5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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DARK WATER/DEATH IN HEAVEN
Well. It’s been a long season, and a rough season, but we’ve finally got to the end. And here’s where Steven Moffat gets to pay off all the stuff he’s been flinging in all season long. At least, that’s the plan.
Dark Water gets off to a pretty gobsmacking start. Not gobsmacking in that Danny’s dead, because given all the teases about the afterlife in this season and also given the rumours about Clara’s departure, it was on the cards that one or both of them risked ending up on the slab. No, what’s surprising is how very mundane Danny’s death is. Not mauled to death by an alien monster. Just a car accident.
Like Clara says, it’s boring. It’s ordinary. That’s the shocking thing about it. It’s the kind of thing that happens every day, and yet that makes it no less devastating.
This dip into reality is what Steven Moffat does so well in Dark Water. It’s a new direction, and it’s uncomfortably powerful at times, and all of that’s a good thing. The trimmings that follow, with the volcano and the lava and all, aren’t really relevant. What matters is Clara’s grief, how she expresses it, and the Doctor’s reaction. It’s utterly gripping: what they’re saying isn’t particularly novel or revolutionary, but both actors are selling it like it’s going out of style. For Peter Capaldi in particular we haven’t got enough superlatives: here and all the way through the finale, he’s absolutely killing it (sorry). We’ve rarely seen an actor who can convey so much without even opening his mouth. When he’s given the opportunity, he makes a spectacular Doctor, and we’re lucky to have him.
The scene shifts to the afterlife, and Chris Addison proves that Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman don’t have the acting firepower all to themselves. This stuff is really, really great Who. We’re boldly going where no one has gone before, and it’s somewhere pretty compelling at that. Also, we have no idea what’s going on, so we’re totally off-balance. Is this really the afterlife? Is Danny really dead dead? We haven’t been this gripped by Doctor Who in a very long time.
Then there are the skeletons in the cupboard (just add water). We’d managed to avoid spoilers, so we had no clue what was going on here. All we knew is that it was mysterious and utterly, utterly creepy. And to make things even better, Missy arrives.
We said the first time Michelle Gomez appeared that we loved her madly (if you haven’t see it, find Green Wing, in which she steals every scene she’s in despite some strong competition), and she certainly doesn’t let us down in these episodes. The classic-style Master used to be more about hypnosis, sword-fighting and evil chuckles, but the rebooted Master’s much more in the Joker style. We never thought the manic hilarity mixed with psychosis sat that well on John Simm, but Michelle effortlessly knocks it out of the park. And we love the misdirection with her pretending to be a droid, which again she completely kills.
And her confrontation with the Doctor in which she spills it all is a masterpiece. It’s not that easy mixing comedy with such high emotion, but she does it and she’s hilarious. Very definitely our favourite Master. And given that we’ve been maintaining since the olden days that the Master has a massive crush on the Doctor, it’s kinda gratifying to hear her spit it right out.
Thirty-nine minutes of greatness. So good is it that what quibbles we do have for this part we’ve banished to the Outtakes.
And then the tanks start to drain. Whoops.
As one of us said, “It was all going so well, and then Cybermen”. Precisely. Cybermen! In what twisted universe is a story this fantastic, that’s delving into death and grief and loss and regret and all that good stuff, considered to be escalated by adding Cybermen?
And the emotional stuff unwinds a little at this point, too. Danny deliberately pushes Clara away so she won’t try and follow him, which is touching and all, but too similar to the Doctor telling Clara no as she flings keys lavawards.
On the whole, though, setting the Cybermen aside (oh, if only we could), Dark Water is a very strong episode indeed. It certainly set the bar for the second part. Would Steven Moffat manage to pull another one out of the hat?
Er, no. Not as such.
This is SF, supposedly, so we were expecting SFy-type stuff, but what we weren’t expecting was the appearance of the classic SF trope the Mirror Universe. Dark Water is powerful, gripping, engaging and well-plotted: Death In Heaven is…the other thing.
This being the case, for Death In Heaven we’re not going to do the bit where we say this happens, that happens, it was good/bad/awful, because it’s too depressing. Instead, we’re going to do this:
10 THINGS WE HATE ABOUT WHO
1. Moffat loves to set up questions to torture us with. But when the answer comes, it’s always, always the most obvious thing possible. Who is Melody? River. Who is River? The Doctor’s wife. Who killed the Doctor? River. Who is Missy? The Master. Who the hell else would it be?
2. Nothing’s ever over. Thought someone was dead? Yoohoo! I’m baa-ack! This has two unfortunate effects. First, it completely undoes the pathos, shock value, etc of the original death. Second, it means that when someone dies, you can’t afford to let the full measure of that hit you because you’re constantly suspicious that it won’t stick. We were sad and annoyed that Osgood was offed, for example, but we didn’t fully feel the force of it because we kept waiting for her to reappear in Time Heist stylee. And our suspicion when Danny was killed got in the way of the sadness of his death as well.
Oh yeah, and while we’re on this subject: remember how Missy getting killed is a big point in Death In Heaven? That says something or other profound about him, Clara, and him and Clara? Well, don’t get too fluffed up about it, because surprise! Missy isn’t dead. (Well, we say surprise…). According to us, anyway. When Missy kills people with her death ray thingy, the effect is a burst of orange flames, but when she transports, there’s a sheet of blue light. We find it desperately suspicious that when the Brig poinks her with his own death ray, the effect is...a sheet of blue light.
3. Sheer basic writing incompetence. For someone who’s made his career in the writing game, it’s astonishing how little Moffat knows about how to tell a story. No wonder he was surprised when Blink was such a success, because he wouldn’t know a well-crafted story if it leaped up and bit him on the arse. Without the restraining boot of a script editor on his neck, he’s utterly clueless.
There are rules to writing. And you know why we call ‘em rules? It’s because if you break them, you get into trouble. Take setting parameters, for example. Sounds deadly dull, but it’s critical. When you set up a story, you have to lay out the parameters up front and, more to the point, stick to them. If you’ve told the audience that the villain can’t walk and then show her jumping up and strangling the hero, your audience is going to be both mystified and pissed off. Pisstified.
This is a fault that bedevils all of Who under Moffat - he just can't stop himself from changing the rules as he goes along - but the Cybermen are some of the most horrible examples. Is there anything left they can’t do? They were pretty much unbeatable in Nightmare In Silver, with their newly acquired powers to move like Usain Bolt on speed and self-repair, but apparently that wasn’t enough. As well as it now being easier to grow a Cyberman than a Chia Pet, now they can fly and set fire to clouds too. It’s completely boring knowing that whatever the Doctor throws at them they’ll manage to evade by trotting out yet another previously unsuspected superpower.
4. Icky sticky sentimentality. And this kind of Cyberparameter breaking is even worse. We’ve seen love conquer the power of Cyberconditioning before, and it was awful then: mawkish and utterly lacking in logic. Here, it’s those things and clichéd, not to mention ludicrously unbelievable. What, Danny and the Brig are the only two Cybermen ever to have loved anyone enough to want to save the Earth? Yeah, right. (What’s more, the tale of Danny The Droopy Cyberman misfires for us in a way we’re sure they never expected: when Danny takes his face plate off, because of the way the Cyberhead surrounds his face and also because of the always-hilarious handles, he looks as if he’s wearing an adorable metal onesie. Aw!)
5. Going too far just to fake out the audience. Moffat clearly wants us to believe Osgood is going to be the next companion, having the Doctor mumbling about all of time and space and Osgood reaching for her inhaler. We’ve never thought Moffat had much liking for Osgood, as we suspect she stands in for the type of fan he loves so much that caused him to ragequit Twitter, but she’s beloved by the audience, and killing her just to pull the rug out from under us feels like massive overkill. (And it doesn’t even work. Thanks to multiple examples of this tactic from Moffat previously, as soon as the Doctor delivered his time and space line one of us said flatly “She’s dead”.)
6. Scope creep. Everything has to be expanded. As well as the Cyberman being able to do everything save telling knock-knock jokes, the Doctor has to be not only a hero/bad man/god but also the Chief Executive Officer of the human race.
7. That fairy tale thing. Moffat has always said he regards Doctor Who as a fairy tale, and we’re willing to concede that there’s no reason to exclude some fairy tale aspects. Use of archetypes, for example, can be a very powerful device. Moffat’s take on this, however, seems to be that since it’s a fairy tale there’s no need for even the scantiest skerrick of logic in the plotting. Why does Missy need the recently dead’s minds but not the minds of those dead for longer to make Cybermen? How, exactly, is the cyberpollen using centuries-old bones as a Cyberman frame? How is the rain, which previously was full of pollen, now suddenly going to kill everybody? Where does the body for the kid Danny killed come from when he returns? Why, when Clara and the Doctor are lying to each other at the end, are they talking about the supposedly returned Danny as if everything would be back to normal? If he did come back, he’d be a Cyberman! Try explaining that at Tesco.
This breezy attitude to attention to detail also leaves plot threads flapping in the wind. Remember all the buildup to, and the horror of, the revelation that the dead can feel it when they're cremated? A lot of Dark Water pretty much devotes itself to this, and yet once they spring it we never hear about it again. It's there purely for shock value and then is dumped unceremoniously. It took a lengthy discussion for us to figure out that what they seemed to be getting at was that it only applied to people in the Nethersphere and as that was no longer operational it was no longer a problem, but it shouldn't be that difficult. In fact, the whole Nethersphere Cybermen versus non-Nethersphere Cybermen thing is ridiculously murky. Try working out the differences, or indeed why the Nethersphere's there at all beyond it being cool. Just try. Our advice: bring tequila.
8. Clara’s doomed love story. So tragic, right? Death cannot separate them! Sniff, sniff! And it’s somehow all the Doctor’s fault! But wait a minute - what happened really? Clara and Danny are actually two people who met at work and fell in love, but both have very different priorities and ideas about how they want to live. Clara’s A-OK with exploring as much of space and time as she can insert herself into, whereas Danny thinks anywhere out of Shoreditch is too dangerously exciting. What’s more, rather than compromising, Danny wants Clara to give up what she holds dear to fit in with him. It’s been fun, but it's not you, it’s me, right? Well, yeah, in real life. Here, Clara deals with the problem by lying like a rug to everybody in sight, thus raising the toxicity level of the relationship several more notches. Not exactly a romance for the ages, is it? And how, exactly, is the Doctor to blame for any of that?
9. Smart people doing stupid things. When it comes to plotting, this is Moffat’s go-to. UNIT knows how dangerous the Master is. Why would they not knock Missy out with the same kind of drug they used on the Doctor? Why, when the plane starts going down, does everybody not get in the TARDIS? Why do the guards do nothing as Missy first very visibly activates her bracelet, then puts on lipstick? Why does Osgood, who’s already told the Doctor they have dossiers on the Master and who has clearly read them, a) get so close to Missy and b) not scarper when Missy threatens her? Why? Also, WHY?
10. It’s All About The Doctor. There hasn't been an episode this season this hasn't been true of and the finale is no exception. Missy’s evil plan seems to basically come down to supplying the Doctor with a pet army, not so she can take over the universe as per standard Master operating procedure, but so she can prove the Doctor is just as bad as her. The Doctor making the decision to activate Danny’s de-emotioning chip is about saving the Earth much less than it’s about showing how terribly, terribly evil and unfeeling and officeresque he is. And like we said, there’s always that hovering cloud of This Is All The Doctor’s Fault re Danny and Clara’s relationship, when we can’t see he did anything wrong there at all. It’s not as if he’s the Dream Lord sneakily trying to seduce Amy, after all. This is dreadfully tedious, and worse, could even be fatal. Seriously. If this thing is never about more than examining the lead’s character with a microscope, it’s very soon going to run out of oxygen.
And because we’re just as good at lying as the Doctor and Clara, here are a few more:
11. The “just because” ever-so-convenient plot point. Missy’s been whizzing back and forth with her magic bracelet all season, but when Danny gets his tin hands on it, suddenly there’s only enough juice for one lonely trip?
12. Assorted people and villains constantly accusing the Doctor of being innately bad, a soldier, a Dalek or whatever. This has been endlessly tedious, although dare we to hope that with the Doctor’s speech about being an idiot with a blue box we’ve seen the back of it at last? We’re been saying since forever that ees just zis guy, you know? - a Time Lord, yes, but not the ruler of the known bloody universe or a god. Like he himself says, “I am an idiot with a box and a screwdriver! Passing through…helping out…learning. “ This is both a relief to hear after the mountain of accusations (“Then shame on you, Doctor”) and frustrating, because if that’s the way it officially is, then why have they been boring and annoying us into the ground with this theme since the beginning of recorded time?
13. Spectacular crassness. We loved and respected both the Brig and the actor who played him, and we know we’re not alone. Seeing him turned into a Cyberman was absolutely beyond the pale. In fact, one of us turned white with anger, stood up, said “I fucking hate Steven Moffat” and walked out. That’s it for her: she’s done with Moffat-flavoured Who. The rest of us struggled through to the end, but we don’t blame her even a little bit. You can say “It’s just a TV show” all you like, but we think that when someone tramples through your memories with dirty boots, you’re entitled to take it seriously and you’re entitled to take it personally.
And that's not all of it. Howard Ingham writes to point out that this episode aired on Remembrance Weekend in the UK (in New Zealand we observe Anzac Day, so this had passed us by). He wonders if this was unfortunate timing or actually deliberate, which would be much worse. We think he has an excellent point, and we also wonder if all the soldier emphasis this year, winding up on Remembrance Weekend, was deliberately timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War 1. It was bad enough before, but the sheer tastelessness of this possibility is almost too unbearable to contemplate.
It’s a mess. Nonsensical plot. Far too convenient plot devices. Badly handled characters. And we don’t usually feel sorry for the Cybermen, but they were utterly thrown away here. It’s telling, we think, that the trailer for this episode gives a very different impression of the story than what actually happens. If you have to edit your trailer to show a completely different plot from the one you’re actually using in order to make it look interesting, wouldn’t you think that would be a clue that you’ve got something very wrong?
And it’s even more of a shame after the vast majority of Dark Water was so strong. What a season. Two episodes we genuinely liked. A couple more with decent elements. That’s just not good enough. What’s more, what’s been bad has been very bad and for very bad reasons.
There are only two things we can point to as being strong in this season. One is scale: we’ve complained for years that they keep trying to squash worlds-spanning epics into cramped spaces, and at last, Moffat seems to have learned this lesson. With the exception of Death In Heaven, which is forgivable seeing that big finales now seem to be de rigueur, every other episode has been exactly right-sized. That’s a fantastic development.
And the other great thing has been the acting. Clara has frequently been badly written, but where she’s had the opportunity, Jenna Coleman has taken the ball and run with it and has turned in some wonderful work. And Peter Capaldi has been even better. He’s suffered the curse Matt Smith had - great Doctor, bad scripts - but in spades. Where he’s been able to get his teeth into it, though, he’s undoubtedly done some of the best work we’ve ever seen in Doctor Who. If they leave the Doctor alone to get on with it instead of endlessly questioning who he is, we’re going to see a Doctor who’s way up there with the best of them.
It’s something. But it’s not enough. It’s got to improve, though, next season. Hasn’t it? Hasn’t it?
FROM HERE TO MATERNITY
So what’s Clara up to with all the Post-Its? Well, here’s our theory: since one of them says “Three months”, we’re taking a punt that “Just say it” refers to the pregnancy news she was about to break to Danny. (Hey, Orson Pink has to come from somewhere, right?) And that’s also why the Doctor says to her “You’re quite the mess of chemicals.” So, Christmas episode? Given that Moffat covers the resurrection angle here, the Christmas ep must surely involve a donkey, a manger and some myrrh, yes?
The Doctor’s supposed to be all discombobulated by Missy kissing him, but actually as she reaches in for the kill he tilts his head forward obligingly towards her. This is just the actors trying to make things easier for each other, but it’s a bit of a slip.
A GOOD HEART IS HARD TO FIND
Why doesn’t the Doctor detect Missy’s second heart when she puts his hand on her chest?
So the “x-ray water” only shows organic materials, right? So why, when Dr Chang puts his hand in, does his sleeve disappear? Even if the material is synthetic, it’s still organic.
“I’m not going to kill you until you say something nice.” What kind of numpty would say something nice after that?
RESISTANCE IS FUTILE
‘“You think your father would have done this?” “We both know he absolutely would.”’ First of all, the hell he would. And secondly, what’s this crapola about the Doctor being unreliable? When has he ever refused to help UNIT/Earth out of a jam?
“It was Captain Scarlet. Not Thunderbirds.” Well, we’re glad somebody pointed that out. And if Moffat thinks we're laughing at how geeky they are, he's definitely playing to the wrong audience.
Why, why, why do they keep casting great comedy people in throwaway parts? Poor Sanjeev Bhaskar: he has about one and a half lines before going into freefall. (Thanks to Greg Chadwick for reminding us about this.)
And speaking of freefall, there's not exactly a lot of followup to the deaths of all those UNIT people, is there? A whole lot of people have just died, messily, and they get no acknowledgement at all. Hey ho, it's on to the Doctor grabbing the TARDIS out of the air and Clara's romantic problems.
What’s the dealio with the supposedly creepy scene in the graveyard with Clara and the flashes of silver? Dudes. We know it’s Cybermen, and so does she. It’s a bit late to try and wring suspense out of it, especially when after Clara does see Cybermen she just wanders around lackadaisically amongst them.
Why in God’s name would the Doctor hand the screwdriver over to Clara? He would never give her that burden to carry, and what’s more, he would never allow her to get so close to what’s meant to be a fully Cybed Cyberman. Yes, it’s thematic and all that Clara does it, but you can’t get away with that if it makes no sense for the characters
WE’RE TRYING NOT TO SAY WIMPY
Danny wants to lose his emotions and become a full Cyberman just because Clara hurt him? He doesn’t think that’s a little…extreme?
MY EVIL PLAN LET ME SHOW YOU IT
Why would a fully Cybed Cyberman help the Doctor anyway? Yes, Danny does actually mysteriously resist the full effects, but the Doctor has no reason to think that’s going to happen.
BURN BABY BURN
How do they fix things just last episode in In The Forest Of The Night? By setting fire to the trees. How do they fix things here? By setting fire to the clouds. Imagination much?
Clara really believes that if Gallifrey was found the Doctor would go home and stay there? This might be the most preposterous plot point in the whole thing.