Let’s not bury the lede here, and please allow your recapper a bit of gloating. All the way back in my recap for “Deep Breath” I posited that Missy was short for Mistress — the feminine of Master (though to be fair, I was only one of many who did), and of course, it is. Beyond that, I’ve since been in an almost weekly dialogue with numerous fan friends who’ve thrown out a dozen different predictions and possibilities as to who Missy really is, and never did I give up on that initial instinct. It was never going to be anyone else, but to say it’s anticlimactic is to miss the rather innovative point of it all.
For several years there’s been a vocal contingent calling, often rather loudly, for a female Doctor. The only reason people are even able to demand such a development is because it could in theory occur, given how Time Lord physiology appears to operate (really, on no other TV series could one insist that the sex of the lead character needs to change). But just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you must; there has to be a strong narrative reason behind such a radical shift. Within the series, there’d previously been only one confirmation that a Time Lord could change sex, and that was in “The Doctor’s Wife,” when the Doctor offhandedly referenced a Time Lord named the Corsair, who at some point was a woman. That was a big moment, but this development just dwarfs it.
As a long-term Who fan, I’ve mostly been opposed to changing the Doctor’s sex. In the “Deep Breath” recap I also spoke of how a female Master might be a clever way for Moffat to address the demands for a female Doctor without actually making the Doctor a female. With the confirmed arrival of Missy, and having seen her in action throughout the season, that train of thought needs to be amended: A female Doctor at some point in the future now feels inevitable, and (drum roll, please) I embrace and look forward to it when it happens. Hopefully it doesn’t happen too soon, as Capaldi needs to hang around for at least as long as Tennant and Smith each did.
It really was a seemingly brilliant move on Steven Moffat’s part, because in the long term it eases viewers into the probability of the Doctor changing sex at some point, without it being a shock. It will be much easier to accept a female Doctor having experienced a female Master. The lore of the series has morphed in a substantial way without going straight to the central character and altering the 50-year dynamic of the show overnight. This works. This is good. This is change. But please, Moffat, don’t let us down — do something that resonates with this new female Master, and make it matter.
What about everything else that makes up “Dark Water”? There’s that hellacious act one, which served as such a pumping kickoff for the end of the season. The raw, shocking death of Danny Pink followed by Clara’s determined reaction to it: “I am owed.” After everything she’s been through, that selfishness feels not entirely unearned. The way she went about bargaining for her demands, however? Thinking she’s got one up on the Doctor, Clara throws the TARDIS keys into molten lava one by one, until he agrees to rewrite history and save Danny. It’s reminiscent of those people demanding the Doctor must be played by a woman. Is it possible that difficult fans were the inspiration for that scene? And Moffat is the Doctor, forgiving them, while promising a different, more scenic way of getting to the desired point? In any case, this was stellar material for both Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman, and the Doctor’s deft handling of the explosive situation with the dream patch was nothing short of, dare I say, masterful, right down to “Let’s go find Danny Pink.”
The Doctor and Clara going in search of the afterlife is a dangerous idea, as we’re dancing with some potentially awful Star Trek V material here. After being run over by a by a car, Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) appears in an office in the Nethersphere. Seb (Chris Addison), whose bleak sense of humor coupled with his attention to detail makes him feel like a Terry Gilliam creation, puts Danny through endless bureaucratic nonsense, while step by step explaining what’s happening. Meanwhile, the TARDIS takes the Doctor and Clara to a mausoleum called 3W, filled with human skeletons encased in tanks of water, which later is revealed to be located inside the very real St. Paul’s Cathedral in London — a place of worship, which is a sly choice of location given the themes of the episode. Is the Cathedral Missy’s TARDIS? The Nethersphere appears to exist on a far distant world, though later it’s revealed that it’s encased within a Matrix data slice, or, as the Doctor describes it, a Gallifreyan hard drive, which looks like a disco globe floating around inside 3W, in the middle of London.
Much of the episode’s horror is a slow build to the grisly words “Don’t cremate me,” and the subsequent revelation that the dead are still tied to their corpses. As soon as Dr. Chang reveals the concept of dark water, it seems pretty obvious what’s really in those tanks. Shortly after this, the Cybermen make a creepy introduction, though attentive fans knew all about their upcoming appearance even before the season began. Indeed, as the season moved forward, I suspected that the dead people going to heaven were somehow being turned into Cybermen, but having now been given more details, to what end? Why do Cybermen need the memories of the dead? Missy is amassing a Cyberarmy, but what for? To invade Earth? Surely the Master has got bigger plans than that, since this has all been in motion for some time (since “The Bells of St. John,” presumably). What is her endgame?
Finally, there’s Clara and Danny, and maybe what’s really happening at the close of this episode is down to the awful lines of communication they’ve had over the course of the season. Here they have a direct line from the living to the dead — entirely different planes of existence — and even though they’re connected, they can’t figure out how to connect. Will Danny delete his emotions? Will the citizens of London ever care that hulking silver creatures are invading their city? Will Missy chill out and put an end to her wicked plans, so she and the Doctor can both finally live happily ever after?
I’m cautiously and in a way even optimistically giving “Dark Water” four stars. The material is engaging, and the leisurely pace of the episode made for a nice change from so many other bombastic season finales, but being part one of two it leaves us with many more questions than answers. It will be a big disappointment if I have to come back here next week and give “Death in Heaven” anything lower than that.
Odds and Ends
- The Doctor: “Clara, I’m terribly sorry, but I’m exactly what you deserve.”
- What of the oft-talked-about Dr. Skarosa, whose name contains within it the home world of the Daleks?
- I desperately wanted to title this recap “Heaven Is A Place on Earth,” but in the end that felt too spoiler-y.
- What was the point of disintegrating Dr. Chang? And what was the significance of “say something nice”? Was this just psychotic Master business as usual type stuff? Did Chang even know about the Cybermen? Seems unlikely.
- Given how closely Missy’s been keeping an eye on Clara, wouldn’t she know about Danny’s death and therefore have some vested interest in his particular case?
- The Doctor: “Skeptical and critical. Remember — be strong, even if it breaks your heart.”
- The flashbacks of Danny in combat, which ultimately led to the revelation that he had killed a child, is surely one of the most adult things this show has ever done, because it’s here and it’s now, and not from some war or conflict in the past or future or on an alien world.
- It was a pleasant bonus to see the brief return of Sheila Reid as Clara’s Gran.
- Seb: “This isn’t really the afterlife. It’s just more life than you were expecting.” The speech that preceded that line — the one about babies talking to one another in the womb — was observant stuff.
- The ultimate Master reveal was back in season three’s “Utopia,” and there’s no way this episode was ever going to best that moment with Derek Jacobi.
- Check out this short Radio Times interview with Armando Iannucci, creator of The Thick of It and Veep and Peter Capaldi’s old boss, in which he dishes his thoughts on Capaldi’s run as the Doctor.