That Steven Moffat, loves to tease, doesn’t he? Loves to acquaint you with the rug, loves to let you feel its warmth, how plush it is, how soft and safe and comforting – before he pulls it out from under you, revealing that it was never really a rug at all. As you knew all along, of course.
So hands up who didn’t make the connection? Missy being Mistress being... well, she couldn’t really keep calling herself “Master”, now could she?
As fans, we can be expected to guess these things, or even if we don’t guess them, at least know that what we didn’t guess was coming. And we’ve all been tossing our guesses around on Facebook and Twitter and all over the Nethernet (that special place where Doctor Who fans go when they ... become Doctor Who fans). So for most if not all of us, the reveal of Missy’s real identity wasn’t exactly a shock. But it was a lovely moment, and even when you think you know what’s coming, there’s still a keen sense of anticipation as you wonder whether you’re really right. As for the rest of the world, those who aren’t even aware of the Nethernet’s existence, I’m sure the last five minutes of Dark Water were a real treat. It wasn’t quite Utopia, but then it would have been difficult to pull that trick for a second time. Instead Steven Moffat attempted to trick us into mislaying our guesses in the recesses of gender identity – more on that anon, needless to say – and treated us to one of the most moving and surprising episodes of Doctor Who since ... well, since Listen, at least.
For a pre-finale episode it was all remarkably slow moving. Rather than dazzling us with data and disguising his sleight of hand beneath an excess of imagery, as he had done in The Pandorica Opens and The Wedding of River Song, Moffat took the much more measured approach of The Name of the Doctor and allowed the horror of what was unfolding to tear our attention away from what was happening elsewhere. He also made benefit of one of his biggest nuisances; for once, spoilers fair saved the day.
For years, fan-posted location photos have been giving away some of the programme’s big secrets, often far further and wider afield than just the Nethernet, and for the last couple of years the current production regime have been sidestepping the problem by getting the information out there first, in a more controlled manner. About to take a Zygon out in public? Simply tell the internet that that’s what you’re about to do, and the spoiler hounds’ thunder is stolen. For Dark Water and next week’s Death in Heaven, there was no way to avoid the internet finding out about Cybermen descending the steps outside St Paul’s, so Moffat has taken advantage of this by creating a buzz around the episode suggesting the Cybermen as its main focus. So although much attention has been gathering around the question of Missy’s identity, even the episode itself misdirects and throws red herrings about in all directions, as we struggle to work out which revelations relate to Missy and which to the Cybermen. By making us think the Cybermen are more important, and by initially making us think that Missy might perhaps not even be in charge of what’s going on, many of the clues that are staring us in the face go unnoticed, or at the very least unrecognised as such.
Because it’s not really a Cyberman story at all. Missy has been harvesting the dead in order to create a new army of the creatures that are no more authentic Cybermen than iron pyrite is really gold. Indeed, she has taken the Cyber production process and twisted it so much, it would be like driving a brand new BMW but with the engine of a Ford Capri tucked away inside. They have become in essence nothing more than a tool, in the same way the Sea Devils once did, losing all the realism that their cousins the Silurians had previously had. Which is not a criticism; I’ve always found the Cybermen somewhat less than the sum of their parts, so finding a purpose for them that doesn’t involve them having to own the story is far from a bad thing.
It’s worth noting also that Moffat turned what he must have guessed would be production shortcomings on the volcano sequence to his advantage, by having that be something that took place only in Clara’s mind. On every level, it feels like more thought – more aforethought, even – has been put into this story than might previously have been the case. And the scene that follows, in which Clara misreads the Doctor’s “Go to Hell” in an entirely understandable way, might just be one of the most moving things that Moffat has ever written. And that’s because it’s not overplayed by the two actors, but presented as real. The performances in Dark Water are amongst the best (and in Michelle Gomez’s case, the most exciting) that Doctor Who has had in a long while – and given what we’ve seen in Series 8 so far, that’s saying something.
Steven Moffat has an affinity with diversionary tactics and with some especially creepy ideas that we often take for granted, if not are downright dismissive of. And while the disclosure regarding the eponymous Dark Water is something that we can guess ahead of time given our foreknowledge of where the story’s heading, there’s plenty else in this episode to keep us occupied instead. Making a big thing of what 3W would eventually mean might have been a mistake in lesser hands, but when we eventually find out what those three words are, they’re such a logical extension of the conceit behind the new Cybermen, and such a horrifying concept (a little reminiscent of Torchwood: Miracle Day, if truth be told), they are far from a disappointment. There’s a lovely touch for long term viewers as well, when a familiar piece of music accompanies a closing door in a way that sets the pulse rising even in spite of achieving nothing more than signalling what we already know. That’s confident programme-making.
The question regarding Death in Heaven, the second half of this two-part finale, is how much focus will be on the Cybermen and how much on the regulars and their interaction with Missy. Will the Doctor be able to restore Danny to Clara’s side, for example? So far, particularly given Moffat’s reputation for raising the dead, there’s nothing to suggest that the series won’t conclude with the characters geographically in more or less the same places they started it. As to what it will all mean for their relationships, only the next seven days will tell.
But there’s one relationship that’s been irrevocably changed here in Dark Water, and it’s the one that exists between the viewer and the title character. For by having the Master become a Time Lady in a televised story – by showing rather than telling, as happened with the Corsair for instance – things will never be the same again. Every time the Doctor regenerates, there is always the same call from certain quarters for the new Doctor to be a woman. And every time it fails to happen, for the simple reason that such a huge change needs precedence in order to feel justified. Well, Steven Moffat has now given us irrefutable precedence. Should Peter Capaldi’s successor be a woman, eyelids that might once have been raised would now find it difficult even to bat, and while some might balk at Moffat’s progressiveness, ultimately that’s a very good thing. It may be quite a while before we actually get a female Doctor, but should it ever happen, we now know that it won’t be change for change’s sake, rather it will be because the best person for the job got the job.
Steven Moffat has always shied away from writing a “proper” old school monster story. His dialogue and characterisation are far too idiosyncratic to throw away on Daleks or Cybermen (the eponymous pepperpots were really little more than bookends in Asylum of the Daleks), and that doesn’t look to be about to change in Death in Heaven. He does love his artificially-preserved consciousnesses, though, and somehow it feels like next week’s finale will be as much, or more, about what happens to Danny, and what the consequences of this mini Matrix might be, as it will be about the neo Cyber-army. Dark Water is the perfect set-up; thoughtful, layered, and surprising in both typical and unexpected ways, it’s not the action-packed build up we might have expected it to be. It was a lot better than that.
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