The heart of Series 8's mystery was answered by the end of "Dark Water", and was only a surprise in the sense it was the most obvious of the many fan-theories. There was a time when Steven Moffat would have outmanoeuvred shrewd DOCTOR WHO viewers, but in some ways he still managed to by making the answer so obvious.
Let's cut to the chase: despite some "android playacting" to throw us off the scent initially, Missy (Michelle Gomez) was an abbreviation of Mistress, the female equivalent of... Master!
Did this reveal for Missy make sense? Sure, provided you're also okay with Missy referring to The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) as her "boyfriend" earlier in the run, which suggests The Master sees his arch-nemesis in a sexual way.
"Dark Water" itself was a terrific hour, that didn't actually need the reveal of Missy's identity to earn that praise. (In some ways I'd actually have preferred Missy to be a new villain.) What worked was the script's pacy unravelling of layers, the excellent performance from Capaldi, and a storyline that felt genuinely mysterious and often put The Doctor on the back-foot.
In particular, I was astonished by the courage of this episode to kill Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) before the opening credits; accidentally walking into oncoming traffic, at the precise moment Clara (Jenna Coleman) revealed she loves him by phone.
We're so accustomed to companions and regulars being killed in exceptional circumstances (usually in a universe-saving capacity), that having Danny killed in such a banal manner was surprisingly effective. I was thrilled when it set the wheels in motion for a grieving Clara to betray The Doctor by stealing his TARDIS keys, then threaten to destroy them in a volcano lest he agree to alter history and save Danny's life. The scene was set for an astonishing overhaul of the Doctor/Clara dynamic (teased by "Kill the Moon" but not followed through), with The Doctor forced into risking a paradox and Clara becoming an unyielding traitor who nevertheless retained a modicum of sympathy.
So I was slightly disappointed the story didn't go down that extraordinary path, with Clara's key-destroying swiftly revealed to be taking place inside a waking dream state The Doctor had put her into. That all felt a little contrived.
It turned out Danny's consciousness had actually been transported to "The Nethersphere"—a compound word for a theoretical Dyson Sphere and the mythical Netherworld. It was essentially a cityscape where the "souls" of the dead come to be administered by Missy, aided by her associates Seb (Chris Addison) and Dr Chang (Andrew Leung). Only the Nethersphere itself was really just a Time Lord computer mainframe, situated inside a mausoleum full of skeletons sat inside large tanks. A-ha! But those weren't actually dead corpses, they were Cybermen in repose; automatons submerged in "dark water" that turns non-organic material translucent, just waiting to have the minds of the dead uploaded into their metal bodies.
It's sometimes true that Steven Moffat's stories can be overcomplicated and easy to lose the thread with, but I thought "Dark Water" held together better than most. It perhaps helps that series 8 hasn't been so heavily built around a grand mytharc, but more character-focused, so he had time to ensure this one big idea actually made sense. I loved some of the ideas here, although Danny's situation wasn't too dissimilar to series 4's "Silence in the Library" two-parter (which also concerned consciousnesses uploaded into a big computer). But the idea that dead humans have been existing in an alien hard-drive, and are able to experience the sensations their earthly corpses are going through (including cremation and autopsy), was a deeply unsettling one for primetime family entertainment!
We'll have to see if things conclude well in next week's finale, and if Missy's unveiling as The Master feels like pointless garnish in retrospect.
- Did you notice the book one of the TARDIS keys was kept in was The Time Traveller's Wife? I glimpsed and recognised the cover art.
- The shot of the Cyberman storming out of St Paul's Cathedral was an intentional echo of a very famous, near-identical shot, from classic Who adventure "The Invasion". Spookily, this episode was broadcast the same weekend of that Second Doctor episode, exactly 46 years later.
- It appears Missy's been harvesting "souls" since at least Victorian times (when the clockwork Half-Face Man was transported to the Nethersphere in "Deep Breath"), so there must be billions of potential Cybermen.
- Interestingly, this episode was directed by an American called Rachel Talalay. It's such an unusually bonkers choice that it delights me, because she's best-known for directing Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, Tank Girl, and the 2006 live-action adaptation of The Wind in the Willows. The latter starred Who writer-actor Mark Gatiss, so you have to wonder if he put in a good word for her with Steven Moffat. I read somewhere that Talalay has actually been campaigning to direct an episode for years, and finally got her chance here. She did very well, too.