There’s something impossibly dramatic about volcanoes. Frodo traveled to Mt. Doom to dispose of the One Ring in a volcano. Anakin battled Obi-Wan in his final pre-Vader battle on a volcanic planet. Wizards of the Coast even ran a worldwide contest a couple years back to write dramatic Dungeons & Dragons scenarios that specifically centered around an erupting volcano. “The Fires of Pompeii,” Peter Capaldi’s first appearance on Doctor Who, centered around the destruction of an entire city by a volcano to stop some magma aliens. And now, Doctor Who has (once again) taken us to a volcano, and the results were certainly more than vinegar & baking soda. The first half of the two-part season 8 finale, “Dark Water,” delivered on so many levels, going darker and more intense than I’ve seen the series in a very long time. I’d tell you to expect spoilers, but if you’ve read this column previously, you know that already. One thing I can guarantee will spoil nothing: there were absolutely no references to the under-appreciated cartoon “The Pirates of Dark Water” in this episode, despite my child-like hopes. Noi j’etat!
We begin on a bucolic day with our two favorite figuring-it-out lovers, Danny & Clara, talking on the phone. Clara’s clearly decided to come clean with Danny about all her Doctor shenanigans, and he’s on his way over to speak to her. She needs to tell him something important first, though, so she calls to say that she loves him. And this is not “I love you” as an automatic response. I believe the phrase she used was “From now on, those words from my mouth are yours.” Pretty intense. Equally intense was the silence that followed. Danny had been hit by a car & killed, and that actual silence was infinitely more dramatic and horrible than any previous season’s battles with “The Silence”. This was Moffat at his most heart-string-pullingest, and it was horribly wonderful.
Clara goes through a bit of shutting down, though you can see in Jenna Thomson’s fantastic acting that she’s just compartmentalizing, she’s planning. Her final reveal to her gran that Danny’s death was “boring” comes not so much as a shock for what she says, but for what it means… that she’s shut down all emotions so that she can do something she might not otherwise have the ability to accomplish.
And that brings us to the volcano. When the Doctor finally shows up, he appears to be unaware of all that has happened, and speaks in his normal off-handed way as Clara goes around the Tardis grabbing every key she knows to find. She then seems to grab a “sleep patch” to knock the Doctor out, so that he can awaken on a volcanic field, watching Clara demand his action to save Danny, lest she throw away every Tardis key and ban him from time travel forever. While the reality of the situation is a little less severe, it makes Clara’s actions no less dramatic. And while the “it was all a dream” ploy is oft’ overused and cliched, it actually kind of works here, because even though Clara felt like she needed to destroy all chance of saving her boyfriend to spite the man who refused to do it, the Doctor knew better. We’ve often heard about how the Doctor negatively affects the lives of his companions, destroying relationships, leaving them on alien worlds, getting them killed, etc… but we seldom think about it from the Doctor’s perspective. Capaldi’s statement “Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?” speaks volumes to the emotional complexity of the Doctor in regards to his companions. And even if a normal person might just tell them to “go to Hell,” the Doctor actually will go there.
After that overly dramatic intro, we got into the meat of the episode’s plot: Clara & the Doctor going into the afterlife (or where ever Danny went) to get him back. We learned lots about the mysterious “Missy” here, including what she’s been up to. We had some interludes with Danny getting processed in the Nethersphere, briefly meeting with a boy he’d killed while in the military, and trying to have a conversation via i-Pad (“We’ve got Steve Jobs!”) with Clara. However, we also saw that an overly familiar Missy (who initially lied & called herself a robot with the acronym M.I.S.I. – “Mobile Intelligence Systems Interface”) was much more devious, storing the brainwave patters of the dead on a Gallifreyan hard drive (which we can only assume is bigger on the inside) which she called the Nethersphere, of which she had many across the globe. While the minds were trapped digitally, the bodies were “upgraded” to avoid allowing their users souls to feel the pain that they claimed the dead still felt when their bodies were damaged (the white noise bit was a little forced, but we’ll go with it).
Of course, anyone who saw last week’s preview knew that the Cybermen would show up this episode, so when the Doctor said he felt like he was missing something obvious, only to have the closing doors look like cyber-eyes, we all got that tingle of knowing what was coming. And old school Whovians got the extra jolt of awesome seeing that the particular 3W facility we’d been in was St. Paul’s Cathedral, so that the Cybermen could march down Peter’s Hill just like they did in 1968’s Doctor Who episode “The Invasion.”
But knowing the future isn’t always a happy tingle. Sometimes surprises are good, and those who spoil them are very, very bad. I’d like to specifically call out the BBC’s Facebook team as being right wankers for posting the Missy/Master spoiler to their feed after the episode aired in Britain… 5 HOURS before we saw it in the US. Thanks a lot, jerks.
The episode ended with a number of cliff hangers. The Cybermen aren’t invading Earth… they’re already everywhere (anyone else notice that the last time they invaded Earth, in “Doomsday,” they were first seen as “ghosts”, and now they’re literally the dead?). The Master/Mistress is in charge of the Cybermen, meaning that they won’t be easily duped due to their programming. Oh, and Danny’s finger is hovering over the button that will DELETE his emotions so he doesn’t have to deal with them anymore (thus making him ready for insertion into a cyber-body).
So where could this go? We’ve seen emotion trump the upgrade process (remember Craig in “Closing Time”), so maybe Danny will get “upgraded” only to turn on the Cybermen, becoming a weird parallel to Rory’s Nestene existence. We’ve also seen intellect overpower Cyber-programming (the Doctor did it himself in “Nightmare in Silver”), so could Danny’s consciousness somehow convince all the dead imprints inside the Cybermen to go back to resting in peace? We now know that a Time Lord can regenerate into a Time Lady, so does the Mistress’ existence pave the way for a future female Doctor? We’ve seen a future where Clara & Danny’s descendant becomes a time traveler, so if Danny doesn’t somehow come back, does that mean Clara’s already in the early weeks of pregnancy (which’d give her a good reason to leave during the Christmas episode)? Will that “Dream Patch” thing the Doctor did with Clara come into play in the next episode, seeing as how we’re all aware of its existence now? We’ve also seen (in last week’s preview) that UNIT will show up in this story line… could their SHIELD-esque airship “The Valiant” somehow save the day (we did hear it briefly mentioned in “Into the Dalek” earlier this season)? Will we get some other reference to Capaldi’s character from “Fires of Pompeii” that somehow ties into death, reincarnation, and regeneration?
Only time will tell. Tune in next week for my recap of the season’s dramatic ending, “Death in Heaven.”
BONUS: Here’s my favorite recreation of the last time we saw the Master… “End of Time” (as performed by the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre”