How Does a Doctor Deal with Death?

Has “travelling with the Doctor changed you, or were you always happy to put other people’s lives at risk?”

The relationship between the Doctor and his companions plays a much more central role in Nu Who than it did in Classic Who, a pattern that certainly holds true for “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood,” the recent two-part episode of “Doctor Who,” Season 9 (on BBC and BBC America). Will the Doctor put the lives of his companions at risk? Will he put other people’s lives at risk? How are the companions changed by their travels with the Doctor? Like many of the episodes Toby Whithouse has written (from the rather underwhelming “Vampires of Venice” to the enjoyable but less than legendary “School Reunion”), the character development and the relationships between characters form the best part of these episodes. Peter Capaldi (The Doctor) and Jenna Coleman (Clara) deliver impassioned performances, as usual, but it’s a new villain featured in these episodes, played by Neil Fingleton (known for playing White Walkers in “Game of Thrones”) who embodies the two-parter’s creepy tone. The new nemesis, called the Fisher King, looks amazing and sounds terrifying, even if his villainous plot comes across as contrived. Overall we are happy to report that, thanks to intriguing character development, Season 9 stands alone in Nu Who for its consistently above-average episodes, making it well worth your time to watch.


The crew of an underwater mining facility has just discovered an alien-looking craft on the lake floor. The craft is small and plain, except for four mysterious symbols inscribed on its interior. Lunn (Zaqi Ismail) retrieves a flashlight and sees an ephemeral face reflected in the glass panel where it is stored. As soon as Moran (Colin McFarlane), the captain of the base, shines the torch on the markings, the ship’s engines blaze to life, engulfing Moran as he rescues another crewmember. Once everyone else is safely in the corridor outside, they see a pair of translucent figures, the man Lunn had seen in the glass as well as their recently deceased captain who, with hollow, blackened eyes, appear to address them with silent, apparently meaningless, mutterings. A crewmember utters in disbelief: “He’s . . . Oh, my God. He’s a . . . ghost.”

For us, some of the most enjoyable aspects of this episode are all the references to sci-fi beyond the “Whoniverse”—subtle and sly allusions hidden like Easter eggs throughout the episode. For instance, in one of the rooms in the underwater base there is a mural depicting some sort of sea monster attacking a ship. On the ship there are three people, one in red, one in blue, and one in gold: the same as the colors of the uniforms in “Star Trek: The Original Series.” Coincidence? Probably not, given that one of the doors in the base features the code 1701, the serial number on the outer hull of the Enterprise. But Star Wars isn’t left out of this geeky tribute to sci-fi fandoms: Prentis’ (Paul Kaye) business card features the slogan “May the remorse be with you.” Though these little details don’t add much to the story, it’s impressive that the creators of the episode put such effort into minutiae that won’t be noticed by the casual viewer but will delight any sci-fi aficionado. If you’re like us, they will also tempt you into re-watching the episode in an effort to catch more of them.

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If only Toby Whithouse put such creative energy into more important parts of the episode, like the villain’s scheme. After all, much of this two-parter is devoted to characters attempting to determine why the ghosts are being created. But when the answer is finally revealed it feels incredibly contrived. [Major Spoiler] The Doctor discovers that the Fisher King, an alien warlord, plans to use the souls of people who see the writing on the inside of his ship. These hapless souls are subsequently killed to transmit his coordinates to the rest of his species, who will eventually receive the message and invade the planet, subjugating the human race. Surely for a species that has the technology to control the spirits of the dead, there is a simpler way to send a message. Don’t they have Skype or something? It’s pretty clear that this plot was adopted just so we could have a creepy ghost episode, and it is, by the way, incredibly creepy. A towering, skeleton-like villain with a booming, God-like voice, the Fisher King regrettably only appears in one scene. He feels woefully underutilized and his plan makes no sense. What a waste of a villain with so much potential.

Capaldi’s performance really saves this episode. When the Doctor comes to the conclusion that “the unknown homicidal force” they are facing is ghosts, he is beside himself with astonishment and disbelief: “Wow. This is, it’s amazing! I’ve never actually met a proper ghost.” This disbelief is a little hard to swallow given the foes and fairy tales we’ve encountered with the Doctor in the past, including Mummies, Vampires, Werewolves, and even Robin Hood. What’s so different about ghosts? But Capaldi’s disbelief is so believable that we buy into it. Similarly, the Doctor’s protest that he can’t change the future is at first a bit hard to accept fully, since Doctor Who has not been entirely clear on to what extent history and the future can be changed. However, Capaldi delivers his lines with such vigor that all our doubts are swept away.

If Capaldi’s performance makes these episodes watchable, the exploration of the relationship between the Doctor and Clara makes them a must watch for Season 9. In Season 8, it often felt like Clara kept the Doctor in check, like a mother or teacher might keep an eye on a child or student. In fact the Doctor even says, “I used to have a teacher exactly like you once,” to which Clara responds, “You still do. Pay attention.” Clara cares about the people they meet on their travels and to some extent protects them from the Doctor. As the Doctor states in the second episode of Season 8 (“Into the Dalek”), “She cares so I don’t have to.”

Evidently, this relationship has changed dramatically since the death of Clara’s boyfriend, Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson). Though he is never directly mentioned, Pink’s presence is palpable in this two-parter. With Danny dead, there is no one to bring Clara back to reality. She has embraced the Doctor’s world so much that she is as comfortable as the Doctor is putting other people’s lives at risk to satisfy her curiosity and need for adventure (which is what prompts one of the crew to ask her the question at the beginning of this review). Clara has become so much like the Doctor that for a moment their roles seem to reverse. It is the Doctor who warns her that she should not “go native:” there is only room for one Doctor in the TARDIS. The Doctor is incapable of playing the role of caretaker for long though, and he soon asks Clara, “Can I stop now?” Clara is more than happy to agree and they go back to putting their own and others’ lives at risk.

When Clara learns that the Doctor is in grave danger she revolts, saying, “You’ve made yourself essential to me. You’ve given me something else to . . . to be. And you can’t do that and then die. It’s not fair.” Jenna Coleman’s delivery here is spot on. We immediately understand that she is using the Doctor to escape reality, perhaps because it is too full of memories of Danny. It is clear Clara still hasn’t really faced his death. When the Doctor tells her, “We all have to face death eventually, be it ours . . . or someone else’s,” she responds that she isn’t ready to think about that yet. But when someone other than the Doctor (or Danny) dies, Clara doesn’t bat an eye. She takes the deaths of two other characters in the episode unflinchingly, but breaks down at the thought of losing the Doctor. She needs him to be invincible, and seems to think she is, too. But the fact of the matter is, she isn’t. If the Doctor dies, he will likely regenerate, but she, of course, will not. In embracing the Doctor’s world to escape the world in which she lost Danny, Clara has become like the Doctor. This misjudgment will probably get her into trouble later in this season. Thus far, Doctor Who offers no answers on how to face death, particularly unexpected death like Danny’s, except for escape. Clara seeks escape through the Doctor, through travel to new places and times and through the constant deluge of new experiences that travel brings to overwhelm her grief. Clara shows us what happens when we run from death rather than confront it. Instead of helping us grapple with death, however, Clara’s response leaves us with the unanswered question of what a better reaction might be.

Clara isn’t the only one who has never truly faced death. The Doctor has witnessed, even caused, the deaths of many people, but never someone close to him. A companion of the Doctor hasn’t died since 1982 (Rory doesn’t count). Even in the Classic Series it’s hard to say that the Doctor was as close to the few companions who died as he is to most of his companions in Nu Who. It seems that the Doctor, much like Captain Kirk before Wrath of Khan, hasn’t faced death personally. “[He’s] cheated death. [He’s] tricked his way out of death and patted [himself] on the back for [his] ingenuity.” The Doctor consoles Clara by telling her that everyone must face death, so the real ghost haunting Season 9 is this: when will he?

Grade: B+

All the Fisher King’s ghosts and all of his men couldn’t put his plot back together again.