Danny dies in a road accident while on the phone to Clara. Struggling with her grief, Clara blackmails The Doctor by drugging him and threatening to throw his 7 remaining TARDIS keys into an active volcano unless he brings Danny back to life. However, The Doctor switches the drugs and allows Clara to hallucinate throwing the keys into the volcano in order to see how far she’ll go. Burned by her betrayal, The Doctor nonetheless offers to help Clara by syncing her mind with the TARDIS telepathic circuits to see if there is any trace of Danny left in existence.
Meanwhile, Danny has been transported to The Nethersphere, which greeter Seb tells him is the afterlife and he meets a child he accidentally killed in Afghanistan. The TARDIS takes The Doctor and Clara to the 3W facility where corpses are suspended in a substance called ‘dark water’ and meet welcome droid Missy. Clara and Danny communicate while The Doctor discovers the dead remain conscious. Seb urges Danny to delete his emotions. It is revealed the corpses are Cybermen uploaded with the dead and break out of the facility, which is actually St. Paul’s Cathedral, and that Missy is The Master.
It’s clear from the cold open that, apart from post-it notes, nothing is going to tie the first episode of this two-part finale to the rest of the season, as in previous years. It doesn’t help that the previous appearances of The Nethersphere were tacked on to each episode like a DVD bonus. As a self-contained episode, it’s just about bearable, with the creepy moving skeleton heads and macabre 3W facility constituting an effective piece of horror. Having waited so long for the truth about Missy’s identity, the double bluff comes off as tedious and the big reveal is underwhelming.
The volcano dream sequence is the worst example yet this season of the programme trying to have its dark cake and eat it. It turns Clara into a sociopath only to deny ever taking the character to such an extreme. It’s dishonest writing, and even a hack like Moffat should know better. It was also totally unnecessary to represent Clara’s grief this way since it had been perfectly well established in a naturalistic scene with her Gran. The Nethersphere scenes are made unwatchable by Chris Addison’s overacting as Seb, and Michelle Gomez’s Missy isn’t far behind with her hammy pouting.
An unwelcome return of the ‘dead lover’ motif that plagued so many of Amy and Rory’s storylines, Danny’s death brings about Clara’s mental breakdown while giving The Doctor and Clara a convenient excuse to encounter Missy. Danny’s meeting with his wartime victim clears up the enigma of the ‘bad day’ we’ve been hearing about since ‘Into the Dalek’ which made him ‘wise’ and, after a few red herrings, we discover that The Nethersphere is nothing more than a simulated reality inside a global hard drive from Gallifrey. The Doctor is really just a pawn in this elaborate conflation of storylines.
The revelation that Missy is a female regeneration of The Master raises more questions than it answers (none of which will be addressed, incidentally!) but while the misogynistic, bigoted corners of the internet freak out about a transgender Timelady, the real misgiving to have about this plot development is Moffat’s inability to write interesting, powerful women. The Doctor’s failure to know Missy relies on an incredible suspension of disbelief, and turning a blind eye to the programme’s existing mythology, but the biggest problem is not finding anything worthwhile to do with Missy as a character, besides the slash-fiction friendly kiss.
Like most of Moffat’s season finales, ‘Dark Water’ is a real mess. However, unlike previous finales, it’s not the culmination of multiple storylines that makes it so. Here the issue is that the episode relinquishes the dramatic power of its major set-piece, the 3W facility, for a few fan-gasps. The strongest story ideas and character moments are undermined by pantomime execution, not least from the supporting cast, and Clara endures the most ill-advised villainizing of a Doctor Who character since The Sixth Doctor tried to throttle Peri. The script relies on twists and turns that are both easily anticipated and not nearly as interesting as they first seem and, apart from piloting the TARDIS, The Doctor’s impact on the episode is virtually non-existent. The ‘dark water’ of the title could have easily been an intriguing sci-fi concept but, much like the submerged Cybermen, it never has the chance to breathe.