If you hear a classic series fan talking about the “base under siege” story, they’re talking about a story like “Under the Lake”. It’s a scenario where the Doctor and his companions are trapped in a more or less confined space with a small group of people native to that time and (usually) place, while a deadly threat either attempts to invade that space or has already infested it from within. It’s a classic formula for science fiction and horror films, e.g. The Thing from Another World and John Carpenter’s The Thing, not to mention the first four Alien movies. It’s the basis for tons of classic series episodes, including “The Ice Warriors,” “The Web of Fear,” “The Ark In Space,” “The Horror of Fang Rock,” “The Robots of Death,” and “Warriors of the Deep” (which was also set on an undersea military base), and almost all of the Cybermen stories. In the new series it’s cropped up quite a number of times as well, notably “The Impossible Planet”/”The Satan Pit,” “42,” “The Waters of Mars,” “The Time of Angels”/”Flesh and Stone,” and “Cold War.”
Put another way: though “The Magician’s Apprentice”/“The Witch’s Familiar” were rooted in the classic series episode “Genesis of the Daleks,” they were structured in a wholly new-series way. Whereas “Under the Lake” is almost as traditional as Doctor Who gets.
This makes the Doctor’s amazement and wonder, culminating in the ecstatic “I want to kiss it to death,” seem a little over-the-top. It’s not as though he’s never seen a monster that can appear to animate the bodies or take on the appearance of the dead — “Horror of Fang Rock” and “42” being two obvious examples — or seen what appear to be supernatural phenomena turn out to be rooted in physical technologies. It’s fun to have the Doctor react to danger with excitement, but a little goes a long way.
Usually a base under siege, especially one with as much time to stretch out as this two-parter will afford, starts with those under siege taking a while to discover they’re under siege. This often involved a lot of tedious suspicion of the Doctor (here mercifully short-circuited by the psychic paper and the Doctor’s reputation), but it also gave us a lot of time to get to know the crew and begin to care about them as characters. Here we’re thrust into the spookiness right away, and unfortunately it’s done by, for the second time in three weeks, killing off a black character in the pre-credits sequence. In this case, it’s (also unfortunately) so that he can become one of the story’s monsters, stalking around and looking threatening. And the remaining characters, though the actors make most of them as appealing as they can, don’t reveal much about themselves. We have the commander and her interpreter, the computer expert who’s a fan of the Doctor, the corporate toady, and the scaredy sciencey one, and that’s about it.
The ghosts themselves seem a bit limited in their ability to threaten people, which keeps the tension tepid — they can’t take objects with them when they walk through walls, and they can be confined in a Faraday cage — but also keeps the rather hapless crew’s survival thus far plausible. In fact, to get to a suitable cliffhanger, we have to trot out what’s starting to become a real joke: the prospect that the Doctor himself has been killed and become a ghost himself. This is, of course, also the second episode of three that’s teased this as a possibility, and the second cliffhanger of two hinging on the apparent death of the main characters. It would be nitpicking if the returns weren’t diminishing; “oh my God, they killed Kenny!” is comedy, not tragedy.
What works is the ghosts’ apparent motivation: they’re not killing people for fun, but because they need extra Xs marking the spot where the treasure is buried. How dead people mouthing words, presumably in English, which only the lip-reading character can make out would be more helpful than, say, an ordinary radio transmitter is a bit mysterious, but we have another whole episode next week to work that out. Maybe it’ll be another timey-wimey message from the Doctor to himself, or maybe Whithouse has an even more clever twist in mind. Perhaps it hinges on the reason Cass refuses to let Lund see the words on the spaceship (thus keeping him from being vulnerable to the ghosts).
Love him or hate him, Moffat writes some of the best, sharpest, and funniest dialogue the series has ever seen, and his absence is really felt this week. It could also be the direction, but on occasion Capaldi seems almost marble-mouthed wrestling with Whithouse’s dialogue, and some of the jokes fall flat (“don’t leave me hanging” — really?) when they could have been salvaged with one more writing pass or just tighter editing.
Still, after all the flash and timey-wimey wizardry of the show under Moffat’s reign, there’s something almost comforting in a good old base under siege, and even the second time through this is less off-putting than “The Rebel Flesh” and more endearing than “Cold War.” And there’s every reason to believe, just as in the back half of almost every one of those, that this ragtag bunch could pull it together next week and save the day.