It’s fitting that there’s so much talk of “missing the headline” in this episode of Doctor Who, because it’s really difficult to know where to start when talking about it. What’s the big news here, the big takeaway? It’s an embarrassment of riches, but I suspect in the long-term the most significant moment is Missy’s true identity.
Is the fact that “Missy” is the Master really a shock? Not at all – many had speculated as such, to the point where I’d say it was probably the most popular theory (Missy = Mistress, and all that). It was so obvious in fact that I almost thought Moffat wouldn’t go there, but he did – and it’s certainly big news, having the Doctor’s most personal adversary back. It means, too, that the Doctor is no longer the last of his species – which changes everything about his character arc on the most fundamental level.
Even that, though, takes a back seat to what I think is the headline – regenerational gender-switching is possible. This could be taken as a shot across the bow of those who’ve been whinging on about how the Doctor should be played by a woman, but I don’t think it’s intended that way. And I think this makes it inevitable that will happen, possibly (probably?) in the next regeneration. Moffat loves to blow up what’s traditional about Doctor Who and recast it in his own image, so one suspects he’s probably pleased as punch about this, though who knows – maybe even he has his limits and he’s being dragged into this kicking and screaming. I personally think it’s rather silly to take any issue with the notion that the Doctor is simply male – the character is a man, and there’s nothing sexist about that. But nobody asked me…
In any event, “Dark Water” is certainly a humdinger of an episode, and a creepy one too. Moffat, as we know, loves to pick away at the scabs of human primal fears and there’s no fear more primal than death. He has a talent for this, no question, and he’s cooked up a doozy here: sure, there’s an afterlife. But you continue to feel everything that’s happening to your body back in your old life, up to and including cremation and medical experimentation. Sweet dreams, everyone.
We’ve seen this premise teased all season, of course, but the vehicle to explore it here is the death of Danny Pink – run down by a car just after Clara has told him she loves him and “she’ll never say those words to anyone else again”. That includes the Doctor, of course, and Clara promptly cooks up a rather preposterous scheme to blackmail him into zipping back in Danny’s timeline and saving him. That was never going to work, but it’s certainly an eye-opening moment in their relationship, and how much each of them thinks of the other. When Clara says she doesn’t deserve a friend like the Doctor, I was certainly in full agreement. But then, that could just as easily apply to the human race as a whole – as could the Doctor’s rather poignant “Do you really believe I have so little regard for you that I’d abandon you just because you betrayed me?” Go to Hell, indeed.
“Hell” in this instance is 3W, the afterlife we’ve seen Missy and Seb cavorting about in all season. And what does 3W stand for? Three little words, and chilling ones at that – “Don’t cremate me”. I don’t know how seriously we’re supposed to take this version of the afterlife given that it’s all part of the Mistress’ plan, but it does seem as if she’s genuinely taking dead humans’ minds, deleting their emotions and plugging them into Cyberman bodies. “What is the Achilles’ hell of the human race?” she teases the Doctor (well – how much time have you got?). “The dead outnumber the living.”
In any event, it was certainly a blast seeing Cybermen walk down the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral again, 46 years later (as they did in the Troughton classic, “The Invasion”). And Missy Frenching the Doctor certainly casts their complicated relationship in a new light. Speaking of complicated, there’s also the matter of Clara and Danny – who’s met an Afghani boy he apparently killed, had a painful conversation from beyond with Clara (his poor memory may be foreshadowing something), and been given the option to click an IPad button by Seb (“IPads? We have Steve Jobs!”) to delete his emotions.
Where does this go from here? I’ve made my views clear – there is nowhere for the Doctor and Clara to go from here. Not only are they at an impasse in dramatic terms, but she’s laid her cards on the table. I for one do not want to see the Doctor reduced to being Clara’s getaway weekend when the stresses of life with Danny get her down, and I’m tired of him being a supporting character in his own series (especially as Capaldi is probably the finest actor we’ve ever had in the part). Moffat is sometimes guilty of trying to have his cake and eat it too, and I fear he may do that here, but I sincerely hope he has the courage to cut the cord – certainly no later than in the Christmas special, if not next week.
In purely dramatic terms, “Dark Water” certainly works brilliantly – both as a stand-alone and a cliffhanger for next week (more like three of them, technically). But more significant is that I think it represents a watershed moment for Doctor Who, and it’s already changed the game in ways I’m not entirely pleased about. That’s for the long-term, but the near-future of the series is still to be decided, and next week’s finale is going to tell the tale of what that looks like in a major way.