REVIEW: Doctor Who - "Dark Water"/"Death in Heaven"
If there’s a common theme for Series 8 of Doctor Who, it’d be “plenty of ideas, shaky execution”. Time and again over this series, while the performers (particularly newcomer Peter Capaldi) have done their best with the material, the individual stories, aside from the standout “Listen” and “Flatline”, have lacked energy and wasted quite a few interesting concepts (often by cramming too much into one-shot episodes).
And now we’ve come to the two finale episodes, “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven”. On the recommendation of another critic I know, I decided to watch the two-parter back to back, in an effort to smooth over the abrupt cliffhanger at the end of the first half. But even after doing that, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the thought-provoking raw material in these stories could have been better served with more confident writing and stronger direction, as what we get in this finale is sorely missing the drama and high stakes promised by the setup.
Of course, if you haven’t caught up with the series yet, let this be your official spoiler warning. And with that out of the way, let’s take a look at the plot. “Dark Water” kicks off with the death of one of the more promising characters to be introduced this series, Danny Pink (Sam Anderson). Danny is struck and killed by a car while crossing the street during a phone call with Clara, a sequence I couldn’t decide was contrived or just appropriately mundane. Either way, Clara lapses into some kind of mania, threatening to destroy all the TARDIS keys and lock the Doctor out of his ship if he doesn’t bring Danny back.
The confrontation scene between the two inside the volcano seemed like a direct response by showrunner Steven Moffat to the criticism of Clara’s character by fans – here, Clara’s actions are truly hate-worthy, and it’s not clear why she resorts to such a strategy right off the bat; after all, the Doctor seems to acquiesce so easily and sweep Clara’s betrayal under the rug, and so we have to wonder whether a “revive my boyfriend, please” might have sufficed.
Just like Clara’s sudden outburst in “Kill the Moon” and her subsequent about-face in “Mummy on the Orient Express”, the volcano encounter almost feels like Moffat is over-emphasizing Clara’s more unpleasant qualities to get fans to want Clara out of the TARDIS for good – is it not enough for her to make up her mind, like Martha does in “Last of the Time Lords”? What’s more uncomfortable is that the finale seems to use up all its drama in this scene, when it might have been better used at a more climactic moment in the story.
This bombastic set-up complete, Clara and the Doctor use that fancy “hands-in-the-squishy-console-circuit” trick to direct them to the location of Danny’s spirit, where they finally run into Missy (Michelle Gomez), who the series has teased in many a pre-credits kicker scene. It turns out that Danny is one of millions of dead people Missy is collecting to power an army of Cybermen, and Missy is in fact the female reincarnation of the Master (I’m sure there are some Whovians out there who screamed “I told you so!” at this revelation).
“Dark Water” and “A Death in Heaven” share a common goal with my least-liked episode of the series, “Kill the Moon”, in that they try to take on a weighty topic and give it a kooky Whovian spin. The problem with this tactic is that it backfires pretty quickly when the Big Idea isn’t explored in enough detail, or when the writers try to stuff in too many subplots. In this case, we have Danny struggling with meeting a child he accidently killed in battle, creepy references to the “truth” of cremation, callbacks to zombie stories, disaster-movie tropes, snippets of the Doctor’s childhood, and many more threads. Any single storyline could have been enough to structure the episodes around, but instead we get a narrative jumble.
Maybe some stronger direction might have been able to organize a mix like that, but Rachel Talalay (in her first stint on Who) hasn’t quite gotten a grip on the show yet. Above all, a two-parter with the Master (or is it Mistress now?) as the main villain should have a more pervasive sense of dread; we need only look at John Simm’s memorable work in “The Sound of Drums"/"Last of the Time Lords” for proof of how it should be done. Gomez is perfectly “bananas” as the Mistress, but her showdowns with the Doctor and others were missing the tension that only a director can enforce.
That also extends to what I can only assume was Clara’s final goodbye, because depending on how you look at it, the scene is rather ambiguous. Maybe it’s because Doctor Who has faked us out a number of times with Clara’s departures from the TARDIS, but this scene didn’t really give me the conclusion that I felt Clara deserves – after a partnership that’s equal parts father-daughter and close colleagues, an awkward hug and Clara blending back in with the crowd could have been mistaken for an everyday episode closer, not a character’s final appearance.
“Dark Water/Death in Heaven”, like so many episodes in Series 8, never does anything particularly wrong. It’s just the wasted potential that’s driven me crazy, and it's compounded by truly excellent episodes like “Listen”, which prove the creative team still knows how to thrill us, yet their reach more often exceeds their grasp. The Doctor Who Series 8 finale gets two and a half stars out of four.
And in the style of the A.V. Club’s great TV reviews, here’s a couple stray unanswered questions I had about the episodes:
- Why would Osgood (Ingrid Oliver), the nerdy U.N.I.T. technician, ever go back to working at her desk after Missy says she’s going to kill her? Osgood points out how much she knows about Missy’s backstory, so wouldn’t she get the hell out of there?
- Why go through the agony of turning on Cyber-Danny’s emotion inhibitor if he never even makes a move to hurt anyone once it’s on? Once they get the data from him, he appears to still have control over himself just like before.
What did you think of the Doctor Who Series 8 finale? Was it a good end for Capaldi’s first series in the lead? Did you like Clara’s goodbye? How did you feel about the way they used the Master/Mistress? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!