TV Review: Doctor Who – Dark Water (S8, E11)

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Director: Rachel Talalay
Screenwriter: Steven Moffat
Cast: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Samuel Anderson, Michelle Gomez, Chris Addison & Andrew Leung

Note – If you haven’t seen “Dark Water” and don’t want to have it spoiled for you, look away now…

Ok, so here we are; chapter one of the first proper two-parter since early 2011, and the finale that Peter Capaldi’s first series as the Doctor has been slowly and teasingly building to since he first fell out of the TARDIS in “Deep Breath”. Considering how regular two-parters were in the first five series of Nu-Who, it’s strange how little I’ve missed them, though I must admit that my anticipation for this episode was through the roof. Admittedly, my expectations for it were through the floor, but still, I was curious to see if Moffat could finally pull off the colossal cliff-hanger that he’d promised us.

Well, somewhat to my surprise, he didn’t disappoint. I’ll get to the revelation about Missy’s identity in a moment, but first let’s discuss the wealth of horrifying ideas and deliciously morbid notions that run through “Dark Water”. Following the shock death of Danny (Anderson) at the start of the episode, Clara blackmails The Doctor with the destruction of his TARDIS keys unless he alters time so that Danny can live. When it turns out that the destruction of the keys, which Clara goes through with when the Doctor refuses to rewrite time, is all an illusion, the Doctor – despite being betrayed by her – agrees to help Clara find Danny. Dismissive of the idea of an afterlife, he is suitably stunned when the TARDIS takes him to an organisation called “3W”, which claims to turn “afterlife into aftercare”. There he meets the elusive Missy (Gomez), who introduces him to Dr Chang (Leung), a man who explains to him and Clara that death is really not the end. Meanwhile, Danny awakes in the “Nethersphere”, where a bureaucratic clown-cum-office lackey named Seb (Addison) attempts to explain the “next stage of life” to him.

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Like the best of Moffat’s stories, “Dark Water” is predicated on a simple but horrifying concept; in this case, the notion that people remain conscious after death. What if, rather than simply fading away, our minds can still feel absolutely everything that is happening to our bodies? What if, when we are cremated, we feel every flame licking at our helpless, lifeless husks while our minds (or, if you like, our souls) scream in the most unbearable, searing agony? It’s a deliciously morbid idea that taps into the most fundamental fear of all; the fear of death. If only we knew the truth, as Dr Chang says, we would be infinitely more terrified.

This notion grants Moffat the opportunity to indulge in the two things he does best; dark humour and palpable dread. As the ghastly realities of “life after death” become apparent, one can’t help but feel a cold shiver running down the spine, as Moffat slowly but surely builds the terror up to the most insurmountable levels before revealing the truth about both what the Nethersphere is and who Missy is. Small moments, such as the cries of “don’t cremate me” over the radio signal, and the meeting between Danny and the child he accidentally killed when he was a soldier, burrow under your skin and nibble away at your resolve, all while something even more horrific is lurking in the shadows. The skeletons, embalmed in their “dark water” cases, decorate each and every room, reminding you of the sheer dreadfulness of what 3W and the Nethersphere are about, while Seb’s analogy of new-born babies falling through the “trap door” in the womb forces you to ponder what happens to the stillborn or those who die before they can even speak. If ever you thought Doctor Who was becoming a bit childish, this episode will almost certainly fix that…

Despite all of this, however, “Dark Water” is also incredibly funny, particularly in the middle act when the Doctor first meets Missy and Danny first realises what has happened to him. Capaldi still delivers the Doctor’s sarcasm and quick wit as though it is second-nature to him, though he really ups the dramatic ante as well this week, once again proving how perfect for this role he is, while Moffat litters his script with some wonderful gallows humour. See, for example, Seb’s remark that someone must have donated their body to science after he and Danny hear a piercing scream in the Nethersphere. It’s gloriously morbid, and a real example of just how dark and mischievous Moffat can be when he’s on form.

Of course, what the episode is really building up to the revelation that Missy is short for “Mistress”, and that she is in fact The Master. It’s a brilliant twist-cum-non-twist, as I think almost everyone considered and then dismissed that idea as being “too obvious for Moffat”. The final few minutes of the episode, in which we discover that the Nethersphere is converting the dead into Cybermen, and that Missy is the Doctor’s most infamous foe, are some of the most thrilling the show has done in years, and it’s testament to how exhilarating Doctor Who can be when it’s done properly. Moffat, for all his flaws, knows how to tell a shocking story when he wants to and “Dark Water” is easily one of the best episodes he’s ever written. It is tight, well-paced and – at least for now – self-contained, with no “timey-wimey” nonsense in sight.

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On that note, let’s have a brief word about the sheer wealth of talent involved in putting this together. Capaldi and Coleman are great as always, and Michelle Gomez’s portrayal of the Master is wonderfully camp and sinister, but both Chris Addison and Samuel Anderson – who I’ve been highly critical of throughout the series so far – are great too. Anderson finally delivers a performance that adds some weight and personality to his character, and though I must admit to not being remotely bothered about his death, I suddenly grew to like him a bit more as he struggled to come to terms with the realities of what was happening to him. Rachel Talalay (best known as the director of Tank Girl) gets the best out of all of the performers, and her direction is absolutely pitch-perfect. She has a laser focus on what is important, refusing to get bogged down in the intricate details of Moffat’s occasionally fanciful screenplay, and she cranks up the tension and the innate horror with exquisite precision.

The worry now is that “Death in Heaven”, the hour-long second chapter of the series finale, will undo much of the great work laid down in this episode, though if things carry on as they are, this might well turn out to be the best finale since “The Parting of the Ways”. Let’s remember though, there are a lot of threads and loose ends to tie-up – how did Missy escape from Gallifrey (again), how are the souls of the dead actually being uploaded to the Nethersphere, why is Missy working with the Cybermen, how will Clara escape from Dr Chang’s office, who is Dr Skarosa and why does his name bear a striking resemblance to the home planet of the Daleks, will Danny “delete” his emotions or will Clara find some way to rescue him from death and, if she does, what are the consequences for “death” as a concept? It’s a lot to cover, and Moffat doesn’t always deliver on the solutions to the admittedly ingenious problems he creates, but with Talalay behind the camera and such a reliable bunch of performers in front of it, we could be in for something very special indeed. Here’s hoping…