Doctor Who Recap: “Dark Water”

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Steven Moffat previously teased a “proper scary” season finale, and it would seem he’s going to deliver. “This will be disturbing,” Dr. Chang warns Clara and the Doctor before letting them in on one of the big secrets of the afterlife—but it’s a warning for the audience, too. This episode plays off one the most universal and confounding human fears—death—and makes it even more unsettling.

So why are Clara and the Doctor meddling with mortality? At the beginning of the episode, Clara calls Danny on his cell. It seems like she’s got something big to confess: she’s standing in front of a wall of Post-Its that say things like JUST SAY IT and TRUTH. “Things to say,” she tells Danny before he can get a word in, “not all of them good.” But instead of a major revelation, she just tells him she loves him. (Which she’s already done a bunch of times this season, so we know that wasn’t her big secret.) Tragically, he doesn’t get a chance to respond. While crossing the road, he is hit by a car—and dies on the spot.

Devastated, Clara wants the Doctor to fix things. But we all know the rule: he can’t meddle with one individual’s timeline. So she attempts to hijack the TARDIS. After attacking the Doctor with a sleeping patch, Clara takes him to a volcano, where she threatens to toss the TARDIS keys into a pool of simmering lava if he won’t save Danny. And she actually does it! Sort of. Turns out the Doctor had actually induced a dream state on Clara—not the other way around—and let her play out her plot to see how serious she was about it. The verdict: she was very serious. Seeing her in pain, he agrees to help.

That’s where life starts to intersect with the afterlife. Using the TARDIS’s telepathic receptors to locate Danny, Clara and the Doctor find themselves at the headquarters for 3W, an institute set up to “protect the dead.” On paper, 3W is meant to save the dead from the horrors of cremation—which, apparently, they can feel—but it also seems to be a front for Missy’s big plot: to take over the world by turning deceased humans in to Cybermen.

Although “Dark Water” crams in about three episodes’ worth of plot, it maintains a measured pace and quiet tone that enhances the unnerving effect. This isn’t just because they’re visiting the eerily quiet 3W offices—it’s also a Peter Capaldi thing. His Doctor doesn’t sprint through hallways or jump around with glee. He’s more serious, a little spooky already. It’s hard to imagine subject matter this dark working with any Doctor but his.

Another deeply disturbing element of this episode was how mundane and ordinary Steven Moffat made the afterlife. “It’s boring,” Clara says about Danny’s death, “It was ordinary.” She’s referring his death, but it turns out the afterlife is boring too. In fact, it’s a bureaucracy. Danny wakes up in a dull-looking office where he has to fill out a series of forms. He’s initiated to his surroundings by a junior executive in a suit who may as well be opening his RRSPs. And when he finally manages to connect with Clara, they lose their wifi signal. The horror of the afterlife isn’t that it’s a burning hell pit, or that you’re permanently separated from your loved ones—but that it’s sterile and mundane.

And we finally learned the identity of Missy—which many fans had been guessing since the premiere. When Matt Smith left Doctor Who, there was a lot of talk of having a woman take on the role of the Doctor. Having the Master come back as a woman is an interesting alternative, and Michelle Gomez is more-than-menacing in the role. Planting a big smooch on the Doctor was also an interesting—and funny—tactic. She knows what will make him totally uncomfortable: not physical force, but affection.

The bigger mystery of the episode isn’t Missy, but Clara. Her struggle—with Danny, with the Doctor—has formed the central tension of the season, and now she’s gotten very dark. Has a companion ever gone rogue on the Doctor in this way? We know she has some connection to Missy (i.e. that Missy probably connected her with the Doctor to begin with), but we don’t yet know what or why that is. And we also don’t know the big secret she was going to tell Danny. In any case, you’d think the Doctor could warn his companions: Hey, this doesn’t usually turn out great. Travel with me at your own risk.

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