In “Dark Water,” showrunner Steven Moffat begins the process of drawing together the threads of this season of Doctor Who. Being the first half of a two-parter (the first time the series has used the multi-episode format since 2011’s “The Rebel Flesh” and “The Almost People”), the episode has the luxury of being able to draw the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) into the schemes of “Missy” (Michelle Gomez) and leave them entangled there, without as yet needing to provide answers or explanations. Everything goes wrong for the Doctor and Clara, starting with a particularly brutal blow: Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) is killed in a road accident while talking to Clara on his phone.
The first third of the episode is a showcase for Capaldi and Coleman, as the distraught Clara has an incredibly tense confrontation with the Doctor. Using all the ruthless pragmatism she’s learned from the Doctor this season, Clara tricks him into taking them to the edge of a volcano, where she threatens to destroy his access to the TARDIS unless he helps her recover Danny. But it transpires that the Doctor was one step ahead of her, in control of the situation all along, just wanting to see how far Clara was willing to go. Driving home a major theme of the season, that though the Doctor may look human, he doesn’t react in human fashion, he simply shrugs off Clara’s betrayal. Using the TARDIS’s telepathic interface (as seen in “Listen”) to draw on Clara’s connection to Danny, she and the Doctor find their way to the enemy’s base of operations.
Danny, meanwhile, finds himself in the Nethersphere, the “afterlife” which has claimed many characters this season, being dealt with by Seb (Chris Addison), the flunky previously seen in “The Caretaker.” The exploration of what happens after death is an unusual area for Doctor Who to venture into, and as would be expected for a series that is (at least nominally) science fiction, the ultimate explanation is completely non-supernatural in nature. Time Lord technology is being used to store and edit the minds of the dying, while their bodies are “upgraded” as part of Missy’s scheme. The confused Danny is forced to face the event from his past that’s loomed large over him this season, which caused him to give up his army career. We see a flashback of his unit engaged in urban combat in the Middle East, in the course of which he kills a young civilian boy. But rather than being part of a religious judgment of his life’s deeds, it becomes apparent that Seb is deliberately increasing Danny’s disorientation as part of the Nethersphere’s efforts to induce its victims to abandon their previous personalities.
The “dark water” of the title is something of a disappointment. It’s simply a convenient plot device, a bit of bogus science by which Moffat can delay the Doctor’s realization that the dead bodies are being turned into Cybermen, though it’s not at all a difficult twist to see coming. The Cybermen have always worked best when writers have focused on them not as simple monsters, but as transformed human beings, and Moffat recaptures the chill of 1967’s “The Tomb of the Cybermen” with the image of an army of the creatures emerging from serried ranks of holding cells. In that story, like other previous Cybermen stories, the threat came from the Cybermen attempting to convert living humans, but having them finding a way to make use of the dead provides an even greater menace. As Missy says, the dead vastly outnumber the living.
The climactic revelation of Missy’s true identity, the Mistress (“Couldn’t very well keep calling myself the Master, now could I?”), is almost unnecessary by the time it arrives, as throughout her scenes with the Doctor Gomez demonstrates the very same kind of demented playfulness that John Simm indulged in opposite David Tennant. Just how this transformation squares with the fate of the Master the last time we saw him, sealed away with the rest of the Time Lords in Tennant’s finale, “The End of Time,” remains to be explained (presuming that it will be; in the classic series, the Master’s repeated escapes from certain death became almost a running joke). The idea that Time Lords can change gender has been part of the fan and media speculation for decades whenever a new Doctor has been cast, and was alluded to in passing in 2011’s “The Doctor’s Wife,” but for the first time it’s indisputably become part of the show’s canon.
The episode returns to an intimate scale again with another standout scene for Coleman, when Clara is given the opportunity to talk with Danny by phone again. With the Doctor’s admonition to be sceptical in mind, she can find no way to convince herself that she really is talking to the man she knew. Anderson shows Danny lost and bewildered, unable to do anything but repeat “I love you,” which Clara simply brushes off as irrelevant, until she finally breaks the connection. The episode may climax with an invading force of Cybermen striding down the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Doctor unexpectedly face to face with a nemesis he had thought long gone, but it’s the image of Danny with his finger poised over the “delete” button that will end his pain which most sticks in the mind.
Next Week: The story, and the season, concludes with “Death in Heaven.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: The cliffhanger image of the Cybermen on the steps of St. Paul’s is a conscious homage to the 1968 classic “The Invasion,” starring Patrick Troughton, with Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury. Although two of its eight episodes are still currently missing (recreated in animated format on the DVD release), it’s still well worth watching.
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