‘Doctor Who’ review: ‘Dark Water’

You know the rules. Some days in Doctor Who, nobody dies at all. Some days, everybody lives.

But today is not that day, and certainly not for poor Danny Pink, knocked down and killed by a car – an unfortunate ordinary death for an ordinary bloke. Very un-Rory. Probably registering only 0.2 Adrics on the show’s Dramatic Demise scale. Even Rose’s dad managed to break a vase as he went.

Naturally Clara wants to change the past and save her boyfriend from being hit by a car. A terrible idea, but she hasn’t seen ‘Father’s Day’ so you can’t blame her. Her decision to force The Doctor into changing the past would be an emotionally volcanic moment – a companion fully rebelling against the callous old man of Time – if it hadn’t already been firmly established that you can just click your fingers to open the TARDIS. She even did it herself in ‘The Caretaker’.

But ‘Dark Water’ is going for Dark Who, internal logic be damned, and is clearly in the mood to scare its audience existentially rather than with shocks. A living nightmare rather than a dream. (Or dream patch, even. Hopefully that’ll be the last we see of those deus ex stickers.)

Doctor Who Dark Water 2

So it’s off to 3W, a company based on the most desperate Apprentice pitch ever: ‘Don’t cremate me’. The idea that the soul is still tethered to the body after death is the most tea-time nightmarish the show has ever presented; more Torchwood than Who.

Although why cremation would be more painful than slowly rotting in a box, or indeed, a tank of Dark Water™ is conveniently glossed over. As with a real nightmare, some of the logic is missing. 3W’s science is three kinds of wonky. But like The Doctor, we know that.

Just as we always knew ‘Heaven’ wasn’t going to be anything Divine. In fact it’s far more exciting: a Gallifreyan Matrix, of the kind seen in ‘The Deadly Assassin’ and ‘Trial of a Time Lord’, except its interior is a beautifully-realised Dante’s Dyson sphere rather than Tom Baker hanging on a quarry wall.

Doctor Who Dark Water Seb

Inside the techno-gubbins, Capaldi’s Thick of It chum Chris Addison gives a wonderfully oleaginous performance that skips between the flippant and the foreboding, while Samuel Anderson has little more to do than pull a series of expressions. His past catching up with him should be something stomach-churning, but because Clara’s self-inflicted double-life drama has kept him separate from the audience this series, it’s hard to connect with him, even at the cliffhanger of him preparing to become fully Cyberform by pressing ‘Delete’ on his emotions.

Ah, ‘Delete’. Memories of 2006, Andrew Hayden Smith in a van and two Mickeys. The reveal of the Cybermen is heavily telegraphed (and trailers made it no surprise), but the moment of their arrival is a great evocation of ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’, swiftly followed by another Cyber-classic reference as the metal men stompa-stompa down the steps at St. Pauls. It’s all frightfully iconic but completely insignificant to the big reveal of the 11-week nagging question: Missy who?

The Master. The Mistress. All the clues pointed in that direction: insane, mercurial, with an intimate knowledge of The Doctor and a previous experience of working with alien enemies (Autons, Daleks, Toclafane). Didn’t we all know, deep down, it was going to be. The only piece that hasn’t fallen into place is what she’s doing it for. Control of half a steel planet?

Doctor Who Dark Water 5

The Mistress. It trips off the tongue, and makes perfect sense. It’s the best way to ease the more recalcitrant fans into the fan-forum hypotheses of gender-swapping Time Lords, and the headline-grabbing idea of a female Doctor. And frankly, after 40 years of beards and terrible outfits and cackling, it’s time The Master was shaken up.

Season 8 has been so preoccupied with the moral ambivalence of The Doctor that there’s now only room for one crackpot Time Lord. Time for a crackpot Time Lady (we too are old-fashioned). And wow does Michelle Gomez fulfill that title with a frightening exuberance.

Yet even before the question of identity is answered, Gomez steals the limelight from a Doctor who has continually impressed in his inaugural season. Unhinged, hilarious, mercurial, deadly, she takes the show and gives it a whopping great smacker on the lips. The part was clearly written for her and yet she still exceeds the expectations of every word with a wolfish glee.

It’s almost enough to make you forget that it’s not Moffat’s strongest cliffhanger. That’s not surprising: he destroyed the universe in 2010. How do you out-peril that? But with lashings of his trademark creepiness, and a pinch of RTD street-level finale spectacle, ‘Dark Water’ has the bones of an exciting finale.

It will likely be an even stronger instalment when connected to its second part, where it seems no one will die and everyone will live. Just as a Cyberman.


Aired at 8.15pm on Saturday 1 November 2014 on BBC One.

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What did you think of the episode? Let us know below…

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  • Jess

    “Although why cremation would be more painful than slowly rotting in a box, or indeed, a tank of Dark Water™ is conveniently glossed over.”

    Because their bodies are inside cybermen suits, and they would have done what Danny was offered and “deleted” their emotions… obvious?

    • Erik Setzer

      Yes, we know that, but the Doctor and Clara don’t. To them, all they can see are rotting corpses in a tank of water. So the question should have been in their minds. (Of course, Clara’s too grief-stricken to think clearly, and the Doctor might have already filed that away as a clue something is wrong.)

    • ohforheavensake

      It’s pretty obvious, I thought: the Mistress set this up- so the Don’t Cremate Me message is fake, designed to make sure that bodies are intact (and can be turned into Cybermen).

      Pretty simple, really.

  • Kevin1960

    Rob Smedley….a ‘reviewer’ without any logic at all, internal or otherwise. Get the other guy back!!

    • Rob Smedley

      Good news: I’ve already notified ‘the other guy’. Takes a few hours for our CultBox reviewer-tombs to drain though.

      Thanks though. Reviewing Doctor Who this season would have been far less fun without your comments. Have a big Missy-style kiss (and three on the nose) from me. xxx

      PS: Robot of Sherwood is still four kinds of awesome 😉

      • Shannon Adams

        I quite agree on Robot of Sherwood. it’s my favorite episode of S8. It hit so many funny bones–classic Mark Gatiss. “Desiccated man-crone” oh my god too funny.

    • Rudeness.

  • kellyh

    Superb – five stars surely? Although I guess the second part needs to be similarly epic which all signs point to it being.

    • David Tillman

      Presumably he escaped before the Doctors sent Galifrey into a pocket universe.

      • Jim Starkweather

        I agree. Zero if I could do that even. This season reminds me of the days of Sylvester McCoy in the waning years of the first show. And while I know the show is still incredibly popular at this point it is no longer the heady days of Davies, but the slow decent into hell of Mofat. Wake me up when there is a new show runner.

        • WillZ

          I’ll disagree with both of you. Yes, the reveal was telegraphed to US, but the Doctor did not know. A lot of the posturizing and saying “it sucked” I have been hearing from people is from the fact that the writing has gotten a lot tighter than it had been during RTD’s day. So far, the ONLY episode I have not liked has been The curse of the Black dot, and that’s because it was utterly boring and incohesive. Everything else has had a purpose, and if you go back and watch them all over again, you’ll start to see even more little bits that bring the episodes together. A lot of you are unhappy that Moffat’s not spoon-feeding you like Davies did.

        • Anoush Jay Sansom

          You whinge about Moffatt, yet you’ve been watching his Doctor Who for 3 whole seasons now… if you hate it so much, why are you still watching, and furthermore going online to comment about it??

          • Mark S

            Hear! Hear! Couldn’t agree more. But then the Moffat-haters like to shout their disdain for his tenure from the rooftops whenever possible, so these kinds of comments don’t surprise me.

  • Gavrill

    Seeing as The Master, or Mistress in this case, survived, what would that mean of Gallifrey? How would he/she have escaped? We know that the Doctor saved Gallifrey and the Master was trapped there in ‘The End of Time p2’, but if he got out, what ended up happening to the planet?

    • David Tillman

      Presumably he got out before the Doctors sealed Galifrey in the pocket universe.

    • Erik Setzer

      We *don’t* know that the Master got trapped there, just that he disappeared (and the Doctor might have blacked out for a moment after the flash, allowing the Master time to escape the building). Also, that Gallifrey wouldn’t exist in the manner it was, given that he went back later and saved Gallifrey, and instead of them fighting the Doctor, they later became very thankful and sent him a new batch of regenerations.

      Basically, Moffat’s trying to fix the screw-up of locking away/killing all the Time Lords. Which is good. Gallifrey had a lot of great stories on it.

    • kt

      in Day of the Doctor, when Clara is coming out of the “Gallifrey falls no more,” painting, you see a hand grabbing onto the frame. We don’t know for sure that that was Clara’s hand, it looks a lot older. Also I think the rings match. That’s one theory on how the Master got out.

      • David Beach

        Yes, I’ve always wondered about that odd hand placement when Clara joined them in the Dark Archive.


    Obvious Moffat is obvious.

    • WillZ

      Yes. Obvious to US. Again, watch the episode form the Doctor’s point of view, and look back as to when you thought the “reveal” was going to happen, and then look at the episode knowing that we know and the Doctor doesn’t and Missy’s playfullness with the Doctor becomes deliciously pervect.

    • Anoush Jay Sansom

      And yet you’re still watching 3 season since the change from RTD…

  • I think you forgot about Clara being the most well-developed so far in the revived show so far, along with Rose. This episode really gave her even more strength and consistence. I’m actually really glad this season was more focused on her. Jenna is an amazing actress.

  • Joe

    Brilliant acting

    1). Danny don’t you dare press delete
    2). Why was we made to think the trailer clips from ep 10 were from this episode instead of Death in Heaven even though some were from this ep.
    3). I wonder if Missy could be lying about who she is but either way Michelle Gomez is brilliant in the part and is a good addition to dr who.

    Best episode so far defiantly has booted Time Heist from the top spot.

  • David Tillman

    The Mistress and Capaldi just don’t have the chemistry The Master and all the past Doctors had. Tenet and Simms had a real chemistry, and you got the feeling Doctor and Master had once been brothers in arms. Making The Master into a woman won’t work. Remember the first era got run into the ground because of bad writing and moth balled for 17 years. I think it’s starting to happen with this series too. Let’s see what the ratings are like next week.

    • WillZ

      We’ve only really seen them together for less than a THIRD of an episode. God, the others in their interactions had a lot more time. Give it a little bit more time, and THEN make a judgment.

      • The sky is falling! I’m a Doctor Who fan! AAAAARRHHHHH…. 🙂

  • Jason Padgett

    you are wrong about Pink’s death not being dramatic, in many ways it is because he got hit by a car that makes it more dramatic. All I could think when it happened was WTF, it was way to unexpected.

  • David Beach

    The Tardis opens with a click of the fingers if you have a bloody key to it in your pocket, which was the first one she copped, I believe.