Review: Doctor Who: Books: The Black Archive 4: Dark Water/Death in Heaven

BA004_DarkWater_PRINTBy Philip Purser-Hallard

Obverse Books, out 1 March

“Well, I couldn’t very well keep calling myself…”

The final book in the current crop of Black Archive examinations of Doctor Who stories deals with the finale to series 8, Peter Capaldi’s first in the role – a brave move in a series of books that has benefitted in its other volumes from some years’ hindsight. Indeed, as Purser-Hallard admits in his conclusion, the book went through considerable changes during the broadcast of series 9, as many of the “conclusions” that could be drawn from Dark Water/Death in Heaven were anything but… such as the role of Missy in the Doctor and Clara’s meeting, or the ability of Time Lords to change apparent gender. Of all the volumes to date, this is the one that I suspect can and probably will be revisited in years to come, and different conclusions drawn in the light of series 10 and the inevitable reassessment of Steven Moffat’s tenure.

Purser-Hallard argues that the episodes form the best finale to date from Moffat, although given the amount that he then undercuts his own argument, I wonder if he really still believes that. (I’d argue that The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang has that accolade, such as it is.) He places it in context with the whole of series 8, making a good case for the year mirroring Chris Eccleston’s single season in the role, at least in general, and demolishes claims that the finale is a reflection of the classic Pertwee tale The Daemons, with female figures in place of the male Brigadier, Master and Osgood. Each of the key characters is discussed in some detail, with the author not pulling his punches at some of the aspects that simply don’t add up – or at least don’t as of the end of series 9.

A chapter discussing the seasonal aspects of the episodes follows – Dark Water was around Halloween, Death in Heaven near Remembrance Sunday. This wasn’t a coincidence – although Purser-Hallard doesn’t mention it, it’s worth remembering that the infamous memo that a certain superfan revealed in the summer of 2013 stated clearly that the new Doctor’s adventures would be beginning in August 2014, so much as Moffat may protest that scheduling is down to BBC One, at least in this instance (and one suspects for The Zygon Invasion/Inversion the following year), dates could be lined up. The author goes off at a slight tangent here discussing the Christmas specials (a section that should really have been kept for the inevitable book on one of these), and notes that Halloween hasn’t really featured much in the classic series – but as those of us who lived through those years in the UK will recall, Halloween simply wasn’t that big a deal! The discussion of Remembrance Day iconography, however, is one of the stronger parts of the book.

The Master’s regeneration into Missy forms the focus of the next chapter, with the author dealing with many of the objections and plaudits that this move created. This is a chapter that’s clearly been revised in light of series 9’s revelations, and Purser-Hallard walks a fine line in acknowledging some of the fan theories, while using the show’s own past to demonstrate that they may not stand up to scrutiny. I would strongly advise reading the footnotes to this as you go along, not least for a clear set of definitions of the terms involved.

The discussion of the use of death in the story and elsewhere in Doctor Who follows, although I was a bit surprised at a lack of comment on the negative reception the story received with regard to what happens after death (something that was not helped by previews of Dark Water lacking certain aspects which meant that those of us who previewed the story being given a very different take on the Nethersphere to the broadcast episode). An examination of cyberpunk in Doctor Who brings the main part of the book to a conclusion, with appropriate reference to the New Adventures, treated with some reverence in the body of the text, even if the footnotes are a little less so! An appendix deals with the resemblances between the Nethersphere and Purser-Hallard’s own creation, The City of the Saved.

As an overview of Dark Water/Death in Heaven, this volume raises many interesting questions, and certainly you’ll find yourself rewatching the episodes in a new light – and that, in many ways, is the best recommendation one can give for any such book!

Verdict: An interesting look at a story that perhaps we’re still too close to to fully contextualise. 8/10

Paul Simpson

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