On the D/L – Doctor Who
Season 8 Episode 11 – “Dark Water”
Oh Steven Moffat, it’s like you’re trolling the viewers of Doctor Who by making it hilariously bad on purpose. After an event that shakes Clara to the core, she and The Doctor go on a mission to find the afterlife and are confronted by the mysterious Missy (though shouldn’t it be Missi given the acronym?) who reveals her identity. Usually I try to keep spoilers to a minimum in my reviews but in this case I’m not going to bother.
To Steven Moffat’s credit, the opening minutes of this episode are actually really powerful stuff. Danny Pink is run over and killed in a scene that is very subtly handled. There’s no melodramatic overly sentimental dialogue or heart string tugging music to give the moment extra punch. Instead everything is very silent and Jenna Coleman outdoes herself with a sedate performance that suggests real shock and grief. Very well done to all involved here, it’s probably the best death done on Doctor Who.
The following scenes are really great as well. I really enjoyed how ominous the volcano scene was and how insane Clara was. Threatening The Doctor to travel back in time and save Danny is something that I found very believable. Her grief seemed all consuming here and the desperation was obvious. It was also really eerie how calm and sinister she was as she tossed The TARDIS keys into lava. The way The Doctor reacted was good as well, there was a sense that he had no clue what to do about this and is just trying everything from pleading to reverse psychology with no apparent success for any of them.
Unfortunately this scene is robbed of any dramatic consequences when it’s literally revealed to be all a dream orchestrated by The Doctor to test whether she would betray him or not and when he finds out that she would he…simply accepts it and agrees to help her. I had a serious problem with this as The Doctor has faced betrayal in the past and usually reacts with uncompromising anger but here he just gets on with it and agrees with Clara’s request.
It’s truly amazing how quickly the episode turns from dark and promising to cartoonishly silly and nonsensical. Moffat clearly doesn’t want to take any narrative risks with this show and wants the characters to be right back where they were at the beginning of the episode so that they can carry on with nothing noteworthy having really happened to them. This kind of reset button storytelling should have been killed long ago and it has on pretty much every other TV show I review on this website.
Much of the rest of the episode is slow and exposition heavy. It all reeks of being a clumsily handled setup for the finale. There’s not enough story to fill the two episodes so we spend lots of time meandering through the usual cavalcade of terrible humour and long winded discussions.
Basically The Doctor and Clara spend a couple of minutes solving the mystery of where people go when they die despite the fact that it’s a question The Doctor has pondered for hundreds of years. Apparently all it takes is a grieving companion with Disney crying eyes to spur him into action and he solves it quicker than it takes to listen to the Doctor Who theme tune.
Their travels take them to a place where there are tanks full of skeletons immersed in a liquid which apparently ensures their bodies are preserved for their journey to the afterlife -more on that later. The logo for the organisation responsible is the eye of a Cyberman and it’s displayed so obviously that it took me seconds to figure it out. Maybe it’s because it was spoiled that the Cybermen would feature in the finale months ago but the imagery is really obvious. Mention of the liquid concealing inorganic matter and the skeletons being encased in an exoskeleton only made the “twist” more obvious.
Clara and The Doctor learn that this company have discovered that dead people go somewhere to live a new life but they keep their connection to their bodies for some reason and they…die more (?) if their bodies are cremated. It turns out that Nethersphere that has been mentioned throughout the season is a Gallifreyan hard drive that stores the consciousness of dead people in order to convince them to give up emotions to make them perfect Cybermen. I think this only applies to some people, specifically the people who agree to have their bodies put inside the exoskeleton. That really doesn’t answer the question of why the consciousness of people not being converted to Cybermen are stored here and why the Cybermen are doing something so elaborate when their prior conversion methods have been far more efficient.
We get some insight into the Nethersphere through Danny in some admittedly effective scenes where he comes to terms with his death and tries to comprehend the afterlife. Samuel Anderson plays Danny as being incredibly overwhelmed and in complete disbelief at his situation. What doesn’t work about these scenes is the clinical afterlife admin joke. It’s an uncomfortable contrast between the form filling and the existential implications and it really doesn’t work.
An effective moment comes when Danny is faced with meeting a child that he killed during his stint as a soldier and has to look him in the eye to process what he’s done and the consequences of that. It’s a wonderfully downplayed moment that shows some real consequences for Danny’s life. It’s nicely done and it’s a shame there weren’t more moments like this.
Now onto Missy who has made up much of the arc of the season. I haven’t commented on it in prior reviews because I was so uninterested in the story that I had no theories. When we first meet her she pretends to be an android built by the company and Michelle Gomez hams up every scene she’s in to a frustrating level. The character is so incredibly annoying that I really wished she would go away but it does look like she’ll be very prominently featured next week. Lucky us!
As for her identity, I found the revelation to be hilarious to say the least. She reveals that Missy is short for Mistress because she can’t keep calling herself Master. I’m sorry but…what? Of all the villains she could have turned out to be this one made the least sense. Fair enough The Master should be able to find his way out of the Time War that he locked himself into way back in The End of Time especially with Gallifrey saved by The Doctor in Day of The Doctor but to go with this for his return boggles the mind. There are female Timelords with a grudge against The Doctor that could have been used here. Would this have been altered had she turned out to be The Rani or Romana bent on revenge for something she thinks The Doctor did to her? It would have had the advantage of not being quite as ridiculous and saved The Master’s return for another story somewhere down the line. I don’t exaggerate when I say that it feels like bad fan fiction.
What this actually does is set a visual precedent for The Doctor to regenerate into a woman at some stage which widens the casting net for when Capaldi leaves. To me, The Doctor is a male Timelord so gender bending regenerations shouldn’t be possible but whatever. Even accepting that this is The Master regenerated it still makes no sense. She has set up a very elaborate scheme to get back at The Doctor by stockpiling the dead and turning them into Cybermen for what purpose? I’m sure there will be a ham fisted explanation next week but I really don’t see any way out of this with any sense of dramatic dignity intact.
At one point I felt that Missy would turn out to be some future version of Clara who engineered all of this after The Doctor would refuse to help her save Danny from death. It really seemed like it was going that way from that scene on the volcano but that idea fell apart when the dream ended. Again, Moffat can’t take any risks with the characters because he would then have to transition to writing a character who has been actually changed by what they experienced instead of these blank slates of consistency that we can follow on meaningless adventures week to week.
Some early promise in the episode is quickly abandoned for boring scenes of exposition that barely conceal an obvious twist. There is some great acting in the episode from Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson who play their characters and their emotions with remarkable subtlety in some really effective scenes.
The story -such as it is- is a mess of exposition, hammy performances and revelations that make no real sense. Missy’s identity is an eye rollingly stupid revelation that makes the official Doctor Who TV show feel like bad fan fiction with a budget. This show is in dire need of a new runner as Steven Moffat can’t write anything worth watching any more. I really do hope he moves on because I’m not sure I can continue watching this.