Contains complete spoilers for the episodes, and for the season.
It’s genuinely hard to know what to say about the two-part season finale that concluded series 8 of Doctor Who this week. It was the most extraordinary, compelling and unique 75 minutes of television I think I have ever seen. But if you ask me whether I enjoyed it, I’d have to say: ‘I’m not sure. Was I actually supposed to?’
“Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven” were not enjoyable in the sense that, say, 2008’s “The Stolen Earth”/”Journey’s End” had been. That David Tennant story was practically a celebration of all that the modern rebooted series had been up to that point, and it was intoxicatingly uplifting and rousing. By contrast, the final two episodes of Peter Capaldi’s first season in the Tardis could scarcely have been more different: a dark and sombre meditation on some of the most difficult and profound issues pertaining to the human condition, there were no happy endings here and the ultimate feelings it engendered were bleakness and melancholia. The abyss hadn’t just looked back into you, it felt like it had signed a long term lease, moved in and redecorated the walls in the blackest of black for good measure.
I said a few weeks ago that “Kill The Moon”‘s foray into full-blown Alien-esque horror refuted the argument that Doctor Who was just a kids’s programme any more, but the season finale took the show so far out of its children’s/family background that it was more akin to a classical and/or religious epic quest story such as Homer’s “Odyssey” or Dante’s “Inferno” or even Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. (I’m joking with the comparison: obviously, Moffat is by far the better writer of the quartet!) It gave us a deep examination of death and loss, of love and hate, of grief and despair, of the nature of true friendship, of truth and lies, and ultimately the question of good and evil as the show finally answered the question that the Doctor had asked three months ago in “Deep Breath” when the Time Lord had wanted Clara to tell him whether or not he was a good man.
He got his answer at least, at the very end of “Death in Heaven” – the culmination of a series arc that for once was worth the journey, delivering not some awkward science-fiction sleight-of-hand (“Bad Wolf”, anyone?) but something of huge significance which will help define and shape the character of the Doctor for years to come. Which is not bad going at all for a story in which the eponymous hero is actually remarkably passive and ineffective throughout. Normally that’s something which is usually never a good in a show like Doctor Who, but from the moment that Clara burst into the Tardis and attempted to blackmail him into saving Danny’s life it seemed that the Doctor was purely along for the ride, being jolted first one way and then another by revelations from other people that he never sees coming. He doesn’t know what’s going on, has no answer and no plan for how to counter them, and ultimately is saved time and again only by the intervention of others.
What makes all the difference is that despite his passivity in the episode, the Doctor is without question the central character. What happens is still actually all about him: everything is sparked off by his presence and his past actions (in a wonderful twist, it all comes down to Missy simply wanting to give him a gift for old time’s sake) and the story as a whole is the classical odyssey of self-discovery gleaned from the experiences he is put through. It’s an ordeal for him – as indeed it is for us a lot of the time. Quite how wholly different this series has ended up being from the light-hearted clowning around of Matt Smith’s era can hardly be overstated: no wonder that large sections of the audience are struggling with the shift in gears, because Steven Moffat is determined not to make this easy on us and is instead going out of his way to make it as challenging as possible. He must be a network commissioning editor’s worst nightmare: where most showrunners would look at a huge mega-success like Doctor Who or Sherlock and say “How can we produce more of this on a weekly basis?” Moffat’s response instead is to say “Well we’ve done that now, no point repeating ourselves, what can we do that’s totally different?” It’s admirably ambitious, even if us mere mortals would be happy with him sitting back and just mining the same comfortable groove now and again before tearing off somewhere worryingly brand new.
Whatever else it might be, “Dark Water”/”Death in Heaven” is certainly an impressive production. The script is one of Moffat’s finest (although it’s not perfect – we’ll get to that shortly) and the direction by Rachel Talalay particularly fine. Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman give world class performances (especially the Doctor’s explosion of private grief near the very end which will tear your heart out), and it’s a very strong episode indeed for Samuel Anderson as the transformed Danny Pink. Chris Addison is also startlingly good as Missy’s right hand man Seb (top stand-up, sitcom star, panel show guest, director, and now damn good straight actor too – don’t you just hate people like that?!) while Andrew Leung does well in creating a memorable character out of the short-lived Doctor Chang. Jemma Redgrave and Ingrid Oliver are once again perfect as they return in the recurring roles of Kate Lethbridge-Stewart and Osgood respectively, leaving Sanjeev Bhaskar as the only person short-changed by the whole thing as he briefly pops in to be mocked as ‘Man Scout’ by the Doctor before being quickly dispatched in a ‘why did they even bother with the character?’ fashion.
For me, “Dark Water” was the stronger episode of the two despite the fact that two of its three shock twists had already been essentially blown weeks before. As soon as they were needed on location on central London, there was absolutely no way that the Cybermen’s return could be kept secret, yet despite this the episode still had great fun leaving little motifs sprinkled around the set design (including a clear nod to the look of “The Tomb of the Cybermen”) and music cues to tease us, culminating in the moment the lift doors closed and we’re left staring into an iconised Cyberface as the music delivers Murray Gold’s Cybertheme full blast for the first time. And it doesn’t stop there, Rachel Talalay getting great mileage out of the tantalisingly slow reveal of the Cybermen as the water drains inch by inch from their storage tanks, allowing them to loom more and more threatening in out-of-focus back-of-shot as the moments tick past until they are finally ready to stride into action.
The other twist that had already become common knowledge was the true identity of Missy. To be fair the secret never actually really leaked, but even so the idea that she was a new incarnation of the Master was the runaway top theory almost from the very moment she appeared in “Deep Breath”. It was actually so obvious that we almost talked ourselves out of it again, thinking that surely Moffat must have a twist up his sleeve. But no – it was exactly what everyone had thought it would be, although again the episode got some mileage out of teasing some of the other less-likely fan theories that had been circulating over the course of the series up to this point. The general feel of “Dark Water” together with the concept of a person’s consciousness being preserved after death made the idea that Missy might prove to be a post-“Silence in the Library” River Song particularly acute at one point, but there was no way that Alex Kingston’s character could have been twisted into being the pure black villain required by the story that followed, even with a regeneration thrown in.
As a result, initially the revelation that Missy was the Master felt a bit of an anti-climax, almost ‘the least that they could do’, but I was quickly won over. Partly that’s because of a superbly unhinged performance by Michelle Gomez in the role, but also because of what the change in gender did to our understanding of the character and her motivations. In just the same way that each incarnation of the Doctor reveals a different aspect to his personality while allowing him to remain fundamentally the same character, so this new Missy shed entirely new light on the Master and her relationship with the Doctor. Stunningly well thought through and written by Moffat, I felt Gomez breathed new life into the part in just the way as John Simm had done before her, both of them worthy heirs to Roger Delgado while giving hugely different portrayals.
As for the gender change aspect, the only disappointment I felt over this was how poorly it went down with worryingly large sections of the audience, some of whom reacted with such intense and vitriolic misogyny the likes of which I had hoped had died out decades ago. If this was a test run for the idea of a future female Doctor (and it does feel like Steven Moffat is consciously preparing us for this eventuality) then it will be a brave showrunner indeed who actually risks it based on the amount of negative reaction against Missy. As far as I’m concerned I thought it worked rather brilliantly with the Master/Missy, the gender change much more than just a gimmick or a trial run of political correctness for the title role. It allowed a whole new revealing dynamic between Missy and the Doctor to emerge, a non-romantic sexual frisson freed of the usual tired ‘homoerotic’ undertones people try to read into the relationship between the two.
The one genuine shock twist that “Dark Water” did manage to keep to itself was the death of Danny Pink at the very start of the episode. Certainly I didn’t know about it in advance and I didn’t see it coming; well, I did yell at the screen that Danny should watch what he was doing when he was on the phone to Clara, but even so I didn’t exact him to actually walk straight out into the road and get run down – that sort of thing happens in Casualty, not Doctor Who! And of course much of what followed revolved around Danny’s character and his relationship with Clara, which to be honest would have been better if it had received more time spent on building it up over the course of the series than it actually had. To believe that Clara would be so utterly grief-stricken over Danny’s death as to betray the Doctor was somewhat at odds with what we’d seen up to then, which had mostly focussed on the strain in their relationship brought about by Clara’s lies to Danny about her ongoing adventures in the Tardis.
Even so, the confrontation between Clara and the Doctor at the volcano was absolutely riveting stuff. No matter that ultimately ‘it was all just a dream’ so to speak, it didn’t change the reality of Clara’s feelings and actions. Even she was shocked; and when the Doctor told her “Go to hell”, her muted acceptance of this with a quietly shrugged “Fair enough” was the most simple, believable character beat the series has seen in years. This is quickly followed by one of the most beautiful lines the Doctor has ever been given as he casts aside the doubts of those critics who’d felt he’d been too nasty to Clara since his regeneration. How many of us, in the face of such abject treachery from the person closest to us in life, could come back with “Do you think that I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?” It’s at that moment that the Doctor we’ve always known as our hero – the role model who is as good as we ourselves can possibly aspire to be – is well and truly back in the room.
So 15 minutes in and “Dark Water” is living up to its name – this is truly as pitch black and murky as the show has ever been. And there are very few laughs to be found in the next hour and a half that follows either, during which it seems that daring to deliver a laugh or a joke is instant grounds for summary execution as both Seb and Osgood discover to their cost. The latter’s demise was particularly sad and affecting, and certainly showed once and for all that Moffat is well and truly over his reticence for killing characters off these days. There’s an echo of Mummy on the Orient Express here, as Missy says quite bluntly that she will kill Osgood in exactly a minute’s time, and then remorselessly delivers on her promise as we (and Osgood) watch on powerless in horror. It certainly establishes how evil Missy truly is despite all her Mary Poppins trappings.
Much of “Death in Heaven” circles back to one of the themes that has been in play from the start of season 8, the Doctor’s sudden antipathy towards soldiers and armed forces. Back in my review of “Into the Dalek” I actually referenced UNIT and Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart in my discussion of this point, and obviously that’s exactly what Moffat intended because they both prove pivotal to the final episode, along with another former solider in the form of Danny Pink. While the Doctor is being offered command of two armies by two very different women with utterly different motivations, it’s these two ordinary but nonetheless remarkable men doing their duty and defending the people they have promised to keep safe who really do save the day and thereby fulfil the enduring promise of the soldier. I hadn’t realised when the series started that “Death in Heaven” would air on Remembrance Weekend, or else I might have had a better idea of how Moffat was planning on properly honouring the true fallen heroes without at the same time inadvertently glorifying military warfare in the vainglorious pursuit of conquest and power.
It was a quite beautifully judged and respectful touch, but there were other moments in the two-parter that didn’t come off quite so well. Despite the fact that the story gave Doctor Who a genuine and entirely well-intentioned opportunity to give the Brigadier a fitting final hurrah in allowing him to do his duty and save the world, the Doctor and his daughter one last time, I can’t help but feel discomforted by the notion that our final view of this beloved and iconic character is as essentially a decaying corpse clad in Cyberarmour. I hope and trust that the original actor, Nicholas Courtney, would have been quite at ease with the idea but I confess that it didn’t sit entirely well with me all the same.
More importantly, I’m afraid I’m one of those people who found the way that “Dark Water” asserted a link between what a deceased person feels in the afterlife and the fate of their physical body to be deeply and damagingly misconceived. It was implied and demonstrated at least half a dozen times with a particular emphasis on the horror of cremation, and a side-order scream from medical research. Forget four-foot CGI spiders on the moon, shuffling mummies or Cybermen punching their way out of graves, this idea of what the dead might go through is something that anyone who has ever lost a loved one in real life (which let’s face it, is pretty much all of us) will be profoundly disturbed by even when we can just brush it aside with a ‘Oh, it’s just a television programme’. It’s the kind of deep real-life existential terror that can cause genuine psychological harm to those people who are too young, emotionally fragile or otherwise unable to separate TV drama from reality sufficiently in time to stop the notion taking root in the subconscious. If the episode had gone on to state clearly and unequivocally that Missy’s Nethersphere is not the true afterlife (if such a thing exists in the first place) but instead was a complete fraud, and that the injunction against cremation was purely driven by Missy’s need to preserve bodies to be Cyber-ised down the line, then this would have redressed the balance. But instead it went unsaid, implied but never explicitly stated, which meant that the enduring impression left in our minds was of the far more vividly presented “Don’t Cremate Me” pleading. Try as I might, I find this a major misstep in the episode and a serious misjudgement on Steven Moffat’s part. I’d add that Mary Whitehouse must be be spinning in her grave but in the circumstances of the episode that would be a hugely bad taste joke…
But to be honest, such discomfiture and misgivings are what you’re going to get when you deal with this sort of black subject matter. In our modern society, we rarely directly confront our deepest, darkest feelings about death and it’s rare indeed to have such a candid and intense look at the subject on television let alone in a prime time show such as this. The subject is not meant to be easy, or comfortable; to have made light of it would have been the ultimate cop-out. I’m sure most of the audience was expecting Danny Pink to come back to life at the end of the programme just like Rory always managed to do in the past, but that would have been to undermine everything that had gone before and Moffat wasn’t about to do that, and so the story ended with the same unwavering, uncompromising toughness as it started.
Just when we thought there could be nothing bleaker, we arrive at the final scene between the Doctor and Clara. The subject of lies has been another of the main themes running through the series, and once again both characters are lying to each other here (and to an extent, themselves) – it’s just that this time they’re trying to do it for the good of the other. The heartbreaking truth is that they are only hurting themselves when the truth would have been much healthier and allowed them to go forward rather than bring to an end their association once and for all – and it really is hard to see Clara coming back in any significant role for the Christmas special despite Jenna Coleman having been announced as being in the cast. In the past, companions have been separated from the Doctor by parallel universes, meta-crises requiring complete mind-wipes, and time paradoxes created by Weeping Angels; but in the case of the Impossible Girl, all it’s taken is a well-intentioned pair of lies. It’s actually the most poignant and wrenching of all the partings of the way as a result.
So there it is, the end of series eight of Doctor Who and of another season of reviews on Taking The Short View. I don’t know about you, but writing this one has left me almost as drained and spent as did watching the two episodes themselves. I almost didn’t want to write this review at all because I knew it would be traumatic and painful to write. Were the episodes brilliant pieces of television? Without question. But did I enjoy watching them?
Ask me again later when the experience is a little less raw.
Doctor Who is available on demand on BBC iPlayer. A ten minute ‘behind the scenes’ feature is also available on the iPlayer and on the red button. Series 8 will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on November 24 2014 (the release has been put back a week from earlier plans) and series opener “Deep Breath” is already available as a standalone release.