Sunday, 2 November 2014

Doctor Who Review: Dark Water

This week's episode certainly needs a spoiler alert -- the whole point of the episode was to spring surprises.

Some of the surprises were cheerfully revealed in the pre-transmission publicity. We knew that the skeletons in the tanks were going to be Cybermen. That just changed the nature of the surprise: how the skeletons could be Cybermen. The trick was that the fluid in the tanks made all non-organic matter transparent. Once that was explained, we could sit back and wait for the shiny soldiers to emerge.

Last week I said that no finale could justify some of the terrible episodes in this series. This first installment of the finale was, for the most part, fantastic, but I stand by what I said. What went before turns out to have no justification at all. The finale required that Clara be upset by Danny's death, but no extra setup beyond that -- we didn't need all that nonsense tension between the Doctor and Danny, or Clara lying to Danny about the Doctor, or any of it. If all the Clara-Doctor drama was purely in aid of setting up the TARDIS-key stand-off in Mordor, then it was all for nothing. That scene was a good idea, but with a lame resolution: it was all a dream, and afterwards everyone got to speak some cheesy lines and move on with the story.

The setup did require a tumultuous relationship between Clara and Danny, but his character and their romance have both been so poorly rendered that my main reaction to his death was cursing that we didn't get to see it in more graphic detail. It just happens that I drove along that very road in Cardiff earlier yesterday afternoon -- it's a pity I didn't get a chance to run over the bugger myself.

After his death he was transported to the Nethersphere of the dead, which was conveniently located only ten meters away in the Cardiff National Museum. From there he had to prove his identity to Clara on a flaky Skype call, in a scene that would have worked much better if he had actually had an identity. Or, for that matter, if they actually had an on-screen relationship for him to cite. But throughout the entire season we've seen no evidence of any personality, or of any plausible emotional connection with Clara. All we've been told is that they're in love, and now that he's asked to provide proof, all he can do is repeat, over and over, "I love you." If his head had been full of poignant memories that he nobly elected not to mention, it would have been far more powerful.

In short, all of the character/drama/emotive parts of the story that have been "building" throughout the course of the season were a flop. Fortunately, though, the lurking plot was a success. The afterlife really is the afterlife (at least, so far), and Missy turns out to be the Master. Some fans decoded her name, but the sex change was enough to keep me guessing.

The original Master was an exceptional villain. He was introduced as a recurring character when the Third Doctor was restricted to Earth; presumably the only way to justify the continual appearance of new alien menaces was that some villain kept summoning them purely out of spiteful rivalry with the Doctor. His appearance was usually accompanied by a signature tune, rapidly followed by him hypnotizing some weak-minded minor character (always by staring directly at them and chanting, "I am the Master. You will obey me!"), and perhaps by zapping a few people with his creepy miniaturization ray. The character disappeared after the actor who played him, Roger Delgado, died in a car accident. Several years later he was introduced again, and although there was a complicated regeneration story involved, the new Master was chosen to have a very similar appearance to the original.

There is nothing more heartening than seeing the Master reappear, although I'm not sure why. I felt the same excitement when he appeared in Utopia back in the David Tennant days. "All right," I thought, "Now it's going to get good!" They even had Derek Jacobi as the Master. But then he quickly regenerated into a giggling fool, and the character became a huge disappointment. The same could happen again. Just because the Master holds out so much promise as a villain, that doesn't mean that the writers will take good advantage of it.

There is great potential for the final episode. Moffat has written excellent stories before, and this one is off to a flying start. But he's also penned absolute stinkers, and he's helmed what can most generously be described as a patchy season. And so we are left with a true cliffhanger: will the final episode be incredible, or will it be a dud?

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