Doctor Who Recap: A Masterful Cliffhanger
If Doctor Who has a time machine, why CAN'T he go back and save everyone's lives?
The danger in fantasy – and yes, Doctor Who is a science fiction, but it’s the sort of science fiction that actively dips its toes into fantasy – is that it’s all too easy to get a happy ending.
If you can wave a wand and undo the destruction of your home, save your loved ones, bring that one person back from the dead, then there are no consequences — and if there are no consequences then your storytelling is, ironically, dramatically dead on arrival.
It’s one of the reasons why Harry Potter is so perennially popular: Harry and friends may live in a world where almost anything can happen, but there is still a real tangible cost to everything. The rare times in which you can communicate with a loved one actually seems to enhance the grief.
So if the Doctor has a time machine, why can’t he save everyone’s life?
It’s a question the show has asked before, going all the way back to 1964’s The Aztecs, when Barbara wants to save the Aztec race from their impending slaughter at the hands of the Spanish. When Adric died at the end of 1982’s Earthshock, the next story began with Tegan and Nyssa unsuccessfully lobbying the Doctor to go back and save him. In 2005’s Father’s Day, Rose tries to save her father being hit killed by a car when she was an infant.
The Doctor always refuses, of course. At first, the excuse was that history could never be changed — but once it became clear that the Doctor had meddled with just about every part of history, that explanation was refined: there are times he can, and times he can’t, and you’ll just have to trust that he knows which are which. That’s the in-story excuse for what is an emotional necessity: if you undo a tragedy, then all you’re doing is giving everyone nice fluffy feels instead of actively engaging with their emotion. Storytelling is about giving you what you need, not what you want.
Clara has an inkling of this when she tries to get the Doctor to save Danny: rather than simply asking something she knows he’ll say no to, she manoeuvres him into a situation where he can either do what she asks, or lose the TARDIS forever. But while she hasn’t actually got him backed into a corner the way she thinks she has, the Doctor still chooses to help her. So what’s the difference here? He never actually agrees to save Danny’s life: he simply agrees to find out where he’s gone. Is there an afterlife? Is it somewhere you can travel easily to? He agrees to her demands in a way that doesn’t actually undermine his ethics.
This is the story where writer Steven Moffat, who has made a habit out creating monsters and stories that play on childhood fears, takes advantage of having a “grown-up” Doctor and plunges us right into some hefty adult fears. Adult fears are very different to childhood fears. Children can probably relate to the horrific idea that we remain conscious after we die, but it’s a little too close to home for adults.
Dark Water marks the long-awaited return of two beloved icons of the classic series: the Master, and the cliffhanger. I was actually completely oblivious to the fact that Missy’s identity was the Master, which I’ve since learned lots of other people had figured out. Or heard it from others and then pretended to figure out. (But then, my predictions have been way off base this season.)
As for the Master as a woman? Wonderful! Although the fanboy in me wishes Missy had really been the Rani — the Doctor’s classic Time Lady adversary –she does make for a fantastic Master, and there’s much more history to plunder there. But this revelation doesn’t really answer anything: it just raises even more questions. Which is what a good cliffhanger should do.
Ah, the cliffhanger! Once upon a time, Doctor Who was defined by them: the glimpse of a Dalek emerging from the Thames; Steven and Vicki coming across another TARDIS; the Time Lords; the mummified Wirrn falling onto Harry… that classic agonising week-long wait to see what would happen next. The new series has successfully managed a few of them – the seven days following the transmission of 2008’s The Stolen Earth were impossibly exciting – but for the most part, they’ve been standalones. This is a Doctor who is all about getting back to basics, and having a deviously camp Master, Cybermen invading London, and a cracking cliffhanger is certainly doing the job.
It’s difficult to judge the first part of a two-parter without knowing the full context, but I enjoyed the hell out of this part one. Credit to both Moffat and director Rachel Talalay (director of cult classic Tank Girl) for taking a story which is almost exclusively people standing around in rooms talking, and making it thrilling and entertaining.
Questions To Ponder:
- Could this episode have been alternately titled Cybermen’s Greatest Hits? The Cybermen coming out of the tombs was (obviously) inspired by 1967’s Tomb of the Cybermen, and the march down the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral was right out of 1968’s The Invasion — both of those stories stone cold classics. Not to say that Dark Water didn’t have anything new to add to the Cyber-imagery: the X-ray water is certainly going to stick in the memory for a while.
- Is Clara going to find Danny in the afterlife by… killing herself? I rather hope not. It was disturbing when Amy did it for Rory in the dream world of Amy’s Choice, and again in a slightly-metaphorical manner in The Angels Take Manhattan. Even Orpheus found a non-lethal way to travel to the afterlife to save Eurydice!
- So the Cybermen have forgiven the Master for betraying them in The Five Doctors? Or do these particular Cybermen not know about that? Or are they simply confused by the Master’s new body? Either way, steer clear of chess boards, Cyberdudes.
- Did the Steve Jobs line make anyone else laugh out loud? No? All right, just me then.
Couldn’t get enough of classic monsters harvesting the dead for their own uses? Then you’ll want to pick up 1985’s Revelation of the Daleks. Those unfamiliar with the Sixth Doctor’s era probably know it purely by its reputation of being the show’s nadir, considered by many to be a black hole of quality.
Ignore that. It’s a tremendously underrated era, and even the worst stories usually have something going for them. But Revelation is superb: it’s got an incredibly solid, creepy tone, some brilliant supporting characters, and Daleks harvesting the corpses on a planet called Necros. It’s rather terrific.
Doctor Who screens at 4am Sunday on the ABC, fast-tracked from the UK, before a repeat at 7am and 7.40pm.
Lee Zachariah is a writer and journalist. He co-hosted the ABC2 film comedy series The Bazura Project, and is a co-presenter of film podcast Hell Is For Hyphenates. He tweets at @leezachariah