The first part of season 8’s two-part finale, “Dark Water,” is a triumph of style over substance. It’s also a big, honking mess. It’s an interesting mess — it plays with some compelling concepts — but a mess nonetheless. It’s also an almost direct clone of the 1985 Sixth Doctor serial “Revelation of the Daleks,” in which the bodies kept in cryogenic stasis at a far-future mausoleum called Tranquil Repose are being turned into Daleks. But anyway, there’s a lot to talk about with “Dark Water,” so let’s get right to it.
**MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW. CONSIDER YOURSELF WARNED.**
I call “Dark Water” an example of style over substance because, while there’s compelling drama on the screen for most of the episode, very little of it makes sense. Characters act out of character again. Established rules and precedents are forgotten or ignored in favor of the plot. Things happen purely to move the story along without an eye toward plausibility. Let’s take a look at a few examples.
Clara threatens the Doctor with the elimination of all the existing TARDIS keys (apparently, there are seven of them) in the heart of a volcano if he doesn’t go back in time and save Danny’s life. They both react as if this is a real threat. If there are no keys, the TARDIS is lost to both of them and they’ll be stuck there forever. Except that the Doctor has been able to open the TARDIS doors with a snap of his fingers since season 4. Clara showed she could do it, too, earlier this season. So the threat involving the TARDIS keys is an empty one. It is a four-year-long precedent that is ignored solely for one scene in this one story — a scene that doesn’t make much sense anyway. Why is Clara acting this way? She leaps right to betraying the Doctor without even asking him to save Danny first. And then, just to make it even more frustrating, it’s all just a dream anyway. It didn’t happen. It was a psychic test of her resolve, which she apparently passed and now the Doctor will help her. So much for anything actually mattering. (But then we’re used to there being no consequences to anyone’s actions in the Steven Moffat era.) Also, since when does lava destroy TARDIS keys? Has this ever been mentioned before? Clara says the Doctor mentioned it, but I have no memory of it. If it’s a conversation that happened off-screen, that makes it even lamer and, frankly, an unforgivable “sudden rule.”
Danny’s death is narratively problematic as well. Aside from being far too random — a car accident? Seriously? After everything else that he’s been through? — it is much too easy and much too plot-necessitated. Like Missy, whom we will get to shortly, his death is entirely outside of everything that’s been happening this season. Worse, it happens off-screen. For it to have any emotional impact at all, we need to A) see it happen, and B) have it be part of an actual story. Imagine if Danny had died at the end of the last episode, and then this episode started with Clara begging the Doctor to go back and change what happened. He could say no, and then she tries to blackmail him with the keys. That would work so much better than what we were given. But there has been very little story cohesiveness this season anyway. It seemed like there was going to be, what with the words “the Promised Land” showing up in two early episodes, much the way “Bad Wolf,” “Torchwood,” and “Saxon” did in previous seasons, but then…nothing. It was all “Where do you want to go today, Clara?” and “No, Danny, I’m not traveling with the Doctor again” instead. Which was terribly boring, really.
So yes, at the start of the season we had two episodes where robots from the future were looking for the Promised Land, as if it were a place that actually existed. “Dark Water” reveals it is instead a virtual reality of sorts called the Nethersphere, where the minds of the deceased (or near-deceased, I think, which would make more sense) are uploaded while their bodies are turned into Cybermen. So why are the robots looking for it? Why do they think it’s someplace they can physically find? Why are these robots from the distant future so interested in the Nethersphere when it clearly exists in contemporary London, not the future, and not somewhere in outer space? Also, where did the nice, English garden from “Deep Breath” go? Because now the Promised Land is an urban cityscape instead.
And speaking of being turned into Cybermen, what exactly is the purpose of the dark water itself? It would hardly be a draw to the mausoleum to go visit a loved one and see a fucking skeleton sitting in a water tank. The dark water seems to only exist for the big reveal. It looks cool when it drains away and we see the skeletons are actually Cybermen, but other than that it does nothing. Again, style over substance.
Let’s talk about Missy and all the inherent problems with the revelation that she is in fact a new incarnation of the Master. Time Lords are mildly telepathic with each other. It’s been mentioned a zillion times in the classic series, and hinted at in the revamp. This means the Doctor should immediately know that Missy is a Time Lord, and more than that, he should instantly recognize that she’s the Master, too. Remember, in the season 3 episode “Utopia,” the Doctor is able to recognize the Master’s presence through the walls of the TARDIS. But here, he only starts to piece things together when he feels that Missy has two hearts, and then recognizes that the Nethersphere utilizes Gallifreyan technology, and then finally he has to pester her to tell him her name. When you change established rules solely to fit the plot, it never works. Imagine one issue of The X-Men where Cyclops can suddenly control his eye beams without explanation, and in the next he can’t anymore and it’s never addressed.
Part two is going to have to do a lot of heavy lifting to rescue this storyline. Why, for example, is the Master making Cybermen? The Master has no love for them, and the one time they tried to work together, in the 1983 20th anniversary special “The Five Doctors,” the Cybermen attempted to kill him pretty much right away. So why is she making more now? What’s the connection? Also, how did the Master escape from Gallifrey after the events of “The End of Time, Part Two”? Why did he regenerate? And why the fuck is she going around calling the Doctor her boyfriend, as she did in “Deep Breath,” and planting a big kiss on him in this episode? (I’m asking why in terms of plot reasons. I already know why in terms of Moffat reasons: he has trouble imagining any female characters who don’t want to kiss the Doctor.)
And by the way, the Master would totally go on calling himself the Master, no matter what the sex of his new body is. You know that. She would never call herself the Mistress!
I could go on indefinitely, but I won’t, except for this one last thing. Moffat continues to write the Doctor as someone who yells “Do as I say!” at his companions instead of saying “Please trust me.” (The Eleventh Doctor did this, too.) Maybe I’m being silly, but that’s not the Doctor to me. It’s off-putting and makes me not like someone I’ve considered a hero since I was a child. Frankly, I don’t get why Moffat keeps doing it.