Monday, 10 November 2014

Doctor Who: Dark Water & Death in Heaven (Series Finale Review)

Some of you will have been wondering where all the reviews have been. Even with my previous announcement of things slowing down on here for a bit the Doctor Who reviews are something often gotten out on a weekly basis. Well, the truth was that after seeing Dark Water, it seemed best to cover this as a single piece. Why? For a number of reasons, but foremost because so much of Dark Water itself was set-up more than anything else. Also to let the firestorm of controversy surrounding a certain line die down a bit before approaching it.

No prizes for guessing which one that was.

Dark Water

After many tumultuous revelations and secrets, Clara has finally decided to reveal to Danny everything. Planning out exactly what she needs to cover, she prepares to explain her adventures to her boyfriend, only to hear him run down by a car while over the phone. In an act of desperation, Clara returns to the Doctor and asks him to do the impossible - Bring Danny back, find him or alter time somehow to ensure his survival. What they find when they go in search of the former soldier is far worse than either would have ever imagined.

The sad thing about each episode is that all the elements were there for something truly outstanding, but both the set-up and writing are what holds it back from greatness. When taken on their own, the scene of Clara hearing Danny's abrupt death and her confrontation with the Doctor are executed magnificently. The acting is great, the cinematography fantastic and each is remarkably well staged even for this series, the moment itself works fine. 

The chief failing of the scene comes from the rest of the series. Even after multiple episodes with him, no writer has known what to do with Danny. We know that he's a soldier, and that he suffers guilt, but no writer seems to truly know how to turn those traits into a fully realised character. As such, the impact of his death doesn't have the resonance that the episode's creators clearly wanted, and lacks the real gut-wrenching effect it should have featured. In all honesty, if this was the first time we were truly introduced to him, the story might have actually had far more of an effect. It would have at least inspired investment to know just who this person was to Clara, inspiring her to go to the lengths she does later on.

This isn't just here either, we also have Missy as well. Having been arbitrarily shoved into episode after episode, almost tacked on rather than truly integrated or left to slight hints, the wham moment of her reveal is severely blunted. With so many theories and ideas surrounding the character already, people had already guessed her identity from the name, look and the fact writers were practically shouting she was the main villain from the rooftops. It also didn't help that the big fan theory, the ridiculously obvious one, turned out to be the right one.

While this review won't reveal Missy's true name for the sake of spoilers, between it and the black clothing you can likely already guess who she is. As such, when he is introduced as River Song clone #265 (lust for the Doctor, snark, quirkiness, etc) the revelation doesn't work. She doesn't stand out as who the person she's supposed to be, and it's clearly the fault of the writing here. While I was initially not a fan of Michelle Gomez's portrayal a few scenes do show she has the chops to pull off a great version of this character. Instead we're just left with a poorly mashed together combination of the incarnation who fought David Tennant and Madame Kovarian. Unfortunately rather than the bits which radiate menace or some true traditionally villainy, we're treated to more scenes of snark and going after the Doctor in all the wrong ways.

These really are the true problems in what could have been a fantastic episode. Dark Water itself did answer many fan criticisms, with it being a finale where it was once again a true alien invasion rather than all of reality was not at risk, and it seemed to be trying to emulate past successes. The problem is that these are critical parts to any episode, serving as both the inciting incident and big antagonist, and without them it loses a lot of its initial punch.

With all these failings pointed out however, the rest of the story was largely decent. For the first time since the series began, Danny looked to be getting some proper character moments which actually started to work. The parts surrounding death (again, besides one major problem which requires its own article) do retain a good mixture of humour, grim themes and the possibilities present are well executed. The casting choice of Chris Addison in particular stood out as a good move, as he's talented enough of an actor to sell the lines and concepts his character Seb is supposed to convey. The whole scene where he talks about what death might actually be is intelligent enough for real consideration and sounds potentially plausible in that universe. Something which makes one point all the worse, but again let's save that for another time.

The reveal of who the muscle were for Missy was equally excellent, slowly building towards the eventual reveal. It was an introduction reminiscent of Bad Wolf's reveal of the daleks. While they were always in plane sight and obvious to any viewer, how they were slowly peeled away and gradually revealed to the audience radiated with menace, showing the Cybermen with the sort of gambits they are best known for. Being a race of coldly logical machine-men, they can happily afford to wait and will bide their time to infiltrate society, and this was the rare occasion where a modern series episode really looked into just how far that could go. It's just unfortunate that the promotional team didn't get the memo that this particular enemy's arrival was supposed to be a surprise.

The cinematography and camerawork was equally on top form here, with some especially memorable shots and moments when it came to the big villain's reveal. The way each shot linked into the next during some of the especially dramatic scenes such as the volcano moment gave some real weight to what was at risk. How the camera capture'd each actor's presence while building up a scene's atmosphere is one of the best aspects of the entire episode, and it's present throughout. Say what you will about the quality of this series but it's rarely shot badly save for a few especially notable episodes.

All this said however, much of Dark Water was just building up to its second part. It did establish what was at risk and to really serve as the opening act with a cliffhanger. Much of the real drama and weight of events seemed to be being held back, and while there was some substance to the events, it drew the line just as things were truly becoming interesting. The story's whole success was left for the second part, Death in Heaven, and everything rode upon that story's execution.

Was it good? Well, yes and no.

Death in Heaven

With Missy's plan in full swing, the Doctor faces down the potential annihilation of Earth. Despite retaining all the power he could ever want, he finds himself at a complete loss at every turn. With seemingly no way to halt the extinction of the human race, help may come from an unexpected source.

In many respects Death in Heaven amplifies the strengths and weaknesses of its first half, with the same good and bad aspects and problems remaining, but shifting slightly as a result of the writing. There's obviously good here, but the quality zig-zags up and down from scene to scene, depending upon what subject it's looking into. Also depending upon how often Moffat's writing opts to give actual reasons for things.

At many, many points in this episode it's hard not to pause and wonder "did they really just do that?" or be left baffled at just how the hell something occurred. A critical scene which is supposed to show off Missy's villainy ultimately ends up underwhelmed as, by fault of either the writing or direction, she only becomes a capable foe through the power of bad editing. No, really, one scene in a cargo hold has her pulling off a truly villainous moment by teleporting across the room between cuts and having the two armed guards behind her not bat an eye at this.

Such "this happened, don't question or think about it" moments are rife throughout the episode, and it hits Missy especially hard. How so? Well, her entire motivation and plans for the Doctor are at best self-defeating and fail to even really be justified by raging insanity. It adds a level of total obsession never present in the character's worst days and many unnecessary elements such as setting up the Doctor and Clara's entire companionship. It only gets worse when, at the end of the day, the story presents no real reason as to why this had to be an episode involving her. The entire plan and gambit could have easily been accomplished by the Cybermen alone, and it never plays into any truly interesting developments or outstanding moments with her. It also doesn't help that the episode took things a step further by having her start imitating moments from Jekyll atop of everything else.

While Missy might have been bad in her own way, the Cybermen felt largely wasted. On the one hand they were offers far more interesting and threatening moments, especially when they opt to start arising from grave sites in a Hammer Horror-esque scene and go after the Doctor. On the other, they never seemed to be the direct threat, merely a means to an end, thugs and weapons for Missy to wield. This becomes quite literal by the end with them all being controlled by a bracelet (yes, you read that correctly) and being shoved mostly into the background of crucial scenes. If you were to replace them with some unknown threat, there would have been no difference, and they really just seemed to amount to fan-service.

Oddly, it was actually Danny and Clara which helped hold together some of the stronger parts of this tale. Despite being wasted for most of the series, Danny here actually shone through with some truly great moments, commenting both upon the Doctor and in his rather unfortunate state. Having been given something to actually work with besides confused background elements, irritating child characters and a love life, Samuel Anderson showed just what he could pull off in the show. Had he been given this sort of treatment and focus prior to this story, the character would be better received by most audiences. It's just a damn shame it took the very last story of this entire damn series to actually get him right, and for some truly touching moments with Clara.

Clara herself was shown to use her intelligence to buy some time and survive the initial Cyberman invasion, and the eventual resolution of her story arc with the Doctor proved to be surprisingly fitting. The way each leaves the other is a good way to close out their journey in the TARDIS given how often each had kept secrets from one another, and the closing shots are a fitting end to this series.

Where the episode seemed to be at its strongest was when it was focusing upon the Doctor trying to come to terms with Missy's plan and the character relationships between this series' core characters. While there were a few head-banging-against-wall worthy moments (especially when it comes to certain UNIT decisions) it did make up a core part of the story where things were in full momentum. There was an obvious threat, a big objective and the the pacing remained excellent throughout. Once it actually came to dealing with the last part of that plan and Missy herself though, things just fell to bits.

Really, these two parts do summarise series eight as a whole. It works in bits, some parts are great, while others are facepalming disasters of bad writing. It's often at its best when scenes are allowed to actually focus upon themselves, but when the story actually comes down to trying to focus upon any series-running elements, they just make the tale all the weaker. 

So, is it bad? No, there's enough good moments for it to dodge true hatred, but it's undeniably lazily written and suffers from some gaping flaws here and there. It's certainly countless times better than In The Forest of the Night, and after Time of the Doctor it would have to strive extremely hard to be the worst finale ever made, but it's not the one Capaldi and Coleman deserved for their efforts.

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