02 November 2014

TV: Dark Water (Tom Newsom)

review by Tom Newsom (Twitter | Flickr | Blog)

If there’s anything you can take from the first part of this series finale, it’s that the series still has guts. From the first scene - did they really go there? - and then an electrifying meeting between our heroes, this starts off big and goes bigger, and madder, and creepier than before.

This week it’s Doctor Who meets Black Mirror, a drama with a scarily adult, ruthlessly modern approach to life and death and love. A bit satirical, a bit disturbing. Whereas The Pandorica Opens was pure fairytale - although Rory comes back as a murderous alien clone, it’s presented as a relief and the heartache doesn’t last - here, it feels like Danny and Clara are finally parted. Everything’s real: not laser guns, but machine guns. Not Weeping Angels and time cracks, but getting knocked down by a ‘boring’ car. It all feels uncomfortably real for Doctor Who, even when there’s science fiction involved behind it.

It’s the culmination of Moffat’s take on Doctor Who that we’ve seen previously in his stories - this year he’s continued to expand on elements like the Doctor’s new persona, the developing companion, relationships, scary monsters - this time it’s about death. In Silence in the Library, dead people were used as computer interfaces and souls were ‘uploaded’ onto a hard-drive. That same plot, or metaphor, or view, comes to the fore here: it might be wrapped up in a shiny Cyberman invasion, but it makes up the majority of this week’s viewing. Whilst it’s deconstructed and explained away in the last minutes of the episode, we are repeatedly told that this is heaven - certainly at the end of it, these are people who have recently died.

I’m comfortable with the idea of skeletons walking and random dead bodies being converted (and the methodology so fits the monsters and the villain, it’s a masterstroke). But the cremation angle is preposterously insensitive, along with the idea of your loved ones objecting to what happens to them, and the Doctor and the show knows it to be so. But it still goes there, just to the point of being upsetting to the audience, which can’t be taken back by a sloppily speedy sci-fi explanation. It’s a consequence of the show trying to explore themes of death from the point of view of the deceased, the grieving and the objective outsider - though does it really need to? - whilst finding out so much more about our characters when they’re pushed. It’s all getting too personal: for the characters, who I’m not sure come out of this story in the best of lights, and especially for us. There will be complaints.

Even so, the central idea is ludicrous, even the idea that the show would ever venture into that territory, or the Doctor would suddenly take want to take a trip to the afterlife to see what’s there. But this is the same Doctor who went on a trip to the end of the universe in Listen to see whether there were any monsters left, and the same Clara who wants to have both Danny and the Doctor in her life and is used to making things happen how she wants them. He takes Clara at her so-human words - and she takes him at his - and ‘goes to hell’ because that’s the only logical way left to try to save Danny. Ruthless logic, leading to some very human consequences. That’s the new show, take it or leave it.

I was surprised how much the character’s relationships were explored inbetween the mountains of set-up - the Nethersphere, Missy, the Cybermen, Danny... It’s a skilled balancing act even for Steven Moffat, one that’s helped by the smooth and surprisingly pacey direction. The ongoing tension as the characters work out what the Nethersphere is all about feels like we’re moving towards something big, and the use of the single Cybermen eye as a logo is magic, in an episode packed with striking visuals. With fast flashes of images and soundbites and injokes (Malcolm Tucker! Time Traveller’s Wife!), often it’s Doctor Who for the tumblr generation, even more so given a few of the jaw dropping events. But playing to the gallery isn’t a bad thing, especially when it’s this good.

Where does it fit in with the bigger picture, the wider show? Is this the modern bold story Doctor Who needs, or a step too far? (note to self: every previous series finale felt like a modern step too far, so it’s probably a good thing.) It’s a reinvention that’s been in place for some time now, a show that’s always looking forward and is firing on all cylinders here: in the level of acting, in the style, and in the irresistible blend of human writing, about pain and laughter but also shocks and spectacle. Whilst not all of the story has been told yet, it’s thrilling and surprising.

Outside of the episode, there’s a question about publicity - does knowing about the Cybermen being in it in advance spoil the mystery being set up here? Some of the bits in last week’s trailer weren’t even in this one. Personally I didn’t mind too much, this episode contained plenty of mysteries that I didn’t know about, or had only half worked out. And there’s an argument to be said that knowing some of the answers in advance didn’t affect things at all, perhaps even helping things. It’s the same thrill that you get when the Doctor works out that the Daleks are behind things in every story with the word ‘Daleks’ in the title. Or maybe it isn’t. I just hope that people won’t have more debates on TV spoilers than wondering about the bigger themes here of death, grief and the afterlife.

And of course, the plans of an evil supervillain wanting to take over the world to impress their, well, boyfriend. The mystery of Missy wasn’t exactly central to this week’s episode, but provided plenty of debate afterwards for viewers and fans that will last the next week. We’ve seen enough of what Moffat plans to do with the character for people to love or hate it - and if it feels like too a bold move for some, well, I’m sure a lot of those same people warmed to Last of the Time Lords in the end.

Or you can just enjoy the ride - there’s plenty here to like. And with this only being the first part of the tale, there’s plenty more to come.

many thanks to
Tom Newsom (Twitter | Flickr | Blog)

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