VOD TV review: Doctor Who Season 8, Episode 11 (Dark Water)
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Simon Kinnear | On 01, Nov 2014
Doctor Who finales are tricky things. In the old days, they didn’t really bother having them at all, bar the occasional attempt to do a bigger-than-usual story… but usually, by then, they’d run out of money to do their ambitions justice, so it was hard to tell the intention. These days, though, it’s impossible to finish off a run of episodes – on any TV series, not only Who – without having to tie up the arc in narrative and thematic terms.
The trouble is, old habits die hard. Doctor Who has never really suited arcs; it’s a series that thrives on the diversity of its format and its open-door policy on writers, directors and even stars. Even in the modern showrunner era, little has changed because the arcs have been loose affairs, based around a word (Bad Wolf) or a concept (the Doctor’s death). If we’re lucky, there’s an emotional pay-off for the regular fan, but the onus is on ensuring that a casual viewer can turn on the telly to see the Doctor in a life-or-death battle with one of his greatest foes. Or, sometimes, more than one.
With the caveat that it’s always hard to judge a two-parter when it’s only halfway through, Dark Water typifies the strengths – but mostly the weaknesses – of the urge to end big. Indeed, it’s subject to even greater scrutiny because, up to this point, the current season has been a contender for the greatest ever. Not because of anything to do with the ongoing hints about Missy or the Nethersphere, or even the bizarre love triangle between Danny, Clara and the Doctor. No, it is simply because, throughout this season, Doctor Who has been at its risk-taking, inimitable best.
Not to say that Dark Water isn’t risky; tonally and conceptually, it skirts with bad taste in a way that Doctor Who hasn’t touched since 1985’s tale of necrophilia, cannibalism and funeral parlours, Revelation Of The Daleks. It’s no coincidence that death forms a key role in each, because these stories represent rare attempts to address the subject, not as melodrama but as a source of sci-fi fascination. What does happen to us next?
It’s a fit topic for drama, but probably not one for family viewing. However, Steven Moffat’s ghoulish imagination is so intent on figuring out the mechanics of the afterlife that he forgets impressionable kids are watching. Dark Water would have made a great Philip K. Dick novel, but here it feels tasteless. Never mind the robo-zombie storyline about the upgraded dead rising from their graves; the “three words” that gave rise to the story’s 3W Institute are among the most nightmarish ever spoken in Doctor Who, and could seriously traumatise viewers… especially if they’ve recently lost a loved one.
Risky, yes – but the wrong kind of risk. Moffat’s cleverness has gotten the better of him to the point that he hasn’t noticed how wrong Dark Water looks at the end of this season. Internally, everything here is ambitious and striking; after the previous 10 weeks of excellence, it’s a betrayal. Clara’s attempt to manipulate the Doctor by threatening him is, on paper, the logical end-game of her becoming-the-Doctor story line, but it’s still out of character, because Moffat’s preference for shock tactics precluded Clara’s essential warmth. The gloating cruelty behind souls being burnt alive or converted into emotionless killers undermines the tenderness and hope seen elsewhere in the season, in Kill The Moon, In The Forest Of The Night and Moffat’s own Listen. And even for a writer whom we know never really kills anyone off, using Danny’s death as a plot device is a cheap trick.
Interestingly – and there are spoilers ahead – the reveals of Dark Water recall past season finales. The idea of Cybermen as reanimated corpses echoes the characters’ belief in Army Of Ghosts that they were seeing the dear departed, but there was pathos in that delusion; here, it feels nasty. Similarly, re-introducing the Master might have had more impact had the Doctor made any real reference to his Time Lord heritage this season; at the end of Season 3, it felt like a properly operatic wallop after three years of backstory. [Also, fandom figured out the cute in-joke in the name ‘Missy’ weeks ago; has Moffat really forgotten that many of us grew up with those appalling anagrams in the 1980s used to disguise Anthony Ainley’s presence in a story?]
So far, this finale is just sound and fury… and most of the latter comes from Peter Capaldi’s brilliant characterisation of the Doctor, so angry it’s now affecting his psychic paper. Even the highlights of the episode – the guest performances by Michelle Gomez and Chris Addison – only deepen what we’d already seen of them. Otherwise, this was a wasted opportunity to shake things up. So much hard work has been done this year in creating the Doctor and his companion as multi-faceted characters and restoring the magic to the show… and yet once again, come the end, it’s stuck in the same place: a pedantically complicated, please-the-geeks affair dominated by hollow gestures and clickbait crises.
Doctor Who Season 8 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription. Want to keep Capaldi’s Doctor for longer? You can download Doctor Who on blinkbox and Amazon Instant Video, or on iTunes – where buying a season pass will also give you all of Doctor Who Extra.
Where can I buy or rent Doctor Who: Season 8 online in the UK?
Photo: BBC/Adrian Rogers