Dear Steven Moffat: Dark Water/Death in Heaven

DIH

Dear Steven,

Away from my headed notepaper and quill, stuck in Las Vegas and therefore unable to give you my instant reaction to the series finale, I got hyper. As “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven” played on the 72 inch TV in my MGM Grand hotel room, the real loser was VIP escort Lana. She’d been pelted with Dalek soft toys and greenbacks for 2 hours, and was already bored, when she was forced to listen to my review orally, feeling the full burden of that instant reaction.

Danny Pink was dead and I had to tell someone how joyous, how special that was. The opening of the first episode was an emotional roller coaster alright, not least because moments earlier I’d had tears crawling down my face, poor Lana trying to console me, as Clara had told the beige bastard she loved him.

What a waste, thought I. A young woman’s life snuffed out by poor judgment, with a hellish, haunted afterlife to follow – late night marking in bed, the Waterloo Road boxset for Christmas, the same tired school girl bedroom fantasy at Danny’s insistence, with all the doubts that engenders buried because she wants – needs, the relationship to work. Then, a miracle: child killer Danny got squished by an upstanding homicidal motorist. I understand that this, and not Clara’s declaration of feeling was supposed to be the tragic knockout punch to open the episode, but if that’s what you wanted me to feel you really should have put more work into making Clara and Danny’s relationship one to which the audience could aspire, the couple in question being likable and dynamic in each other’s company, rather than the dull middle class Guardianista love-in that you actually created.

It was hilarious that “Dark Water” ended with a cliffhanger in which Danny toyed with deleting his emotions and becoming an automaton. Viewers who’d watched intently, week on week, as this barely animate pedestrian love interest courted the once vivacious Clara, knew it wouldn’t make a shred of difference. Danny Pink was dead? Holy shit Steven, he was barely alive!

So Clara, out of some misplaced sense of entitlement, of the kind she’s exhibited all season, tried to blackmail the only man she knew in possession of a working time machine to bring her one-note boyfriend back from the hereafter. It’s typical of your writing that this was both a good and terrible scene. Good, because Capaldi was wonderfully blasé about Danny’s death, as only this Doctor can be, and terrible, because it turned out to be a dream, which somewhat undermined the Doc’s conclusion that he’d been betrayed, as nothing had actually happened. I mean, I might have considered throwing Lana out of my hotel room and refusing to pay on the grounds that she wouldn’t put on the Cyberman costume I bought for the occasion, but thinking it isn’t the same as doing it. And besides, Clara was out of her mind with misplaced grief, etc.

So after a lot of fucking around, and the Doctor being sexually assaulted, we finally got to the meat of the story. The afterlife was, as we suspected from the use of iPads, no such thing but a virtual reality created using Time Lord technology (“we have Steve Jobs” just about worked as a throw away explanation for budget constraints). Thanks to an unholy alliance between the Mistress née Master and the Cybermen, the consciousness of the dead would be uploaded into Cyber-brains and an army would be created that would march in London and cause traffic disruption for many miles.

I confess I didn’t understand why any of this was necessary. Aren’t the Cybermen independently functioning automatons as it is? What’s to be gained by adding human consciousness stripped of its defining characteristic, namely emotion? Wouldn’t that be like pouring oil on oil? I suppose if the Cybermen were dead it would make sense, but then where did Missy procure the corpses and how did she get them into a facility under St Paul’s unnoticed? Lana thought you might have written the episode backwards – you know, thought about the iconography and conceit first (dead bodies in tanks that are revealed to be the organic component of Cybermen, dead people transported to a virtual afterlife), then worked out how the fuck to tie it all into a coherent story, but I said tish – you’ve never done that and you never would, as it would show contempt for the audience.

None of it quite stacked up, and the laws of the nethersphere were baffling (your uncoupled consciousness can feel what your dead body, er, feels? What?) but I liked the long game played out over the course of the series. Danny existed so he could die: that’s all, and by foregrounding that death, creating the intrigue around Missy’s domain before unceremoniously dumping Danny therein, you set up a powerful reason for the Doctor and Clara to go there, tying the journey into a major character’s fate. In the end, the only thing that scuppered the plan was that the dead man in question was an underwritten bore that no one but Clara cared about – the only reason for her caring being that you did. Though credit where it’s due: the “Dark Water” climax set up the delicious and deranged possibility of a sexual relationship between a woman who once lived inside the brain of a Dalek and a man trapped inside the head of a Cyberman. Only on Doctor Who, Steven, only after one of your late night laudanum sessions.

Finally, in the first episode, there was Missy, or rather the Master. I think we all knew in our hearts it was he – er, I mean she, as you signpost your twists a hundred years ahead of time. I suppose the logic here was to finally show a gender swap regeneration, as no one had the balls to give the Doctor a vagina, but I confess to being a little disappointed by the inevitable reveal. Surely the opportunity here was to develop the Rani, rather than revive the Doctor’s proto-typical nemesis? It would have been nice for the audience, because it would have teased the possibility there were more Time Lords out there, and a neglected villain from the classic era could have been revitalised with a new incarnation. Anyway, at least we won’t be seeing John Simmcard again. I think we can all be grateful for that.

Then we got to episode two and a sensational tease that I knew to be a fuck you to all those like me who’d complained that Clara had been too prominent all season. Clara pretended to be an incarnation of the Doctor to escape Cyber-execution, and although the idea made no sense in the context of all that had come before, her eyes were inserted into the opening titles to add a little credence sauce to this giant scoop of bullshit flavoured ice cream.

Now I understand you like to screw around with the audience Steven, but I think this half-hearted bit of fan baiting was ill-advised. One wanted to enjoy “Death in Heaven”, despite its flakiness and lack of a compelling story, but thanks to Clara’s dummy revelation we spent half the show in a state of eerie anticipation and annoyance, trying to fathom how this idiocy could possibly stack up. That it was dismissed just as flippantly, with Clara shrugging her shoulders and revealing she’d made it up to confuse the enemy, just made its senselessness more pronounced. When you pull these little stunts, your manipulations being a lot cruder and more obvious than days of yore I might add, you come the closest you ever have to writing like a fanboy who’s won the chance to write Doctor Who on a very special episode of Shane Richie’s All New Jim’ll Fix It.

“Death in Heaven” summed up this series for me. It was sloppy, frustrating and lacked weight. Sure, pollenating corpses was a creepy idea – who doesn’t like hatching graves, but like so many of your episodes it was presented to us alongside other miscellany, all in search of a story to bed down in and support. Now, I’m not saying you’re tired, Steven, or that you’ve essentially run out of ideas, but this hotchpotch finale could have been mistaken for the work of a man who was tired and had run out of ideas. We had UNIT, the Doctor as president as Earth, the Master playing the delinquent (for the benefit of those who’d missed infantile Time Lords) and a nebulous alien threat (the motive not being clear until the end, but we’ll come to that in a moment). This is the tickbox approach to Doctor Who finales; the kind of stuff show runners like you reach for when you can’t think of a great character story.

In fact all the character stuff in “Death in Heaven” was pretty thin. The episode was supposed to pivot on the now doomed love between Danny Beige and Clara, but in the end a nation was left indifferent to the point of sleep, struggling to feel anything as the Cyber-converted Pink said his goodbyes behind his metal helmet. Yes, his sacrifice could be seen as heroic – I mean, he saved the human race for love, the dick, yet, in line with his problematic characterisation all season, he still managed to come across as pious and a little boring in these final moments.

That was an issue alright, because this was the alleged crux of the season – the single, devastating moment we’d been groomed to react to with all-consuming grief. Instead, the Clara and Danny show, the world’s first spin-off to run within its parent programme, ended as it began, with a shrug. In fact it’s a measure of how much I’ve grown to despise Danny that even his noble decision to send the boy he’d murdered back to the realm of the living instead of himself, thereby leaving Clara alone and barren, felt like one last act of self-important grandstanding. Poor Clara would always remember Danny as the man who’d sacrificed his life twice over – once for love and once for redemption, but we’d always know him as human-shaped hole in Capaldi’s first season.

So following Pink’s death and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart’s reincarnation as a Cyberman, who was fortunately in the area when his daughter tumbled through the sky (what’s next, a pint-sized Cyber-Adric?), there was only Missy’s motive left to ponder. Why had she gone to the trouble of raising an army of corpses? Apparently because she wanted to bond with the Doctor – hand him a global squadron of mechanised murderers and watch as his in-built fascist came to the fore. Then the Master could feel better about herself, because the Doctor’s embracing of evil would retrospectively validate her lifetime of evil, and they’d be friends again, or something.

Now again we’d been primed to embrace this moment – the season’s tease being whether the Doctor was a good man or not, but when it came to it we really couldn’t invest in the idea. The Doctor suddenly becoming a genocidal king just didn’t seem like a realistic possibility – something the Master would have known if he/she had bothered to recall all his previous encounters with his enemy, and this Doctor never seemed to have that much shade anyway. He was grumpy, yes, and occasionally cold, but a frustrated conqueror? No. If you wanted us to believe that such a thing was possible, thereby giving us a real heart in mouth moment, your writing would have to been a lot stronger this year. This season was never really as dark as touted, nor as morally ambiguous. Your intent was plain to see but your limitations as a dramatist were all too evident. Peter Capaldi’s a fine Doctor, Steven, but he’s unlikely to thrive while you’re writing to formula and commissioning derivative scripts.

Indeed, as Lana pointed out, once I’d made her watch the previous 10 episodes, this has been an uneven and often underwritten year. Clara became a human being, only to trail off in the final episodes. Danny Pink, your great hope for providing a strong emotional arc for the year, crashed and burned, because he was a well-groomed blank, and the archetypal reason men hate their attractive female friends’ partners. And the new Doctor – a more interesting and troubled incarnation than we’ve seen for a long time – both acerbic and strangely innocent at times, felt almost underused.

After 12 episodes I’m not sure I know this version, and whereas that means there’s plenty to uncover next year, it’s also symptomatic of how he’s been marginalised in his inaugural batch of episodes. I expected him to dominate his own show – perhaps even lacerate it, but instead he’s been Clara’s curious pal. If the scene in which he lied about finding Gallifrey, intercut with a scene of him smashing the TARDIS console in frustration felt like a great moment, it’s because it was the kind of raw, uncompromising show of feeling we’ve had too little of this year. Capaldi can do more than looked confused, Steven. Isn’t it time you noticed?

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

P.S: Nick Frost as Santa Claus? So another Christmas episode about Christmas then. So much for all of time and space.

P.P.S: Wasn’t it sweet of Clara and the Doctor to lie to each other, thinking they were doing the best for their friend, when it fact they were just condemning themselves to loneliness? I hope they find out before Boxing Day.

P.P.P.S: To save you time I’ve devised the titles for the next series. You need only adapt your MS Word templates accordingly and hey presto, the show’s written itself, which given your performance this year is probably a good idea.

  1. Spookment Basement
  2. The Louche World of the Lizard Creatures
  3. Clench!
  4. Murder at Mongo’s Starpalace
  5. The Horse People
  6. Planetaire Unbound
  7. The Man in the Terraced House Doing a Thing
  8. The Companion Episode
  9. The TARDIS Goes Wild!
  10. Night of the Living Phones
  11. The Building with a Human Brain
  12. Fountain of Youth Culture.

The Adventures of Clara and her Geriatric Pal:

The Matt Smith Years: 

The Distant Past:

Deep Time:

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