The Doctor and Clara must travel to the Afterlife to find someone who recently died. There, they discover a terrible plot that threatens all of humanity.
It’s all been leading to this. The Doctor has been everywhere (and everywhen), has seen the rise and fall of civilizations, has witnessed the creation of the Earth and watched the lights go out at the universe’s end, but this episode takes the man who flits through all of time and space somewhere he’s never been before: The Afterlife.
This review contains SPOILERS.
There have been two main overarching stories in this season of Doctor Who. The first is companion Clara Oswald’s slow fall from grace as she turns from the impossibly good “Impossible Girl,” to something darker, not unlike the Doctor himself. The second arc concerns the question of the mysterious “Missy” who has been popping in at the ends of certain episodes to welcome the dead to “Heaven” throughout the season. “Dark Water” brings each of these sequences to an awful climax, and while we still have one more episode left to resolve things. One thing’s for sure: nothing is going to be the same after this.
Before we get to the Afterlife, there has to be a death, and unfortunately for Clara, her story is being written by one of the most diabolical writers of our age. The Doctor has two hearts; Steven Moffat has none. Just when Clara finally finds the courage to come clean to Danny Pink, choosing her love for him over all her secrets, there is an accident and poor Dan the Soldier Man doesn’t make it.
There was a time when Clara was so selfless she would have sacrificed herself and scattered her soul across the ages for the Doctor. That time has passed. Traveling with the Doctor has changed her. She can’t just sit back and accept her love’s “ordinary” demise. As Clara puts it, “I don’t deserve anything. Nobody deserves anything. But I am owed.”
So the next time the Doctor shows up to spirit her away, she pretends like nothing’s happened. Secretly she gathers the TARDIS keys, all seven, and convinces the Doctor to take her to a volcano. (Was I the only one that read something into the Doctor’s reluctance to visit a volcano? Before taking up the mantle of the Doctor, Peter Capaldi played a character in the episode “Pompeii,” in which the Doctor had to set off a volcano and destroy the ancient city to save the world. In the season premiere the Doctor claimed that there was some reason for him to have regenerated into this particular face.) Clara then knocks out the Doctor with a sleeping device and when he comes to, Clara delivers her ultimatum: save Danny Pink or she’ll take his TARDIS away from him forever.
This is the confrontation we’ve been waiting for. This is Frodo and Sam in Mount Doom, with the One Ring and the fate of all Middle Earth hanging in the balance. And I believe this scene is intended to mirror the climax of The Lord of the Rings. Like Frodo, Clara has been slowly losing herself over the course of the season. Now she faces the Doctor, standing over a literal lake of fire, and threatens to vanquish him. (Yes, in this metaphor the Doctor is the Enemy, Sauron, but considering his own self-hatred, it’s an appropriate comparison.)
“Clara, my Clara, I don’t think you will!”
We’ve heard those words before, “Clara, my Clara…” said by the enigmatic Missy, who followed them with, “I have chosen well.” It’s just a stray observation, but one that stuck with me, and took on a whole different layer of meaning by the episode’s end and the big reveal.
Both Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi are performing at the height of their emotive powers in this scene. Even their arguments at the end of “Kill the Moon” didn’t take them to the depths of feeling on display here. Emotionally and dramatically speaking, it’s the best scene of the episode. Nothing that comes after compares.
Clara goes through with it. She destroys the keys, stranding herself and the Doctor in the volcano, dooming them both. She is somber, but unrepentant.
The Doctor then reveals that he’s been playing her the whole time. She didn’t actually knock him out with that sleeping device. They are both in a dream state. He wanted to see how far she’d go. And now he knows. And while the episode teases viewers a little with the Doctor’s “Go to Hell,” response (It turns out he means it quite literally, as in, they are going to visit the Underworld.), the next thing the Doctor says sums up his relationship with Clara Oswald in a single sentence:
“Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?”
That line is dense with meaning. On one level he is acknowledging that Clara is special to him. (Is he even aware how special? She is the one that met him when he was a boy in the episode “Listen.” She’s the only one of his companions to have met the War Doctor while he faced his terrible choice. This is to say nothing of her many meetings with him throughout the ages on account of her Impossible Girl sacrifice.) On another level, he is once again showing the Time Lord elitism that I’ve criticized him for in the past. It’s an arrogance that sets him above such small, human things as betrayal. Of course Clara betrayed him. She’s only human, after all.
“I don’t deserve a friend like you,” she says.
“Clara, I’m terribly sorry, but I’m exactly what you deserve.”
And with that, the Doctor and his companion follow Clara’s telepathic link with Danny to… wherever the dead go.
This is where the episode switches tracks completely. Up until this point it’s been an emotional firestorm and showdown between the Doctor and Clara. Now it slows down and starts to gently unfold an awful mystery. Clara and the Doctor arrive at the Nethersphere and are greeted by Missy, who promises an answer to the ultimate question: what happens to us after we die?
The Nethersphere doesn’t sport any clouds and harps. No flames and pitchforks, either. What it has is a vast, curved cityscape and a cold atmosphere. Lots of office space. And it’s all managed by an organization called 3W, which is devoted to taking care of the souls of the dead in the face of a terrible revelation that’s tied up in three chilling words.
What’s important to realize at this point is that the universe of Doctor Who is essentially an atheistic one. Former executive producer Russel T. Davies is a passionate atheist, and while he may not be as outspoken about it as Davies, most people seem to think current showrunner Steven Moffat is as well. The series has even featured a guest appearance by popular anti-theist Richard Dawkins before. Episodes such as “Gridlock” and “The Satan Pit” have depicted the Doctor as an atheist hero surrounded by believers, while “The God Complex” was a stinging condemnation of faith in general. So what we’re getting with “Dark Water” is an Afterlife without God or spirituality. Just cold materialism.
It’s every bit as horrible as it sounds.
We discover that the dead might have some sort of consciousness, and are painfully aware of what is happening to their bodies after death. (Hence the three disturbing words spoken by one of the departed: “Don’t cremate me.”) The Nethersphere, a realm supposedly created to help, is as cold as a machine. Danny Pink’s guide to this sci-fi Underworld is Seb, one of the most bureaucratic psychopomps you’re likely ever to meet. He’s also one of the main sources of humor for the episode. (Explaining tablets and wi-fi in the Afterlife: “We have Steve Jobs.”)
Here the idea of an Afterlife is painted as a horror beside which even nonexistence could be accepted with relief.
This worldview is the same as that of popular physicist Stephen Hawking, who famously said in an interview, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
As in “The God Complex” where faith was presented as something horrific that is leading people to their destruction, here the idea of an Afterlife is presented the same way. Once again spirituality is revealed to be the stuff of nightmares.
In the midst of this nightmare we finally get a glimpse into Danny Pink’s previously mentioned “bad day” as a soldier. We discover he accidentally killed a civilian kid while doing his duty. Not nearly enough time is given this revelation, one of the few bad spots in what is an otherwise nearly perfectly paced episode.
It’s a shame that the payoff of all that perfect pacing was spoiled in the trailer for the episode, because the slow, deliberate unfolding of the mystery of 3W, the Nethersphere, and all those skeletons sitting in tanks of the so-called “dark water” was just incredible. I can only assume that the show creators were focusing on keeping the secret of Missy, and who she is, instead of the Cybermen. But it’s still a joy to watch the little clues add up: the logo in Seb’s office, the curiously shaped windows on the double doors in 3W, the slow drain of the dark water from around the skeletons, revealing the silver armor that encases them.
It’s interesting to note that the last time the Cybermen were the big threat of a season finale of Doctor Who, they also appeared to prey on humanity’s belief in an Afterlife. In “Army of Ghosts” the Doctor, again as a skeptic hero, had to uncover the mystery of what humanity was accepting as the ghosts of loved ones returned to them. It turned out to be the Cybermen then too. Believers really can’t catch a break with this show.
But the Cybermen aren’t the ultimate threat in the episode. The boss of 3W and the Nethersphere is Missy, who claimed to be a mere computer construct, but was lying; Missy, who has been watching the Doctor and Clara, who had quite the kiss with the Doctor in this episode, one that is sure to drive the shippers in the Who fandom crazy. Who is this mysterious Mary Poppins-like character? As many fans worked out, “Missy” is short for “Mistress.”
The Master has returned. And she’s a woman now.
This is probably the least interesting, but most satisfying answer to the mystery that the writers of the show could have given us. I was secretly hoping that “Missy” stood for “Miss C.” and was somehow a future Clara and the culmination of her dark character arc, but this was the answer I expected. Of course, the writers could be tricking us here. There’s still another whole episode of story left in this finale.
I’m okay with the Big Bad being the Master. By this point the Daleks are a joke, but the Master is a name that can still terrify the Doctor. Capaldi’s Doctor has not really come up against a foe that can stand toe-to-toe with him yet. Clara came closest at the start of this episode, which is why some part of me wanted her character to be carried the rest of the way, to full-fledged antagonist; wayward Companion would be a perfect arch-enemy for the Doctor, yet the Doctor was in total control of that situation in the end. The Master, however, is someone that actually did lock the Doctor out of his TARDIS once, stranding him at the end of the universe. He’s the Doctor’s true equal.
Or rather, she is.
The fact that Time Lords can regenerate into different sexes has come up several times in the past few seasons of the show. If we wanted to give the writers more credit than they deserve, it could almost be seen as leading up to this moment. (Though actually I’m pretty sure what they’re doing is preparing the audience for the day that the Doctor will played by a woman.) It does change the Doctor/Master relationship. That kiss takes on a very different meaning after the big reveal, as does Missy’s earlier claim that the Doctor is her “boyfriend.”
The next episode will wrap up the finale and the eighth season of Doctor Who. It has the ominous title “Death in Heaven.” What will become of Danny Pink? His death isn’t something that can be undone. Will he be “saved” like River Song was, a mind without a body? What will happen to the Doctor and Clara’s relationship after the dust settles? Is Missy really the Master, and will she survive the episode to harrow the Doctor across time and space once again? (And what are her plans for “her” Clara?)
While the worldview on display here does not offer much hope, and seems intent on turning everything to do with faith into an enemy to be defeated, there’s still a lot to love here. Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi turn in their best performances in the most dramatic scene between the characters yet, Rachel Talalay expertly directs both the fiery drama and the cold mystery of the episode, Michelle Gomez steals every scene she’s in as the first female incarnation of the Master, and the reveal of the “nightmares in silver” is pure gold. And if all that was just the set-up, I can’t wait to see what they have in store for the actual conclusion.
A few extra notes:
– Both Missy and the version of Clara Oswald from “The Snowmen” have had that Mary Poppins motif going for them. I wonder if there’s a connection.
– If the Nethersphere is Hell, then Seb seems to fit the role of a devil. He certainly plays the part of “accuser” to Danny Pink before leaving him to his despair in the end.
– Now that I know that Missy is the Master, that kiss is going to be reminding me of the parody “Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death,” which makes the scene even funnier.
– Does the Doctor even need a TARDIS key? Can’t he open it with the snap of his fingers?
– We still don’t know why the Doctor regenerated into this particular face. They made such a point of it in the premiere.
– “Death in Heaven” really is an ominous title. Is it too late to rename it “Nothing Bad Happens to Clara Oswald” ?
– General Content Warnings: fantasy action violence and mild language, which is typical for an episode of Who. Special to this episode: the way the show handles the death of loved ones, and the “Don’t cremate me” storyline has the potential to disturb viewers. Also, the Master appears to have changed genders, so the Doctor gets a serious kiss from a female character that has been male in the past.
+ Great performances by the actors
+ The slow reveal of what is actually going on
+ A satisfying revelation as to who Missy really is
+ Best dramatic scene of the season
+ Genuinely disturbing mystery (this one may double as a negative)
- The reveal of the enemy was spoiled by the trailer for the episode
- Missy revelation threatens to change a big relationship for the Doctor
- Another Doctor Who episode that presents spiritual things as horrific
- The way the Doctor one-ups Clara's power play is a bit of a let-down.