Missy’s identity is finally revealed as not one, but two of the Doctor’s greatest enemies return for the finale.
This is it. The darkest day. The blackest hour. Chin up, shoulders back. Let’s see what we’re made of, you and I.
–The Doctor, to Clara
And then we came to the end. Or, at least, the beginning of the end.
That’s an apt sentence, since “Dark Water” is both the first half of the Doctor Who season finale and a story about the afterlife. It’s an hour featuring Clara’s betrayal of the Doctor, the return of one of the Doctor’s greatest enemies, and, finally, the truth about the tantalizing Missy. But to have an episode about the afterlife you have to first have a death.
Poor, poor Danny Pink. Having already faced no less than a Skovox Blitzer, an overnight forest invasion, a cataclysmic solar flare, and the Doctor himself this season, our former soldier goes out after being hit by a car while crossing the street. What sudden death could be less shocking? That’s part of what bothers Clara so much. Danny deserved better than this. Danny deserves something more than this, and, in her grief, she shows the Doctor just how far she’s willing to go to set Danny on a better course. After calling the Doctor to pick her up for an adventure, she sneakily collects all of the hidden TARDIS keys and slaps a sleeping patch on the Doctor’s neck. He awakens on a volcanic planet with Clara demanding that he help her alter history to save Danny.
Of course, that’s completely out of the question. There’s all that classic Doctor Who talk of doubling back on one’s own timeline, but Clara, frankly, does not give a shit, throwing one of the seven TARDIS keys into the Cracks of Doom each time the Doctor refuses her demands. “You’ll never set foot inside your TARDIS again!” she warns, offering him one final chance at the last key before casting it into the lava, too. It’s the ultimate betrayal, leaving them both stranded on this barren, volcanic planet…or it would be if the entire thing wasn’t one giant dream sequence. Those sleep patches Clara found in the TARDIS? They were actually hallucination patches, and Clara was throwing the TARDIS keys on the floor. They were never in any danger. The Doctor engineered the whole scenario to probe the depths of her heartache. Danny’s death, you see, was completely real.
The “it was all a dream” sequence feels like a stumble out of the starting blocks, but it leads to a very tender moment between Clara and the Doctor. If there was ever any doubt about Clara’s love for Danny, this completely erases it, and even the Doctor can see value in that. She’s completely betrayed the Doctor’s trust, and he tells her in no uncertain terms just what she can do next: “Go to hell.” And that’s exactly what they’ll do – go to hell. Or heaven, or the afterlife, or wherever the dead go, using Clara’s deep emotional connection with Danny to pilot the TARDIS to wherever Danny’s consciousness is. “Do you think I care for you so little that betrayal would even make a difference?” he asks her. It’s probably the sweetest moment that Peter Capaldi’s prickly Twelfth Doctor has had this season, and it, rightly, brings Clara to tears.
So where is Danny exactly? Well, that’s complicated. The afterlife, it seems, has a welcome center. Danny’s caseworker, Seb (Chris Addison), tries to explain that Danny has passed on, and asks Danny one pressing question: Is your body going to be cremated? After a brief orientation Seb takes Danny to his room in the Dead City where Danny is visited by a boy he accidentally killed as a soldier. That, coupled with the news that a person feels through their body, even in death, pushes an already stressed Danny to the breaking point. If you’ve made plans to have your body cremated, it’s going to be an excruciating experience. Consumed with stress, Danny is left with Seb’s offer to end his pain by choosing an option to delete his consciousness. What Danny chooses is left up in the air until next week. Sorry folks, that’s how two-parters work.
Meanwhile, Clara and the Doctor find themselves at a mausoleum of sorts. The skeletons of the dead are encased in aquarium-like tanks filled with “dark water,” a liquid that only shows organic material. It’s here that the Doctor finally comes face to face with Missy, the mysterious figure who has lingered at the edges of the narrative the entire season. We’ve seen her in a number of episodes, always related to when a supporting character dies, as she welcomes them to the afterlife. Here, in this house of the dead, she welcomes the Doctor with a deep kiss, which Capaldi reacts to with some great comedic horror. She also places the Doctor’s hand on her chest and tells him to feel her heart, and the Doctor reacts with subtle surprise (I’d guessed at it for months, but this was when I knew).
As the dark water tanks begin to drain, that’s when all of the pieces to the puzzle begin to fall into place. If the dark water tanks conceal inorganic matter, whatever remains inside other than skeletal bone must be plastic, or stone, or metal. Missy is using the bodies of the dead who’ve chosen to delete their consciousness and the emotions that go with them (careful Danny!), and converting them into Cybermen. Her afterlife Nethersphere is only an illusion, allowing her to amass a Cyberman army in the heart of London with the help of a little Time Lord technology. “That’s the key strategic weakness to the human race,” she says. “The dead outnumber the living.”
Time Lord? Missy would insist on Time Lady, and you have to imagine that Stephen Moffat has been setting this one up for a while, folks. It was “The Doctor’s Wife,” an episode from the Amy and Rory days that rewrote the Doctor Who canon to include the possibility that Time Lords could change genders during regeneration. The Doctor knew the truth when he put his hand on Missy’s chest and felt two hearts beating in her chest. Missy is a Time Lord. “Who are you!?” he asks her. It’s Missy, “short for Mistress. Well, I couldn’t very well be calling myself the Master, could I?” she says, as her Cybermen step into the streets of London. Yes, fans! The Doctor’s great enemy The Master has been resurrected, and she is a woman. It’s the first time we’ve seen the Twelfth Doctor look truly, completely terrified. Boom. Cue credits.
Long winded as that is, it’s actually a very condensed plot outline. I can get away with that because Moffat isn’t as plot focused here as you might think. Sure, the plot is pretty complex (I simplified it a great deal, but you get the gist), but Moffat leaves a lot of room in this episode for his characters to breathe, sob, and grapple emotionally. In a season where he’s placed his characters’ emotions front and center, “Dark Water” is no different. Danny’s confrontation with a child he killed and Clara thinking she’s been cast out of the TARDIS both work great. Danny’s pain, especially, makes you accept that he might view an eternity without constant reminders of the pain he’s caused as a positive solution. The episode is also filled with his trademark humor (“We don’t just have iPads [in the afterlife]. We have Steve Jobs!”).
In the end, it’s hard to put any sort of a grade on this episode. It’s incomplete. How did The Mistress come back? Why is she working with the Cybermen? Will Danny live again? It’s too soon to know.
As a whole, this has been Moffat’s most consistent season as showrunner (let’s avoid forest-themed episodes in the future though, okay?). The question of if it’s his best will largely depend on if he can stick the landing – something he’s notably struggled with in the past. The deck is stacked in his favor, though. He’s spent a season developing strong characters which should pay dividends with an emotional ending, and he’s peppered in enough mystery to make the Missy reveal really worthwhile without building it up beyond proportion.
But the pins he’s juggling are huge and complex. The revived series hasn’t delivered a strong Cybermen episode since season two, if ever. There’s his “endings problem,” and the remaining questions about Missy’s motivation with the Cybermen. Is taking on two of the villains that make up the Doctor Who villain trifecta at once simply too much (and can Moffat resist the temptation to go for all three and include the Daleks)? Is next week Clara and Danny’s swan song? Will Capaldi remain bristly and cold all the way to the end? Next week pays for all with the finale “Death in Heaven.”
There’s still a lot up in the air, but if Moffat can bring it all together, he deserves some HUGE applause. And, for the first time in a long time, this season has given me reason to hope.
-Ok, ok. I have to pat myself on the back. I CALLED IT! I’ve suspected that Missy was The Mistress/The Master since my first recap this year. Still, expecting it or not, the payoff was great. It’s one of those instances where the confirmation of your theory was just as exciting as the revelation could have ever been. Kudos to Moffat.
-And equal Kudos to Michelle Gomez. She’s a scene stealer whenever she’s on screen this year, and I’ve loved her appearances all season. Her performance is equal parts sinister and over the top, and it just works. I really hope she’s a recurring villain throughout the Capaldi years.
-The Cybermen marching out of St. Paul’s is a nod to the 1968 Cybermen story “The Invasion.” Another feather in Moffat’s cap.
-I told David McGinnis a few weeks ago that Moffat would really have some stones if he killed Danny in the finale. Clara would be revealed to be pregnant with his child, leading the Clara/Danny descendents we saw earlier this season in “Listen.” Is that something we’re possibly approaching? It’s dark as hell, and I wonder if Moffat has the stomach to go there in what’s essentially a kid’s show. But is it really that much darker than souls screaming “don’t cremate me!” in horror? I mean, yikes.
This is my last Doctor Who recap of the year unless I contribute a few lines next week to wrap up the season. It’s been a real treat to write this show, and I hope you’ve all enjoyed it as much as I have. See you all down the road in time and space!