This will be a bit of a shorter review; more like a review-ish, really. It's a bit tough to pass judgement on Steven Moffat's latest scripted effort until the entire tale is told, but in short, the initial set-up is rather enticing.
Let's look at the bare facts at this point, as expected, these final two episodes have been set to give closure to the background mystery that's found itself welded to the end of the majority of the episodes of Series 8: the mysterious "Missy" and her collection of random dead characters that have wound up in her care. It's been a far less compelling arc than the one that's been thrust towards the forefront of the series thus far (Clara's ever-evolving relationship with the Doctor), and so these episodes run the risk of being overly explanatory and attempting to pack in a good deal of heavy lifting to make the audience care about this underlying puzzle.
Somehow, Moffat makes it all work, at least so far. While we have as many questions as we do answers, which hopefully will be fully addressed to some extent next week, one has to applaud just how seamlessly the "Promised Land" issue was wrapped into the character dynamics that have made this year's episodes sing for the most part. For example, the opening of "Dark Water", where Clara has to face the seemingly random loss of Danny is incredibly handled, and much of that credit needs to be handed to debuting director Rachel Talalay, who tackles Clara's shock and ensuing reaction with grace. Pairing this with Jenna Coleman's best of the series performance, sets the tone of the episode in the kind of off-kilter way that are common-place in the best Steven Moffat stories. The way our expectations are tossed for a loop, with Hell-like imagery surrounding Clara and the Doctor during her betrayal of him, and the cross-cutting employed as information is spilled out revealing the true nature of what is occurring and how they got there is one of the more masterful strokes of film-making I've seen in the series, really ever. "Do I have your attention?" indeed!
Clara's efforts, both through an attempted deception and then via the Doctor's dedication to her, to bring Danny back from his sudden exit gives a pitch perfect excuse to bring the Doctor within grasp of Missy and her machinations, which delivered the most satisfyingly possible explanation for just why Missy has had her sights set on the Doctor and was somehow involved in leading Clara into the events that would make her his companion. That explanation? Missy is the Master having regenerated into a new female form. Making no bones about it, Michelle Gomez is fantastic as this new incarnation of the Doctor's most enduring foe, and now that the pre-figured history of that character and all of his/her traits can be attributed here, each of the scenes with Missy in previous episodes have been strengthened ten-fold. What was once some random occurrence, and a bit of a "who cares?" moment throughout this eighth series, now has a newly minted motivation and suddenly it all works so much better.
And quite the plan it is, Missy is now in league with the Cybermen, using the minds and bodies of Earth's dead as a sort of "trojan horse" style invasion force to increase their ranks and attack humanity. The Cybermen have often been skirting on the edge of playing the zombie trope, more or less fulfilling the same threat level as the Borg from Star Trek (who themselves play with the some of the same aspects of zombie-style horror). Tying in their efforts with the departed increases that comparison exponentially, and more or less makes this a near Night of the Living Dead situation. While the Cybermen rarely feel like much of a threat (their appearance in "Nightmare in Silver" was pretty dire and basically wiped away any hope I had of them ever working as a legitimate threat), this new effort at least lends them an eerie sort of veneer that's been missing from these long-time Who baddies. It seems like every year somebody says "we're going to make the Cybermen scary again!", while I'm not sure Moffat quite does that, with "Dark Water", he gets them to a point where their threat at least gives one pause.
Getting back to Michelle Gomez for a moment, her performance as the Master completely wipes away the stain that was John Simm's work on the character. His cackling Joker-like version of the villainous time-lord is one that I'd sooner forget, and in just a few scenes and glares, Gomez is able to sell the evil mastermind instantly. The moment where she excitedly reveals to the Doctor her identity and their knowing looks at one another make up my other favorite moment. Talalay allows both Capaldi and Gomez's faces to do all the talking, and in those few seconds, you have two tremendous performers giving you all the background you need insofar as where they both stand in their relationship. It's a bit of a master class, really. All due respect to Tennant and Simm, but this is a welcome elevation of the Doctor-Master pairing in the new era.
There are a few concerns I have leading into the extra long finale next week, namely what's going to happen with Danny? As much as I enjoy the character, I find myself worried that Moffat made hand-wave a solution to keep him around, and even though this is a season where we've seen actual supporting characters die, Moffat hasn't permanently killed off a show regular yet. Perhaps he might find a way to weaponize the paradox that would be caused by saving him from getting hit by the car, but as always, I lean towards the idea that stakes are better than no stakes, even in family oriented viewing like this. Additionally, the assumption has been held most of this season, particularly given that the writers have been hammering this point home, that Missy is the "woman in the shop" that gave Clara the TARDIS' phone number? Will that be explained next week? It's a little curious that Clara didn't recognize her right off the bat. You could make the argument that she was a bit distracted at the time, but I'd have a hard time forgetting the woman who gave me the number of a time machine.
Regardless of the little question marks and potential concerns I have, this was a welcome bounce-back from last week and if Moffat sticks the landing for Part 2 of this finale, this will likely supplant Series 5 as my favorite sustained Doctor Who run.
Thoughts to Ponder:
- How exactly did the Master find her way out of that time-lock thing from "The End of Time"? Given how awful that episode was, I'd want out myself. I wouldn't expect much of an explanation on that end, but perhaps some acceptable hand-waving is coming.
- That child that Danny accidentally killed is sure to play a bigger role next episode, and will be the reason he either turns himself into a Cyberman or helps The Doctor and Clara from the Nethersphere.
- Hey! Clara's Grandmother is back! Not that I'm aching to see much of a companion's family, but a little bit of that kind of thing does contribute somewhat to the fully fleshed-out nature of the character's personal life. So long as we never return to Jackie Tyler territory, we're in good shape.
- While it's unlikely we'll see the return of any of the characters that appeared in previous episodes in Missy's purview, I am hopeful that they'll explain why robots were searching out The Promised Land earlier in the series.
- "Don't cremate me" is 100 percent the creepiest thing Moffat has ever produced for this show, and he's done some good work on that end in the past. It also continues the path of this somewhat darker risk-taking season, a direction I'm fully in support of.