TV Episode Review: “Doctor Who” “Dark Water” (08.11, 2014)

Written by Steven Moffat

Directed by Rachel Talalay

Everything in this episode seemed to be strong and interesting with one major flaw–it seemed that every scene was one step forward but the step was onto a rather narrow ledge.

This episode opens with a cataclysmic event. Danny Pink is run down by a car, and Clara is so angry at his death that she attempts to force the Doctor to save him by means of extortion, tricking him into taking her into a volcano and then holding his TARDIS keys hostage unless he agrees to save Danny. It’s a pretty strong sequence whose surprise ending–it turning out that the Doctor saw this coming and set up Clara–is pretty obvious. Unfortunately, the entire thing seems a little weird for one simple reason: Clara never tells the Doctor about Danny or asks him to save Danny–she just assumes that she needs to kidnap and extort him. It’s a really strange response, even by Clara Oswald’s standards.

Then, the Doctor takes Clara in the TARDIS to find Danny, who has suddenly awakened in some sort of post-death world. Here things are a little by-the-numbers, and the big problem with it is the Doctor’s claim that nearly all cultures believe in an afterlife and so there may be one and he “always meant to have a look.” The atheistic underpinnings of the series and of the Doctor’s character are completely undermined by spouting such a bit of pro-religious piffle. Meanwhile, the whole “Hell-as-office” play with Danny as they attempt not to reveal to him that he’s dead is something that’s really long-since played out. For it to work at this point, you have to do something interesting and/or funny, like when Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman had Death say, “Don’t think of it as dying. Just think of it as leaving early to avoid the rush.” Unfortunately, Moffat just doesn’t have any particular cleverness going for him in these scenes–he plays it so standard and down the middle that even the jokes are predictable.

Still, that’s all just a MacGuffin to get us to the 3W company mausoleum, where we know Missy will be arriving. It’s an appropriately mysterious and creepy location, and Missy arrives to claim that she is “Mobile Intelligence Systems Interface,” a welcome droid, and suddenly becomes mechanical in a way she has never been in her small previous appearances. Then she gives a bizarre greeting to the Doctor, kissing him as what she claims to be the “Official 3W Welcome Package” and then placing his hand on her own chest to check her heart. It’s a pretty effective scene, but it also seemed extremely obvious to me that this was a the Master. The droid line was a clear lie, and the only reason I could come up with for the greeting was to show the Doctor that she had two hearts. Since the only Time Lord alive other than the Doctor is the Master and only the Master is devious and crazy enough to build some elaborate trap for the Doctor like this, it could only be the Master. And then the episode seems to expect us not to know that for a while.

Danny is forced to face a child he apparently killed in his soldier days and to attempt to prove his identity to Clara, and he unsurprisingly fails at both, reacting with a constant confused reaction that seems to be all Danny can conjure. Meanwhile, a 3W scientist explains the company’s existence and horrifyingly uses EVP ideas. The Doctor does appropriately call the scientist who began claiming that white noise “voices” are the recently departed “an idiot,” but it still plays into the entire EVP phenomenon that ghost hunters so love, which is another example of the show playing entirely against itself.

However, when at the end it is revealed that they are on earth and the Master is somehow working with Cybermen to harvest humans, nothing fails. The ending, and its terrifying non-resolution, is what makes this episode work in spite of a series of earlier problems. I said that the finale had a lot to make up for, but it seems there is at least the potential for it to happen.

Notes

  • “We have Steve Jobs!” That seemed a little bit of a questionable joke to me.
  • “I am thinking about it. Why?” That, however, was hilarious.
  • It seems to be a running theme this season that the Doctor is constantly saying, “I’m missing something obvious,” because he indeed is missing something obvious.
  • Michelle Gomez has an easy part because the Master’s over-the-top insanity is so outsized, but she does it really well. Given that the part was previously well-played by Derek Jacobi and John Simm, she’s got a big history to live up to.
  • I have to admit, I have no idea what I would possibly say to someone who said, “Tell me something only Damien would know.” “Alice Cooper’s real name is Vincent Fournier?”
  • I am glad to see the Master return. I always thought the Master, as essentially the Doctor if he turned evil, was a fantastic villain, perhaps the best the series has ever conjured.
  • Why is the Doctor nervous on meeting Missy? There doesn’t seem to be a real reason for that. This Doctor doesn’t get put on edge easily, so that seemed strange.
  • So, is it going to turn out that Clara was actually the Master, or a puppet thereof, this entire time?
  • “Another ranting Scotsman in the street!” is hilarious.
  • I do have to admit, I momentarily doubted my identification of Missy as the Master when she said, “Short for Mistress.” All I could think of was K-9 saying to Romana, “Yes, Mistress.”
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