Though the demands of my real life played their part last week, I made a conscious decision not to review "Dark Water" on its own, because I knew anything I would have to say about it was going to hinge entirely on "Death in Heaven." I mean, Danny's tragic death? Clara's betrayal of the Doctor? The afterlife? The return of the Master? Cybermen under glass? The episode didn't make a lot of sense on its own, and didn't try to: it was one long, prolonged set-up of mysteries and themes that the second part of the story, "Death in Heaven," would have to try to resolve. So I decided to wait, and see if Steven Moffat could even begin to chew, in Part Two, everything he had bitten off in Part One.
I'm feeling pretty good about that decision, let me tell you, because it turned out that the answer was No. And if I had spent a few thousand words last week trying to speculatively interpret a story that never had any intention of making sense—logically, emotionally, or thematically—I'd have ended up even grumpier right now than I actually am.
And I am plenty grumpy as it is.
Look, I promise I'll try to discuss this like a grown-up further down, but let me get this out of my system first: this was shit. This was Doctor Who running disastrously, drunkenly off the rails. This was the worst story Steven Moffat has written—by far—and a worse story than I frankly would have credited him with being capable of writing. Former showrunner Russell T Davies was (often deservedly) maligned for writing excessive, overstuffed, nonsensical, emotionally manipulative finales, and yet I would stack every one of RTD's season-enders up against this. (Even "The End of Time?" you ask? Yes, alas, even "The End of Time," and that's a story I find almost physically painful to watch.)
You will say, perhaps, that I'm overreacting, and I'm tempted to wonder if you are right. Because it's deceptive, isn't it? If I turn off my brain, "Dark Water"/"Death in Heaven" looks like a solid—even a classic—Doctor Who story.
For one thing, these episodes are gorgeous: director Rachel Talalay executes this story brilliantly, with a subtle visual palette and a moody, evocative tone throughout. That's a tricky thing, and it's easy to take the director for granted in Doctor Who. (A lot of what people react to negatively about the RTD years, I think, was a more tongue-in-cheek, borderline cartoonish tone that directors like Graeme Harper often brought to the proceedings.) As showrunner, Moffat has consistently brought in directors who have elevated the on-screen storytelling in Doctor Who, and Talalay's work here is so fine that it lends this story a deceptive maturity. It looks, and feels, like a great, important story is unfolding.
Likewise—and certainly related—the performances are excellent. Peter Capaldi has been predictably good since Day One—we expected nothing less from him—and Jenna Coleman has been a revelation: neither of them have set a foot wrong all season, and neither of them do here. Michelle Gomez is a brilliant Master—let us hope we have not seen the last of her incarnation—and the supporting cast never lets down the side. (Though I'd be opposed to casting another young, white male actor in the role, it occurred to me several times during this story what a good Doctor Chris Addison might make…)
So everything on-screen in "Dark Water" and "Death in Heaven" is firing on all cylinders: what a pity that it's all in service of such a wretched mess of a screenplay. Make no mistake, the blame for this one lies entirely with the man himself, Steven Moffat.
I don't want to spend a lot of time discussing the plot, but my longtime readers have heard me rail about guest writers who don't seem to feel the need to employ even a semblance of logic, and I'd be remiss if I didn't hold Moffat to the same basic standards of story construction. And the sad truth is, you can't turn around in these episodes without running smack into something that doesn't make a fucking lick of sense.
Let's start with the niggling stuff first, and work outwards. We can dispense more or less whole cloth with the entirety of "Dark Water," since none of it bears scrutiny, and very little of it turns out to matter. The entire episode is setting up elements—like the "dark water" itself—that exist only to pull the wool over our eyes: it's strawman cleverness, mysteries that exist only to provide a reveal, not for any reason organic to the story. Work backwards from the Master('s) plan, as it's revealed in "Death in Heaven," and virtually nothing and no one within the phony afterlife/3W Corporation has any reason for existing. (I honestly can't begin to catalog the various nonsensical elements, but I'll cherry-pick one as an example: Why, exactly, would Seb [Chris Addison] bring the boy [Antonio Bourouphael] to see Danny? How exactly does arranging a meeting between this solider and the civilian he killed further the Master's agenda?)
And the logistical problems just pile up in "Death in Heaven." Why does Danny come back with his inhibitor turned off? Why does he not become a Cyberman even after all the emotional drama about turning it back on? (If you answer "love" to either or both of those questions, be prepared to explain to me why, of all the people who ever lived, only Danny—and apparently the Brigadier—ever truly loved anyone.) Why does UNIT lock the Master up—after not searching her—with a pair of crappy handcuffs, two apparently catatonic guards, and an asthmatic sacrificial victim? Why does the Master seem prepared to let the Doctor fall to his death if the whole point of this plan was to give him a birthday present and get her friend back? (In fact, why do Tony Stark's Amazing Flying Cybermen attack the plane in the first place, if that was the plan?) I'll let "Cyber-Pollen" pass as a not-much-more-ridiculous-than-usual device—though I do wonder how millions of tons of steel spontaneously generate from nothing around all those dead bodies—but how the fuck does the Master's Cyberman-controlling bracelet allow someone—just one someone, mind you—to actually return from the dead with a brand new body? And from where? (Are all those souls still trapped in the magic disco ball?)
But if we begin asking questions like that, we begin to realize that nothing about this story makes sense: it's elaborate and complicated and ridiculous just for the sake of being elaborate and complicated and ridiculous. We can chalk that up to the Master being "bananas," but that's a weak and insulting out: the truth is, it all exists to provide completely unearned and totally disposable moments of mystery and wonder. It's the thinnest possible veneer of cleverness and profundity pasted on top of a solid mountain of bullshit.
And that's a problem for me, especially when this shallow, nonsensical claptrap is scaled as large as it is here. Make no mistake: Doctor Who has just said that the entire human concept of an afterlife was born from this bullshit plan. "It's a con, it's a racket," the Doctor said in "Dark Water," and I dearly hoped he would turn out to be right, because otherwise the ramifications of this story should be life-changing for every person on Earth. But no, in "Death in Heaven" we learn that it's all true: "It turns out the afterlife is real, and it's emptying." Forget—if you can—how problematic the implications of the dead coming back to life so easily are, or how troubling it is to have all those billions of souls living conscious lives on a hard-drive, and then all (but one) being casually annihilated at the end of the episode. For now, just consider that the greatest mystery of humanity—what happens to us after we die—has finally been answered, and this is the answer: "everyone who ever lived, every man, woman, and child," got uploaded to a phony bureaucratic Heaven on a disco-ball hard-drive, so that they could be downloaded into Cyberman bodies, in order for the Master to give the Doctor a birthday present.
It wasn't a con, it wasn't a racket, it wasn't a fever-induced dream, and it wasn't retconned away at the end: that's what happened. That's what happened to Amy Pond, and Rory, and the Brigadier. That's what presumably happened to Shakespeare, and Martin Luther King, and Jesus Christ Himself. Everyone you have ever known and loved who has passed away? Yep, that's what happened to them, too.
And this reckless, global-scale theological and political balderdash is particularly disappointing coming from Steven Moffat, since Moffat spent the previous three-years painstakingly undoing the larger, more preposterous elements of the Davies era. The Doctor had grown too large, too famous, too noisy, we were told, over and over, and so in Seasons Five and Six Moffat cleverly erased certain noisy, over-the-top events from the Doctor's curriculum vitae. He went to a lot of trouble to remove things from continuity like the Dalek invasion in "The Stolen Earth," and the giant, city-stomping Cyberman from "The Next Doctor." Now he effectively undoes that good work by giving us a planetwide, public clusterfuck in which dead bodies all over the world start turning into Cybermen?
Moffat also went to a lot of trouble to do away with the Doctor's overblown celebrity and Messianic complex, going so far as to fake his death and delete him from every database in the universe. This should have been the first season in which Moffat had succeeded in restoring the Doctor's role to that of the anonymous cosmic hobo of the classic series, and yet this season ends with his being unanimously chosen to be the all-powerful President of Earth?
It's as if all the worst excesses of the RTD era, which Moffat had been diligently suppressing for three years, suddenly rose up this season and overthrew his own carefully constructed new world order. (Seriously, how drunk was he when he came up with all of this?)
Look, this ain't my first time at the Gallifreyan rodeo: I'm used to stories that take ridiculous leaps of logic in order to reach emotional and thematic heights. I have no problem with that: in fact, saying "this makes sense thematically, if not logically" is pretty much my bread-and-butter. I couldn't begin to explain how the plot of "The Big Bang" is resolved, for example, but I adore it, because it delivers some of my favorite scenes of the modern era and serves as a fantastic metaphor for the power of stories.
But "Death in Heaven" doesn't earn its emotional payoffs, and it deals half-assedly with themes that Moffat has already dealt with—and resolved—in earlier, better stories.
Let's talk about the whole "Doctor with an army" thing, since getting to that preposterous scenario seems to have been the entire point of the plan for both the Master and Moffat. Moffat, as I've written many times before, has been obsessed with the inherent contradictions within the Doctor's nature. Is he a good man? Is he a healer? Is he a warrior? Is he the Messianic Christ-figure of the Davies era, or—as "The Pandorica Opens" labled him—"a nameless, terrible thing, soaked in the blood of a billion galaxies"? I wrote about this in my review of "A Good Man Goes to War," which tackled the issue head-on by having River Song (Alex Kingston) accuse him of becoming something he never meant to be:
"You make them so afraid. When you began all those years ago, sailing off to see the universe, did you ever think you'd become this? The man who can turn an army around at the mention of his name. Doctor: the word for healer and wise-man throughout the universe. We get that word from you, you know. But if you carry on the way you are, what might that word come to mean? To the people of the Gamma Forests, the word doctor means mighty warrior. How far you've come. And now they've taken a child, the child of your best friends, and they're going to turn her into a weapon just to bring you down. And all of this, my love, in fear of you."
I loved this whole theme, and what Moffat did with it over three seasons. But that's the thing: he did it already. The Eleventh Doctor's entire arc was about this: it dismantled the Doctor's over-sized reputation, dealt with the often terrible consequences of his arrogance and anger, and ultimately culminated in answering the question about what kind of man he is in "The Day of the Doctor." At the end of Smith's tenure the Doctor no longer was a warrior: he was a Doctor again. That was the whole point.
But Moffat has a bad habit of not knowing when he's done. Season Six, for example, constructed a long, wonderful, totally satisfying arc about how Amy and Rory should no longer travel with the Doctor, culminating in all of them reaching the same conclusion and saying goodbye to each other in "The God Complex." But then Season Seven brought the Ponds back for five more episodes, for no real reason except to undermine the point of everything that they'd learned.
And that's kind of how I feel about what Moffat has done with this season: Season Eight should have given us a new, guilt-free Doctor who was finally free of his "good man" identity crisis, one who had put the "terrible, blood-soaked thing" and the "mighty warrior" far behind him. And the thing is, he has. Nothing in this season has really developed that theme at all, let alone done so with the depth and sophistication the previous seasons did. Just repeating the word "soldier" throughout this season is not enough to lay the foundation for the thematic payoff Moffat wants in "Death in Heaven." Capaldi's Doctor hasn't been the arrogant, reckless, hubristic super-soldier we've seen before: in fact, in stories like "Into the Dalek" and "Kill the Moon," we saw him deliberately avoid taking that role. Yes, we've seen him let people die without a lot of concern, but these deaths were never even presented as particularly avoidable, let alone as crimes.
(And, by the way, what is the point of collecting all those sacrificial victims throughout the season, and putting them in an afterlife, and then never bringing them back to confront the Doctor? If Moffat really wanted to deal with the question of the Doctor's getting people killed, why don't we see them again here?)
So Danny's entire accusation about the Doctor being an "officer" rang hollow all season, and the groundwork was never laid for the big revelation he gets in "Death in Heaven" about what kind of a man he really is. Of course he doesn't want to lead an army of Cybermen and conquer the universe. Of course he's not that guy. We know that. We know it, in part, because everything Moffat halfheartedly flirts with here, in regards to the Doctor's character arc, he's already done, and done better, before.
And it's all just messy. The question of "soldiers" has been set up as a theme for this entire season, but what, I ask you, are we supposed to think about soldiers in the end? The Doctor doesn't want to be one, and that's good! Oh, but Danny is one, and that's good too! Being an officer is bad, because they just order people to die mindless deaths! But Danny becomes an officer and orders everyone who ever lived to die a mindless second death, and that's good! The Doctor can't bring himself to "kill" Danny, because that would be bad! But Clara will do it, so that's good! But the Doctor won't let Clara kill the Master, because that would be bad! But the Brigadier does it, so that's good!
Moffat doesn't have a fucking clue what he wants to say here. And that's bad.
The same is true, to a lesser extent, of Clara's arc, which has never seemed to be on any kind of consistent trajectory this season. She doesn't love the Doctor enough ("Deep Breath"), or she loves the Doctor too much ("The Caretaker"). She wants to be like the Doctor ("Flatline," "In the Forest of the Night," "Death in Heaven"), she doesn't want to be like the Doctor ("Kill the Moon," "Mummy on the Orient Express"). She doesn't care enough about Danny ("Caretaker," "Mummy"), until she cares too much about Danny ("Dark Water"). To the Master she's a control freak who reins in the Doctor; to Danny she's a mindless soldier who's under the Doctor's control. She's the Doctor's conscience one minute, and too callous for the Doctor the next.
I'm exaggerating for effect—a little—and Jenna Coleman has somehow made all of this work, turning Clara into a great character. But she has done so in spite of a season that seemed to have no clear notion of what it wanted to do with her from one minute to the next, and which brought her in the end to a very muddled and unsatisfying climax. (Part of my problem, perhaps, is that—in part because of inconsistent writing—the relationship between Clara and Danny never seemed real to me. I honestly felt no investment in their "love," and felt nothing when Danny died, came back to life, and died again.)
But maybe I judge too soon: this isn't the end of Clara's story, apparently, because now fucking Santa Claus is on the case. (God help us all.)
Look, there's been a lot of good stuff in Season Eight, and both lead actors have been fantastic. But the problem with writing the way Moffat writes—with a focus on season-long mysteries and long character and thematic arcs—is that you've got to stick the landing. "Dark Water" and "Death in Heaven" just doesn't: this story doesn't work on its own, and, in failing so spectacularly to pay off on its big moments, it just makes us realize that this season's themes and characters were never well developed to begin with.
It's a goddamned mess, and a goddamned shame.
See you at Christmas.