Sunday, 2 November 2014

Only ten weeks ago, we all sat down to watch Peter Capaldi’s debut as the Doctor, and already we’re at the beginning of the end of his first series – Steven Moffat’s Dark Water, the first instalment of a two-part finale. I was both excited and anxious for this one. On the one hand, I’ve been enjoying series 8's characters a lot more than series 7's, and the ‘Missy’ plot has been intriguingly built up. On the other hand, recent Steven Moffat finales have been disappointing, and I didn’t want another Name of the Doctor type mess…

Dark Water starts on a weird note. One minute in, and Danny Pink is dead, knocked over by a car – a scene that should have been tragic and yet, because of its strange placing in the narrative, really isn’t. We know this episode’s going to be about the afterlife, so this is a clear set-up for our leads to arrive in Missy’s Nethersphere, and thus there’s no believability in it. Maybe it would have worked better to have Danny die at the end of the previous episode (yes, I know that’s what happened with Rory in series five, but at least that worked dramatically). And, as much as Clara’s disbelief draws attention to this, and as much as Doctor Who has dealt with death-by-car brilliantly before (2005's Father’s Day), it does feel like an overly obvious, mundane way to go about this scene. Like Doctor Who made by the writer/director of Sometimes Fires Go Out. Maybe the tiger still on the loose from last week could have mauled him to death.

Then it gets weirder. Clara’s response to this situation is to concoct a sinister plan in which she’ll threaten the Doctor with destruction of his TARDIS keys if he doesn’t agree to bring Danny back. Now, I get that the Doctor’s not always keen on messing with time and so may need persuading, but couldn’t she just, you know, ask him? Appeal to emotion? Rather than turning into an evil supervillain in the awkwardly melodramatic and entirely unnatural manner typical of Moffat’s writing.

So, ten minutes in, and Dark Water is a painful experience so far. And then they go to hell, and it gets a lot better.

What strikes me most about the events that unfold in the Nethersphere is that they’re surprisingly… coherent. Now, obviously, that’s no mark of a great episode, and should be the bare minimum, but compared to Moffat’s recent timey-wimey, all-over-the-place, new-scene-every-20-seconds finales, the slow pace with which the true nature of this so-called afterlife was revealed was refreshingly tense, leading up to a brilliant reveal of the Cybermen and an even more brilliant reveal of Missy’s identity – this is why we should have two-parters back! (Though it is silly how the trailer consisted mostly of clips from next week’s episode, thus giving away too much, too soon.)

And, with Danny finding out just how horrible death can be and with skeletons coming to life in their tombs, Dark Water was also a deeply unsettling episode. Not monsters-jumping-from-dark-corners scary, but ideas scary. Proper, clever horror. The kind of scary that parents will complain about after their kids have gone to bed worried that grandma was conscious during her cremation. The kind of scary that came with a wonderfully dark sense of humour – the “iPads? We’ve got Steve Jobs!” line being both morbidly hilarious and the single most unexpected justification of a minor detail I’d previously complained about ever. 

My main problem with this episode, however, is its use of Clara and Danny. Their character development over this series has been great – just last week I praised how their relationship has tangibly moved on with each story. And yet, this episode, part of the showrunner-penned finale, seemed to have less of a sense of their relationship than others. Sure, things happened to them, and we had lots of “I love you” exchanges, but what happened to all the conflicts being built up between them? Clara lying to Danny about travelling with the Doctor, Danny hiding his traumatic past from her, the Doctor's distrust of Danny as a soldier – these should be coming to a crescendo, but were hardly brought up. Oh, and the “shut up, shut up, shut up” line – please, Steven, stop turning every line of dialogue into a catchphrase.

Of course, the real talking point of Dark Water is its final reveal. Missy is the Master. The clues were there – Missy as short for Mistress, the heart scene, the Time Lord tech, the fact that this is the one major Who villain Moffat hasn’t done yet. And yet, even though I’d worked it out, I thought the reveal was terrific. Michelle Gomez is an incredible Master, simultaneously funny and terrifying, and I do hope she’ll stick around for stories to come. My one complaint is that Moffat, as we’ve come to expect, made a little too much use of gender stereotypes in his dialogue. If you want to change the minds of those who don’t believe the Master can be female (and thus, don’t believe the Doctor can be female), just don’t mention it. Just let her be brilliant, because she clearly can be. This is a villain who’s previously been a rotting corpse, a snake, and a super-powered tramp firing electricity from his hands – it’s not so weird that she’s now got boobs, is it? And that tumblr-baiting kiss really wasn’t necessary…

We’ll see if Gomez’s Master is allowed to come into her own next week. And whether Clara and Danny’s on-the-rocks relationship is at all tied up. And how the Earth deals with all those pesky Cybermen. But in Dark Water we have a promising set-up that, if weak in character beats, is both a solid alien conspiracy thriller and a fantastically morbid horror story.


  1. Catherine Marshall2 November 2014 at 19:14

    Brilliant, as ever. I love your reviews. But - what was all that at the beginning with the post-it notes? Is that going to be relevant? And why didn't we see him die? There must be more to that opening scene, mustn't there?

    1. Thanks!

      The way I read it, the post-it notes were Clara trying to work out how to tell Danny the truth about everything she'd been up to. Not sure why she needed to be so organised about it, though.

      Why didn't we see him die? I assumed it was just that showing a lead getting hit by a car would be too graphic for a family audience. Though you may be right, there may be more to it.