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New Who 8.11 Dark Water

Cor, is it really season finale two-parter time already? This season has gone fast! And although there have been two episodes which I found weak (Kill the Moon and In the Forest of the Night), on the whole it has been pretty strong - above all for the key themes and motifs developed and explored from different angles from episode to episode.

This episode certainly felt like a logical culmination to the season as a whole, but it also served up plenty of surprises, as well as some interesting plot ideas and some proper emotional weight. It's a pity that not every one of its predecessors has scored as highly on the emotional weight front, because obviously what happened to Danny, and Clara's response to it, would have felt considerably stronger if their relationship had ever really felt convincing in the first place. But certainly within the parameters of this episode, I found her initial blank "How could it have been so ordinary?" response to his death, her crazed attempt to blackmail the Doctor into fixing it, his compassionate response to that, and the painful iPad conversation between her and Danny-in-the-nethersphere all really well-scripted and compelling.

For all that the fact of Missy collecting dead people had been well established throughout the season, I must say I never quite expected Doctor Who to do a katabasis story, in the full-on Classical Orpheus-and-Eurydice sense of going to rescue a particular deceased person from the underworld. Actually, I'm still not sure that is quite what we have here, since Clara and the Doctor turned out only to have gone into the St. Pauls-Mausoleum, and not actually into the Nethersphere itself where Danny is located. So they may never actually go into the 'underworld' in order to rescue him. But still. Engaging with what happens to consciousness and the body after death, and setting up a story-line which inherently asks - is it quite as we think, and what happens if we try to challenge the rules? That is pretty epic stuff, and territory I don't think Doctor Who has quite attempted so directly before. A season ago, I would have been very sceptical about the prospect of Moffat pulling it off without resorting to a magic plot-reset button or being offensively trite (I still remember the happy-ever-after ending for Silence in the Library). But this season has been different, and I'm a little more optimistic now.

That said, I do have a few pressing questions about how exactly the Mausoleum or the Nethersphere relate to the contemporary Earth in time or space. We have seen people joining Missy's collection from multiple periods and places during the season (e.g. the droid-man from Victorian London, a soldier on a rebel ship fighting against the Daleks in the far-distant future), so have the physical remains of all of their bodies ended up inside St. Paul's (and / or massive vaults beneath it) in contemporary London? And if so, how? Also, is the Nethersphere inside the Earth, somewhere else, or a simulated virtual reality with no meaningful physical presence (beyond some servers)? I hope these matters are explained tomorrow.

On Missy herself, woo-hoo to the fact that it is now totally and explicitly canonical the Time Lords can change their gender. The references to the Corsair doing this in The Doctor's Wife were all very well, but this is the first time we've actually seen it, and that is quite different. Obviously, there are big questions to be asked about how the hell the Master has escaped from the time-locked pocket universe containing Gallifrey, which is where he was last seen, and how he managed to bring a Matrix 'data-slice' (whatever that is) with him. But for now I'm pleased to have him (now her) back in the game, and look forward to other Time Lords reappearing in a similar manner. I liked very much the way the reveal was handled, with the fact that this was a Time Lady (could we say Time Noble or maybe Time Peer as a gender-neutral version?) whom the Doctor had abandoned revealed before we knew which one, so that the very real possibility hung there for a moment that this might be a very narked-off Susan. I would certainly love to see that story! But I do agree with the various disgruntled voices out there who have felt aggrieved that the gender-change has instantly made it OK for Missy to use her sexuality very explicitly in taunting the Doctor, whereas that always had to be played much, much more subtly when the Master was male (though it was certainly there!). It is all very, very heteronormative.

Smaller points:
  • Of course the TARDIS has seven keys! It is all magic like, innit? Also, I'm pretty sure one of them was stashed inside a copy of The Time-Traveller's Wife, which was neat. Own that intertext, Doctor!
  • And of course the Mausoleum is soaring and neo-Classical, picking up on the archetypal Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the generically cold, inhuman, institutional connotations of that type of architecture, and popular perceptions of Heaven as a similar neo-Classical setting (following, of course, in the footsteps of popular perceptions of Mount Olympus).
  • SEB, the Nethersphere bureaucrat who greeted Danny, had his name written in capital letters on his name-plate like an acronym, just like GUS the ship-board computer in Mummy on the Orient Express. I can certainly see how that particular space-train would have been an excellent venue for collecting dead people, but I can't otherwise quite see the link between GUS's apparent interest in figuring out what was driving the mummy and stopping it and the activities of the 3W organisation. Still, I hope that they are linked somehow and that this is explained.
  • Three cheers for Clara's response to the Doctor's statement that she would be fine hearing what the three words were: "Speak for me again, and I'll detach something from you!" You go, girl.
  • I really liked the motif of the flakey wi-fi interrupting Clara's conversation with Danny - just like death does, of course, but also continuing the theme of their many mis-communications throughout the season.
  • The direct visual quotations of previous Cybermen stories, and especially Tomb of the Cybermen (for, y'know, the tombs) and The Invasion (for the iconic Cyberman marching through London scenes) were wonderful!
  • Less explicitly, I think the Sixth Doctor story Revelation of the Daleks has also fairly obviously contributed a central plot theme, set as it is in a supposed funeral home, Tranquil Repose, which turns out to be a farm collecting materials for Dalek mutants.

Finally, obviously I knew the title of this episode from an early stage in the season, which is partly what has encouraged me to keep running Water-and-Breathing Watch all this time. But it's nice to see some of the specific nuances which I had picked up coming to fruition here. In particular, by episode four I had noticed a marked dichotomy between pure, clean, life-giving water, and dark, dirty, dangerous water. That definitely came into play in the Mausoleum, where what looked like some kind of preserving suspension turned out to be masking something very dangerous indeed. As for the breathing, this whole story is about the division between breathers (the living) and non-breathers (the dead) - although actually Danny's conciousness seems to have carried the habit of breathing into the afterlife, as shown when he starts panting and hyperventilating as he realises what has happened to him, and SEB offers, "Would you like to breathe into a paper bag?" There is still scope for a little further development of these themes next week, but basically I feel vindicated. Rah!

OK, that's it - I am caught up, and am now off to bed. Looking forward to the final instalment tomorrow!

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( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 8th, 2014 12:08 am (UTC)
I think, though, that Missy is credibly the person the Jacobi-Master and Simm-Master would become as a woman; the misogyny those two displayed leads the Master to become this frilly flirty-motherly performance, as if (in the words of one of the Verity! podcasters) the Master studied femininity through [early] Julie Andrews films.
Nov. 9th, 2014 01:36 pm (UTC)
I definitely agree that Missy's characterisation was great, and a perfectly-convincing continuation of where the Simm-Master had got to. The problem on the wider gender front is that because this is the first time we've seen that change, and thus the only data-point we have, we have ended up with a pretty regrettable model.

Obviously this is a common difficulty when trying to analyse fantasy programmes, which deal only with a small range of characters and in very unusual situations - you can't easily tell whether one character's personal circumstances represent a wider paradigm or not. But if Moffat had a stronger background of portraying LGBT characters positively and equitably, it might make me more inclined to chalk this case up to the particular circumstances of the character. He hasn't done enough to earn that lassitude from me yet.
Nov. 8th, 2014 03:16 am (UTC)
I can't decide how I feel about Time Lords changing gender. I like the fact that it sets up a precedent to have a female doctor in due course, but it feels like a very casual way of dismissing gender identity. Maybe time lords are all gender fluid, I don't know... but... should gender be represented as nothing more than a lifestyle choice?
Nov. 9th, 2014 01:42 pm (UTC)
We have seen Time Lords change a lot of other things during their regenerations, though - hair-colour, height, age, accent, skin-colour (remember Mel, an earlier version of River Song). In Romana's regeneration scene, she literally comes out at one point as a creature with silvery-blue skin and antennae. So if they can't also change their gender, that would seem like a very pointed omission from the list.
Nov. 9th, 2014 07:44 pm (UTC)
But gender and gender identity are more than a physical construct. It is entirely logical that they would be able to change their *sex*, but can they change their gender too? Is Missy meant to be the Master as a woman, or the Master in a woman's body?

The fact that he's calling himself 'Mistress' suggests that he is readily identifying as a woman, and the precedent is certainly that Time Lords undergo personality changes with each regeneration, so maybe this does make sense... it's just a much bigger leap for me than changing age, race or even species.

I do think there's the potential to do this very well, and to use a gender-changing regeneration as a vehicle for exploring transgender issues. But that's not what they've done here, I don't know if they'd do it for the Doctor either, and I'm not sure how comfortable I am that they're just glossing over that aspect.
Nov. 10th, 2014 08:29 pm (UTC)
Sorry, yes - you're quite right that sex and gender identity are different, and I should have drawn that distinction properly in my previous comment. Still, though, I think we're already used to a similar thing happening when the Doctor changes his age. There, a physical change also forces an identity change - a Doctor who has been used to thinking of himself as an old man, or a young man, may suddenly become the opposite, and have to readjust to the new identity (including things like how other people respond to and interact with him). I don't think a sex change is fundamentally different from that.

I completely agree with your reservations about how well it is being handled this time, or might be in the future with the Doctor, though. During the period when David Tennant had announced his departure but Matt Smith hadn't yet been selected, one of the actors rumoured to be in the running was Paterson Joseph. I remember thinking at the time (and probably wrote it on LJ somewhere, but can't be bothered to go back and find it now!) that while it would be great to have a black Doctor, the way other black characters were being handled on the show didn't convince me that the production team were capable of tackling the issues that a black Doctor would present seriously and sensitively. Unfortunately, I think that's probably still true for both a black Doctor and a female Doctor. Certainly, Moffat's female characters to date don't inspire much confidence.
Nov. 13th, 2014 10:54 am (UTC)
Time Toffs.
Nov. 13th, 2014 11:19 am (UTC)
Haha - yeah, I can see the Chancellery Guards calling them that behind their backs!
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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