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Dark Water

Review by Paul Bowler

[Contains Spoilers]

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The finale begins… Somewhere, in the mysterious realm of the Nethersphere, a sinister plan has been devised. When the secret organisation known as 3W promises “death is not an end”, the Doctor and Clara must face the darkest day of all. Missy is about to meet the Doctor at last, soon an impossible choice has to be made, and it is during this blackest hour the Time Lord will confront his old enemies – the Cybermen!

Dark Water moves the action to the Nethersphere for the start of this two-part season finale, with a story written by show runner Steven Moffat, and directed by Rachel Talalay. This deeply unsettling and dark episode doesn’t pull any punches as Moffat’s grand design for series eight begins to fall into place, tackling concepts of heaven and the afterlife as the mystery of the “Promised Land” is revealed – delving with unflinching clarity into the chilling life-after-death experiences that await in Dark Water when someone dies.

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When Clara decides to phone Danny while he’s on his way to her flat, tragedy strikes, and Danny is struck by a car and killed. Some time later, while Clara’s Gran (Sheila Reid) is visiting her flat, the Doctor finally answers Clara’s telephone call. Hiding her grief, Clara deceives the Doctor to get the TARDIS to a volcanic world, before attempting to force the Doctor to help her change what happened and save Danny – throwing the TARDIS keys into the lava each time he refuses to comply. However, the sleep patches Clara believes she’d managed to subdue the Doctor with have actually been used by the Time Lord to send her into a dream-like state, one that allowed Clara’s grief stricken scenario to play out – albeit harmlessly inside the TARDIS console room – so the Doctor could see how exactly far she was prepared to go to save Danny.

Dark Water gets this two-part series finale off to a cracking start, with its harrowing opening scenes testing the Doctor’s and Clara’s friendship to breaking point. Peter Capaldi is magnificent as the 12th Doctor in this episode, he dominates every scene he’s in, and the sheer gravitas that Capaldi bring to his performance is utterly compelling. Jenna Coleman is also superb in Dark Water as Clara Oswald, whose role has now become so integral to the ongoing narrative of this eighth season, and this episode really rewards us with some major turning points for her character.

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Samuel Anderson also returns as Danny Pink in Dark Water, and his sudden demise in the opening moments initially leave you wondering if that’s his lot. Danny soon himself being welcomed to the unsettling realm of the Nethersphere, just like so many before him this series. Samuel Anderson gives his strongest performance yet as Danny Pink, his anguish at discovering he’s apparently dead, is heartrending to watch, and over the course of this episode we also discover the terrible tragedy that caused him to leave the army. Chris Addison (Peter Capaldi’s co-star from The Thick of it) is also excellent as Seb, a being who exists inside the Nethersphere as Missy’s assistant, and there are some terrific scenes between Seb and Danny as the real nature of this otherworldly realm is gradually revealed.

In a brilliantly scripted moment between the Doctor and Clara by Steven Moffat, were even treachery and betrayal fails to diminish their timeless bond of friendship, the Doctor resolves to help Clara bring Danny back from whatever hereafter might exist. With the navcom offline, the Doctor has Clara use the telepathic interface to locate Danny (just like she did in the episode Listen), which brings the TARDIS to a foreboding mausoleum, where the individual tombs contain seated skeletal corpses immersed in a clear fluid.

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On closer inspection, the Doctor and Clara discover the mausoleum is the 3W Institute, and following their initial encounter with Missy (Michelle Gomez), who pretends to be a multi-function interactive welcome-droid, they encounter Dr Chang (Andrew Leung) – using the psychic paper to establish the Doctor’s credentials in a way that humorously references Capaldi’s former well known role as the foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of it – who offers Clara the chance to talk to Danny Pink, via signals the institutes founder, Dr Skarosa, discovered in broadcast white noise signals that are believed to be telepathic messages from the recently departed. The horrific nature of Dr Chang’s and Seb’s claims, that the dead remain conscious and fully aware of everything that’s happening to them, provides a ghoulishly disturbing afterthought that takes this episode into some of the darkest territory that has been explored so far over this course of this series.

The Cybermen make a dramatic return in Dark Water. Ever since they made their first appearance in the 1st Doctor’s final story, The Tenth Planet (1966), the Cybermen have become one of the Time Lord’s deadliest enemies. The Cybermen have undergone several upgrades over the years. This latest version of the Cybermen, which debuted in Nightmare in Silver (2013), are sleek, fast, and have the ability to quickly adapt and repair themselves. In Dark Water the Cybermen are in league with Missy, and this time they have ingeniously hidden in plain sight. The skeletal bodies, which Dr Chang explained to the Doctor and Clara as being held in a support exoskeleton and suspended in a “Dark Water” solution that makes the exoskeleton invisible, are really the Cybermen – their metal bodies hidden because inorganic material cannot be seen in the liquid.

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Dark Water illustrates just how inhuman the Cybermen really are, perhaps more so than ever before, revealing how little organic mater actually remains within them to make the prospect of Cyber-Conversion seem even more grotesque, transcending the horrific loss of emotions and individuality, and taking the concept of body horror to the ultimate extreme as we realise how completely their victims humanity is stripped away.

The tombs seen in the 3W Institute are reminiscent of the Cybermen’s frozen tombs in the 2nd Doctor’s adventure, Tomb of the Cybermen (1967), and when the Cybermen are unleashed in Dark Water, director Rachel Talalay portrays a Cyber-Invasion that re-creates one of Doctor Who’s most iconic scenes from the 1968 story The Invasion, were the Cybermen also invaded London and marched past St Paul’s Cathedral. Impressive set designs, especially the doors and offices in both the Nethersphere and the 3W Institute, also carry subtle hints of Cyber-Design. Along with the chilling scenes with the skeletons in the tanks, the impressive visual effects also give us our first glimpse inside the Nethersphere itself as Danny contemplates the afterlife.

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Having established contact with the Nethersphere the Doctor leaves Clara to talk to Danny in the 3W Institutes office, having prompted her to question Danny to make sure that its really him she’s speaking too, while he goes with Dr Chang to investigate the tombs and finds that Missy is waiting for them. While a distraught Danny faces a fateful decision, one that will delete his pain and thereby all his emotions, Missy kills Chang and gives the command to drain the tanks and release the Cybermen. The Nethersphere is revealed to be a Gallifreyan Hard Drive that is actually contained within the 3W Institute itself, where the memories of the dead have been stored so their emotions can be removed before they are transplanted into the Cybermen in the tanks. The Doctor races outside where he is shocked to find himself standing outside St Paul’s Cathedral in present-day London. The Time Lord desperately tries to warn the civilians to flee the area as the Cybermen emerge, but there is one more surprise in store for the Doctor as Missy finally reveals her true identity…

Michelle Gomez gives a mesmerising performance as the villain known as Missy, or perhaps we should say Mistress… Yes, the big reveal of the identity of this mysterious Mary Poppin’s like character that has been welcoming the recently deceased to the Promised Land (one of the many names the Nethersphere is known by) over the course of this season, finally happens in Dark Water. Missy is The Master, the renegade Time Lord and arch enemy of the Doctor! Now the Master is back, as a new female version of the classic villain, having forged a frightening alliance with the Cybermen that will take advantage of mankind’s biggest weakness – the fact that the dead outnumber the living – to strike against humanity in the most horrific way imaginable. The Master’s love of disguises is also utilised in this story, when Missy pretends to be a multi-function interactive welcome-droid, and she even kisses the Doctor at one point!

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Michelle Gomez and Peter Capaldi both give incredible performances in Dark Water, the chemistry between them is brilliant, and this episodes cliff-hanger sets up a fittingly epic confrontation between the Time Lord and Time Lady that is sure to keep us on the edge of our seats. With its dark themes, excellent performances all round, great story by Steven Moffat, and taut direction by Rachel Talalay, the first instalment of this two-part series finale is an exciting and thought provoking episode. Dark Water certainly lives up to all the hype, it was great to see the Cybermen return to the series in a more prominent role as well, and I look forward to discovering the full extent of the Master’s grand plan in the concluding part of the series eight finale: Death in Heaven.

Images Belong BBC