Doctor Who‘s “Dark Water” kicks off a two-part finale with returning villains and an uncharacteristically compassionate Doctor.
Doctor Who may have had its ups and downs over the past eight seasons, but in almost all cases, everything came together for a stunning finale. That puts a great deal of pressure of the “Dark Water/Death in Heaven” two-parter. Not only does it have to live up to past finales, it needs to wrap the first season of Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor, a version that has not always rubbed viewers the right way. And while we’re at it, it also needs to explain why the Doctor Who universe has an afterlife all of a sudden, and in a way that doesn’t entirely break the suspension of our disbelief.
Perhaps it’s a little unfair to judge part one of the finale until we see the full chapter, but what is here is very promising. We’ve got answers about Danny Pink’s past. Returning Doctor Who villains. An explosive confrontation between the Doctor and Clara.
But most importantly, Peter Capaldi has almost entirely overcome the stumbling blocks of earlier episodes. The Twelfth Doctor hasn’t always struck the best balance between his harsh realism and the upbeat optimism of past incarnations. But in one glorious moment, Capaldi’s Doctor shows that while he’s more cold and calculating than we’re used to, he’s not without compassion.
Combined with a surprise reveal fans will be dissecting for a long time, this finale will probably be one of the most memorable we’ve seen in years. But first, let’s get up to speed:
- The Twelfth Doctor is more pessimistic and less sympathetic than past regenerations, although the show hints he needed to become that way to save lives.
- When not traveling with the Doctor, Clara is developing a strong romantic relationship with fellow teacher Danny Pink, although she keeps details of her connection to the Doctor a secret.
- Every few episodes, deceased characters reappear briefly in some kind of afterlife, where they are greeted by a mysterious woman named Missy.
Needless to say, but you should probably have watched the rest of this season to get the full impact. If you haven’t been watching episodes each Saturday via BBC America, you can still catch up via iTunes or Amazon Instant.
Otherwise be warned, from here on out spoilers abound.
Before we begin the recap proper, allow me to express my frustration that BBC thinks it’s a great idea to give away Doctor Who spoilers in teasers and trailers. “Dark Water” is clearly meant to be a mystery episode, where the Doctor and Clara finally piece together the secret behind the afterlife we’ve glimpsed throughout the entire season. But if you happened to see last week’s “Next Time” teaser, then you already know the big reveal: Heaven is tied to some kind of Cyberman plot. So halfway through this cleverly structured episode where someone worked very, very hard to hide Cyberman references in plain sight, you’ve already pieced together how events will unfold. (This isn’t a new problem, by the way: Doctor Who did the exact same thing just before the Ninth Doctor’s finale.)
That’s not a criticism of the episode itself. “Dark Water” does a great job of tying together season 8’s plot threads, reintroducing classic Doctor Who enemies, and imagining the afterlife as a chilling science-fiction concept. Even after spoiling the Cyberman connection, this episode is dramatically well-paced, and saves one last shocker reveal till just before the credits roll. It just makes me suspect there’s a disconnect between the people writing Doctor Who and the people promoting it. I mean, do they think Whovians won’t show up for the finale if it seems like a classic Who villain won’t make a comeback? Come on, classic Who villains always show up for the finale.
Okay, that’s my rant. Let’s get into the episode.
“Dark Water” opens with Clara realizing she should tell Danny Pink the full truth, so she’s about to read every single lie aloud from a rather extensive list of post-its. But Clara thinks she’ll lose her nerve if she reads it in person, so she calls Danny’s cell phone as he’s approaching her apartment. She only just read the first item (that she will never love anyone else like him) when tragedy strikes: Danny is hit by a car crossing the street and dies immediately.
Yes, it’s a ham-fisted approach to generating emotion, but if you’ve been watching the season so far, it mostly works. We’ve watched Clara and Danny develop not just as a couple, but as human beings, each with different outlooks and life experiences. That lends his death no small weight, especially since Clara’s glimpse of the future suggested they were supposed to have a family together.
Clara’s reaction to Danny’s death is also noticeably different from any of the times Amy lost Rory during the Eleventh Doctor’s run. Whenever Amy thought Rory had been killed, she became a crying wreck who acted like there was no way she could go on. Clara on the other hand emotionally retreats inside herself, not to grieve, but to come up with a way to bring him back. And certainly not in a way the Doctor would approve of.
You see, in Clara’s mind, the Doctor actually owes her something from their travels together, and she suspects that includes changing the timeline so Danny is still alive. But she knows this Doctor would never do that for her, so she resorts to blackmail instead. Pretending she wants to visit a raging volcano, she steals the backup Tardis keys, knocks the Doctor out with a sleep patch, and locks him outside with the magma. When he wakes, she reveals that if the Doctor won’t make an exception to save Danny, she’ll destroy the keys one at a time by throwing them into the lava.
Setting aside the fact that the Doctor can unlock the Tardis by snapping his fingers (or even just asking it nicely), this is a very tense standoff. Clara is basically forcing this Doctor to behave like an emotional being for once, instead of the cold Time Lord Capaldi’s performance has favored. True to form, the Doctor calls Clara’s bluff, and true to her word, Clara throws the keys into the lava.
But it turns out the Doctor was in control the entire time, just not in the finger-snapping way you may have thought. Apparently sleep patches have no effect on the Doctor, so he just used them on Clara, inducing a dream state to see how far she would go. Given that past episodes have shown the Doctor could get back into the Tardis without those keys, this approach seems unnecessarily complex. But the end result is the same: Clara has betrayed the Doctor, and he needs to make a decision on what they’ll do. His answer: “Go to hell.”
In case it wasn’t clear, he’s not telling her to get out. He’s saying he’ll do what he must to find Danny.
Clara: You’re going to help me?
The Doctor: Well why wouldn’t I help you?
Clara: Because of what I just did, I just…
The Doctor: (angrily) You betrayed me. You betrayed my trust. You betrayed our friendship. You betrayed everything… you let me down!
Clara: Then why are you helping me?
The Doctor: Why? Do you think that I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?
I’m not alone is saying that up until this point, the Twelfth Doctor seemed entirely at odds with the optimistic personas of the past seven seasons. But it’s here, finally, that Capaldi brilliantly shows that underneath his cold exterior, he still cares deeply for his friends. It adds a sense of compassion this Doctor sorely needed after several episodes suggesting he may not be the same friend to humanity anymore.
To be fair, this entire sequence is a little out of place since Clara and the Doctor aren’t fighting at all for the rest of the episode. But it’s worth it to know that, despite his gruff nature, the Twelfth Doctor still has a heart. Well, hearts.
Of course, that dark edge immediately creeps back in a moment later, when Clara tries to say she doesn’t deserve his friendship: “Clara, I’m terribly sorry, but I’m exactly what you deserve.” I suspect this conversation isn’t quite finished and the Doctor will have something in store that feels like a punishment. Whether that’s the case or not will be revealed in the next episode.
Since that chat is on hold for now, we shift gears back to the Doctor’s latest abstract theory: Is there a reason every culture has some version of the afterlife? What if Heaven is somewhere tangible, within time and space, that the Tardis can get to? Flipping off all safety mechanisms, the Doctor plugs Clara back into the Tardis telepathic link to see if Danny can be found using the connection to the timeline. Somehow, it works, and the Tardis goes to Heaven. All of this seems like an impressive display of pseudo-science, but it turns out the afterlife has a simple explanation: it’s not actually a spiritual realm at all.
Over the course of the Doctor’s investigations, and scenes where Danny meets Heaven’s “gatekeeper”, we slowly piece together that Heaven isn’t just a place, it’s an institution. Specifically, the 3W corporation, who discovered that dead bodies continue to generate telepathic signals after death. Upon realizing this, 3W created an afterlife where these “spirits” can comfortably interact with each other in a digital world, while the bodies are preserved comfortably in some way. The woman we’ve caught glimpses off in past episodes is Missy, who claims to be a self-sustaining android who manages the entire operation.
It still feels like a stretch (and it’s supposed to, but more on that later) but the episode is fully committed to this idea of a scientific afterlife. For example, preserving the body after death like ancient cultures did is immensely important, because if your soul never dies, it feels everything happening to the body. Whether you’re buried underground, lying in a cold morgue, or being experimented on by scientists, there’s no way to protect yourself, which is where 3W comes in. There’s an implication that wealthy “clients” can preserve their bodies in organic water tanks to ensure their eternal comfort. But Danny Pink isn’t so lucky; since he never planned for his death, the default option is cremation.
On top of that, just because the afterlife isn’t spiritual doesn’t mean you won’t face judgement of some sort. In this case, while Danny awaits his fate, he learns that someone in Heaven is waiting to meet him. It’s here that we finally see what Danny’s been hiding: While he was a soldier, he unwittingly killed a child. That emotional reaction during “Into the Dalek” makes a lot of sense now, beyond a default response of not liking the military anymore. That said, Danny doesn’t get time to actually speak with him, since he flees the moment Danny tries to make contact.
But as the Doctor notes, something doesn’t add up, and this artificially constructed afterlife is more than it seems. If you caught Dark Water’s promotional materials, you already knew part of the answer: it’s all about Cybermen. This 3W company isn’t preserving the dead, it’s harvesting bodies, tucking minds away in an afterlife until they willingly delete their emotions. The exact mechanics of this system hasn’t been made clear, but the Doctor notices Time Lord technology powering the machinery. That either means we’re going to get a clearer picture next episode, or the whole thing will be hand waved away as some kind of time magic.
In fact, looking back the whole Cyberman reveal feels a lot like it’s swapping one ridiculous pseudoscience premise for another. Creatively speaking, it leaves all kinds of plot holes, but the reveals are so well-paced dramatically that you’re riveted anyway. This is especially true when you realize that several Cyberman references are hidden in the episode, like how water tanks that only show organic matter can hide their armor, or how the doorways are designed to look like their eyes.
The important plot point is that the Cybermen have a nearly unlimited supply of dead bodies to create a new army, and that’s not even the worst part for Earth. It turns out that Missy was able to provide that Time Lord technology because, wait for it, she is a Time Lord! And not just any Time Lord, but one that the Doctor supposedly “left behind”. If you haven’t pieced her identity together yet, the final lines make it clear:
Doctor: Who are you?
Missy: Oh, you know who I am. I’m Missy.
Doctor: Who’s Missy?
Missy: Please, try to keep up. Short for Mistress. Well, I couldn’t very well keep calling myself the Master, now could I?
Yuuuuup. One of the Doctor’s most iconic villains has returned… regenerated as a woman. Doctor Who fans have long wondered whether Time Lords could swap sexes during regeneration, and while BBC wouldn’t do that for the Doctor, nothing prevents it from allowing it for his enemies. It makes the final revelation of Missy’s identity that much more powerful, although now Doctor Who has to live up to the reveal. After all, we haven’t really seen Missy do anything other than be enigmatic. Hopefully “Death in Heaven” gives Michelle Gomez a chance to cut loose and make this Master far more than a last-minute twist. Given her performance so far, this seems very likely.
Bottom Line: “Dark Water” feels like it’s stacking pseudoscience on top of plot holes on top of shocking reveals. But for the most part, you’ll just enjoy the ride as the episode completely sinks its hooks into you. Part one of the finale ties up several season-long plot threads involving Clara, Danny, and this mysterious afterlife, while presenting a human side of the Doctor we’ve barely seen. All “Death in Heaven” needs to do is suspend our disbelief for a while longer and Capaldi’s legacy will be assured.
Recommendation: Season 8’s finale isn’t cohesive enough to be Doctor Who‘s best, but it’s absolutely shaking up to be one of the most memorable. Definitely worth a watch.[rating=4]