Monday, 8 December 2014

Dark Water written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay

This story in a nutshell: The Doctor takes Clara to the technological equivalent of hell to save Danny...

Indefinable: Since when was popping off to Hell an option for the Doctor? Capaldi plays the scene when the Doctor learns about Danny's death perfectly, not reacting in the slightest. The moment when the Doctor reveals how much he cares about Clara gives me goosebumps all over - that is the sort of pay off that an entire season of an estranged friendship deserves. The Doctor and Clara have had a hard time adjusting to one another, they have almost split from each other completely when their approaches to time travel clashed dramatically and they have certainly disapproved of each others' lifestyles. At times you have had to wonder whether they like each other at all. In a moment of crystal clarity you realise the depth of feeling between the two of them in a moment worthy of Moffat's predecessor. It's gorgeous. And before it gets too cloying, Moffat pulls back and allows the Doctor to insult his friend immediately after offering his kindest gesture to her. The Doctor's reaction to Missy's identity mirrored my own; absolutely shock and horror. Suddenly the episode takes on a whole new meaning. There is real potential in the relationship between the two of them. Not only are Capaldi and Gomez terrific performers, there is definitely a spark of something special between them (the aggressive, abrasive Time Lord and the flirty, sadistic villainess). This could be a rivalry to watch.

Impossible Girl: I finally got my wish with Clara. She has finally been thrust into a situation of which she has absolutely no control over and where her whole life has been turned upside down in a devastating way. That carefree, smug, unshakeable Clara has most definitely left the building and what is left in its place is a shell of a person that is trying (and failing) to deal with the grief of losing the man she loves. It's an unusually bold step for a writer on this show to make, to put a companion through this kind of turmoil and follow through on the emotional consequences (Victoria, Adric and Tegan also lost loved ones but seemed to get over it in record time - certainly in time to not affect the excitement of the next episode). Clara is in hell, so it seems quite appropriate that she should end up there. Painfully she gives Danny the most precious words that you can just as he steps out into the road and loses his life - it feels as though Moffat is being deliberately perverse to a character that he has championed for the last couple of years. Who cares, it makes great drama. Calling Danny's death boring and ordinary makes perfect sense to somebody who has seen the things she has but to an outsider it might seem that she is heartless. How lovely it is to see Clara's Gran back again, Sheila Reid has makes quite an impression in the few minutes screen time she has and grounds Clara in a way that Moffat rarely achieves. I'd like to see more of her. Clara is so enraged with guilt that she is willing to cut the Doctor off from the TARDIS for good. She's not thinking, she's consumed with guilt and anger and hitting out at the one person she loves. I wish it had played out for real (because it shows a rare intensity and depth between the Doctor and a companion the likes of which I haven't seen since the departures of Amy and Donna). When people are grieving they act out and they push the people they love on the road to acceptance - look at Clara's face when she realises what she has done to the Doctor. This is not the actions of somebody in control of their faculties.

Mr Pink: At last Danny has a reason to be a dour, funless bore - he's been smacked by a car and woken up in the afterlife. That'll put a crimp in anyone's day. One of my biggest issues with Dark Water is Moffat's choice of victim. It has been very hard to give a damn about Danny throughout the season because he has more often than not been portrayed as a right sourpuss, cramping the Doctor's style, dragging his assistant away from fun adventures for lunches in the park and games of scrabble at night and generally pooh-poohing the chance to travel through time and space. He's just not my kind of man. He's got both feet firmly placed in reality and he doesn't want to broaden his horizons. His relationship with Clara hasn't exactly been thrill a minute either. Say what you will about Amy and Rory (and boy did I) but at least they were seen to have fun together and enjoy the moments between either one of them being murdered for the umpteenth time. Clara and Danny's life together seems to consist of their work and dreary evenings at home discussing their work. Frankly the best thing I can imagine happening is Danny being put out of the way so that Clara can sever her ties back home and embrace the life of a time traveller full time. Obviously Danny being killed is a shocking moment but I was immediately thinking of how the show would benefit from such an act, which probably wasn't the effect Moffat was going for. Killing off a character that a portion of the audience hasn't warmed to has potential by putting them in the uncomfortable position of sympathising with somebody they don't like but that isn't the route that Moffat takes because the emphasis is almost entirely on Clara (of course it is, it is practically her show by now). Imagine for a moment that Dark Water was the penultimate episode of season four and it were Wilf who was knocked over by the car. Imagine the effect on the audience that that would have had (I have rarely met anybody who didn't love Wilf). With Danny it is the Adric effect all over again - bumping off a character that hasn't really made a great impact on the show.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Time can be rewritten' 'With precision. With great care.'
'Do you think that I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?'
'You have IPads in the afterlife?' 'IPads? We have Steve Jobs!' - absolutely tasteless but it's nice to see Moffat making a bold stab at black humour.

The Good:

* The pre-credits sequence has a disquieting air to it throughout, even before the absolute silence when Danny is killed. The image of Clara standing in the middle of the road as the cars roll silently by, trapped in her own morbid delirium pretty much sums up the numbing effect of the first five minutes of Dark Water. It is a brave and uncompromising way to begin in episode, killing off one of your three leads without any fanfare whatsoever and leaving the audience to cope with the news. It's the polar opposite of all those epic 'let's throw everything in but the kitchen sink' pre credits that Moffat was so fond of in the Matt Smith era (see The Time of Angels, The Pandorica Opens, The Impossible Astronaut, Day of the Moon, A Good Man Goes to War, The Wedding of River Song, Asylum of the Daleks); it is focused, intense and loaded with character. This is the sort of Doctor Who I have been expecting from Moffat since he took over. Not clever clever, just smart. 
* I love the fact that an entire CGI landscape (and a pretty interesting looking one as well) is created simply to show that the Doctor is off having adventures without Clara when she phones him. Kudos on creating a volcanic scene as well without using any stock footage (it's a clever mix of CGI, smoke and lighting and feels very old school). The astonishing production values keep on delivering and perhaps the most winding moment of the entire episode comes when Danny looks through a porthole out onto the metropolis spectacle of the Neversphere. The 360 degrees view of the technological Time Lord hole disorients and is best viewed in the dark for maximum effect (accompanied by a super vocal score). Topping off an episode of opposing settings is the flashback to Afghanistan, with it's bleached out colours and dry atmosphere. A step into real world horrors, expertly realised.
* Was I the only person who got a Necros vibe from the Doctor and Clara visiting the Neversphere? The recently departed being taken care of by an organisation that advertises their services. If Capaldi is a riff on Sixie (some would say he is Sixie done right and others would say he is an extension of what has already been trialled in the eighties) and Clara is Peri (argumentative, independent and bizarrely similar looking in places) then it seems appropriate that at the end of their first season they should visit somewhere that is devoted to taking care of the dead (with something sinister going on beneath the surface). If you squint hard enough you can see Sixie and Peri during those initial scenes of the Doctor and Clara exploring the cathedral-like corridors of the Neversphere. I love these moments of the Doctor and his assistant landing somewhere and investigating - it doesn't happen often enough in the new series and is pulled off with a real sense of dread and unsettlement here. 
* What a courageous choice it was to have a flashback to Danny's life in the army, bringing the audience up close and personal with the moment where he took a little boy's life in error. Suddenly the science fiction is stripped away and this terrifyingly real for an instant. Following that up with the reunion with Danny and the boy he killed is one of those scenes where you almost have to pause to take in the implications. You have the chance to talk to innocent child you shot to death in the madness of war. For Doctor Who to even attempt to go here (and it is only an attempt because Moffat doesn't quite have the chops to script the conversation between them where I feel Davies would have known exactly what to say) is dipping its toes in new waters. 
* 'Don't cremate me' A concept so disturbing that Moffat had to pre-warn the audience before it was dumped on them. As much as this is billed as a family show for all ages a large portion of Doctor Who's audience is made up of children. Imagine a seven year old having just lost an uncle or grandparent watching this episode and being introduced to the concept that when they were cremated they were fully conscious of the experience of being burnt alive and begging the family to stop. And breathe. That's a dark place to go. Personally, I love it when the show dares to dig this deep into the pits of despair but I can fully appreciate if parents found this distressing concept a step too far. This is the second time in as many weeks that the series has left a lingering impression with me that I was thinking about for days afterwards (Flatline also had that effect, I found the ideas expanding my mind). Amazing how three words can have such a profound effect. Great stuff.
* 'This is impossible, the dead don't come back...' I think you might have forgotten all of your experiences with the Cybermen, Doctor. They have always been portrayed as the walking dead so they were the natural baddie to bring back for this story. What frustrated me at the climax of this story was how and why they tied into the actual story. They just seemed to be dumped there for impact. 'Upload the mind, upgrade the body...' Interesting hints for the next episode.
* The Master has regenerated into a woman. This is either genius at work or Moffat has finally lost his mind. Let's find out in the next episode.

The Bad:
* Wouldn't Clara have heard Danny being hit by a car? Wouldn't he scream? Wouldn't there be blood? Surely the Doctor doesn't need the keys since he has been seen opening the doors with a click of his fingers?
* I don't like all of the cheats that Moffat pulls off in this episode, like a magician who shows you a trick and then reveals that it was all a con in the first place. Danny Pink is dead (shock horror)...oh no wait he's alive again in some industrial afterlife. Clara has thrown all the TARDIS keys into the heart of an active volcano (shock horror)...oh no wait it was a memory patch illusion created by the Doctor to what she is up to. The Doctor is going to cross the barrier between the living and the dead and step foot into the afterlife (shock horror)...oh no wait it is a piece of Time Lord technology that traps departing souls and holds them until they are ready to be implanted into Cybermen. It's a shame because these moments in the first fifteen minutes are about as gripping as Doctor Who has been in the past four seasons and to have them revealed to be cheats guts them of a lot of their worth. There is nothing more irritating than a writer pretending to be bold and fearless.
* Moffat cannot resist putting a little sex in, can he? The thought of the Master snogging the Doctor's face off is a little disturbing. Isn't it a tad sexist to suggest that because the Master is suddenly a woman that she suddenly wants to jump the Doctor's bones?
* What is the purpose of the dark water beyond hiding the surprise reveal of the Cybermen?
* The cliffhanger should have been just a few seconds earlier when the camera disappeared up the Cybermen's eye. Who gives a damn if Danny presses the button?

Result: We Doctor Who fans are a fickle bunch. We like the familiar as much as we profess to enjoy the show pushing the envelope. The reaction to Dark Water was near complete critical acclaim and I can accredit that to three familiar Doctor Who staples; the return of the Cybermen, the return of the Master and the return of two parters. Don't get me wrong there is a great deal more than that to recommend Dark Water but that triple whammy of surprises in the last ten minutes left most fans in a sticky mess, fangasming over the return of the status quo. Whilst I found a great deal of this episode powerful in its implications, it was also a little too static and cerebral to pass as the lead in to a season finale. I have massive respect for Steven Moffat for attempting to push the envelope as much as he does here; killing off a regular character in such a mundane way, exploring the horror of a companion struggling with grief, the horrific implications of 3W and the dead who have been cremated, the new guise of the Master, the flashbacks to Danny's time in Afghanistan...if his intent was to make the audience sit up and pay attention by taking the show where it had rarely dared to go before then he succeeded admirably. For the most part Dark Water ticks over a lot like Listen earlier in the season, Moffat returning to his horror roots with the show and doing some dark and intelligent things with it. The trouble is this is also the penultimate episode of the season and as such it lacks the sort of showmanship that Davies projected, taking the show to a precipice and wondering how on Earth the show would drag itself back. Moffat writes a twisted piece of science fiction that wants to be quiet and affecting but in the last five minutes he has turn it into a noisy blockbuster because it is the lead in to the final episode of the year. Dark Water lurches into cliffhanger mode, Cybermen inexplicably stepping onto the streets of London and the taking the story into The Invasion territory. It is such an unnatural wrench it gave me narrative whiplash. A lot of this rides on the finale and whether this distraction from the exploration of death was worth it. There are other concerns; Danny death isn't as affecting as it might be because he hasn't enamoured himself to the audience greatly, the dark water is pointless and serves only to hide the Cybermen from view and Moffat cheats on a lot of his promises throughout. Countering that are more strengths; the whole piece looks amazing and features very strong direction courtesy of newcomer Rachel Talalay, the performances are out of this world (particularly Capaldi and Coleman) and the reveal of the Master was a genuine surprise for me (and the implications of that are very interesting). On balance I really enjoyed this for it's courageousness but there were enough flaws to hold it back from being as perfect as everybody is making out. Interestingly I think this would work even better as a standalone episode that didn't have to prop up the climax of the season: 8/10


Christopher "Peaky" Brown said...

A very interesting review even when we disagree, as always. Regarding the Master kissing the Doctor though: come on, think about it...the Doctor's constant inability to kill his former friend...the Master's pathetic obsession with the Doctor, his/her seeming lack of any credible motivation...his utter lack of thought about the endpoint of his the Magna Carta? Dressing up as a racist caricature wizard? Standing around in a scarecrow for months? Kidnapping the Doctor's companions for himself?

The Doctor and the Master were lovers. Of course they were. What else could possibly explain the Master's behavior throughout the course of the series other than being a jealous ex??? Nothing! It's both a fantastic, giddy joke sure to p*ss the fanboys off *and* a brilliant (if obvious) inference into character psychology! I would have put in a throwaway confirmation in a Who script in my hopeful future career if no one else had, and Moffat went ahead and did me better! Hooray :D

David Hancock said...

I'm with Christopher. It was an obvious background to their relationship. Although I'd be more inclined to suggest that it's one of unrequited love - the Master loves the Doctor, but the Doc simply sees him/her as a friend.

In Deep Breath, Missy called the Doctor her "boyfriend" and way back in Ghost Light, the Doc listed unrequited love as one of his hates.

It's been a doomed romance from the Master's very earliest appearances - why else did he go after an exiled Doctor at all when he could have conquered half the universe while the Doctor was trapped on Earth and unable to stop him?