So this is what reviewing a Doctor Who two-parter feels like. I don’t like it.

“Dark Water” could be a good episode, or it could be a terrible episode. The trouble is that I can’t fairly assess that until I have seen the whole story, and we’re only halfway home. Honestly, “halfway” is generous, and not just because the BBC has confirmed that next week’s “Death In Heaven” will run a full 60 minutes. Tonight’s episode is one defined by its mysteries, and its refusal to solve those mysteries until the last possible moment. The revelation that Michelle Gomez’s Missy is indeed a new incarnation of the Master—more properly the Mistress, as she’s an old-fashioned kind of Time Lady—lends a clarity and an edge to this episode that the preceding 40 or so minutes struggle to find. Make no mistake: Even allowing for the fact that plenty of fans had already guessed the reveal, this is still a hell of a cliffhanger, one sold by the look of absolute, abject terror on Peter Capaldi’s face. An invading force of Cybermen is bad enough, but ones that serve at the pleasure of the Mistress? That’s an Armageddon scenario. That’s a twist worth building a cliffhanger around.

It’s just a shame that there really isn’t a full 45 minutes’ worth of story to get us to that point. The events of “Dark Water” could easily have been compressed into a not especially brisk 25 minutes, but then the show would somehow need to tell another 20 minutes of story after the Mistress’ reveal and come up with a cliffhanger that tops that reveal. The episode isn’t a total write-off, particularly since the ending snaps a lot of the stakes into place for next week’s “Death In Heaven,” but a whole lot of its second half is inessential. The episode is at its most daring in its first 10 minutes, as Danny dies and Clara tries to extort the Doctor into undoing that tragedy. But once the Doctor promises to help Clara find Danny, there’s a whole lot of throat-clearing to get through before the “To Be Continued” card over the end credits.

These aren’t new problems for two-parters in the new series. While most such stories do actually have 90 or so minutes’ worth of story to tell, it’s rarer that their narratives can be evenly divided into 45-minute chunks; of the two-parters from the Moffat era, only “The Time Of Angels”/“Flesh And Stone” doesn’t feel at least a bit padded in its first episode. The era’s other two strong two-parters—“The Pandorica Opens”/“The Big Bang” and “The Impossible Astronaut”/“Day Of The Moon”—both stretch out about a half-hour’s worth of story in their first episodes, but they compensate by featuring massive narrative pivots in their second episodes. The opening entry allows our heroes to learn just enough about the situation, and to find themselves in just an impossible enough situation, that the second entry can go absolutely bonkers. That’s a great joy of the second half of a Doctor Who two-parter: The discovery process is over, and the show can throw itself immediately into its chosen scenario.

Maybe “Dark Water” will prove a similarly effective springboard for “Death In Heaven,” and the final five minutes give the show plenty to work with, as the Doctor must now repel a full-on Cybermen invasion and defeat this new, more savage incarnation of his greatest enemy; the show might also provide an origin story for this new incarnation, even if I’m not betting on a John Simm flashback cameo. Admittedly, “Dark Water” could have done more to outline the contours of the overall story, as there’s still a good deal of Cybermen- and Nethersphere-related exposition that next week’s entry will have to run through, unless the Cybermen are literally only going to be pawns in the Mistress’ plans. I’m not even sure I can call that a criticism at this point, because I’m working in the dark. Tonight and the next six days represent a unique moment as a (re)viewer: This is the only period in which we have to consider “Dark Water” strictly on its own terms, without its narrative partner around to fill in all the gaps. The reveal of the Mistress is a hell of a lead-in to next week’s episode, but still the only thing we know about her is her existence and the brushstrokes of her plan. We can only judge this episode so much based on what Missy’s presence brings to it. Everything kind of has to remain provisional.

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In the meantime, here’s what we do know: “Dark Water” begins with Clara declaring her love—her real, unequivocal love, with the words never to be repeated as empty sentiment ever again—only for Danny to die in a pointless accident. The new series has never exactly shied away from death, but it’s very rare for the show to present its audience with a death so real. Given that Danny’s death sits so far outside the show’s usual storytelling structure, the episode has to be careful not to indulge in too much emotional manipulation. It’s a hard balance to hit, and “Dark Water” doesn’t really manage it: So much of the human toll of Danny’s death has to be conveyed by the one scene with Clara and her grandmother, but that scene is really there to set up Clara’s confrontation with the Doctor. Jenna Coleman acts the hell out of these early scenes, and Steve Moffat’s script scratches the surface of something interesting when Clara tells her grandmother that Danny’s death was boring. With a little nurturing, that line could serve as a heartbreaking culmination of the psychological dangers of traveling with the Doctor, of losing so much of one’s human perspective.

The trouble is that the episode doesn’t spend enough time exploring Clara’s grief for it to truly register as something more than a plot device. “Dark Water” convinces me intellectually that Danny’s death is earth-shattering enough to make Clara betray the Doctor, but it doesn’t quite accomplish the task of making me feel it emotionally. It’s not hard to see the bind that Doctor Who finds itself in here, albeit one entirely of its own making. Death—real-life death, not the throwaway kind that helps propel the plots of shows like Doctor Who—is a huge, sad, disquieting topic, and it demands a respect that Doctor Who is not necessarily well-equipped to give it. Because Doctor Who can be anything, it’s possible for the show to get there. “Father’s Day” is probably the best example. But not coincidentally, that’s an episode that more or less does away with the plot entirely to allow more space for the character work.

And there is some of that character work here. In particular, Danny’s plotline could well prove a strength of the episode. Samuel Anderson’s naturalistic style is a good tonal match for the sheer impossibility of Danny’s situation. The way the episode handles the reveal of Danny’s culpability for the death of a child feels incomplete—it’s hard to imagine the show would hint at this development all season and then do so little with it, so I suspect more lies ahead—but there’s enough established here to serve as thematic ballast for larger points about death that next week’s episode might want to make. And Peter Capaldi’s fellow The Thick Of It alumnus Chris Addison brings just the right odious charm to the role of Seb, though there are going to be serious problems if the show doesn’t actually go ahead with a reunion of the former costars.

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And, in the midst of all this, there’s Clara. It’s a virtual certainty that we haven’t seen the end of her and Danny’s story, but “Dark Water” does deserve some credit for how it handles their iPad-assisted conversation between life and afterlife. The Doctor says more than once that he needs Clara to be skeptical, to be thoughtful, to be all the things that make a companion a companion. She so desperately wants to believe that she can get Danny back, and she’s willing to destroy the Doctor’s life to do it, yet when the pivotal moment comes she hesitates, unwilling to walk into a potential trap without some proof that this person talking really is Danny. Her insistence that Danny stop just saying he loves her doesn’t just echo the opening scene, as Danny appears to severs ties with her intentionally to protect her. In an episode full of unconvincing delaying tactics, this is one instance where it makes sense for two characters who want nothing more than to be with each other to remain apart.

Not all scenes are so successful, as we’re left with a lot of conversations in which characters repeatedly refuse to give away vital pieces of information, because … well, because it isn’t time to do so yet. The exchanges with Dr. Chang are particularly grating in this respect, and the episode even allows some self-awareness on this point, as the Doctor grows increasingly irate with the man’s needless obfuscations. That kind of elliptical conversation is a hallmark of modern genre fiction, an arena in which shows jealously guard their own secrets in the hopes of making the eventual reveal all the more powerful. Such writing might have worked better in, say, 2004, but with a decade’s extra familiarity it manages the hideous combination of sounding both clichéd and unnatural. The plot-mandated slowness of Dr. Chang’s reveals don’t help the generally low energy of the episode, which is a frequent issue with Doctor Who two-parters: Even in “The Pandorica Opens” and “The Impossible Astronaut,” it’s remarkable how little technically happens between their inciting incidents and their cliffhangers.

One of the few self-contained elements of the episode is the volcanic confrontation between Clara and the Doctor. The way the scene plays out feels so particular to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, because he never gets angry, not really, not in the same way his immediate predecessors would have. He is initially flustered—or, given what we learn after, initially allows himself to appear flustered—by the situation, but he soon shifts to matter-of-fact explanations of why he can’t help Clara in this instance, and why there’s no point in her threatening him. There’s some terrific insight into the Doctor to be found here, as he recognizes that the mere fact Clara would threaten him to get her way is proof she knows it can’t actually be done. The Doctor’s ability to take control of a situation where he is—or, again, appears to be—at Clara’s complete mercy is an impressive reminder of why he cannot be so easily manipulated. Clara’s own resolve illustrates just how far she has stepped out of the Doctor’s shadow, even if it does lead the show into another narrative Catch-22.

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After all, the only satisfying way to end that scene is for Clara to prove the Doctor wrong, for her to prove just how desperate and determined she is by throwing the last of the TARDIS keys away. “Dark Water” has the guts to follow through on that, but only for an instant. I’m not sure there’s really a way the episode could have had the volcano scene play out the way it does and not unwind it eventually—the Doctor kind of does need his TARDIS, after all—but it’s a shame that the reveal of the dream state so undercuts what came immediately before. In particular, this twist totally unbalances Clara and the Doctor; where before her despair had made her appear just as formidable a foe as the Doctor, we now learn that she is once again several steps behind the Time Lord. And sure, that’s probably right, but it retroactively removes quite a bit of the scene’s dramatic tension. The scene still works, largely on the strength of Capaldi and Coleman’s performances, but it’s another instance where “Dark Water” appears hesitant to commit to its own best material.

In fairness, the subsequent TARDIS scene does offer an intriguing glimpse into the Doctor’s mindset, as he tells Clara that he doesn’t see any reason why the fact she betrayed him should make any difference. I think it’s fair to say that this season has explored in great detail why Clara travels with the Doctor while largely eliding why the Doctor travels with Clara. “Deep Breath” and “Into The Dalek” suggested that the Doctor needed Clara either because he didn’t yet know who this new him was or because he needed someone around to do his caring for him. You can see that latter notion in subsequent episodes, “Flatline” in particular, but the season hasn’t really followed through on that theme as much as those initial episodes suggested it would.

That scene in the TARDIS suggests the Doctor needs no reason at all to travel with Clara; as far as he’s concerned, theirs is an unconditional friendship, or at least one bound by no conditions beyond what he laid down in the climax of “Listen.” Maybe that’s specific to Clara—“The Name Of The Doctor” feels like it aired a million years ago, but Clara did save his lives more times than be counted—but perhaps it’s just the most basic, stripped-down articulation of the Doctor’s remark that he picks his friends very carefully, that he finds people worth caring about so much that even their betrayal cannot affect how much they matter to him. This is the fun of the 12th Doctor, really: Yes, he brings his own bullshit to the TARDIS, but he’s proved excellent at not repeating the bullshit of his predecessors. He’s quite adept at cutting to the heart(s) of the matter, as seen here with his willingness to ignore Clara’s betrayal in favor of her friendship.

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But enough about the Doctor and his friends. We’re about to see the Doctor take on his greatest enemy, and perhaps the most exciting element of the end of “Dark Water” lies not in what the Mistress says but rather how the Doctor reacts. As I said at the top of the review, the Doctor is terrified here in a way that we have never seen him be in this incarnation. Even his decision to run through the streets of London warning people to flee the Cybermen is a noticeable departure from how he’s conducted himself to this point. Gone is the aloof, circumspect wanderer, the detached scientist out to win at any costs. The man out to save as many lives as possible is back, and it’s about time. All he needed to do was meet a race obsessed with death, and an ancient enemy obsessed with killing. As the Doctor told us back in “Into The Dalek,” he’s always been defined by his villains. Well, he’s about to take on two of the big three at once. “Dark Water” is a bumpy, imperfect journey to that point, but there’s real potential for something special next week. Or, you know, an unmitigated catastrophe. This is a Master story, after all.

Stray observations:

  • I feel like there are probably some comparisons one could draw between this episode’s portrayal of death and what Torchwood did in Miracle Day. But, eh, that would involve remembering Miracle Day was a thing and, uh, no.
  • When Missy says she is the Time Lady that the Doctor abandoned, I’ll admit I thought for a second that she might be Romana, what with her being left behind in E-Space and all. (And yes, Romana stayed entirely of her own volition, but a few eons spent trapped in a tiny universe could warp one’s memories a tad.) I much prefer this reveal, since a Romana reveal would have totally overwritten a whole heap of Big Finish and novel continuity.
  • “Why’s there all this swearing?” “Oh, I’ve got a lot of internalized anger.” Guys, the Doctor is not happy right now. The Malcolm Tucker threat watch is as high as it’s been since the tramp-berating scene in “Deep Breath.”

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