“Dark Water”, the first part of the first two-part finale since 2010’s fifth series of Doctor Who, starts the with gut-punch we’ve been building towards in the past series. The shock of it is not just the loss of Danny, but losing Danny in such an arbitrary way. For the audience, Moffat achieves this by subverting the usual season-ending expectations. Danny dies at the beginning of the epic season finale rather than in an climactic blaze. It’s jarring. Inside the narrative, this is mirrored by the mundanity of his death: Being hit by a car while on the phone with Clara.
Clara, of course, is deeply disturbed by this. Clara has become increasingly trope-savvy over the course of her experience with the Doctor. She lectures the Doctor about the basic rules of storytelling in “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS,” she’s criticized his Twelfth’s incarnation’s lack of traditional heroism, she’s carved a role for herself as storybook heroine and female Doctor. She has become increasingly addicted to the excitement and high-stakes decision making offered by life in the TARDIS, but she’s struggled to reconcile the Escape offered by the Doctor with the Recovery epitomized by Danny Pink. Unlike the Doctor who simply cannot function in life “on the slow path” or Danny who is content with the simple wonders of home, Clara needs and craves the double-life. She wants something impossible: For the TARDIS to have the comfort and reliability of the mundane, for the mundane to have the thrill of adventure.
Danny’s death fundamentally breaks these rules. Her grandmother calls it a “terrible thing.” “It wasn’t terrible,” Clara corrects her.
Clara: It was boring. People kept walking with their iPods and their shopping bags. He was alive and then he was dead and it was nothing. Like stepping off a bus.
Gran: He deserved better. And so did you.
Clara: I don’t deserve anything. Nobody deserves anything. But I am owed better. I am owed.
Gran: Who owes you?
I don’t mean to suggest that Clara is uncaring. Clearly she is deeply affected by Danny’s death. But the quality of her distress is interesting. Death is a bad thing, yes, but her main complaint is in the manner of his death. It was “boring.” Traveling with the Doctor, Clara has long since reconciled herself to the possibility of death. But death by Dalek. Death by self-sacrifice. Death by tiger. She accused the Doctor a few episodes back of treating her like every other little human being, and here we see that Clara has started to think of herself as extraordinary. It offends her to have her boyfriend snatched in such a random way. The rules of storytelling clearly state that the heroine’s boyfriend must die in a blaze of glory, not in an instant with no chance for a goodbye.
What’s the difference between “deserved” and “owed”? Clara is careful here. She doesn’t deserve Danny back. It’s not because of anything she’s done, but by virtue of her relationship with the Doctor. Who owes her? Well, Who does, of course. Because she’s best friends with the ultimate rule-breaker. The Impossible Man. The man who lives life according to narrative rules rather than the rules of real life. “I have seen you change time, I have seen you break any rule you want,” she tells him as she threatens him. And she has: She witnessed all thirteen Doctors retcon the Time War and save Gallifrey. She saw the Doctor escape certain death on Trenzalore, undermining the very future that allowed her to save him in the first place. It is quite galling to have seen those blatant FU’s to the universe and still have him refuse to save Danny Pink from a car.
We’ve seen conversations like this before, where the companion realizes the painful truth that traveling with the Doctor doesn’t inoculate her from loss and that sometimes he can’t save everyone. Donna begged him to “just save someone” on Pompeii. Amy wondered what the “point of him” was if he couldn’t save Rory. But never has a companion taken it quite this far. Threatening the Doctor with the loss of his TARDIS if he refuses to do as she says. She pushes their relationship to the breaking point to get Danny back. The unflappable and perfect Clara shows us her darkest nature: Controlling, petty, selfish. Luckily for her, the Doctor is the same way. He tricks and outwits her. He sees her at her worst, and loves her anyway, just as she’s learned to do all this season when he turned out to not be the sweet, perfect boyfriend-material he seemed. Because both are, ultimately, motivated by love and loss. The season started with the Doctor’s veil lifting. Now Clara’s is gone as well. As we’ve been constantly reminded, the Twelfth Doctor doesn’t care much about likability. “Do you think I care so little for you that betraying me would make a difference? Chin up, shoulders back. Let’s see what we’re made of, you and I.” Business as usual, then. “I don’t deserve a friend like you,” Clara admits, recalling her earlier words. “Clara, I’m terribly sorry, but I’m exactly what you deserve.” And he’s right. The universe doesn’t owe her anything, but she and the Doctor do deserve each other.
And so the Doctor and Clara pop off to check out the afterlife. “I always meant to have a look around, see if I could find one,” the Doctor deadpans. We finally get a better look at the bureaucratic Nethersphere which has been teased the whole series, featuring Seb who is played with gleeful Pythonesque smarm by Chris Addison. The tonal contrast of his inappropriately cheerful antics with the understandably overwhelmed stoicism of Danny create some of the most wonderfully black humor Moffat has yet managed, and this is the man who writes Sherlock. In fact, the two of them make a pretty effective double-act, with Danny taking the role of straight-man and setting Seb up for some great punchlines. “You have iPads in the afterlife?” Danny wonders. “iPads?” Seb quips. “We have Steve Jobs.”
In typical Moffat fashion, “Dark Water” pairs its humor with some genuine darkness. The understated revelation of Danny’s one regret, the reason he left the army, is superbly well done: Just the face of the young boy, peeking curiously but shyly around the corner, says more than words ever could. For all his offense at the Doctor’s scorn for soldiers, Danny understands the Doctor’s self-loathing all too well. The final cliffhanger of Danny’s finger hovering over the “DELETE” button, the boy’s face reflected on the surface of the iPad, is the kind of wonderfully intricate synecdoche which Moffat excels at, bringing all of the various threads of the story together: Danny’s mixture of suicidal despair and self-sacrificial love for Clara which causes him to consider annihilation; the appropriately Cybermenish theme of the desire to upgrade the body and delete the emotions; and of course Seb’s clever gallows humor: “We’ve got a thing for that.”
Speaking of the Cybermen, Moffat continues to follow in the tradition of the Classic monsters, Russell Davies and Neil Gaiman before him, upgrading the iconic monster to keep pace with modern technology. Of course they have an app for deleting one’s emotions. You can feel Moffat’s voice come through when Missy wonders why no one (i.e. any of Doctor Who’s writers) has ever thought of connecting Cybermen to cyberspace before. The little bits of foreshadowing leading up to the reveal of the Cybermen worked surprisingly well, considering their return was well-publicized by the point the episode aired. There’s the barely-recognizable interior of St. Paul’s Cathedral, connecting back to one of their earliest appearances; the use of the teardrop motif in the 3W logo (Murray Gold wisely waits until that reveal to break out the recognizable Cybermen Theme); the titular Dark Water, hiding the metal suits which cover the eerie human skeletons; finally, and most abstractly, the theme of ghosts and the dead coming back, which the Cybermen have been associated with ever since the second series of New Who (the “Pete’s World” parallel universe being associated with death). The Cybermen are, once again, the Army of Ghosts, this time literally as well as figuratively. It’s a grotesque and monstrous idea that the Cybermen would download the minds of the dead in order to conquer the living (more on that next week), but perfectly in keeping with their disturbing and timeless quest for immortality at any cost.
Finally, there’s the big revelation, which is the identity of Missy herself. I won’t spend a ton of time on this, because there will be plenty more to say in my “Death in Heaven” review, but this reveal worked extremely well for me. My first reaction, documented on Twitter, was that “sometimes the most obvious answers are the most satisfying.” I’m going to cite C.S. Lewis’ concept of surprisingness here: This works in large part not because it’s surprising but because there is a certain inevitability to it. Yes, Missy being the Master/Mistress is predictable. There’s the name. The newfound Scottishness and slightly older age to match Capaldi. The unspoken presence of the restored Gallifrey lurking around the edges of the story since “Day of the Doctor.” The general mustache-twirling insanity. None of that made it any less satisfying for me. Why? Because of the obvious departure from tradition: The gender-swap. The door is being kicked open for a female Doctor, and it feels good. Essentially nothing about the character really changes. Even Missy’s obsessive, slightly erotic love/hate for the Doctor is no more pronounced than it was with John Simm. Philip Sandifer has noted that Simm and Tennant in particular were made for shipping and slash. Missy’s assertion that her “heart is maintained by the Doctor” is really not much different from the Master’s “I like it when you use my name.” Moffat has said in interviews that the thing he appreciated most about Russell Davies’ revamp of the Master was his decision to have him be just totally nuts, and sure enough he and Michelle Gomez more than retain this in their version. I absolutely adored Gomez’s bonkers performance in both episodes.
Taken together, I hope “Dark Waters” marks the return of the occasional two-parter. When chosen for the appropriate story, they afford the writer so much more room to add weight and detail to a script, and when used sparingly are incredibly effective. The extra time to build up the various was well-spent and sets us up for a gutwrenching season finale.