Death is in the cards.

By Kelly Connolly
October 04, 2015 at 03:11 PM EDT

The Doctor does not believe in ghosts. He’s never met a bump in the night that isn’t secretly a time traveler trapped in a pocket dimension; he’s never conducted a séance that couldn’t be explained away by something like the Gelth. There’s a tangible answer to everything, even if it’s alien. Ghosts don’t fit that pattern. They defy death, and not like the Doctor does it. They don’t carry on living against the odds — they die, and it doesn’t stop them. If death isn’t the end, then why does the Doctor fight so hard against it, and what does it mean that so many people have died on his behalf? What does it mean if Clara becomes one of those people?

After whatever sent her back to Coal Hill School while the Doctor traveled on his own, Clara’s rediscovered her “shut up and give me some planets” mode this week. She wants adventure as the Doctor defines it: perilous and somehow always at least a little bit alien — and a little bit deadly. Even the TARDIS doesn’t want them to land in The Drum, an underwater mining facility built over a flooded military town in 22nd-century Scotland. Three days ago, the crew spotted a “craft of unknown origin” on the lake floor and brought it on board, only to be met by a figure in Dickensian mutton chops. The apparition caused the craft’s engines to fire, incinerating the crew’s captain, John Moran — who, moments later, returned as a ghost himself.

The ghosts have been trying to kill the crew every night since. They do the same to the Doctor and Clara, but only after our heroes have seen the inside of the spaceship, which is marked by symbols that even the TARDIS can’t translate. To survive, the Doctor, Clara, and the crew lock themselves in The Drum’s Faraday Cage, which was built as a shelter in the event of a radiation leak. That’s right: This ghost story is set in a nuclear reactor.

And even the Doctor has to admit that it is a ghost story. Shadowy figures take the form of the dead, walk through walls, and only come out at night (or at least, they only come out when the facility goes into night mode). What else could they be? Logically, this discovery should send him into existential despair, but in true Doctor form, he’s just too excited. The universe is changing again. Isn’t everyone as curious as he is?

But asking questions — and, more specifically, seeking answers — comes at a cost, and it’s one, that, at first, the crew would rather not pay. Second-in-command Cass, who’s taken charge since Moran’s death, has one priority: She wants to keep her people safe. It’s already too late for Pritchard, the profit-obsessed Vector Petroleum representative who ventured off base to look for the spaceship’s missing (and valuable) power cell. He paid for his greed with his life when the ghosts switched the facility back into night mode and flooded his airlock chamber. For once in the history of this show, the jerk didn’t survive.

But it’s not too late for everyone else — Cass, the no-nonsense, intelligent leader; Lunn, her sign language translator; Bennett, the scientist; and O’Donnell, the Doctor’s superfan. “I can’t force you to leave,” signs Cass, “so you can stay and do the whole Cabin in the Woods thing and get killed or drowned if you want, but my first priority is to protect my crew.” Cass should be followed by a standing ovation at all times. She has O’Donnell contact ground control for evacuation, only to be told that rescue subs are already on their way. The ghosts used Morse code to call for more people, presumably to kill them, too.

The Doctor cancels the evacuation request and works out a plan. Clara, Lunn, and Bennett act as bait to guide the ghosts into the Faraday Cage, trading off like they’re running a team relay through the halls of The Drum. They hit a snag when the ghosts split up: Moran and Mutton Chops (or, as Cass calls him, the Mole) follow Clara while Pritchard’s ghost tracks Lunn, nearly killing him. But since Cass won’t let him into the spaceship, Lunn’s never seen the symbols on the wall, so Pritchard leaves him unharmed and rejoins the other ghosts just in time for Bennett — and a hologram of Clara, looking fabulous — to lure them all into the Cage.

NEXT: Not Penny’s boat

Now that the ghosts are weaponless, the Doctor can get a closer look. Using his sonic sunglasses, he beams Cass a close-up of their lips; they’re mouthing something. “The dark, the sword, the forsaken, the temple,” Cass reads. They’re coordinates. The dark is space. The sword is Orion’s sword — which, if viewed from a different planet, ends with Earth. The forsaken is the abandoned military town, and the temple is the church within that town. Some force is hijacking people’s souls to turn them into transmitters to strengthen the signal to lead something here. The Doctor has to find what’s in that church, but he offers everyone else an easy out.

This is what the Doctor does: He makes people want to take risks. (Rory told him as much in another Toby Whithouse-penned episode.) It’s an effect he hates when it puts his friends (Clara) at risk, but he loves it, too, even against his better judgment. The Doctor has to know that people are capable of putting their lives on the line for something bigger — he can’t stop himself from depending upon the human capacity for selflessness any more than people can stop being curious. “It’s impossible. I hate it. It’s evil. It’s astonishing. I want to kiss it to death,” he says. There’s a bit of that madness in everyone. The whole crew agrees to stay, and Bennett guides a robotic probe into the church — which, in retrospect, does not seem dangerous enough to warrant that build-up.

But the danger comes later. Inside the church is the spaceship’s suspended animation chamber. Whatever is in there — it should be the pilot, but instinct tells the Doctor that it’s not — is calling out into the universe, using the symbols on the wall. They rewrite the brain of everyone who sees them, sticking in there like an earworm, “a song you can’t stop humming even after you die.” The more people die, the louder the song. So who left the writing on the wall, and why?

Before the Doctor can sort that out, a computer malfunction floods the halls of The Drum, forcing everyone to race for the TARDIS. The flood doors trap Clara with Lunn and Cass, while the Doctor, O’Donnell, and Bennett make it all the way. Clara suggests that the Doctor just pop over to her side in the TARDIS, but the TARDIS won’t land near the ghosts, so the Doctor will have to go back in time without her. He heads back to when the spaceship first landed to figure out why this is all happening, but a new ghost appears outside The Drum, meaning someone else died in the past — and it’s the Doctor. Will he find a way to cheat a death we know is coming, or is this the one time he submits?

Background radiation:

  • I like that when the Doctor expresses concern for Clara, he does it with full respect for her right not to listen. He just has to say it. I also like that she understands that he’s not trying to patronize and appreciates the sentiment. They’ve come so far.
  • “Come on, you lot, you’re bananas about relationships. You’re always writing songs about them, or going to war, or getting tattooed.” Or getting in the TARDIS.
  • It’s been a while since the one-off characters on Doctor Who have felt as well drawn as every member of this crew. I’ll care if anyone here dies.
  • The Doctor is in the suspended animation chamber, right?
  • The camera really lingers on the circular Gallifreyan in the TARDIS: There’s more than one spaceship with symbols that rewrite the brain.
  • “Was it something she said? She does that. She was in an argument with Gandhi.”
  • “So who’s in charge now? I need to know who to ignore.”
  • “I’m very sorry for your loss. I’ll do all I can to solve the death of your friend slash family member slash pet.”
  • “Okay, so they’ll try to kill you, blah blah blah. What does that matter? You come back. A bit murdery, sure, but even so.”
  • “Clara, why don’t I have a radio in the TARDIS?” “You took it apart and used the pieces to make a clockwork squirrel.”
  • “Wait, you’re going to go back in time? How do you do that?” “Extremely well.”

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