Dark Water

3rd November 2014 • Review by Julian Hazeldine •

For the first time in several years, we have a finale constructed in the Russell T Davies style. A carefully balanced series of stories is capped with a superbly fan-ish concept: The Master’s a lady! And she’s using the Matrix to make dead people turn themselves into Cybermen!

But the way we get there is somewhat unconventional.

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Danny Pink’s death in a car accident is a low-key demise by Doctor Who standards, and makes for a compelling examination of the changes which time and space have wrought upon Clara Oswald. Although stricken with grief, her refusal to accept her loss is at least partly the result of its banality. After being split and scattered through the Doctor’s timestream, and subconsciously aware of so many of his adventures, she is unable to accept such an ordinary end to a key part of her life. The episode manages to please those who take both perspectives on the polarising figure of Danny. Those who have warmed to the maths teacher are finally allowed to know his backstory, and can reflect on the intense bond established between him and Clara. Those who regard the character with suspicion, considering his attitude towards Clara manipulative, can regard his past as the root of the broken and traumatised personality which they’ve observed over previous weeks. Samuel Anderson is at his best here, with his broad-strokes performance as the near-broken ex-soldier far more suited to this fantasy setting than the mundane environment of Coal Hill.

“Dark Water” isn’t the story we expected it to be, with the action sequences featured in trailers, and signature touches expected from guest director Rachel Talalay, presumably contained in the second half of the tale. It’s also different from what we’ve come to expect from Steven Moffat’s scripts. There’s still wit in the dialogue, but it’s found in heartfelt declarations, not stealable one-liners. This is a story launched by a personal tragedy, which then morphs into investigation and enquiry. It’s a slow and gradual progression, as the Doctor’s attempt to channel Clara’s all-consuming grief towards acceptance of her loss backfires dramatically. Previous stories have made clear that this incarnation is an atheist. By replacing her intent to tamper with her own timeline with what he believes will be a futile attempt to locate the afterlife, the Doctor hopes to allow Clara to come to terms with Danny’s loss, and begin to heal. It’s a typically devious yet well-intentioned plan by the twelfth Doctor, but it doesn’t take account of the mind positioning itself to oppose him. Missy plays only a small role in the episode, with 3W better-represented by the kindly Dr Chang and the bureaucratic angel Seb, but it’s impossible to talk about the episode without mentioning her.

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There’s an interesting change from the approach taken from the last time this part was cast. David Tennant’s nemesis was from a similar mould. The thinking man’s hunk faced another cut from the same cloth. This time, however, Moffat appears to be revelling in contrast. In the year when the show has turned its back on the fairytale aesthetic, and pursued at least a veneer of social and psychological realism, our antagonist is a ludicrous Mary Poppins-style figure. This visual is all we really have to go on for the moment; Michelle Gomez does exactly what the script asks of her, but it’s too early to draw conclusions about her take on this iconic role, particularly as she spends much of the episode pretending to be an AI.

Just as interesting are the questions raised by the character’s inclusion, even in such an altered form. Moffat’s lack of love for the Master is well-known, having ridiculed him in promotional interviews for The Curse of Fatal Death, and at time when a full return for the series appeared near-impossible. While dissembling in interviews appears to have become the showrunner’s favourite hobby, there seems little reason to doubt the views he expressed in 1998. So why the about-face? The simple joy of the unexpected? Or is there a more subtle factor at play?

We can discount plot reasons as compelling the Master’s return; 3W’s technology may be derived from Gallifrey’s Matrix supercomputer, which (in the classic series, at least) recorded the memories of all Time Lords on their deaths, but the Library’s systems played a similar role with no such story link. A more likely reason is the need to jar Capaldi’s supremely self-reliant Doctor, and take him out of his comfort zone. On almost every occasion when the twelfth Doctor has appeared caught off-caught or outmanoeuvred, such as during the volcano stand-off at the start of the episode, he’s soon been revealed as in control of the situation. Moffat may have felt compelled to give the character a genuine equal to finally stretch him; he looks genuinely staggered at the close of the episode.

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There’s no such room for speculation about the other half of the villainous equation. This is the Cybermen’s strongest new-Who showing to date, and looks set to be the definitive appearance which Moffat has always threatened to pen. “The Pandorica Opens” and “A Good Man Goes To War” established them as his cameo monster of choice, but their reinvention in “Nightmare in Silver” was blighted by some insipid whimsy and an abrupt end to the show’s run of luck with child actors. There are no such flaws here. Turning the Cybermen from Who‘s metaphorical zombies to literal ones is a masterstroke, and a nuanced exploration of the downside of humanity’s will to survive.

This year’s stories seemed to be priming us for a tale which would examine the Doctor’s attitude to religion. Right since his glib dismissal of an afterlife in “Deep Breath”, this incarnation has been shown to place his sceptical nature over his curiosity, refusing to believe apparent wonders that are placed before him. Right from the start, this attitude has been both vindicated (“Into the Dalek”) and undermined (“Robot of Sherwood”), so appeared destined to come to a head in the finale. Instead, we have a simple continuation, with the Doctor’s hostile attitude soon overcome by the rush of events. “Dark Water” also noticeably falls short of the production team’s description of a more troubling and adult-orientated show; there’s little here intellectually that wasn’t done during “Silence in the Library”, while the zombie Cybermen are no more troubling a concept than their predecessors literally rising from the grave in “The Next Doctor”. This is an excellent episode of the programme, but again, not the one we were led to expect.

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The one cause of unease is the sheer amount of story left to tell in next week’s “Death In Heaven”. In addition to the fate of Danny and the small matter of a global cyber-invasion, we know nothing of Missy’s motivation in attacking the earth, nor her long-term manipulation of Clara. Given that we last saw John Simm trapped in the last day of the time war, it’s possible that Missy’s main goal was to find a suitable individual to inspire her archenemy during “The Day of the Doctor”, saving Gallifrey and hence also herself (the reference to paradoxes at the start of “Dark Water” was rather pointed). But such anticipation for the next instalment only reflects well on this episode, which demonstrates the strengths of this year’s slower storytelling approach.

Julian Hazeldine (aka The Flatmate Of The Site) was slightly surprised to find a battered Type 40 Doctor Who blog in his living room one morning, but has vowed to make the best of the situation by occasionally posting his trademark over-analytical rambling.

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