Doctor Who Season 8, Episode 11 “Dark Water”
Directed by Rachel Talalay
Written by Steven Moffat
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Samuel Anderson, Michelle Gomez
Air Date: Saturday, November 1, 2014
What a difference a week can make, or a writer can make. After coming through an episode like “In The Forest Of The Night,” where everything felt like it was on unsure ground in terms of character and motivation, here we are on bedrock once again. Odd bedrock it is, however. The blows come fast and furious: first there is a death, then a betrayal, and then a mystery. Finally, the little snippets of the Missy story that we’ve seen make sense, and we know who Missy is.
Now whether you like what you see in this episode comes down, as it often does, to whether you like Steven Moffat‘s brand of storytelling on Doctor Who. In his favor, the trademark cleverness is here, and the economical knack for character. We definitely now understand how the crumb trail was left for us, the audience, across the season. The condensed plotting and the penchant for odd ideas that drive parts of the audience nuts are present here too.
The notion of afterlife is such an odd one for the series to take on — there have been story worlds where literary characters live, and dream worlds populated by supposed Toymakers and Dream Lords, but there has never strictly been a cosmically ordered life after death. The death of a recurring character at the start of the episode is so sudden that it feels rather flip. Finally, the episode ends on a bit of a messy cliffhanger. It could be the start of something great, or a jumbled mess. We need another week to know the whole picture.
So where should I even begin? Let’s talk about what Moffat has done for the future of the show with this episode first. I chided Mr. Moffat on GoD last December for how he handled the question of making the Doctor a woman. That’s a topic that’s been floating around since at least 1980, when Tom Baker and John Nathan-Turner agreed to let an “offhand” remark slip for publicity about who next got to play the Doctor, “whoever he or she is.” Being the Britain of Thatcher, I’m not sure how seriously the idea was taken. Certainly, Doctor Who Magazine gave it some ink but the tone sounds obviously sexist 30-plus years on; if all you can say about turning the Doctor from a man to a woman is “all the buttons on the Doctor’s wardrobe will need to be reversed,” that’s missing the point of the change in a big way.
Fast forward to 2013 and fans are definitely serious about the idea, some going so far as to suggest Helen Mirren for role. Mr. Moffat ignores that choice, and says so in a way that likely wins him no fans among those who already criticize the way he writes for women. Now a year later, he does something that is a serious concession to the idea: we have a concrete example of a Time Lord regenerating into a Time Lady. Some still could call it a consolation prize or token gesture (and it very well could be, only time will tell), but like putting Geraldine Ferraro on the Vice Presidential ticket in 1984, it does break new ground. There is now no reason at all preventing the next person to play the Doctor from being a woman. Period.
If that revelation is a strength, let us look at a weakness in the story: it’s got the Cybermen. It’s been nearly 50 years since they were introduced in 1966, and they are a muddled mess. To see why I say that, one only need compare them to a recurring monster that’s been around only slightly longer: the Daleks. You could take a Dalek from their original appearance in 1963 and put it in an episode this season (something that fans frankly hoped for in “Asylum of the Daleks” in 2012) and it would not be out of place. I don’t think that’s simply because the original Shawcraft-constructed props were reused by the original series in some shape or form until the 1980s. The look and the idea of a Dalek is more or less a fixed (and opposite) pole in Doctor Who.
Neither of those things is true for the Cybermen. Introduced in “The Tenth Planet” in 1966, they originally were human-like creatures from the planet Mondas, a twin of the planet Earth from our solar system. They were unknown to human history because they fitted their planet with a propulsion system to explore the Universe and changed from human to Cybermen in the process. They were supposed to return to visit Earth in 1986. Since then, it’s been nothing but retcon and costume change. Are they cyborgs or purely robotic? As a species, they’re mostly the former, but sometimes referred to as the latter. Where are they from? Well, they originally were from the planet Mondas, but then they have a home with tombs on the planet Telos, a planet later retconned to be an adopted home stolen from the Cryons.
In the revived series, they are from Earth in a parallel universe, but get loose fighting a war with a human galactic empire. Their look constantly changes, so a Cyberman in 1986 looks little like one from 1966 or 1968. This makes for all sorts of convoluted fan gymnastics when Cybermen covertly come to Earth from Telos in the 1986 season to prevent the failure of the Mondas attack (thus changing a huge chunk of their own past), and they look neither like the Cybermen from Mondas in 1966 nor Telos in 1967. The revived series tried to fix this by giving them a new, clean back story in “Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel” in 2006, but they’ve drifted a bit in look and concept since then. Some things never change.
So, we have a Time Lord that’s turned into a Time Lady, a memorable cyborg monster that’s changed to meet the whims of the writers and the prop department as necessary, and an exploration of the afterlife for a recurring character on the show. Put simply like that, it possibly sounds like a bad B-movie. Yet, it seems to hang together. It’s confidently written by Steven Moffat and capably directed by Tank Girl director Rachel Talalay.
It’s about ten minutes of tragedy, ten minutes of desperate betrayal drama, and twenty minutes of mystery. Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Samuel Anderson, and Michelle Gomez seem to take each of those changes in stride. It even recreates one of the iconic images of the show’s 1960’s history (“The Invasion”) with Cybermen marching in central London.
Is it really mess or masterpiece? I don’t know. It’s an impossible story that hints further at the back story of Clara Oswald, the Impossible Girl. This is very much a story in its middle right now, that doesn’t break very well into a self-contained episode. It will all depend on how these plot threads come together. We will know more next week.