Review: ‘Dark Water’

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WARNING: Spoilers below.

Well, congratulations, Steven. You did it. For a change, you’ve surprised me. Not by producing a belter of an episode, something I thought was no longer within your abilities as showrunner. No, instead you managed the stupid-and-obvious route to a finale, rather than the stupid-and-obscure one.

‘Dark Water’ spends much of its time in a world of half-truths and guarded uncertainty, telling you things it then retracts or twists, and it’s only when we’ve had twenty minutes of nothing happening that you realise its purpose is largely to set up the chess pieces for next week’s explosive finale. It does this by delivering three significant plot developments, in the manner of one of those episodes of 24 that still gets talked about years after its broadcast. Facebook group comments are full of multiple punctuation marks (and poor spelling, but that’s par for the course). The #whoismissy tag clogs up Twitter feeds. Tumblr goes into general meltdown. Gareth informs me that the general mood on Gallifrey Base is “my jaw is still on the floor”.

The problem, as he then puts it, is this: “Surely, if you’re waiting for a revelation, you’re expecting it to be (say) the Master, the Rani or Romana (according to posts), then it’s not jaw-droppingly stunning when it turns out to be one of them?”. I’ve written about this before, but to re-iterate: years ago I saw The Sixth Sense, and figured out the twist halfway through solely because I was looking for it. If you know that something colossal is coming then to say that you were gobsmacked at the reveal is nothing but hyperbole. And yes, I know I’m making a fuss about inappropriate language. I’m an English graduate. It goes with the territory.

Inappropriate language is, indeed, all part of the fun this week, as the Doctor informs Clara that they’re about to ‘go to hell’ – a remark that she understandably interprets as a curse. It follows three minutes of fiery dialogue at the edge of a volcano, in a scene that really couldn’t be more Lord of the Rings even if Jenna Coleman were dancing around the edge with the TARDIS key, bellowing “Precious is ours!”. (Of course, if she were wearing nothing but a groin-covering cloth while doing so, it would have made for a better scene.)

The rot sets in early. The confrontation by the TARDIS is taking place in a kind of simulated reality, a hallucination that the Doctor has allowed to run its natural course. In a nutshell this means that you get to take events to a headline-grabbing extreme just before admitting that the footage that saturated the trailer – and all the speculation that follows – basically counts for nothing, because the whole thing was a dream. I don’t care what it says about Clara’s determination to win back Danny, it was a glorified publicity stunt. I was half expecting her to wake up in a hotel bedroom just as Matt Smith was stepping out of the shower.

“Except,” wail the fans who are convinced this was a masterstroke, “it did happen, because Clara saw it happen, and the Doctor saw it happen. So it sort of did.” Indeed, it sort of did, in the same manner that Amy Pond sort of murdered Madame Kovarian and Rose Tyler / Amy Pond / Donna Noble sort of died, and I didn’t much care for those storylines either. So yes, I can see why the Doctor got upset with Clara, even though it’s hard to believe that a man of his scientific bent would ever actually use the words “go to hell”, except perhaps in his confused, post-regenerative let’s-strangle-Nicola-Bryant phase.

Ironically, this little tete-a-tete follows the only truly effective moment in the episode, in which Danny Pink is killed – suddenly and (more or less) offscreen. When you think about it, the development is obvious – the Doctor and Clara needed a reason to visit the afterlife, and there is none more emotionally cogent – but it is still a powerful scene, Moffat’s tendency to deliver a punch via the use of technology once more working in his favour. There is no kneeling by the corpse, no tearful farewell – indeed, for an episode that is to all intents and purposes about Danny and Clara, the two of them share no screen time together. There is, instead, just Clara, reflecting in her kitchen that Danny’s death was, in Whovian terms, “boring”. And she’s right, and somehow that makes it worse.

What follows is a strange sort of Eurydicean descent into the underworld, with gender roles reversed and Capaldi playing a ferryman of sorts to Clara’s Orpheus. The Poppins-esque Missy is cast in the role of Hades, which would presumably make the amiable (if slightly sinister) Seb the Persephone equivalent. Seb (Chris Addison, doing the best he can with a dog’s breakfast) manages to stay on the watchable side of creepy by not coming across as the sort of bureaucrat you’d expect to find in a place so obviously obsessed with data trails as hell seems to be. He is, instead, the good cop (the contrasting white suit can’t have been an accident) to Missy’s bad: cheerful but agenda-focused, usually wearing the sort of expression worn by HR executives who know there’s been an official complaint against you even though they’re not supposed to talk about it, and trying not to use the word ‘app’. “iPads?” he sneers, when Danny points out this week’s obvious use of product placement. “We’ve got Steve Jobs.”

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The involvement of the Cybermen is the episode’s second big reveal, although there’s a little foreshadowing in the shape of an obvious visual motif: a shot of two sliding doors lurching to a close to reveal a familiar-looking design, while Murray Gold drops in his motif from ‘Rise of the Cybermen’. It has the subtlety of a house brick through the window of the only Indian family in the neighbourhood, or – if we’re talking filmic analogies, that moment in The Phantom Menace where Yoda muses with Samuel L Jackson as to whether they killed the Sith Master or whether he’s still out there, just before the camera lingers on Ian McDiarmid for what seems like an incredibly long moment. Or, while Star Wars is on the table –

That’s not a dig. This isn’t 1981. You can’t keep these things secret, and Moffat knows that – this particular cat was out of the bag, through the door and in a different house eating the fish pie on the windowsill before we’d even seen Capaldi fall out of the TARDIS for the first time. It’s a shame, because the reveal takes the form of slow filtering down a glass tank filled with ‘dark’ water, echoing both ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ and ‘The Wedding of River Song’, and it would have been reasonably effective if everyone in the universe apart from the Doctor hadn’t known it was coming. Instead, we get a lot of chin-scratching from Capaldi, who furrows his brow (and, thank God, doesn’t tell us he’s doing it) while muttering “there’s something very obvious I’m missing…”, in the manner of Inspector Gadget, or one of those TV security guards who’s busy on his Walkman while there’s a fight happening on one of the screens just behind him.

Such jesting is predictable and I thought we’d got it all out of the way in ‘Deep Breath’, but Capaldi does it with flair, and always remains watchable even when he’s been handed a lemon (which is often). The fourth wall breaking continues to be an overused trope, but it does allow for the odd comical moment – “Stop it with the eyes,” he says to Clara, when she’s upset early in the episode. “How do you do that anyway? It’s like they inflate.”

Eventually the Doctor and Clara find their way out of the mausoleum (which looks, by the way, suspiciously like the Temple of Peace) and then there are conversations about death that will “change your way of thinking”, because the dead – as it turns out – continue to feel pain. The short-term sensation of being burned alive, therefore, is presumably far worse to endure than the long-term reality of having your body slowly devoured by worms. There may be a further explanation pending next week, but I wouldn’t count on it.

And then there’s that last revelation. Slowly, tantalisingly, it’s teased out. There is a robot-related feint which fools nobody (except, again, the Doctor). Then there is the revelation that Missy is a Time Lord (“Time Lady, please”. And for a moment, for one glorious moment, you think that Moffat may actually be about to resurrect a long-gone character and give her a chance to shine. I’m not a big fan of arcs – that’s no secret – but if anyone deserves one, it’s her. It builds and builds. The Cybermen stomp across London, in scenes that echo ‘The Invasion’. Danny contemplates deletion. The Doctor panics. The whole thing seems, as far as Missy’s concerned, to be a colossal joke.

And then the punch line is utterly deflating.

Look, it’s not that I mind the idea of gender change on a physiological level. Regeneration isn’t a closed book – if anything, I’ve found the one-size-fits-all approach adopted since 2005 rather silly, and it was nice to see Moffat circumvent that back in January when Smith became Capaldi.

The problem is that this has territory-marking written all over it. You can almost visual the producer’s meetings, in which Moffat pleads with the powers that be to let him have a female Doctor. “Look, just one. Please. Tamsin Grieg’s free and wants to do it. Plus you know there’s a world of stuff I could do with the Long Game connection.”
“Steven, the answer’s no. It just creates far more problems than it solves. Have you not thought about the biological implications? You’ll have to do a parents’ leaflet.”
“But I’ve only got one more bet-you-can’t to do, and then Mark has to buy me a PlayStation.”
“Look, I don’t give a toss about what you get up to in the BBC bar, we’re talking about pissing all over a fifty-year-old institution.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“I’m still on ‘No’, Steven.”
“Can I bring back the Master and turn him into the Mistress?”
“…That is utterly, utterly lame. And that’s before we get to the S&M implications.”
“I can get Isobel Pickwell.”
“One series. That’s it.”

I know I go on about the territory marking far too much, but it’s difficult – after Clara, the War Doctor and heaven knows what else – not to read it into every situation. The Master returns, only he’s a woman, clarifying once and for all that Time Lords can lose more than their memories when The Big Change hits them. Seriously, Steven, you just couldn’t leave it alone, could you? You couldn’t leave it for the next showrunner to deal with; far more fun to have a go yourself without actually doing the central character any lasting damage. Plus, as Gareth points out, this is “ignoring that Big Finish did it – which, to be fair, we should, because it was an awful story“.

None of this is really fair on Michelle Gomez, either. The fact of the matter is that she acts her socks off in every scene she’s in, and is far more of a Master than John Simm ever was (Prime Minster or Hoodie mode). The kiss throws up all sorts of insinuations as to the nature of their relationship (and casts the whole ‘brother’ thing in an entirely new light) but it’s no worse than much of the fanfiction that’s flooded the internet, so it isn’t something to get upset about. Begrudgingly, if we have to have a female Master I’m glad it’s her. Following a similar train of thought, I have to go to the dentist in January to have a tooth extracted, and after the last time (during which I passed out in the chair) they’ve told me they’re going to sedate me. That’s all well and good, but it still doesn’t mean I’m going to enjoy the experience.

There are good things in ‘Dark Water’. Clara is almost bearable. The Cybermen are always fun to watch, even in their bad stories, and they haven’t done a single Matrix zoom yet. Danny’s tragic past is at last put to bed, or at least put out into the open. The Nethersphere is visually impressive, once you get past the idea that the consciousnesses of the deceased are living inside a colossal disco ball. The writing, while far from Moffat’s best, isn’t exactly his worst, either. And Rachel Talalay directs with flair, teasing the best out of her performers.

It’s just the final, crushing disappointment of that last reveal. It’s a thoroughly inane solution to a potentially interesting problem, and my hunch – that it would be a colossal let-down – has sadly proven correct. As far as ridiculous cliffhangers go, it’s up there with ‘A Good Man Goes To War’, because in one foul swoop the arc has become all about Who Missy Is, as opposed to what (s)he might be up to: the more interesting question, by far (Doctor Who does the afterlife – potentially fascinating) but now destined to fade into the background so we can concentrate on the relationship between the Doctor and his erstwhile school chum, and how it might have changed now that they have to use separate showers in the gym. I’m not saying don’t bring back the Master. Just bring him back in episode one and let us get to know him properly. Don’t rock the boat under the pretence that you actually care about gender equality. Don’t give the internet any excuse to have conversations like this.

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Some months ago, when I sort-of reviewed ‘Deep Breath’, I remarked that “there are two possibilities: either the name ‘Missy’ is a deliberate clue pointing to something that sounds quite horrendous, or it’s a deliberate red herring designed to make the fans think that something’s going to happen, and this sort of tedious tomfoolery is exactly what makes the clue hunt so interminably dull.” The former, then. I’ll admit it caught me off guard, largely because it smacks of a man who’s finally decided that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and that’s a line that Moffat seldom, if ever, seems to tread. Unfortunately, while we still have to wait until next week to be sure, it seems to me that the line is pointing straight downwards.

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