Bold and emotionally brutal, 'Dark Water' is Doctor Who at its most iconoclastic.
|She's known as the Mistress - universally.|
‘We’re going to hell.’
A week away from Remembrance Day, exploring the guilt and self-loathing of an ex-soldier, namely our own Danny Pink, over accidentally killing a child in the Middle East is… I don’t know. Brave, certainly, and the most mature and serious Doctor Who has ever been, but as I watched ‘Dark Water’ unfold, I had the nagging feeling that this storyline might be a step too far into the real world for the Doctor. (And you can guarantee the Daily Mail will think so).
I’m not sure if it’s in bad taste or not. What would have happened if it’d been revealed in ‘Day of the Daleks’ (1972) that Captain Yates or Sergeant Benton had shot innocent civilians in Northern Ireland? ‘Day’ is a story about terrorism, but the inclusion of material that you could see on news bulletins from the Falls Road in Belfast would have completely overwhelmed the story, not to mention generated a flood of complaints. I’m all for Doctor Who tackling mature themes – as it has this year, to great and ground-breaking effect – but is Danny Pink’s journey just too raw and too emotive for the series to hold, even with all the innovations it’s embraced in 2014? The scenes of Danny in a fire-fight are as convincing as the authentic battle sequences in The Hurt Locker (2008). Doctor Who is supposed to be fantasy… I don’t know. Maybe I’m just not broad-minded enough.
And the fantasy on display here is ‘absolutely vintage stuff’ (‘Carnival of Monsters’, 1973). On the point of death, people throughout history – including the Half-Face Man, an anti-Dalek trooper and a beat copper from Coal Hill – are uploaded to the Nethersphere (somehow), cruelly tricked into surrendering their identities and their bodies are cryogenically stored, until they can be reanimated as ‘Cybermen from cyberspace’. As schemes by the Master go, it’s as ‘vicious, complicated and inefficient’ (‘Terror of the Autons’, 1971) as any he/she’s come up with in the past.
‘I couldn’t keep calling myself the Master, now could I?’
So, the Master is now a woman. I love her new contemporary sounding catchphrase ‘keep up,’ as in my blog on 27 September I speculated that ‘Missy’ was short for Mistress, which is exactly what she tells the Doctor here. Does changing a Time Lord’s sex work? Undoubtedly. The fabulous Michelle Gomez pitches her performance somewhere between Eric Roberts (the fourth Master) and John Simm (the sixth), but immediately makes the part her own, a playful eccentric who enjoys role playing – the MD of W3, a helpful android – which is consistent with the character’s past. The scene where the Mistress toys with Dr Chang (Andrew Leung), as if she’s slowly pulling the wings off a fly, is quintessential Master game-play. The new gender twist is that she violently kisses the Doctor – what does that say about ‘her’ psychology?
I can’t help feeling that there will be a minority of people out there who, even though they can accept the idea of an alien changing his face, won’t be able to accept one who changes sex too. Absurd if you think about it.
And for Gawd’s sake, please don’t kill the Mistress off next week!
Director Rachel Talalay creates a brooding, gloomy atmosphere from the get go, the scene between Clara and the Doctor by the volcano a clever visual metaphor for the emotional hell she’s in. Despite my mixed feelings about it, Danny’s contentious storyline is handled with sensitivity and credibility. Visually, Talalay picks up on this series’ surrealist aesthetic and delivers a parade of never-to-be-forgotten moments – skeletons turning into Cybermen, the idea that the dead are conscious when they’re cremated, Chris Addison’s officious civil servant in the afterlife. Dr Chang is a weak spot: he might as well have been called Basil Exposition, as he has no other function than explaining ‘dark water’ (the solution that keeps bodies fresh) to the Doctor and Clara, a noticeable lapse in the storytelling that the actors and Talalay do their best to remedy. By contrast, I admire Steven Moffat’s courage in making Danny’s storyline the cliffhanger into the final episode. Grown up drama, that is.
The Doctor and Clara – and Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman – have come a long way since ‘Deep Breath’. They’re at the point where she can still be surprised by his deceit and the loyalty under his ‘social brutalism’ (copyright Steve O’Brien, 2014), while he will do anything for his grieving friend, even if it means literally going to hell. One of the stand-out moments of the year, is when Clara tells her Gran (the wonderful if underused Sheila Reid) that Danny’s death was so ‘ordinary’. The Doctor’s horror when he realises who Missy really is, is equally well played.
One of the best episodes of the year, ‘Dark Water’ is fast, furious and as black as a Cyberman’s eyes but, I have to say, does have a slightly uncomfortable after taste.