Despite doing some excellent work on Being Human, Toby Whithouse's success rate on Doctor Who has been patchier than the sixth Doctor's jacket. Although getting off to an incredible start with 'School Reunion', his later offerings ('The Vampires of Venice', 'A Town Called Mercy', etc.) utterly failed to set the Whoniverse alight. Yet tonight's episode was a thoroughly absorbing mix of base-under-siege goodness, ghostly goings-on, and nautical caperings, sat atop an unfolding narrative which although at times felt slower than we're used to, never felt boring.
Admittedly, there wasn't much in terms of originality on offer, but Whithouse used the familiar tropes competently, utilised his diverse crew effectively, and set up a genuinely interesting central mystery. Unencumbered by the baggage of returning foes or gargantuan moral conundrums, this felt like an episode content to push its story centre stage, and let the character development happen organically. Yes, the cliffhanger was a little predictable—it was fairly obvious who the ghost would be, and clearly the Doctor can't die—but I'd be lying if I said that I didn't enjoy it.
In fact, one of the things which excites me most about this season is the longer story format and the potential for inventive cliffhangers—and you won't get much freakier than the Doctor coming back as a ghost. In fact, this whole episode was creepy from the get-go; the Drum felt claustrophobic, the sunken city beautifully atmospheric, and the 'ghosts' themselves were the perfect combination of real actors enhanced by effectively realised CGI. Despite the minimalist underwater set, Daniel O'Hara's direction never felt repetitive. Even the running up and down corridors was focussed, provided some welcome tension, and felt marvellously Classic Who. I love that they're allowing the stories to breathe this year, particularly when they introduce a crew of unknowns. Without the extra minutes, the Redshirts would've been reduced to generic cardboard cut-outs.
Yet, the crew felt mostly likeable. Obviously we all booed loudly at the potentially villainous Pritchard—giving zero shits when we saw his corpse floating through the abandoned underwater city—but the rest of them I warmed to fairly quickly. Doctor-fanboy O'Donnell was utterly charming, inquisitive scientist Bennett won me over with his... inquisitiveness, and the partnership of Cass and Lunn managed to portray hearing impairment in a refreshingly non-patronising way. Yes, the fact that Cass could lip read did feel suspiciously plot-convenient, but the extra running time really allowed the show's secondary characters to develop without having to clumsily throw information at us—and we're still only halfway through the story.
Where this episode really shone for me is in its characterisation of the Doctor and Clara, who've felt a little out of sorts this season. The Doctor's been too nice, and Clara's been too distant. Tonight the Doctor felt back to his socially deficient best. Having him using Clara's suggestion cards in times of etiquette failure provided some solid belly laughs. My favourites were 'It was my fault, I should have known you didn't live in Aberdeen', and the Doctor's face after reading 'I'll do all I can to solve the death of your friend/family member/pet'. He looked so uncertain as he came out with one of the worst delivered lines since Roger Lloyd-Pack's 'From beyond the graaaave' in 'Rise of the Cybermen'. Thankfully, this time it was intentional.
Even the Doctor's fatherly chat with Clara about dating was as amusing as it was excruciating. This is how I like to see Twelve and Clara interact: with a teaspoon of awkwardness, a generous twist of clumsiness, and a dessert spoon of the utterly endearing. That the Doctor even attempted to encourage Clara to seek out other relationships, knowing full well that his communications skills this time around are hideously subpar, speaks volumes about the state of their current relationship. The way Clara accepted his bumbling counsel, with a gracious smile, and without poking fun at his lack of tact, really was a wonderful moment. These are two characters utterly at ease with each other's foibles.
Of more concern is Clara's insatiable thirst for adventure. Tonight she couldn't wait to throw aside her coat and head off into danger. That the Doctor noticed and Clara didn't is something of a concern. Like last season, we're being forced to watch Clara's story unfold with the knowledge that Jenna will be leaving at some point—only this time it's not merely rumour. And whereas last season had a potentially happy ending mapped out early on with the introduction of Danny Pink, here we are three episodes in and we've got nada. Obviously there's still time for something to materialise, but Clara's currently gung-ho trajectory is filling me full of foreboding. Mind you, season eight didn't end as happily as I'd anticipated, so maybe there being no easy-out is a good thing. Please let it be a good thing. Please!
—I don't miss the sonic screwdriver at all. I'm even starting to like the Doctor's wearable technology.
—When the doctor steps outside the room, Cass is the smartest? What about Clara?
—It was only after reading the credits that I saw Paul Kaye was in the episode. I'm guessing he played the moley guy from the planet Tivoli.
Doctor: 'Right, I did not expect that. Hands up who expected that.'
Doctor: 'So, we are fighting an unknown homicidal force that has taken the form of your commanding officer and a cowardly alien, underwater, in a nuclear reactor. Anything else I should know? Someone got a peanut allergy, or something?'
Doctor: 'Calm, Doctor, calm. You were like this when you met Shirley Bassey.'
Doctor: 'I like adventures as much as the next man... if the next man is a man that likes adventures.'
Doctor: 'Clara, why don't I have a radio in the TARDIS.'
Clara: 'You took it apart and used the pieces to make a clockwork squirrel.'
Doctor: 'And... because whatever song I heard first thing in the morning I was stuck with. Two weeks of 'Mysterious Girl' by Peter Andre. I was begging for the brush of death's merciful hand.'