Doctor Who – “Dark Water”

In the mysterious world of the Nethersphere, plans have been drawn. Missy is about to come face to face with the Doctor, and an impossible choice is looming…

‘Death is not an end’, promises the sinister organisation known only as 3W – but, as the Doctor and Clara discover, you might wish it was.

Peter Capaldi is the Doctor in Dark Water.


Peter Capaldi (The Doctor)
Jenna Coleman (Clara Oswald)
Samuel Anderson (Danny Pink)
Michelle Gomez (Missy)
Chris Addison (Seb)
Andrew Leung (Dr Chang)

Written by: Steven Moffat
Directed by: Rachel Talalay


Gifs by: J-Ru


It’s very difficult to judge the first episode of a two-parter.

I’m not speaking from the point of view of a reviewer, but from the point of view of a viewer.  The viewer knows the first episode primarily serves as the set-up for the second episode.   There are sure to be a few “cool” moments, a couple of “wow” occasions, and by the end, if the writer knows what they’re doing, a “oh my [BLEEP]ing God” cliffhanger or two.  But once the episode is over, everything about that episode for the following week is seen through the lens of “the second episode.”  “That happened, so what’s going to happen in the second episode?”  “That character wouldn’t make that decision, I’m sure there’s a hidden reason that will come out in the second episode.”  “Oh, that’s total BS, the second episode better fix it!”

The viewer know there’s a whole story just waiting to be told (and judged), but until then, they’re just stuck with the first part, with either a nail biting cliffhanger or a “how badly are they going to screw THIS up” sense of dread.    And there’s various levels of this sense of apprehension.  The “holy crap, Daleks!” ending of Army of Ghosts led into the amazing Daleks vs. Cybermen smack talk of  Doomsday.  The “this is a bit boring” first two episodes turned into “oh my God, the Brig’s wearing an eyepatch!” amazement of Inferno.  And then, you have something like Warriors of the Deep, where one hopes, nay, PRAYS, something awesome is going to happen in the final episode to make up for the sheer HORRIBLENESS of the serial’s previous episodes.  And in a way, something awesome DOES happen…

Dark Water kicks off the finale of the Twelfth Doctor’s first season in grand style, with an unexpected death, an incredibly tense scene between Doctor and companion, a trip to a place the Doctor has never been, some absolutely horrifying concepts, and the return of not just one, but TWO longtime foes of the Doctor who have joined forces to battle against the Doctor.  Separated into individual parts, Dark Water is a standout.  Put together into one episode, however, it feels jarring and rushed, moving quickly from one plot point to another without a chance for anything to sink in (to let the viewer appreciate it more) or to be explained (which leads to viewers going “wait, that doesn’t make sense”).  It’s redeemed, however, by a throat-grabbing ending acted out by Peter Capaldi and Michelle Gomez.

Clara is ready to tell Danny everything.  The Foretold, the Boneless, everything.  She’s going to put it all out there.  No secrets.  No lies.  And no chance to tell him, as Danny is hit by a car, killed just as Clara is about to declare for him.   But, in an act of ultimate betrayal, Clara gives the Doctor an ultimatum.  Use the TARDIS to save Danny, or he will never see the inside of it again.  As always, the Doctor is one step ahead, and unwillingly to let his friend suffer, he takes the TARDIS to the one place he’s always meant to have a snoop around in; the afterlife.  As Danny finds himself in a bureaucratic and emotional hell, Clara and the Doctor find themselves in a mausoleum, run by the 3W Corporation.  And there to  greet them, and answer all of their questions, amidst tanks upon tanks of skeletons immersed in water, is the robotic guide known only as Missy…

Let’s break the episode down into its component chunks before diving headfirst into the entirety of Dark Water.  After Danny asks Clara in last week’s episode to just stop lying and come clean with him, Clara is prepared, down to the sticky notes on the wall to tell him everything.  It’s a very good directing choice to go from the “stranger picks up Danny’s phone” to “Clara running to the scene” to “scene becomes a memorial wall” to “Clara in the kitchen, calling the Doctor” as Jenna Coleman nails several of the stages of grief in those quick moments alone.  Going through the TARDIS as she casually chats with the Doctor about wanting to see a volcano, slyly picking up the extra TARDIS keys without the Doctor knowing, the viewer suspects that Clara is up to something.  It’s when she slaps the sleep patch on him (which I believe was last seen all the way back in the Tenth Doctor episode Gridlock) and the Doctor wakes up outside the TARDIS on the lip of an active volcano, with Clara holding all seven TARDIS keys in his hand, that things get absolutely astounding.

Jenna Coleman deserves praise for the sheer anger and desperation that Clara gives off as she demands the Doctor use his time machine to go back and save Danny.  We’ve seen just how clever Clara can be over the course of this season, and in this scene her cleverness collides head on with her ambition to rewind the hands of time.  And on the other side, Peter Capaldi shows just how in control the Doctor is, even when he’s not in control.  It’s always been a hallmark of the Doctor to take control of a situation, either quietly and passively or through sheer bombast and bravado.  Granted, the scene as a whole does lose something when one remembers this scene from Forest of the Dead…

…but it’s a testament to Coleman and Capaldi that I was on the edge of my seat just wondering how the standoff would resolve itself.  The look on the Doctor’s face and Clara’s breakdown when she realizes what she’s done after throwing away the last TARDIS key was the punctuation mark on a great scene between two great actors.  The denouement made perfect sense as well; the Doctor may not understand humans, but he knows them well enough to realize when something is amiss.  I was sitting there preparing myself for the Doctor to kick Clara out of the TARDIS for her betrayal as well, but Capaldi once again showed that the Doctor knows humans by admitting that one horrible act does not automatically ruin a friendship.  After all, the Doctor has had a companion tried to kill him before…

We cut from there to Danny Pink in the Afterlife/Heaven/the Promised Land/Office Purgatory.   A character not realizing they’re dead, but slowly coming to that realization, is a familiar concept in fiction, and Samuel Anderson deserves credit for his work here opposite Chris Addison.  While Anderson realizes what has happened to him, he bounces back and forth between confusion, anger, and, in a great touch, a general sense of awe as he looks around and takes in the concept of “the Afterlife.”  Addison, as the “yes, yes you’re dead, please fill out this form” paper pusher Seb, also moves between feigned sympathy and a sense of “can you just sign here so we can move on” in a darkly humorous manner.  I hope Death in Heaven gives Addison a chance to stand opposite his co-star from The Thick of It just so I can see the two of them play off each other once again.  Now, the scenes with Danny coming to grips with being dead were very well done, with comments such as “you didn’t state that you wanted to be cremated, did you” and “you’re feeling a bit cold, aren’t you?  It’s from being on the slab” adding to the tension.   The “cold” line definitely adds a unique twist to the final state of those in the “Afterlife” as well.  Sadly, these scenes are quickly ruined in about twenty seconds with the addition of quick cutaways to Danny’s time as a soldier.  We see him fighting in a desert town amidst the rubble and blown-out automobiles, being shot at by somebody inside a ruined house, and then we see him opening a door, blind firing into the house, and then seeing just who he shot, a look of horror dawning on his face.

And when Seb said “hey, there’s someone here in the Afterlife who’s asked to meet you” and a young child walked through the doorway, I had to stop myself from obtaining a passport, flying to England, purchasing a small knife, driving to Cardiff, and shanking Steven Moffat repeatedly.

The first time we see Danny, he’s running ROTC-esque drills for some of his students.  When someone asks him if he’s killed anyone, we see him shedding a quick tear.  When Clara makes a comment about shooting someone, he goes off on a tangent about all the good he did, drilling water wells for villages.  We see him showing incredible anger at the Doctor when he realizes the Doctor represents the “aristocracy” and calls him “an officer,” snapping off salutes.  We see him marching his students through the overnight forest quasi-military style.  And then, we see the one moment that haunts Danny Pink…and we see the child for less than 20 seconds on screen, total.  He wants to meet Danny, sits across a table from him, flinches in horror, and runs away.  I’m willing to bet it’s the machine that runs the Afterlife directly toying with Danny’s emotions to manipulate him, but it still comes off as incredible forced.   The buildup to the moment throughout the season is there, but the big moment was Danny going off on the Doctor as “officer vs. enlisted.”   Give me a scene of an officer screwing up royally and putting Danny in that situation, and the whole thing about have been much more believable and a lot less cliche.  It’s legitimate writing.  In some cases, it’s appropriate writing.  In a few cases, a mistake in the heat of combat could be a dramatic dagger through the emotional heart.  In this case, though, it’s LAZY writing meant to hit the easiest of emotional buttons.

Using the same “mental link” connection seen in Listen, the Doctor and Clara land in the next location where she and Danny are supposed to meet again; a large mausoleum, run by the 3W institute, where the skeletons of the deceased are kept in large tanks filled with “dark water,” a clear liquid that hides inorganic materials such as the metal casing that keeps the skeleton together, allowing the deceased’s loved ones to view the remains directly.  It’s very creepy, it’s very eerie, and it’s in this scene that Missy finally meets the Doctor and Clara face to face…and it is a humdinger of a “hello you.”  Michelle Gomez, the prim, proper, all-together mysterious Missy, makes her entrance by snogging the HELL out of the Doctor.  I’m not talking “Rose kisses the Doctor in New Earth,” snogging, I’m talking “Jack kisses the Doctor like in that one fanfic my friend from college wrote” snogging.

Gomez and Capaldi go all out as Jenna Coleman looks on, then away, in complete and utter confusion.  It’s a great introduction for Missy that catches the viewer completely off guard, distracting their minds from the mysterious liquid crypts for a moment.  From here, the head scientist for 3W, Dr. Chang, explains the purpose behind the facility.  A few years ago, a scientist discovered that white noise from television and radio signals held an underlying repeating phrase; three words said over and over again.  He believed the phrase was being spoken by the recently deceased (which leads to a great moment from the Doctor.  “Why?  Was he an idiot?”).   The scientist managed to isolate the voices (“So, an idiot then.”).  Whoever was speaking, the cacophony of voices from beyond the grave (“Can you hurry up, please?  Or I’ll hit you with my shoe.”)

“Don’t cremate me.”

It’s an absolutely horrifying and chilling moment.  The concept that the dead remain aware of what happens around them after they die, and that whatever happens to their body, they still feel.  Apparently, the idea that the departed souls of loves ones could feel themselves burning to ash was so disturbing, the BBC fields numerous phone calls and e-mails about it in the week after this episode’s broadcast.  It’s one of those moments that can smack a viewer between the eyes…but it’s never mentioned after the initial reveal.  The voices of the dead pleading not to be burned is mentioned once, to establish just why these skeletons have not been buried under the earth or burned in an oven, but instead placed in a preserving liquid to be kept safe and secure, with only the most gentle of sensation, for all eternity.  And then the episode moves right on as the Doctor goes back to the mausoleum to figure out what exactly he’s missing, and Clara, somehow, manages to connect using an iPad with Danny thanks to Dr. Chang.  After everything Clara had done to find Danny again, from risking the Doctor never being able to step inside the TARDIS again to following him as closely as she could into the Afterlife, after hearing Danny’s voice when she never thought she’d hear it again…Clara demands over and over that Danny prove that he’s really Danny.  It’s a very jarring emotional switch.  She risked everything, including the life she LIED to Danny about, and instead of clutching to a thin ray of hope that it’s actually Danny, who is telling her over and over again not to come find him, she refuses to believe its him.  The whole scene only serves to drive Danny to make the ultimate choice to possibly sever his personality, to forget the pain of his shooting of the young boy and of Clara turning away from  him…and all he has to do is hit one button.

A button marked “DELETE.”

The three words of 3W?  They’re not “Don’t cremate me.”  They’re “We must survive.”

It’s a crying shame that the trailer for Dark Water spoiled just who the bad guys were in this story.  The Doctor puts two-and-two together just as the tanks begin to drain of the dark water, revealing the metal casing that’s been holding the skeletons together all this time.

The metal casing of the Cybermen.

Even knowing they were going to be showing up, the reveal is very well done, as the exoskeletons of the Cybermen slowly “cover” the internal skeletons that rest inside the metal suit thanks to the removal of the dark water.  It would have been nice if, once the Cybermen step out of their “tombs” and out into Central London, emerging from St Paul’s Cathedral in the process, there would have been more than six Cybermen stomping about and the people in the back of shot had been running in terror instead of staring in idle curiosity.  It’s still a pretty solid moment, just one that could have been handled, and hidden, better.

Of course, the key moment of Dark Water is one very simple line that packs a massive punch behind it, thrown with picture perfect delivery by Michelle Gomez.

Short for “Mistress”. [smirks] Well, couldn’t very well keep calling myself “The Master”, now could I?

It was easy money to predict that Missy would turn out to be the Master in some capacity (I admit, though, I was holding out for the Rani), and Gomez nails every single thing that makes the Master great. Disguise everyone BUT the Doctor can see through? Check. Smug sense of superiority? Check. Being absolutely bonkers? Check. Incredibly convoluted plan? Check. Gloating and mocking the Doctor in her moment of triumph? Check. The second it was obvious Missy was the Master, every single thing Gomez did was an homage to Delgado, Beevers, Ainley, Roberts, Jacobi, Simm, and McQueen, but with her own amazing spin on things. Even though the reveal was predictable, Gomez’s delivery and Capaldi’s slow realization and horrified reaction to the presence of Gallifreyan technology AND another Time Lord made it a great moment in the episode and the series. Capaldi coming to grips with what’s about to happen, the graves of the Earth about to give birth, and his sense of both sheer and quiet panic is just the pre-finale capper on what’s been a great debut season for his Doctor.

And if there’s anyone out there who has a problem with the Master being a woman…in the immortal words of Don Henley, get over it. To avoid going off on a rant, I’ll sum it up as thus – if there’s anyone who would regenerate into a different sex to piss off the Doctor, it’s the Master.

There were so many great moments throughout Dark Water. Sadly, when jammed together into a one hour episode, these moments don’t have time to breathe, serving only to shock and awe the viewer instead of sticking with them long term. Clara throwing away the TARDIS keys should have been something that covered the entire episode as an act of the ultimate betrayal. “Don’t cremate me” should have been given a chance to burrow into the viewers consciousness and take root. And I wish the Cybermen reveal had been a true surprise. This episode was the very definition of a Steven Moffat finale – all kinds of really cool ideas and concepts tossed together along with the kitchen sink. Each moment has the potential to deliver a wicked gut punch, but there’s no follow-through on those moments because the story has moved to the next important moment. There’s little to no narrative flow to the events of Dark Water other than the barest of plot threads. “The characters do this because the script demands it.” This has been one of my reoccurring complaints throughout this season. There have been plenty of moments that have had an impact by themselves, but they barely tie together to the overall story, if at all. It would have been nice it “don’t cremate me” and the 3W Institute had been seen earlier in the season, to add to the horror, tension, and mystery. It would have been nice to see more of Clara’s vicious side to go along with her clever side. It would have been nice to see how Danny’s combat experience and the mistake he can’t live with affected his life other than a single tear early in the season. Moffat does very well with setting up a big finale with great moments, but I wish he would learn to spread them out a little bit more throughout the season interwoven with the long-term, slow-building narrative.

But in the end, Dark Water is just the set-up for the season finale, Death in Heaven. It’s a hell of a set-up, with a multitude of hard hitting moments and a great pair of revelations, but the episode would have been better served with some more time to expand upon those moments. Rumor has it that Death in Heaven will be a full 60 minutes, and hopefully that will be enough time for the Master to reveal the depth of her complex and diabolical scheme…

Next up – With Cybermen on the streets of London, old friends unite against old enemies and the Doctor takes to the air in a startling new role…

Peter Capaldi is the Doctor in…Death in Heaven.

About cobiwann

A guy who's into a niche fandom of a niche fandom - the Big Finish audio plays of "Doctor Who." Also into the show itself, both old and new, plus pop culture and a smattering of human insight.
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1 Response to Doctor Who – “Dark Water”

  1. Cygnia says:

    Now, now…I get first dibs on shanking Moffat!

    I’ve got no initial problems with the gender change. Gomez is playing the role with relish…

    …BUT in the hands of smugshit cis-het douchebro Moffat, I cannot trust him to write a female character without shackling her to a man in some way. And what does Missy do when she first sees Twelve?

    Literally throw herself onto the Doctor.

    Head meet desk.

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