“Teatime brutality for tots” was a phrased once uttered by spoilsport Mary Whitehouse to describe Doctor Who. She does have a slight point, ever since the early series’, Doctor Who has been very good at scaring children and adults alike. This isn’t a bad thing, though, Doctor Who has always been a programme that has taught “fear makes companions of us all”, and that being scared is not a flaw, more a strength. Doctor Who, in the various different genres and styles it has incorporated, has also managed to scare in many different ways. One of the most common ways is to take something from every day, ordinary life, and to turn that into something petrifying. This trope has been particularly common in the revival.
However, Doctor Who usually takes something harmless to turn into something terrifying. In real life, few people are scared of statues or shop window dummies. What people are scared of, and something I am admittedly terrified of is the thought of dying. Even though death is a normal part of life, and happens every single day, the thought of it still manages to scare most people shitless. What Dark Water does is take this already horrifying aspect of life, and tries to make it ten times worse. Does it succeed? Hell yeah, it does.
What makes Dark Water interesting is not only that it concepts the idea of an afterlife, a concept I personally find quite intriguing, but how it executes the idea. While most depictions of an afterlife, both in religion and in fiction, portray the idea of an afterlife as enchanting and majestic, whereas here it takes place in a darkly lit office. There’s no bright lights or angels, there’s a desk and a man in a suit. Offices usually have negative connotations, usually of tiredness and hard work, which goes against the pastoral nature of most other depictions of Heaven, where everything will be happy and perfect. Dark Water’s idea of an afterlife is almost disappointing, which is why it works. Notice how Danny is bewildered about where he is at first, even though he knows he just died. The ordinary depiction of the afterlife here terrifies because it goes against expectations.
What’s also terrifying is how it executes death itself. The idea that a dead person can feel what is happening to them is frankly chilling, and it’s really horrible to even think about. It’s probably the scariest Doctor Who has gotten as while something like Blink, even though it may be scary, is clearly a fictitious piece, this does slightly break the wall between real life and a story. It does get you thinking. What if this person who has just died can feel what is happening to them? As someone who does like to believe there is a god and a heaven, I do find it absolutely terrifying, and it’s fair to say the idea suggested here has never left my mind, two years from its original airing.
The appropriately dark themes though aren’t actually my favourite part of the episode. As with most episodes this series, the focus, and the highlight is the relationship between the Doctor and Clara. This time, it’s Clara who gets most of the focus. This episode is as much about Clara’s reaction to Danny’s death as it is about Danny’s death itself. Her most prominent characteristic in this one is probably her control freak nature, which I shall prominent throughout the entire script. Even from the very beginning. Danny says he’ll be at Clara’s flat in a couple of minutes, but she insists she talks to him now, rather than waiting a short duration of time. It’s Clara’s insistence to talk to Danny now which indirectly gets him killed, if he was paying attention to the street and not the phone, maybe thiamine episode wouldn’t have played out. Clara’s controlling personality also plays out later, most noticeably where she tries to get Danny to convince her it’s him. She doesn’t really listen to a word he says, as it doesn’t fit her idea of what he’s like.
The best and most layered depiction of Clara here would be the infamous volcano scene. Again it shows her controlling nature, she takes the reigns the Doctor’s horse here and tries to play events how she wants them to play out. Her egomania is present here, as she demands that she is deserved better and that she doesn’t give a damn about the consequences as long as she’s happy. I hope I don’t need to explain the recklessness, as I mean, she’s in a volcano for goodness sakes. It’s fair to say that Jenna Coleman acts this scene beautifully, nailing all the aspects of the character in this scene perfectly, and making good use of facial expression and tone of voice, saying everything in an almost monotonous way, showing both the characters’ mental state, and exaggerating the clearness of her message.
Peter Capaldi is fantastic here too, as usual. Particularly towards the end. His facial expression when Missy reveals herself as the Master, and after she kisses him, are absolutely brilliant, showcasing the terrified nature of the character brilliantly.
Which brings us on to Missy, which is probably the highlight of the episode for many people. I’m not a massive fan of the character, but she’s alright here. You can certainly tell she’s the Master here at times when she’s pretending to be the droid most noticeably, which is the sort of crappy disguise a classic incarnation would come up with. She’s also shown to wind up the Doctor here, which is a common trope of the character, however, I personally feel like it’s done in a very provocative way. There’s no way Moffat wrote “that scene” without the intention of winding up a few people on forums. Gomez does give a decent performance her. I don’t think it’s anything to rave about, but, she’s alright.
Also in the guest cast are Seb, played by the wonderful Chris Addison. Addison here is brilliantly smarmy and is obviously enjoying himself with the role. Andrew Leung as Dr Chang is okay and does a good job with his role, but I can’t say I was sad to see him killed.
The Cybermen are actually pretty good here too, featuring in their best appearance since 2006. They don’t really do much here, it’s more on a conceptual level, which admittedly is brilliant, however, it does please my inner fanboy to see them walking down the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral like the badass creatures they are.
The direction here is fantastic, Talalay proving herself to possibly being the best this series, and the score is phenomenally eerie too. If I have one problem with it, then the pacing isn’t great, it feels like an hour, not 45 minutes, but that’s understandable for a first part.
Overall: Absolutely fantastic. Chilling, conceptual, and with some fantastic character work.
Previous Store: 9
New Score: 9