Doctor Who, Series 8, Episode 11, “Dark Water”
November 1, 2014, 9:00 p.m. (EST), BBC
Two-part episodes are an essential element of Doctor Who, baked into the show’s core. The classic series was made up virtually entirely of serials (there is a one-off episode, but it directly leads into the following story), so that every episode was part of a multi-episode story unfurling before viewers, and sometimes arguably lasting for seasons. The new series has used two-parters regularly (only series seven’s complete set of done-in-one stories lacked a two-parter, and no one is going to argue that series seven was the show’s finest hour), and often to good effect. A two-parter just feels more like Doctor Who to me, honestly. I am at home in the rhythms the show takes on when it knows it has some time to play with, and love the way the series can build to a cliffhanger. Of course, writing about a story that is consciously only at its halfway point presents something of an issue. “Dark Water” is only half the story, and it knows it and uses it very well. It is the set up for whatever “Death in Heaven” is going to throw at us next week. But as throat clearing, this is pretty great stuff.
The episode has three “twists,” two of which basically do not count as twists. We all knew the Cybermen were showing up this week, and the moment the trick of the X-ray water was revealed, it became pretty obvious what was really in those tanks. It also was not hard to guess that Missy is The Master; I would say that has been the most popular theory about her identity since way back in “Deep Breath,” and while I was not fully convinced it was true (I really wanted the rumor that Charles Dance would be playing The Master opposite Capaldi to be accurate), it did seem like the place this series was headed. These were the sorts of “twists” Doctor Who usually engages in during the beginning of a two-parter so it can build anticipation for the next part. This is why the Daleks often show up at the end of episode one in Dalek stories, even though those often have the name of the monster on the tin. “Dark Water” is beautifully executed set-up for most of its runtime.
But that third twist, the death of Danny Pink, is really something, and it is what makes “Dark Water” work for me as well as it does. Clara and Danny’s relationship has consistently been one of the better things in this season, and seeing Danny struck down in the middle of Clara’s big speech was heartbreaking, even if I fundamentally believe the show will just magic him back to life in the finale. Danny’s death gives “Dark Water” immediate stakes, and we are almost instantly transported to a place where Clara is a Doctor Who villain, staring down The Doctor and refusing to blink. Clara’s decision is scary for how perfectly realistic it is, and while the reveal that The Doctor placed Clara in a dream state might weaken that scene a bit, their confrontation at the edge of the volcano is still a tour de force for both Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi.
I’ve seen some fans of the show who are really down on Clara this series, and in ways that are often reminiscent of the Breaking Bad fans who hated Skyler White. I imagine those people were very excited to see Clara betray The Doctor (there seems to be a segment of the fan base who really wants to see Clara taken down a peg for reasons that confuse or depress me), but for me, the moment played as achingly human and drove home jus how far Clara is willing to go to save Danny. Clara is a complex character, and that confrontation plays as a complex moment. Her entitlement stems largely from her grief, but that does not explain entirely why she believes she is owed. No, instead, her journey this season sheds light onto how she might believe extorting The Doctor into creating a temporal paradox is the best course of action. She has seen The Doctor’s detachment. She remembers what he did in “Kill the Moon,” and what she thought of him in “Mummy on the Orient Express.” She remembers what it felt like to basically be The Doctor in “Flatline,” and she rejected that status for herself in “In the Forest of the Night.” Clara’s actions here are those of a desperate woman running across a bridge as she’s burning it, but they are also the actions of someone who knows The Doctor intimately, who understands him fully, and who is not beyond using whatever leverage she can find to get him to do what she wants. Clara throwing the TARDIS keys into an active volcano might just be the most Doctor-y thing she has done all season. And that speaks volumes about the state of their relationship.
To talk about Missy’s Cyberman plot too much would probably be getting ahead of ourselves. Michelle Gomez is stupendous as The Mistress (is that what we’re calling her now?), perfectly mischevious, deviously flirtatious, and just a little unhinged. Already, I am completely taken with her work as the character, and I very much hope she becomes a recurring antagonist over the entirety of the Capaldi era (and beyond, although The Master tends to get a new face whenever The Doctor does). What I find most surprising about “Dark Water” is not how big it goes, but how it goes big. Moffat loves a big, bombastic finale with a lot of structural play and some huge questions that he can sort-of answer. But here, the stakes are intimate, the emotions going into them rich and complex. Clara’s relationship with The Doctor has been teetering on the edge for weeks, but “Dark Water” reaffirms the strength of their bond and the vitality of the roles they play in each other’s lives. Danny’s refusal to give Clara any confirmation that he is himself, lest she die to see him again, is the sort of beautiful, emotionally resonant moment this show has been trading in much more frequently this season. “Dark Water” continues the trend of being next-level Doctor Who, a commitment to making the show better, more nuanced, and more thematically rich. It is a solid first part of a story, but what is impressive is how it reflects the changing aesthetics of what Doctor Who can be. This is a marvelous season of television, and I am very excited to see where “Death in Heaven” is going, even as I will be sad to see this brilliant, innovative, fantastic season come to an end. Conjecture: It is going to be amazing.
- “It wasn’t terrible. It was boring. It was ordinary.”
- “He deserved better. And so did you.” “I didn’t deserve anything. Nobody deserves anything. But I am owed better. I am owed.”
- “What’s so great about seeing a volcano? It’s just a sort of leaky mountain.”
- “Time can be rewritten.” With precision. With great care. And not today.”
- “Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?”
- “This is it, Clara. This is one of those moments.” “One of what moments?” “The darkest day. The blackest hour. Chin up, shoulders back. Let’s see what we’re made of, you and I.”
- “I don’t deserve a friend like you.” “Clara, I’m terribly sorry. But I’m exactly what you deserve.”
- “We’re here to bring your boyfriend back from the dead. So buck up and give me some attitude.”
- “Clara…is it over now?”
- “My heart is maintained by The Doctor.” “Doctor Who?” “Doctor Chang!”
- “You have iPads in the afterlife?” “IPads? We have Steve Jobs.”
- “She’ll be fine.” “Speak for me again, I’ll detach something from you.”
- “Remember, be strong. Even if it breaks your heart.”
- “Humankind, bring out your dead.”
- “Two hearts.” “And both of them yours.”
- “Clara Clara Clara. I should shoot you in a jealous rage. Wouldn’t that be sexy?”
- “All the graves on planet Earth are about to give birth.”
"Dark Water” continues the trend of being next-level Doctor Who, a commitment to making the show better, more nuanced, and more thematically rich.