‘Dark Water’, written by Steven Moffat, is the 1st part of the two part finale for season 8. A sudden death leads the Doctor and Clara to try and find the afterlife. What they find has horrifying ramifications and the discovery of just who Missy really is.
As the title suggests this is a dark story, filled with death. The fact that it is only the first half of the story means there is no happy resolution, yet. There is a lot of setup but it still manages to move the plot along nicely with striking visual images.
Spoilers From Here On In!
This is a difficult episode to review as it is only half of the story. Not only that but a lot of the information given in ‘Dark Waters’ is likely to be false considering the true nature of Missy. As such much of what is shown in this episode might appear different once ‘Death In Heaven’ airs.
A lot of the plot threads from throughout season 8 are resolved here. The most obvious is the frequent appearance of Missy and the Promised Land, depicted as some form of afterlife. We also get to another milestone in Clara’s character arc, as she is torn between the Doctor and Danny.
The episode begins with Clara on the phone with Danny, trying to tell him the truth with the help of a host of post-it notes containing information about past episodes. She only gets as far as telling him she loves him when he steps out in front of a car and dies (a fate the 10th Doctor saved Sarah Jane’s Luke from in ‘The End of Time’).
The unexpectedness of this packs some emotional weight. We get a small joke in here with the headmaster at Coal Hill saying that it was obvious that Danny and Clara were in a relationship, despite the fact that they had been trying to hid this but the overall sense of these scenes is one of shock and numbness.
Clara’s gran returns (last seen in ‘The Time Of The Doctor’) to comfort her granddaughter only to find her strangely bitter. Encouraged to cry Clara reveals that she feels nothing and finds the everyday nature of Danny’s death boring. There have been frequent indications that Clara isn’t normal and we see the terrifying confirmation of this as she vows that she is owed.
In short order she has lied to the Doctor, manipulating him into taking her to a volcano before knocking him unconscious with a sleep patch. The Doctor wakes up outside the TARDIS, where Clara threatens to throw everyone of the 7 TARDIS keys into the lava unless the Doctor helps her rewrite history and save Danny.
This is an incredibly tense scene, with Clara depicted as a disturbed villain, ruthlessly throwing a key away every time the Doctor says no. We see some of the Doctor’s wiliness, trying to assume control by telling her to throw the keys and hoping that her own wilfulness with lead her not to obey.
The sequence is heightened by the out of order chronology, with the Doctor waking by the volcano and Clara threatening him before flashing back to reveal the stages of her plan. This helps to convey the sense of disorientation the Doctor is experiencing.
Pushed too far Clara throws the last key in the lava before realising the ramifications of her actions. It is at this point that the Doctor reveals that this is a ruse and that he turned the sleep patch (which actually places someone in a dream state) back on Clara, using her suggestibility to see how far she’d go.
The Doctor forgives her betrayal and agrees to save Danny, not by changing history but by locating the afterlife. I’m not sure whether the viewer is also supposed to forgive Clara. The Doctor has gotten rid of companions for far lesser transgressions and what Clara did didn’t just place her friends life in danger but could have potentially threatened time itself for her own selfish desires. The quest to the afterlife should have been a farewell gift before the Doctor dismissed her from his company.
Disengaging the safe guards and turning off the nav-com the Doctor links Clara to the TARDIS, as he did in ‘Listen’, to home in on Danny. This isn’t as much of a fruitless task as we might think as Danny is shown to be in the nethersphere, being interviewed by Seb from ‘The Caretaker’.
In the real world the TARDIS lands in a silent mausoleum where skeletons sit in tanks of water (or some kind of liquid anyway). This is a creepy sequence, with the skeletons turning to watch our heroes without their knowing.
Humour is injected with the arrival of Missy, claiming to be an android (Mobile Intelligent Systems Interface), a representative of the 3W institute. Michelle Gomez as Missy gives a wonderful over the top performance, switching between the stilted speech of an android to rolling her r’s and being offended when they ask who is in charge (not to mention the ‘welcome package’ she provides the Doctor). In retrospect this is all in perfectly in keeping with Missy’s true identity.
Missy introduces the time travellers to Dr Chang, who explains the nature of the 3W institute. In a suspenseful and horrific series of scenes (with the Doctor threatening to hit Dr Chang with his shoe unless he gets on with telling them what is going on) it is revealed that the dead in the afterlife are still conscious of what happens to their mortal remains (3W standing for the three words sent from the afterlife “Don’t Cremate Me.”). Thus the institutes place the remains in the tanks of water to protect them.
The horror of this scene is heightened as we cut back and fore to Danny, who hears the screams of someone who has left their body to medical science. There is a sense of dread and this probably the darkest idea the series has ever depicted. The implications of knowing that you’re going to feel your body being cremated and being powerless to do anything about it is terrible.
Thankfully this probably isn’t actually true as we soon learn the truth about the water tombs. Having previously established the liquid is actually the dark water of the title which only shows organic material the tanks are drained to reveal the skeletons are actually the interior of Cybermen.
This is a great reveal, with the subtle presence of the linked circles shown throughout the episode actually being the distinctive design of a Cyberman eye (something the Doctor almost notices). One can only imagine the impact that this would have had if it hadn’t been in every promotional image for this episode and in the teaser trailer.
After despatching Dr Chang Missy goads the Doctor with her plan, using a slice of the Matrix to upload the minds of the dead, delete their emotions and download them into their upgraded Cybermen forms. Questioned about how she got hold of Gallifreyan technology she reveals she is a Time Lady.
Meanwhile Clara has been able to contact Danny in the nethersphere. Realising if he confirms his identity Clara will kill herself (another very dark idea) he deliberately fails her test, repeatedly saying that he loves her. A very emotional scene that makes Danny relatable and sympathetic (unlike Clara at this point).
Danny is devastated by this and Seb explains that Danny can delete his emotions. This reveals the true insidiousness of the villain’s plan, that the victims willingly become the emotionless Cybermen. This isn’t too dissimilar to the Cybermen’s plan in the 8th Doctor comic ‘The Flood’.
In the real world the Doctor is powerless to stop the Cybermen stomping out of the mausoleum which is revealed to be St Paul’s Cathedral. Missy explains that all across the world the graves are about to give birth, exploiting the fact that the dead outnumber the living. She then reveals who she is.
The revelation that was kept secret (although clearly foreshadowed) is that Missy is actually the Master, proving once and for all that Time Lords can change gender. This is a wonderful return for the Doctor’s old nemesis. So far Michelle Gomez has been delightful in the role and the gender swap should lead to an interest new dynamic between the Doctor and the Mistress.
This is a strong first half of a story, dripping in atmosphere and playing up the darker aspects of Doctor Who. With all of the exposition and setup out of the way part 2 should be thrilling.
I reserve my final judgement until the actual conclusion. For the moment I enjoyed what was shown here and I’m relived that the revelation about the nethersphere was actually artificially created by the Mistress, rather than the natural state of the Doctor Who universe (which would have had huge implications).