Doctor Who: Series 8, Episode 11–Dark Water

“You asked me what we’re going to do. I told you. We’re going to hell.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

After a very divisive season of Doctor Who, we’re finally at the endgame, where all those seeded themes throughout the year may (or may not) pay off. It’s been a new approach for Steven Moffat; while there was an overall plot arc, it was kept very much in the background. Meanwhile, the real arc of the season has been its main characters, and how they’ve developed. The new Doctor, abrasive and hard to like, questioning whether he’s “a good man”; Clara, recast from part one as a “control freak” and more believably fallible as a result; new boy Danny Pink dragging her back to the real world in a kind of relationship many have interpreted as passive aggressive manipulation.

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All three have lied, obfuscated and manipulated each other throughout, in ways that seem less than healthy. It’s a bold move, to cast your main hero in such an unfavourable light, with his companion and her boyfriend not much better; a real risk for an audience that you would expect to actually like these characters. True, such flaws and imperfections make them more believable as actual people (and Clara has improved in leaps and bounds as a result), but it’s risky. This two part season finale is where, if Moffat’s played it right, those character threads should pay off and resolve.

This being part one of a two parter, it’s hard to judge just yet whether that’s worked. But certainly that theme of all three trying to exert control and dominance in a relationship that looks increasingly unhealthy was foregrounded from the start. Certainly the whole business of Clara trying to blackmail the Doctor into reversing Danny’s death was an overt fight for control, and spelled out in the dialogue as such. And did anybody else notice that one of the TARDIS keys was kept in a copy of The Time Traveller’s Wife?

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It was no surprise that Clara’s arrogant assertion, “when it comes to taking control, you’re really out of your depth” turned out to be wholly wrong, the Doctor having outmanipulated her from the start. But for a Doctor who’s been moving from coldly unsympathetic to likeable throughout, he won back this viewer’s trust (and probably a few others too) with the plaintive, unambivalent question – “do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?”

If anything could, that put Capaldi’s Doctor squarely back in the role of hero, though he’s plainly not convinced himself yet. As he commented, “I’m terribly sorry Clara, but I’m exactly what you deserve”, it was a damning judgement on both of them. That seemed to play into his doubts as to how “good” he is, and if next week’s conclusion manages to resolve that, I suspect it will be a kind of redemption for them both; time will tell.

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Danny too got moments of redemption, facilitated by Chris Addison’s marvellously unctuous Seb, admin clerk of the Nethersphere. To nobody’s particular surprise, it turned out that Danny’s Big Secret was having killed an innocent child in the heat of conflict; confronted by his victim, and faced with the real possibility that Clara was prepared to die to follow him to the “afterlife”, his conscience finally pricked him into goading her not to. Or did it? You could see that as the ultimate in passive aggressive manipulation; it all hinges on what they both decide to do next week.

So then, the character development arcs are fully in play now, but they’re hard to judge until/if they’re resolved next week. Likewise the Nethersphere/afterlife plot itself, which, at least based on what we saw here, doesn’t really add up – yet. The central premise, that the dead continue to “feel” what happens to their bodies, is genuinely creepy, reminiscent of Brian Lumley’s horror series Necroscope. It could also, as has been pointed out by some online commenters, be very upsetting for any viewer who’s recently lost a loved one and attended their cremation.

I’m not overly worried about that. The ep’s exposition took a lot of careful attention, perhaps overly, but it was clear enough that the stated purpose and methods of the mysterious ‘3W’ organisation were not what they seemed; just as the Doctor said, “fakery – it’s a con”. And a good thing too – Steven Moffat would be treading dark water indeed if he had a Doctor Who script making a definitive statement about the existence or otherwise of an afterlife.

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But I’m not sure the explanation – insofar as we understand it at this point – makes much more sense. The Cybermen have always, in essence, been mechanised zombies; and their plan here, spookily realised by veteran US director Rachel Talalay, was creepy in the extreme. As ‘Missy’ put it, “humanity’s strategic weakness… the dead outnumber the living”. All well and good, but how does that play into the earlier implication that the dead in question were those who owed their condition to the Doctor specifically? Or, for that matter, why the Nethersphere would want to claim mechanical beings like the Half-Faced Man or the robots in Robots of Sherwood?

The logical inconsistencies may well be addressed in next week’s conclusion (though Moffat-detractors are sceptical of that). For the present though, what we had was very well-presented, with some extremely effective direction – you can tell Talalay is a veteran of US genre TV. The visual of the seated skeletons slowly turning their heads was most unsettling (though you’d expect the skeleton to be one of the organic bits Cyber conversion would dispense with), and the visualisation of the Nethersphere was extremely effective, a huge metropolis on the inside rather than the outside of a spherical environment (though the ubiquitous emergency service sirens seemed a trifle odd in such a setting). The reveal of Cyber involvement was nicely understated, as the doors with those distinctive tear drop windows slid shut to an echo of Murray Gold’s standard Cyber theme.

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And of course, there was the homage to the well-remembered Cyber invasion sequence in classic 1968 story The Invasion, with the Cybermen stomping unstoppably down the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. It was a trifle odd that they seemed to attract so little attention; though with Moffat’s constant rewriting of continuity, who can know whether humanity remembers the various Cyber invasions of the past, or whether they happened at all. The Doctor himself seemed to be more of a draw for the London public, giving us Missy’s amusing line “another drunken ranting Scotsman – I’d no idea there was a match on.”

Which brings us to Missy herself, and the not entirely unexpected reveal of her true identity. Most fans seem to have guessed it from her very first appearance, and I actually thought it was so obvious it would have to be a red herring. But like the similarly obvious use of the Teselecta back in series 6, the most likely solution was once again the actual one. Moffat fans could look at that as a double bluff; critics will more likely pan it for want of more imagination. Not sure which camp I fall into as yet…

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Still, if you have to recast the Master as a woman, Michelle Gomez has been rather wonderful in the part. Inexplicably dressed as Mary Poppins, she brings more than a touch of John Simm’s outright nuttiness to the part. Her plan doesn’t seem (as yet) to make much sense; which puts her thoroughly at home with the Masters of old. And her relationship with the Doctor is murkier than ever; the scene of her dragging him into an unwilling kiss much to his discomfort was hilariously played.

It also (as was presumably the intention) brings up a lot of questions about the role of gender for Gallifreyans. When Missy asserted that she was a “Time Lady” (is this the first time the term’s been used in onscreen dialogue?) my first guess was that she was an embittered later incarnation of Romana; and then Susan. While that might have been more interesting dramatically, in the post-2005 series the Master has been the only major Gallifreyan character we’ve met, so he/she is the more logical option.

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But a lot of fans already seem to be having major problems accepting that a male Gallifreyan character can now be female. The possibility was confirmed a while ago by a line of dialogue in Neil Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife; but this is the first time we’ve actually seen it onscreen. And I’m guessing the vocal ‘fannoyance’ from some quarters is for the same reason Moffat made the decision – it opens up the possibility that the Doctor too may, one day, become female.

Would that be a big deal? I thought Joanna Lumley was superb as the Doctor in Comic Relief skit The Curse of Fatal Death (written by one Steven Moffat); if the actor’s right, I have no problem with the Doctor being a female at all. After all, this is a 2000 year old alien who regularly changes form without losing that essential ‘Doctorness’. Why should ‘he’ not be able to change gender?

It’s a topic on which much has already been written, but the Master becoming ‘the Mistress’ makes it one step closer to onscreen reality; unsurprisingly that’s going to annoy those who are dead against the idea. I’m sure (or at least I hope) that the detractors have more of a basis to their objections than simple misogyny; and there are other reasons, though they’re more a matter of individual taste. For now though, Missy is an interesting and consistent interpretation of the character, with the added bonus of outright flirtation with the Doctor (though in this orientation-blind show, John Simm wasn’t exactly shy about it either).

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It’s hard to judge Dark Water in isolation. There was a lot to like here, especially in terms of characterisation. The flipside of that was, as often with a Moffat script, a lack of characters overall; outside the main three and the villain, we only got Seb and Dr Chang (the stunningly gorgeous Andrew Leung), neither of whom got much in the way of depth. Still, nice to see Clara’s gran again.

The plot, and its still-incomplete resolution of the overall arc, is so far intriguing and imaginative. It also has plenty of glaring logical inconsistencies; though again it’s hard to condemn unless they go unresolved by next week’s conclusion. For now though, I found this ep ambitious, interesting, and different to anything we’ve seen as a season finale before. I have my criticisms of it, but there was depth, humanity and complexity here in a way that’s often been lacking this year. Whether it serves as a fitting capstone to all this years’ themes will, I guess, become evident next week.

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2 thoughts on “Doctor Who: Series 8, Episode 11–Dark Water”

  1. I agree with the above poster, this is an excellent review. And you are right, Missy as the Master is indeed ” an interesting and consistent interpretation of the character.”

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