosts.

I’m aware that next week we’ll be taken back in time, that we’ll see the valley before it was flooded and that the drama we’ll be watching will be informed by eerie foreknowledged.  All that we see will be deluged.  The characters we see will feel delicate and doomed.  Apres nous – le deluge.


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