Dark Water

Story No. 273 Don't cremate me!
Production Code Series 8, Episode 11
Dates November 1, 2014

With Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman
Written by Steven Moffat Directed by Rachel Talalay
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: Clara forces the Doctor to take the TARDIS to the Nethersphere.


"How may I assist you with your death?" by Donna Bratley 1/5/18

There's often a difference in quality between the halves of two-parters which makes them easier to review separately but anything that followed Dark Water would struggle.

This is Doctor Who at its finest. It's a sensational set-up piece: provocative, disturbing, with great dialogue, wicked humour and a slew of shocks along the way.

The first kicks in before the opening credits. I've never been convinced by Clara's great love affair - never felt she was either - yet its end is still shocking. Kudos to Steven Moffat for weaving an everyday human tragedy into the Doctor's fantastical world and giving it the impact being zapped by a Cyberman might lack.

Given how unconvincing Clara and Danny were as long-term lovers, her near-derangement at his loss doesn't sit well. Perhaps there's an element of guilt over her former conduct in her obsessive determination to be with him again no matter what, but the implied threat of suicide doesn't feel like Clara, no matter how hard Jenna Coleman sells it. At the same time, the idea of a woman who's survived all the terrors of the universe finding his death unbearable for being so mundane - so "boring" - fits completely.

Coleman is possibly the finest actress to date in the regular companion's role, and that's just as well when she has to hold her own against an actor of Peter Capaldi's charisma. Their first scenes together as Clara apparently resorts to the most desperate act of blackmail are absolutely sensational, and if it seems odd that Clara forgets the snap-of-the-fingers trick to negate the loss of the TARDIS keys - well, I didn't think of that on first viewing. Her desperation and his defiance are brilliantly portrayed - irresistible force running slap-bang into immovable object. Follow it up with her emotional collapse alongside his brusque kindness, and it's a masterclass on both sides.

As for that apparent oversight on the writer's part - looking back, wasn't it a clue that things were not entirely as they seemed?

Snapped back to reality, Clara takes the Doctor's quiet "Go to hell" exactly as she knows she deserves. Perhaps it was harsh to let her play out her scenario to the end, but, given this incarnation's ferocious, forensic curiosity, it's understandable. As it leads to the most perfect definition of the Doctor's devotion to his friends, it's eminently forgivable too.

It's clear though how cruelly Clara still misjudges him. If she'd had the sense to simply ask for his help, would he have denied it? Obviously - no.

Intercutting Danny's experiences (it's a pity Chris Addison doesn't get to bring Seb into contact with the Twelfth Doctor - I love The Thick Of It) of the Nethersphere with his rescue committee's visit to 3W keeps the tension high, and Samuel Anderson is allowed his strongest showing, from struggling to accept the fact of his death to a desperate last "I love you" to save Clara from herself. Given the hints back at the start, the flashbacks to his army experience aren't particularly surprising, but they retain the power to shock. For one of our heroes to kill a child, even in error, is strong stuff.

As is the secret behind the three words. In an age where cremation is the norm, I understand why the BBC chose to caution before broadcast - and why Doctor Chang repeats the warning in dialogue. Contrasted with humour - the Doctor's complete obliviousness over dark water's potential in swimming pools and Clara's words of warning when he dares to speak for her - it's classic Doctor Who with a particularly macabre twist. The Doctor's quick to dismiss the whole thing as a repulsive scam, but, even so, the concept is unnerving. I can understand anyone with a recent loss on their minds being upset by it.

No less alarming is the demonic Mary Poppins herself. I hoped all along that the obvious answer wouldn't be the correct one - the feminine version of Master was staring us in the face - but, in spite of myself, I can't help loving Michelle Gomez's character. The odd snippet as the series progressed didn't give her much to work with, but here she's positively demented, in a very good way. Amoral as much as evil - killing her own assistant gives her neither pause nor apparent pleasure - and utterly hilarious with her maladjusted intimacy settings (the look of pure horror on the Doctor's face combined with Clara's stunned expression sells it brilliantly), she's right, of course. The Doctor knows he's dealing with a fellow Time Lord: he just doesn't want to contemplate what that might mean. Why else would he stand there gawping, hand still raised, if he hadn't identified the two hearts?

The whole gender-switch still feels like a gimmick: a decision made to cause a stir rather than for any specific narrative benefit. However, I'd always want the best person to play any role, and Michelle Gomez belts it out of the park from the off. Her rapport with Capaldi is superb (honestly, is there anyone who doesn't look good alongside him?); she's bonkers, deadly, and she doesn't care who knows it. Despite my reservations, the reveal was a good old-fashioned goosebump moment, with her glee and the Doctor's utter disbelieving terror perfectly sold. Add in Cybermen marching down the steps of St Pauls... what more can anybody want?

I'm not a fan of the modern Cybermen: they're too clunky and robotic, lacking the body-horror of the originals. If we have to have them though, this is the way to use them: the slow reveal as the tanks drain, then the appearance in an iconic location. It's unfortunate their presence had to be in the public domain in advance but in the age of smartphone and social media, any attempt at concealment would have backfired and made the BBC look ridiculous.

They're also a great note to end the first part on. With the Doctor confronted by a dual threat, Clara trapped in Cyber-central, Danny's finger hovering over a button marked "Delete" and Missy's plan becoming clearer, Steven Moffat has - not for the first time - produced a stunning set-up for his series finale and a fantastic 45 minutes of television in its own right.

Death and Afterlife by Niall Jones 28/12/22

Conventional wisdom says that Steven Moffat is a plot-driven writer. A new series by him comes with the guarantee of complex storylines and jaw-dropping twists. This is largely true and has been confirmed numerous times in Doctor Who, from the creative ambition of Blink to the structure of Series 6, which begins with its finale. By the end of Series 7, however, this approach was running into difficulty. With too many plot threads left dangling, its final episodes -- Day of the Doctor notwithstanding -- ended up feeling overstuffed and sprawling.

Moffat's approach to Series 8 is, however, very different. While Dark Water, the first half of its finale, is as intricately plotted as anything from the series preceding it, it is fundamentally interested in character and, in particular, the relationship between Clara and the Doctor.

The event that sets the plot into motion is the death of Clara's long-suffering boyfriend, Danny Pink. What makes his death so shocking isn't just that it happens so close to the beginning of the episode, but also that it is so mundane. When a character dies in Doctor Who, they usually do so in a heroic manner, facing down Daleks or battling Cybermen. Their death usually achieves something. This isn't the case for Danny. Instead, he is knocked down by a car while crossing the road, the shock of the everyday inserted into a science-fiction programme. Danny's death doesn't seem to have any meaning because it doesn't seem to link to anything else in the world of Doctor Who. Except it does. It links to Clara, and it matters because Danny matters to Clara.

Her initial response to his death is silence. The audience doesn't see Danny's body; instead, it sees the space where he was. Clara stands blankly in the road and the camera pans up to a blank sky. When her grandmother tries to comfort her, she stares with dry eyes and calls Danny's death boring: 'He was alive, and then he was dead, and it was nothing'. She seems alienated and depressed. The fact that she can't express her emotions reflects the depth of the blow and highlights that she's really not OK. It's a bold departure from the New Series' tendency to emphasise companions' strength. Here, Clara is allowed to be weak, vulnerable and unlikeable. Expressed through a typically compelling performance by Jenna Coleman, it makes Clara a more rounded and complex character.

The scene that follows is one of the most emotionally intense in all of Doctor Who. Knowing how it ends doesn't relieve the tension or make it any less moving. Clara asks the Doctor to take her to a volcano and then threatens him in order to convince him to bring Danny back from the dead, but the Doctor will not be threatened. The moment when Clara realises that she has gone too far, puts her quivering hand to her mouth and falls to her knees in tears, is intensely powerful. Although there is a twist, which removes the characters from this appropriately hellish landscape and neutralises Clara's threat, it cannot undo her betrayal. When the Doctor therefore asks, 'Do you think I care so little for you that betraying me would make a difference?', it is hugely cathartic. Clara's mistake was not believing that the Doctor would go to hell to save Danny if she asked.

In contrast to the fiery backdrop of this earlier scene, hell -- or perhaps heaven -- turns out to be a bit of a let-down. When Danny wakes up in the Nethersphere, he finds himself in a particularly colourless office, welcomed to the afterlife with an offer of coffee and then bombarded with bureaucracy. Greeting him is Seb, played by Chris Addison, a dryly funny but casually cruel character, whose condolences are anything but sincere. Addison is excellent in the role, and it's a shame that he never gets to share a scene with Peter Capaldi, his fellow The Thick of It alumnus.

The afterlife invites questions. Is it real? Can anyone there be believed? What are the mysterious skeletons entombed in the water tanks? The story is centred around questions, and it takes its time exploring them. The atmosphere is one of slow-burn dread. This is heightened by its sense of dramatic irony. There are a series of visual clues that pepper the episode that hint at what is really going on. By the time the doors slide shut behind the Doctor and Clara, the truth has become screamingly obvious to the audience, but the story's characters remain oblivious.

Given the extent to which it is concerned with death, it's not surprising that the tone of the episode is very dark in places. Particularly disturbing is the moment when Doctor Chang, who claims to run the 3W Institute, reveals that the dead remain conscious and experience the pain of cremation. The BBC received 118 complaints about this and responded by issuing a robust defence, noting that the episode provides an in-story warning that this revelation would be disturbing and, more importantly, that the Doctor rejects the claim as a con. While the BBC was right to defend the scene, there's no denying that it pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable in Doctor Who, and it's easy to understand why people who have recently lost loved ones would be upset by it. Interestingly, the idea of being conscious during cremation is one that Moffat would return to with gruesome effect in his and Mark Gatiss's 2020 adaptation of Dracula.

As with Deep Breath, the series' opener, which owes as much to Silence of the Lambs as it does to Sherlock Holmes, Dark Water's more macabre elements are leavened with humour. Particularly funny is Missy's introduction, where she greets the Doctor in an overly intimate way. His wide staring eyes and outstretched arms hilariously capture his shock, while Clara's question of 'tongues?' is suitably outrageous.

Despite its slow pace, which creates space for the episode to explore its world, Dark Water builds to a killer cliff-hanger, in which all the pieces fall satisfyingly into place and the story moves into a different gear. Compared with Death in Heaven, which follows, Dark Water has few characters, and they are introduced slowly into the story, with Missy only appearing halfway through. This emphasises the centrality of the Doctor and Clara's relationship and ensures that the story is always focused either on them or on Danny.

What Dark Water brilliantly illustrates is Doctor Who's ability to deal with serious emotional themes. Its exploration of grief is deeply powerful, but it never overwhelms the story. Dark Water is profound, but it is also tense, funny and exciting, like all the best Doctor Who.