Doctor Who series 8: Dark Water review

A chilling episode of Doctor Who with major revelations. Here's our spoiler-filled take on Dark Water...

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.

8.11 Dark Water

“The darkest day. The blackest hour. Chin up, shoulders back. Let’s see what we’re made of”

We distinctly remember getting to the end of The Waters Of Mars, one of the best episodes of David Tennant-era Doctor Who, and being taken aback at how cold the ending to that was. Remember it? It still creeps into our thoughts.

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Dark Water, though? Yikes. It all but chilled our blood at one stage. With three words in particular – particularly haunting ones for anyone touched by bereavement in recent times – it tapped heavily into a deep human fear. It also instantly proved that words can sometimes be the greatest monster of all.

We’ll be coming back to said moment, and those words, shortly.

Because we really need to deal with Missy, now her identity has finally been revealed, virtually destroying the internet as the magical words were uttered. Delivering a far more tempered performance through this episode, Michelle Gomez delivered the answer to the mystery of her character, and it would be fair to say that it’s going to have huge ramifications.

Missy is not a droid. Missy is a Time Lady. Missy, as many people twigged (although it never, ultimately, leaked), is The Master. Or The Mistress.

It would be fair to say that this was a major, major goosebump moment, and the name we wanted to hear. Capaldi’s Doctor may have met his match. Meanwhile, we expect our neighbours to hit us with an ASBO in due course, such was the noise we made.

In an era when spoilers are regular currency on the internet, it’s impressive just how well the Doctor Who team have managed to keep The Master/The Mistress reveal under wraps. Where does it leave her? Well, where does it leave the Doctor? Will The Master/The Mistress regenerate? Will it be Charles Dance, as had been rumoured? And what kind of union is going on between the Cybermen and The Master?

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Also, the path to a female Doctor has been cleared at some point in the future. The Master is now a woman. Heck, wouldn’t it be great if Michelle Gomez had the part for years to come? Either way, there’s a lot to resolve next week, off the back of that ending. And even before the last few minutes, Dark Water had arguably established itself as the best and most haunting episode of a strong series.

Let’s get to the rest of it, then.

“Those are definitely not fishtanks”

For the many plaudits – and, er, whatever the opposite of plaudits is – that have been directed at Steven Moffat’s time overseeing Doctor Who, one criticism that keeps recurring is that the endings to his series arcs tend to be less interesting than the build up. Furthermore, his narrative, at the point we should be on the edge of our seats, has required some head scratching and several sheets of A3 to follow, so determined has he been to pull rugs and keep us surprised.

Dark Water, however, keeps things far, far calmer, boasting an inherent confidence in the long game story that Doctor Who series 8 has been telling. One explained dream sequence aside, this was linear and focused. No timey-wimey, no zapping around in the TARDIS. There was no need.

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Even that dream sequence mattered. Heck, how it mattered. It told us just how far Clara was willing to go to save Danny Pink. If you had any doubt as to whether Danny was the love of Clara’s life, the opening ten minutes of Dark Water brutally (and that’s very much the word) removed it. He barely lasted two of them, the first of the episode’s big moments.

“Let it hurt. Let it burn

That initial shocking moment, when Danny was been hit by a car and killed, firmly tipped Clara back towards him over the Doctor (the immediate impact of this played far better too by framing it from Clara’s perspective). To the point where – courtesy of some superb and convincing raging from Jenna Coleman (who was excellent again) – she’d strand both herself and the Doctor on the edge of Revenge Of The Sith‘s rivers of fire if Danny couldn’t be somehow saved.

Because without Danny, it’s clear now that Clara wouldn’t want to go on. Her willingness to throw away every key to the TARDIS – a rarely effective and tangible threat to the Doctor – is proof of that. The Doctor? Collateral damage, in the same way he’s used others at times this series. “Do I have your attention?” Clara asked him. It would be fair to say that she did. And arguably, throwing those keys away was the moment where Clara really did fully swap roles with the Doctor, albeit for a minute.

It was almost a pity that Dark Water didn’t fully go through with this thread, although it would have left the episode cornered, with no obvious way out, if it had. Mind you, it looks like next week has no shortage of fireworks to come.

As it happened, a patch on the hand gave Dark Water its escape route from what initially looked like a dead end. Yet the point had been firmly made. Where in the past such a way out could be classed as cheating, here it felt logical to the story. As did the moment where the Doctor, who’s been fairly shitty to Clara for long stretches of series 8, basically said he’ll help her try and rescue Danny because he cares about her.

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Go back to Into The Dalek, where he agreed to help people there not because of a gun, but because someone asked nicely. It’s the simple things that break through Twelve’s emotional armour plating (“do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?”). Even when there are major paradoxes to be wary of.

Not that there’s much time to get emotional. For we’re back at the psychic-link-squidgy-gunk addition to the TARDIS console, which transports said box to where Missy has been hiding all this time. It’s when we get there that Steven Moffat starts serving up answers, and delivering them quickly.

To be clear: Dark Water gets through a lot, when you sit back and think about it. But it rarely feels cramped and in a hurry. Much of the story here is told through characters talking to each other in a natural – rather than Basil Exposition-esque – way. And there are one or two really, really chilling moments in it.

“How may I assist you with your death?”

The most unsettling of those moments are the aforementioned ones where Moffat tackles death.

Death is a topic so rarely addressed in any kind of popular television show or film in the manner it was explored here. And yet Doctor Who, a family show that occasionally gets a tea time slot (depending on how many dances they have to fit into Strictly), goes in stone cold and hits it head on. Never mind that the Doctor doesn’t buy what’s going on with the Nethersphere and the deaths: his doubts take no edges off the impact of what’s happening with Danny.

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So: we get the exploration of the link between Missy’s domain, the afterlife and Earth. Killing Danny Pink brings that into uncomfortable focus, as we learn that the reason Danny is cold is because his body, lying in a morgue somewhere, is also cold. Nethersphere Danny and dead Danny are linked.

The coldest thing of all though is the notion that people in the effective ‘afterlife’ are begging not to be cremated, and can feel everything. It would be fair to say that got utterly, utterly under our skin. We suspect it’ll stay there for some time.

Granted, Steven Moffat has proven his excellence in the past at tapping into primal fears. But has he ever quite managed to get to the core of so many at once as he did with three quick words here? “Don’t cremate me”. Once again: words beat monsters. 

Never mind that young children have been unnerved by Doctor Who at its darkest (although we’d imagine one or two anklebiters in Britain could have used an extra bedtime story this evening). The rest of us could use some help too.

“Clara, I’m terribly sorry. I’m exactly what you deserve”

Something else that contributes notably to the episode is that Steven Moffat frames Dark Water as a genuine mystery. There are clues laden around – some more obvious than others – that come together as Clara and the Doctor work out more and more of what’s happening. It felt like a real investigation at times, and that contributed to a steady, well-paced episode, with a growing sense that it was building to something.

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Which, of course, it was. Two things as it happened: the Missy reveal, and the Cybermen.

That said, it’s a shame that we’re not in the era of Earthshock, back in the days where we didn’t always know what foe was coming at the end of the episode (although maybe we’re being greedy, following The Master reveal). Can you imagine if we didn’t know it was going to the Cybermen in Dark Water? Because their unveiling here was every bit as good as Earthshock, if not better. The lovely clues – such as a Cyberman’s eye on the poster behind Seb’s desk, right through to Murray Gold’s musical cue – were scattered throughout, skilfully.

Missy’s heaven, we therefore learn, is basically a way for Cybermen to get fresh bodies. It’s also, helpfully, found in the middle of London. “Where is Danny Pink now?”, asks The Doctor at one stage. Turns out he’s just by Oxford Street tube station as it happens. The bus drives straight past, too.

It would be remiss not to spare a word for director Rachel Talalay here. Her direction here drops all the fuss out of things, and has a laser-focus on what matters. Take the reveal of a Cyberman gradually behind Missy towards the end of an episode: it’s typical of the terrific way she approaches Dark Water. Shots are held, quick cuts are used sparingly, and her willingness to back stillness and quiet over frantic action and noise pays huge, huge dividends.

“How did you get hold of Time Lord technology?”

So where does this all leave us?

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The feeling thus far is that Death In Heaven will be a bit more Cybermen-ny (if that’s a word) and more action packed (that’s certainly the hint we got here), but we can but hope it keeps its focus as tight as Dark Water. After all, the Cybermen work so well in this one because they’re part of the bigger proverbial picture, rather than the picture itself.

Because, let’s face it, Death In Heaven needs to deal with Missy (just the aftermath of her revelation could fill an episode). And Clara. And Danny. In spite of the business that Dark Water got through, there’s still no shortage of things to tie up.

Can Danny really be saved for a start? Again, we can’t help but speculate as to the departure of Jenna Coleman from Doctor Who, which has been long rumoured, but not confirmed. If Danny dies, why would Clara want to stay with the Doctor (although he can hardly be called responsible for Danny’s death, it’d more be his inability to save him)? If he lives, Clara’s not going to want to leave Danny anytime soon.

And if the Doctor and Clara can somehow get Danny out of there, then where does that leave everyone else? Doctor Chang, for instance, has just been blasted to smithereens. Is he out of the picture as well?

Perhaps the danger here is that Danny, if his own story ends here, has fulfilled a sort-of-Rory role, without getting the full character progression Arthur Darvill got. His existence for the most part has seemed more about being a catalyst and mirror for Clara’s emotions and decisions. His own haunting secret comes back to face him in this one, to be fair, but it’s no real surprise. Not that it really needed to be.

Let’s not forget, after all, that Danny’s finger is hovering over a delete button come the end of Dark Water (on a useful iPad app). It’s the lesser of the three cliffhangers  we get perhaps, but it may yet be as pivotal as all of them. As Seb tells Danny, push that button and that’d be it for his human emotions. Given what Danny has just been through, will he push it and accept his Cyber-fate? After what’s happened to him in 45 minutes of telly, you’d hardly blame him.

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Further questions, too. Where did Doctor Chang fit into all of this? When he says “is there a particular dead person you want to talk to?”, does that mean that it’s possible to have a conversation with every dead person there? Are they all, somehow, saveable?

Also, have we found out everything about Chris Addison’s Seb yet? He’s great here, the epitome of efficient office administation. He also gets the quite marvellous “we have Steve Jobs line”. We wonder how many meetings took place to see if they could get away with including that one, before deciding to leave it in. We still reckon the BBC will get a letter.

Oh, and you want a really nerdy extra consideration? Go back to Deep Breath: the first person that Missy welcomed to her Neversphere was a robot. Does this mean that the Cybermen can turn robots into Cybermen too (accepting that the robot in question had growing humanity to it)? Just a thought. Er, our head hurts a bit.

“This isn’t really an afterlife. It’s just more life than you were ever expecting”

Finally, then, there’s the bigger question. Can Doctor Who keep this cold, fierce tone going right through to the end of Death In Heaven? That’s the challenge now, and it’s no small one.

On its own feet, Dark Water is an excellent episode, that resonates long in the mind after it’s been watched. It’s got the best Doctor Who cliffhanger since a bit of text appeared next to John Hurt, and it sets things up for a potentially memorable last episode. Whether you knew it was coming or not, The Master/The Mistress was a superb moment of Who, in an episode with no shortage of them.

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Can the next one deliver? Crikey, we hope so, even appreciating how much it has to fit in. Because we haven’t felt this excited about a Doctor Who finale for some time. Dark Water has set it up a treat, half demonstrating the benefit of having two parters. We’ve just got seven long, long days to wait to find out if Death In Heaven can complete the job.

Gah…

Our review of last week’s episode, In The Forest Of The Night, is here.