Being that “Dark Water” marks only the first part of Season Eight’s finale, it’s a bit hard to judge the experience as a whole without seeing next week’s episode. It’s an episode spent almost entirely on setting up the dominos for the inevitable fall. But, oh, what a masterful, horrifying set-up this is.
Whilst last week’s disappointing “A Forest in the Night” delved into kid-friendly, fairy tale-esque imagery, the shocking “Dark Waters” seems determined to negate any notion that this is a show for young children. Signaling its descent into darkness, the episode opens with the untimely and unexpected death of Danny Pink. What’s worse is that his death is an indirect result of Clara’s actions. Just as Danny is preparing to cross a bustling street, Clara is preparing to tell him (via a cell phone call) everything about her adventures with The Doctor. To preface this, she begins by saying she loves him, and not the banal “love ya” but a true outpouring of genuine love. He is, she claims, “the last person who will hear her say it.” The initial shock of this moment stops Danny in his tracks where, as we learn later, a speeding car mows him down. A bit too much in the irony department? Sure. But, certainly effective in its own way.
Though the Clara/Danny relationship has never really been the most consistent or fleshed out storyline of the eighth season, the sheer impact of his demise can all be seen in Jenna Coleman’s muted, haunted reaction. Of particular notes is how a shocked Clara refers to her boyfriend’s death as “boring.” It’s a harsh injection of reality that—in a show where people die at the hands of aliens, robots or mummies—casual, decidedly uneventful tragedies like this are also a definite possibility.
Falling into a bit of a determined mania, Clara lets herself be picked up by the TARDIS and proceeds to collect the various TARDIS keys from right under The Doctor’s nose. Requesting that they visit an active volcano, Clara knocks The Doctor out via a “sleep patch” and carries him out to a rocky edge overlooking a pool of lava. She demands that he help her find a way to bring Danny back. If not, she will toss all of TARDIS keys into the fiery pool. The Doctor, believing that trying to go back in time and save him will create a destructive paradox, remains steadfast as Clara tosses one key after another into the lava. When the last key as been destroyed, Clara collapses, overwhelmed by all that has happened. It’s here that The Doctor reveals that he actually maneuvered the sleep patch on her, and that this whole scenario is merely a dream playing out in her head. “I was curious about how far you would go,” he bluntly states.
In retrospect, this whole set-up does seem like an attempt to pad out the episode to a full hour. And while I don’t entirely buy that Clara would make such a dramatic turn, even in grief, this sequence does lead to an incredibly moving aftermath. Assuming that The Doctor has officially disowned her, Clara begins to make her way out of the TARDIS. The Doctor, however, claims that he intends to go on an Orpheus-like journey to the “afterlife” to find Danny. When Clara asks why he would help her after she betrayed his trust, he replies, “Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?”
And so, using Clara’s connection with Danny’s timeline (as established in “Listen”), the two travel to the headquarters of a mysterious corporation called 3W, a place where skeletons (dipped in a strange blue liquid) line the walls. It’s here that the two finally come face-to-face with Missy, the eccentric woman who has been recurring in tags throughout the whole season. Missy claims to be an interactive “welcome droid” for the company. The Doctor and Clara are then introduced to Doctor Chang, an employee who proceeds to explain that the liquid preserving the skeletons only shows organic matter. In other words, if you were to hop into a vat of it fully clothed, you would appear to be naked. He also explains the driving concept behind their organization. And, per his warning, it’s not a pretty one.
Meanwhile, Danny has awoken—like the characters before him—in an otherworldly, yet tech-savvy location dubbed “The Nethersphere.” After being told the news of his death by Nethersphere bureaucrat Seb, Danny is led to his new living quarters. It’s here that he’s presented with an opportunity to come face-to-face with the young boy he accidentally killed in the heat of battle. When Danny tries to apologize, however, the boy runs away.
Back in 3W, Chang reveals the horrifying truth about death—though a person’s “soul” may have seemingly departed, they can still feel everything that happens to their body. Needless to say, cremations and autopsies can prove to be a brutal process. The Doctor dubs the whole idea preposterous and nothing more than an elaborate con. To help prove his point, Chang finds a connection with “The Nethersphere,” allowing Clara and Danny to briefly communicate. Again, The Doctor insists this is merely a fake, and that she should ask him questions that only the real Danny would know.
Back in another area of the building, Missy (no longer seeming much like a computer program) commands the skeletons to rise up. It’s revealed that the blue liquid is disguising a horrible truth—all the “skeletons” are merely the last organic remains of an army of Cybermen. The Doctor and Chang come to investigate, and Missy—who Chang dubs “his boss”—murders her employee with a cold-blooded precision. She then points to the true nature of “The Nethersphere”—a big black sphere called the Matrix Data Slice. Or, as The Doctor claims, Time Lord technology. The “heaven” that we’ve been witnessing all season has been merely an illusion created by the Matrix. The sphere uploads the mind of dying individuals into its world, convinces them to wipe the minds clean of human emotions and re-downloads them into their harvested, Cybermen-prepped bodies. They are, in the words of Missy, “Cybermen from cyberspace.” I still don’t’ pretend to entirely understand the logistics of this situation, but it’s a horrifying concept nonetheless.
Meanwhile, Clara continues to probe the disembodied voice of Danny with questions. Upon realizing that Clara will very much risk dying if it means being with him, Danny refuses to give her definitive answers, causing her to switch off their communication. Seb then offers an emotionally demolished Danny the chance to “delete” these painful emotions.
Finally, The Doctor comes across the big reveal of the episode—Missy has two hearts, making her a Time Lord. He runs out of the building to find himself in St. Paul’s Cathedral in the middle of London. He tries to yell out and warn people to get away, but Missy is hot on his trail. Which Time Lord is she exactly? Well, Missy is a shortened form of “Mistress”—the female moniker of “Master.” Yes, The Master—The Doctor’s arch nemesis—has returned.
Needless to say, there was a healthy amount of speculation that Missy would turn out to be The Master, but—even if you had predicated this from the onset—the gradual build and reveal of this fact still makes for a great TV moment. That being said, a part of me was hoping that when The Doctor burst outside and ran into the streets that he would find himself in Gallifrey. Being that The Master would have been trapped in a pocket of time with the rest of the planet and that the TARDIS had traveled to a pre-Time War Gallifrey as a result of Clara’s connection with The Doctor back in “Listen,” it certainly would have seemed justified. In that regard, the revelation, while certainly shocking in its own right, feels like it missed a chance to lump an “Oh shit” moment on top of an “Oh my God” moment—if that makes sense.
Like I said, “Dark Water” will be impossible to properly judge until next week’s “Death in Heaven” airs. And while this episode is the definition of “stepping stone” installment, there are enough emotional set pieces and stake-raising concepts that give it a fiery zest all on its own. It’s a horror-filled, yet unmistakably exciting, dark entry that looks to be capping off a particularly dark season of the show.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.