After a patchy season, “Doctor Who” has delivered an electrifying first half of a finale. Rather than relying on unveiling the mystery of Missy, the episode is content to let her take an – admittedly menacing – back seat whilst the Doctor, Clara and Danny get to grips with the afterlife.
Whilst previous episodes have relied on big set pieces to impress viewers, this one packs an emotional wallop, killing off one of the main characters before the credits have even begun. Danny’s death marks a first for the show – a central character killed off onscreen, and not even by some alien menace. It’s enough to tip Clara over the edge, and her desperate manipulation of the Doctor is both horrifying and completely in keeping with her character this season. If Jenna Coleman does leave at Christmas as rumor suggests, she deserves a show of her own to display her not inconsiderable talent.
The Doctor had very little to do this episode except react to Clara and Missy – but when you’ve got Peter Capaldi’s eyebrows to work with, you don’t need pages of dialogue. What dialogue he does have is good – for once, his comments about Clara’s face work perfectly, and watching him absorb her attempted betrayal is a thing of beauty. Very, very painful beauty.
And, of course, Missy, the acid-tongued Mary Poppins lookalike who runs the afterlife, has finally revealed herself as the Doctor’s old nemesis, The Master – or, these days, The Mistress. We last saw John Simm in the role, and whilst he was a winning mixture of boyishly vulnerable and gleefully sadistic, Michelle Gomez is on top form in what will hopefully be a recurring role.
At one point it looked to old school Whovians that we might be seeing a return of one of the Fourth Doctor’s companions, Romana, a Time Lady who the Doctor left behind in another universe (and who was called Mistress by her robot dog K-9). But as soon as that possibility formed in the collective Whovian subconscious, Missy’s true identity was revealed. A female regeneration of The Master was a popular guess with fans, largely thanks to her obsession with our Gallifreyan hero: Although Moffat couldn’t write a canon gay romance if his life depended on it – “Sherlock’s” John Watson is, after all, gay panic in a cardigan – this is a delightful nod to Doctor Who’s oldest and best-loved slash pairing.
It’s also a timely reminder that Time Lords can change their gender, although it’s depressingly likely that Missy will be the excuse the show desperately needs not to cast a woman as the Thirteenth Doctor.
This time Missy is teaming up with another classic enemy, the Cybermen. Whatever her plans are (the Master’s plans nearly always boil down to “annoy the Doctor into paying attention to me by trying to destroy the world”), it looks like she’s been playing the long game. Quite how Clara fits into this is anyone’s guess, but it’s clear by this point that Missy is invested in the Doctor and his companion staying together – thus, could she have been behind Danny’s death?
That is, if he’s dead at all. It’s not surprising that, on a family show, we don’t see his body, but he doesn’t seem to be able to offer Clara any concrete proof that he is who he says he is, either.
“Dark Water” doesn’t pull its punches, from the shocking pre-credits opener to the final reveal. Whilst previous episodes have dragged out flimsy plots, padded out by a treading water love triangle, this one delivers on its promise – setting the stage for an explosive finale. It feels, frankly, like an entirely different show. The show it should have been from the start.
It does leave one question unanswered – what was Clara calling to tell Danny about? She’s not calling him to say she loves him, she’s calling him to say goodbye, and she has a wall covered in post-it notes referencing the rest of the season – they’re all connected, but how?
It’s possible that Missy isn’t the only one playing games. Have the writers been lulling us into a false sense of security all along?