TV Well of course it is, anyone with half a brain after watching Deep Breath thought this is who Missy would turn out to be, even if the other half sushed its cranial neighbour for being too obvious. But as anyone whose also seen Leon Ny Taiy manfully brave his way though the scenes in Time-Flight when the Master’s pretending to be Kalid for no reason since it’s a disguise and no one is there and in any case he looked like Anthony Ainley in some make-up or indeed watched the Pertwee era and is surprised when it isn’t the Master, sometimes Doctor Who shamelessly does the obvious because to do anything else wouldn’t be Doctor Who.
Which isn’t to say Steven doesn’t tease us a bit on the way, providing Ted Rogers levels of obfuscation and misdirection through Missy’s dialogue. " “You left me for dead" … now that could be a reference to his grand daughter Susan Foreman, who the Doctor left in the post-apocalyptic remains of the Dalek invasion of Earth, but he’s met her since in the now canonical Eighth Doctor audios so it can’t be her. That also rules out Romana though the late reference to “mistress” could also provide a similar red herring. What about those two hearts? Well, River Song and the Rani both had two hearts…”
Given Moffat’s correct adoration for Big Finish, I don’t think he could bring himself to do any of that, assuming he even considered a different answer. Like the Eighth Doctor’s regeneration, Big Finish would have done something with it presumably even if it had been Romana, and of all of them, I sort of wish it had been her, foreshadowed by Clara’s own betrayal early on in the episode. Or indeed the rather clever theory and that she’d turn out to be some alternative version of Clara generated during The Name of the Doctor, all grown up. Or something so amazingly gonzo that most of us wouldn't have thought "Well, of course it is..."
But obvious is obvious, and, this is crucial, think on that despite this and that and the other happening online, they’d changed the gender of the Doctor’s key foe and it’s arguably the least interesting thing about it, other than to say some viewers might find the notion of gender as effectively the new school iteration of Ainley’s make-up in Time-Flight offensive. I’m just going to leave that sentence where it is and move on because I’m not sure either way and I think to an extent Moffat himself is commenting on the idea of the Master of disguise when he has Missy pretending to be a robot in the false reveal.
Is the notion that a Time Persons can change gender that much of a thing? Is it that big of a deal? Clearly we’ve been building up to this since the Corsair business but I suppose that she’s the Doctor’s mortal enemy and potential sibling makes it so. Creating malleability in a Time Person’s regenerative cycle does also offer some preparatory towards what we all suspect will happen after Capaldi leaves in 2016 and Romola Garai takes over. There’s always been a notion in genre fiction, or indeed life, that one thing has to happen for something to be normalised before the even greater shift occurs.
Now we’re in Utopia territory of dealing with the hows. Given everything which happened to the Simm model, does Missy still have a regenerative cycle? Or is this some kind of possession ala Tremas (though I was always foggy about whether the Ainley Master had a Time Lord’s anatomy and if he did where the extra heart came from unless he had the luck of possessing someone from a planet in which everyone happened to have a duel vascular system or whatever a time space incident with a personality has.) Plus how did he escape from Gallifrey? She escape from Gallifrey? It’s going to be fun watching professional reviewers deal with the pronoun issue over the coming weeks as they wrestle with the timeline [updated 20/11/2014: Mags has pointed me towards the BBC's approach and the GLAAD guidelines].
All of which said, Michelle Gomez is of course, blooming marvellous in the role and a brilliant choice going forward. My first introduction to her work was in The Book Group, whose twelve episodes are still on 4od, and also features Rory "The Hound" McGann from Game of Thrones. She's very much observed how her predecessors have tended to oscillate between calculating repose and bursts of evil energy, but like them brought herself to it, though her flamboyance is oddly closer to Eric Roberts than any of the others. Notice the moment in the corridor when she's listening to the Doctor attempting to put the pieces together almost waiting for her cue to go on...
Nearly seven hundred words in and I haven’t mentioned the title yet, so it’s important to do that now. Dark Water. There we go. As for the rest … well … this is the first proper two-parter since The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People in 2011 and as has always been the case, it’s near impossible to really appreciate whether it’s actually any good until the second half. As we discovered with that story, the first episode is merely average then goes gang busters for the second half but there are a few stories across the show’s history in which the opposite is true (The Space Museum).
With that in mind, where am I on this? Well … it’s entirely possible to list the virtues. The general sense of unease which pervades the thing, in which director Rachel Talalay (IMDb) always seems to choose the item in the scene we don't expect to be looking at, not unlike the first episode of The Mind Robber, works extremely well. This is aided in no small part by the trailers and clips, which suggested the story would be one thing, what’s happening next week presumably, and instead had us watching something else entirely, a bit like plonking the preview for The Sontaran Stratagem at the end of The Unicorn and the Wasp.
The Silence in the Library is one of the key texts here, the Doctor and his companion exploring some old building and meeting skeletons which aren’t what they seem cross cut with a parallel storyline set, as its revealed within a parallel world inside a tiny space. For all the style with which its delivered its impossible not to think of it as another example of Moffat’s conscious/unconscious recycling, of which we know the writer himself is clearly appreciative thanks to having the Doctor ruminate on the notion of paradoxes early in the episode as if to red flag to the perceptive viewer that it’s not going to be one of those for a change.
Revelation of the Daleks is another influence but they’re notably doing different things. One has Daleks. The other has Cybermen. But if as we’re expecting, the Nethersphere’s inhabitants will turn out to be the raw materials for the creation of these Cybermen, not that different. We’ll see. What is worth noticing for the purposes of some future essay in one of those several hundred amateur Kindle books full of bean-plating, is how the Doctor’s motivation there is visiting some dude whom we’ve never met, whereas this had the greater emotional pick up of a dead boyfriend as the quest goal, underscoring how times and tastes change.
But yes, even though it’s clear exactly where Dark Water is going, it’s possible for much of the duration to have no idea (though you could argue this would have been heightened by not actually knowing the Cybermen would be appearing though filming outside St Pauls in broad daylight was a bit of a give away). These slights of hand, of presenting one set of events only to reveal the intent in another set of events are classic Moffat and thanks to a lack of flashback structure for much of the duration (unlike some recent instalments) (The Time of the Doctor) it gives the episode a feeling of seeing events as they happened, of being lived events.
It goes without saying that the performances are top notch but I’ll say it anyway. The performances are top notch. Overlookable but Andrew Leung is remarkable as Dr Chang, one of those thankless roles in which someone has to find a character from nothing other than some exposition and a suit, be likeable enough that we care if they die but not so much that he becomes the focus of the episode (cf, Navin Choudry or Ayesha Dharker). His death scene is gut-wrenching as his character realises that he’s doomed no matter what he says, the paradox of knowing that his complement will lead to his demise anyway. Good manners as a death sentence.
The Nethersphere sequences are the most extraordinary in the show’s history, certainly some of Moffat’s best writing. Wickedly dark in places, it’s about as Pythoneseque as the show’s been in years, arguably since we had an honorary Python as our script editor, though it’s also fair to say that Danny’s reaction to the Nethersphere is very much like Arthur’s adventures on Magrathea. There is something rather impressive about how this whole new world is evoked through what Danny and so us can see outside the office balcony window and what he’s told by Seb (Chris Addision showing a real facility for character acting).
Except, and I can already see a couple of you raise your attack eyebrows because I’ve begun the paragraph with “except” which is never a good indication that said paragraph will go well, I still have reservations. One of the problems with having not enjoyed a run of episodes or a season of any show is that even the high points can seem like blips on an otherwise downward spiral. Buffy’s season six gave us both Once More With Feeling and Doublemeat Palace (and Hell’s Bells) and if you’re not entirely on board with a general approach, you’re not going to be suddenly convinced to change your mind about the whole thing.
Clara’s behaviour here is problematic because it’s supposed to be but that doesn’t stop it from being lemon difficult in relation to the arc of the character and the structure of the series. Thanks to the way it’s written and shot and Jenna’s tender performance, the motivational groundwork is there but nevertheless given everything they’ve been through together, as is always the case between Doctor and companion, it feels wrong that she wouldn’t just ask him, however undramatic that is, that we have watch this false drama in a purposefully fake as Genesis in The Search for Spock set (which looked exciting in the trailer) in order to get to that point.
If the previous ten episodes have been about making the Doctor seem unapproachable enough so that we don’t feel like he would help her anyway in this moment, just as she doesn’t, “Is that how you think of me...” (I’m paraphrasing), that really, really, well, sucks. Plus in the post-Flatline “world” it doesn’t seem to make that much sense especially if she’s had adventures with him between In The Forest of the Night and Danny’s accident has the Doctor’s convenient lack of availability, which may yet have an in-story reasoning but now I’m also in danger of bean-plating so I’ll move on.
To those preview clips, that shooting outside St Pauls. As we’ve already discussed, obvious is obvious and the show’s notorious for naming a story after a monster then having everything being terribly surprised therein when said monster reveals themselves for the first cliffhanger. Dark Water doesn’t go that far, but a fair proportion of the episode is about teasing the reveal of the Cybermen before they finally appear and although some elements, like the doors, feel like literal winks to us viewers who knew what was coming, I do wonder if they would instead have been even more exciting if we’d not been away of their implications beforehand.
The episode drags in places and I think it’s partly that, the Daleks in Manhattan syndrome of the audience watching characters investigating and catching-up to their knowledge and the Missy question isn’t enough in this instance for the story to ride through on. Which seems like I’m simply trying to find fault with what’s otherwise a pretty good instalment, but like that previous episode, it is interesting how external marketing forces can change the perceptions of a story without it necessarily being said story’s blunder (then it was the cliffhanger appearing on the cover of the Radio Times). Viewers who’ve managed to avoid such things will have a completely different appreciation.
But there’s also a sense of stretching material, of scenes going on just slightly longer than they need to be, of Moffat’s narrative sensibilities being calibrated for what he was trying to accomplish in earlier years but drawn out across season eight’s pacing. I joked to a friend who shared my unease on the Twitters that it’s twenty-five minutes of material stretched out across forty-five and although I don’t think it’s that, there’s an odd repetition of scenes in which the same point is being made or has been made and you’re expecting to move on but you’re still there, Danny deliberately unconvincing Clara of his identity for one or two.
Which all looks pretty churlish and probably is but like I said, it’s nearly impossible to not find faults when that’s been your repose for weeks. First parts are first parts and we won’t really know how successful this is until we see the second, what Missy is really like without the tease, and what the Cybermen’s plans are on Earth outside of assimilation assuming they have plans of their own (and if we follow the old pattern here they will betray Missy, oh yes, they will betray Missy). Next week we do have the season bookend of seeing Twelfth with more of his predecessors friends and the differing chemistry this new incarnation will bring. Until then, Dark Water will do nicely.
And now some music ...