Written by Stephen Moffat
Directed by Rachel Talalay
Starring: Peter Capaldi (The Doctor); Jenna Coleman (Clara Oswald); Samuel Anderson (Danny Pink); Michelle Gomez (Missy); Chris Addison (Seb); Andrew Leung (Dr. Chang) & Shiela Ried (Gran Oswald)
Here There Be Spoilers (BIG ONES).
Well, it is less than twenty-four hours since the broadcast of Dark Water, the first part of Doctor Who‘s series eight two-part finale and we finally know what’s what. The Promised Land/Nethersphere has finally been exposed of its true nature, as has the true nature Missy, the seriously weird woman who has been turning up in episode finales since Deep Breath, peeking around the edges of the action like Killroy. We can now make an educated guess as to what happened to everyone who found themselves sitting in Missy’s parlor. As Rob Webb and Olivia Coleman shouted in sexual ecstasy during a hilarious Mitchell & Webb sketch, “Now we know.” And how does that knowledge sit with this reviewer?
Dark Water begins on the oddest moment possible; just when Clara is finally ready, willing and able to tell Danny everything about her life as the Doctor’s companion, tragedy strikes: Danny is run down by a car and killed. Now if you have been paying attention for the last eleven weeks, you will know that Moffat’s arc has been hinging on the concept that death, as we know it, isn’t necessarily the end of life. Although I haven’t committed this theory to any of my previous reviews, it did occur to me that, after seeing many secondary characters buy the farm only to take tea with Missy in her garden, it would only make sense to raise the stakes and have an important character find out what’s on the other side. It occurred to me by the time of the broadcast of The Caretaker that either Clara’s or Danny’s days were numbered. Danny’s end seems a little perfunctory as presented (more on that later), but it does drive Clara into a place we’ve never seen her in before. It drives her ask the Doctor for something that she knows he will object to: changing the past so that Danny can be saved. Clara decides to negotiate from a point of strength; after apparently tricking the Doctor with a sleep patch, he finds himself inside an active volcano with Clara standing in front of him holding all seven of his TARDIS keys, throwing one into the lava and saying, “Do I have your attention?” The stakes are clear: either the Doctor finds a way to erase Danny’s death from history or be locked out of the TARDIS permanently.
A lot has been written about the growth and development of Clara as a character, with special emphasis being paid to her role in shaping the Doctor’s personality as a child (Listen), her anger at his apparent abandonment of her (Kill The Moon), her abilities to work independently of him (Flatline) and her willingness to save him from certain doom (In The Forest Of The Night). As impressive as all those moments are, they are nothing compared to the Clara we see dangling the TARDIS keys over a pool of lava. To destroy them all will bring her nothing, both she and the Doctor know it, and when the final key sails into the drink, she is horrified at what she’s done while still admitting through her tears that she “would do it again.” With the loss of Danny, Clara has been pushed over the edge; given another minute and she would likely throw herself into the lava pool and dissolve alongside the keys. It is a shattering moment and it is difficult to believe that this is the same woman who, when the Doctor first met her, thought that only one person at a time could use the internet. The Doctor is also impressive in his determination to not allow himself to be blackmailed (that is, until we realize that he set up the scenario and the keys were never in any danger). The scene and the performances nail the amount of frustration that the characters must have for each other despite their friendship, she with his uncaring and dismissive attitude, he with her controlling nature. When the illusion is finally dispelled and the Doctor gathers up the keys from the control room floor, we are left with a girl drained of emotion; her grief halted by the shock of the accident, Clara poured out her sadness and anger inside the volcano and now she must come to terms with the probability that she has lost the Doctor too. But he’s not so easy to shake off; despite her betrayal, he agrees to try and take the TARDIS into the afterlife (!) and see if they can find Danny. After an entire series of trying gauge the Doctor’s feelings for Clara, he finally makes it plain with the best line of the entire year: “Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?” It’s the only thing he could’ve said to match Clara’s standoff in the volcano. For those of you who were hedging a bit on excepting this Doctor, eyebrows and all, this is the moment to relax: Peter Capaldi is the Doctor and he is actually taking his companion into the afterlife to see if they can save her boyfriend.
Clara: I don’t deserve a friend like you.
The Doctor: Well, I’m terribly sorry, but that’s exactly what you deserve.
The very fact that the Doctor is even attempting to do this shows a major leap forward for the character and the series; not long ago, he was chiding Clara for wanting to visit Robin Hood because he believed no such man ever existed (he was wrong) and now he’s attempting to go find out what happens to you after you die. The episode begins to cross into the shadowlands at this point, with an apparently still living Danny being asked to fill in forms in order to process his afterlife admin, as it has done many times before whenever it gets close to the realm of the supernatural. Doctor Who has taken a very definite stand on supernatural subjects; they are all either alien life forms or are the result of superior technology. The ghosts in The Unquiet Dead were the Gelth, the witches in The Shakespeare Code were Carionites, and the Vampires Of Venice were Saturnyne creatures (only The Satan Pit’s Beast defied the Doctor’s explanation). We’ve even see a version of Missy’s plan before; is the Nethersphere really so different from the data cloud that the Great Intelligence used to upload and store people’s consciousnesses? And yet I feel that Dark Water is hedging its bets a bit; the Nethersphere maybe Time Lord technology, but it doesn’t answer everything. Is Danny in a state of virtual reality or has he actually been given a body that will eventually be stored inside a cybersuit once his emotions are deleted? And the chilling question of a dead consciousness still be able to feel the experiences of their former bodies (from cold storage to the burning of cremation) bares further thought: I don’t believe that this is a natural phenomenon, something that every dead person going back to the dawn of time experiences (that would be exceptionally cruel) but something that Missy has cooked up with her soul-catching Nethersphere , something that induces new arrivals to hit the delete button on their emotions perhaps. But whatever the cause, the sound of a voice crying out “Don’t cremate me” throws the episode into utter darkness. It’s far worse than The Bells Of St. John’s “I don’t know where I am” since that episode didn’t fully convey what the captured souls were going through. The Nethersphere is far-more fully realized; we are doomed to not only die but be tortured by the doctors and morticians who will prepare our bodies for their final fates. When first deciding to take the TARDIS there, the Doctor referred to it as Hell. Maybe he wasn’t far wrong.
Since Clara and Danny met in Into The Dalek, there has been quite a lot chatter about whether these two characters, who are obviously attracted to each other, are a good couple (a bit like Amy and Rory during their first year on the show). Sometimes their relationship has felt underwritten and disappointing – Danny was only a major presence three episodes until his untimely demise and, more often than not, was pushed into the background – and much of their time together has been spent examining their problems such as their differences (Clara loves adventure while time-traveling has no appeal for Danny) and the lies that Clara tells to suit her need for both her men. It is all the more tragic that Clara’s intentions to come clean with Danny go for nought; the rug has been literally ripped from under her feet, which is well-conveyed through the unrealistic way in which Danny death is filmed. Consider that Clara is talking to Danny on the phone (he is apparently only a few yards away, walking to her flat) and, after telling him she loves him, gets nothing but silence until a woman, who has picked up the phone, informs Clara that there has been an accident. It’s powerful stuff, but not true-to-life since Clara either would’ve heard something of the accident either over the phone or through her window. We don’t even get a “clunk” of the phone hitting the pavement, let alone the sound of screeching tires or general gasps. At first, I wasn’t sure that I liked this sequence; it almost makes Danny’s death seem unreal, as if he disappeared from the face of planet rather than was run down. But now I realize that we have been put into Clara’s shoes; she literally cannot believe that Danny could be speaking to her one moment and eternally silent the next. It couldn’t have happened and yet we are told that it did; this must be exactly what Clara is feeling. She confirms this when she later says, surprisingly harshly, that Danny’s death was “boring.” A simple accident and nothing more, Danny’s death doesn’t have the spark of Adric’s from Earthshock or River’s in Forest Of The Dead. It wasn’t even in defense of his country. It was unnecessary and disappointing, and this is why Clara cannot get her head around it.
And so we leave Danny in the Nethersphere, his finger hovering over the Delete button that will turn him into a cyberman and take a closer look at the one who created it all, Missy. There’s no sense beating around the bush; Missy is the Master (or the Mistress, as she evidentially refers to be called). After a mighty brouhaha about whether it was inconceivable that Matt Smith’s successor as the Doctor could ever be a woman, Stephen Moffat has pulled something of a fast one on us… and it seems to be working. Here is the Master as never envisioned; since Deep Breath, she has been referring to the Doctor as her boyfriend and even gives him a kiss in this episode that stops him cold in his tracks. The Master is not only an evil genius but, in this new body, she is a dangerously unhinged femme fatale. Now that we know how Missy is, nearly all of her motives (from the creation of the Cyberman army to the odd killing of Doctor Chang) seem to make sense. She is the Master and it is in her nature to kill and to dominate and, with a Cyberman army behind her (and these guys are tough if the otherwise-disappointing Nightmare In Silver is anything to go by), she’s already practically victorious. And that is where the only cliff-hanger of series eight leaves us. How can the Doctor defeat the cybermen without blowing up the Earth and can he, in any way, find a way to bring Danny back to the land of the living?
There’s no deny that Dark Water is exciting, riveting and highly thought-provoking. Even some of its more odd moments do not diminish its achievements (the dark water of the title has no real narrative function – it is only there to keep the Cybermen hidden for a while – and whenever a direct question is asked and another character says “You mean you don’t know” and starts to explain it all from the beginning, you are experiencing a writer stalling for time). In last week’s disappointing episode, I was not confident that Clara and Danny’s relationship was heading in any interesting direction, now Moffat has made me care about them. If Danny can be saved, I hope it will be in a way that is satisfactorily believable, and not have him just come back the way Amy and Rory did on so many occasions. We care about these characters and their conflict too much to have it just flung aside. This is where Stephen Moffat, Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson make their stand for this new series of Doctor Who. This is where it counts.
I hope Death In Heaven blasts us all away.
P.S. – If next week’s episode is as good as I hope it will be, I’ll try not to harp too much on the other plot threads (Gus the Train, the return of Annabelle after a year’s absence) which will no doubt NOT be cleared up next week.