Doctor Who Dark Water review: Gender reassignment and life after death launch a challenging finale

And now we finally know for sure exactly who Missy is...

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★★★★  I love a Doctor Who story that presents something original. I also enjoy one that presents a challenge. So on both those counts I should love Dark Water. I’m still undecided, though. It’s beautifully made and brilliantly performed, but I need to watch its conclusion, Death in Heaven, before I’m sure about this two-part finale.

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Let’s concentrate on the positives. In the character of Missy, Steven Moffat has achieved something both original and challenging. We have a female Master! Yes, a female Master – and the universe did not implode. Did anybody not guess that Missy was the Master? It seemed obvious really, right from her introduction in Deep Breath ten weeks ago. It’s not a massive leap from Missy > Mistress > Master. I admit to a wobble of doubt – it was too obvious – and I studiously avoided asking the half dozen people who could confirm her identity before I’d seen the episode.

Since the 1980s there’s been a call for a female Doctor whenever the part is recast. I would have no problem with that, but woe betide the showrunner who makes that decision. By way of compensation, Steven Moffat delivers the next best thing. He’s had the balls to reassign the gender of the Master.

Surely, this puts paid to any whingers who, for reasons that escape me, have labelled Moffat a misogynistic writer. He’s been creating strong women characters ever since Nancy, the 1940s single mum in The Empty Child (2005). Now, surely, he’s outed himself as a feminist and a transgender supporter. Whatever would Roger Delgado, the first and finest Master, who died 41 years ago, make of all this? I like to think he’d approve.

Michelle Gomez is evidently having a smashing time, prancing about like an unhinged Mary Poppins who’s just stumbled into The Rocky Horror Show. The big reveal doesn’t pack the same punch as Derek Jacobi’s Master seven years ago in Utopia. But the Doctor’s reaction to the feminisation of his archenemy is priceless. The Capaldi Doctor is rarely startled by anything. Maybe he’s thinking back to their kiss earlier during Missy’s “official welcome pack” – quite unnecessary beyond the needs of the inevitable kiss-clips package.

Not content with restoring one archenemy, Moffat gives us two. The much-heralded return of the Cybermen is tantalisingly delayed until well towards the end of the episode, although many will have spotted the Cyber-eye motif in the set design and guessed the identity of the skeletons in the “dark water”. It’s a delicious revelation, stirringly directed by Rachel Talalay, and it proves, as did Asylum of the Daleks, that when at last Moffat gets to tackle a timeworn classic foe in his own script, he can find a sly and novel angle.

Yes, the Cybermen stomp down the steps by St Paul’s (as they did in The Invasion, 1968) and as ever they’re converting humans. This time, in case you missed the detail, Missy/Master is using a Time Lord “matrix data slice” to upload dying humans, editing them, deleting emotions, then downloading them for the raw material of new Cybermen. They’re “Cybermen from cyberspace. Now why has no one ever thought of that before?” Mmm, clever. It’s as if, through the text, Missy is praising her own creator, Moffat.

Gomez and Chris Addison (terrific as the officious Seb) have some corking lines, but something in the fact or fancy of death not being an end, of the deceased remaining conscious, troubles me. Not from a spiritual perspective, more as a matter of taste. It’s not abundantly clear whether people in the Nethersphere are dead or have been whisked away on the brink of dying, and in any case the Doctor insists that it’s “fakery, all of it. It’s a con. It’s a racket.”

Revelation of the Daleks in 1985 told a similar story (Davros was recycling the dead to make Daleks in Tranquil Repose). That was an effective black comedy, and I have a huge appetite for that sub-genre… But it feels misjudged in Doctor Who to give a child watching or anyone recently bereaved the image of a departed loved one in torment.

The notions of so-called “Burners” experiencing their cremation back on Earth and a man who’s left his body to science yelling in agony down the corridor are in dubious taste (as is the boy that Danny blew up coming back to haunt him). Maybe, I’m just having a massive sense of humour or “sense of fantasy” failure. Dear God, perhaps I’m channelling Mary Whitehouse! I’m sure someone will advise me to lighten up.

“Death is always more frightening when it strikes invisibly,” said Delgado’s Master in his 1971 debut story. We don’t actually witness Danny’s accident, and the moment is all the more effective for staying with Clara in her flat as a passer-by picks up his phone and imparts the terrible news. The death of Danny – if he is dead – is a shocker; it’s like a public awareness film for mobile-phone users. (I’ve lost count of the close shaves I’ve had as a motorist with jaywalkers plugged into their devices.)

Clara’s reaction to her lover’s “boring ordinary” death and her belief that “I am owed better” lead into what is for me the most effective tract of Dark Water – her botched attempt to drug the Doctor and force him to bring Danny back from the dead. The scene where she chucks all his Tardis keys into lava is riveting, and not at all undermined by the twist that he’s tricked her and lulled her into a dream state to see how far she will go. It’s hard to imagine any other Doctor/companion relationship being taken to this extreme.

Poor Clara. She is so strong, yet crushed and pathetic, so desperate that she’d betray her friend. Then the Time Lord surprises her with these words: “Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?” It’s a sublime Doctor-ish reaction, a response you wouldn’t hear in any other drama. It demonstrates his magnanimity, a majestic lack of pettiness, and that the showrunner truly understands the Doctor.

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For his companion’s benefit, the Doctor is even willing to give credence to a “concept of an afterlife – I always meant to have a look around.” This is Steven Moffat doing so himself, via the programme he loves, in an episode that has challenged me more than any I remember. Bring on Chapter 12!