Dark Water / Death in Heaven, by Philip Purser-Hallard

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Dark Water is a ghost story, a tale of post-mortem communication and animate skeletons with a horrific conceit at its centre, while Death in Heaven is an elegiac story of mourning and self-sacrifice, and of the heroism of the dead. As these are two halves of a single story, however, elements of both celebrations – which in any case overlap in images of graves and in a heightened concentration on the dead – permeate both episodes.

Fourth in the series of Black Archive books about Doctor Who, old and new, this was published within a year of the first broadcast of the 2014 story that it covers. I didn’t write up the Capaldi era in detail here at the time, but I did watch the programme when it was first shown and again before reading this book. I’m afraid I don’t share his enthusiasm for it; I rank it as one of the comparative failures to end a series properly, with some good points but also some glaring flaws. At the same time, as I said in my last write-up in this sequence, it’s also nice to read a positive account even of something I didn’t particularly enjoy myself.

The central problem I have with the story is its treatment of death. As with Kill the Moon, which tells us that the Moon is actually a space dragon’s egg, though we all know perfectly well that it is a large chunk of rock, Dark Water / Death in Heaven tells us that dead people have become Cybermen under the control of a renegade Time Lord. I find both of these concepts almost offensive in the expected suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer, and can imagine uncomfortable family conversations as kids asked their parents if that means that people who they knew and loved who have died have also been turned into Cybermen. The casual disposal of Osgood strikes a sour note as well, and I find the dead Brigadier awkward. That’s not really what Doctor Who should be about. Philip Purser-Hallard doesn’t quite tackle this problem, though he does have a chapter on death as we’ll see below.

So, before we get into the book, here are two clips with geographical relevance for me. Death in Heaven includes one of the Whoniverse’s few references to my adopted country, as Missy suggests killing some Belgians; “they’re not even French.”

Also, with relevance to the 2024 Glasgow Worldcon bid, Clara has done her homework while pretending to be the Doctor:

I should add that I’ve been thrilled to meet all three lead actors in this in various times and places:

So, to the analysis by Philip Purser-Hallard. As usual with this series, the book is broken down into discrete chapters each making a particular argument. The chapters deal with:

  • Dark Water / Death in Heaven seen in the context of season finales – as mentioned, Purser-Hallard gives it higher marks than I do; I do agree that it pulls together the narrative strands of the series better than some other finales;
  • the narrative arcs of the main characters in the story, including the Doctor, Clara, Missy, Danny Pink and also Osgood, Kate Stewart and Santa;
  • the significance of the story being broadcast in the week between Halloween and Remembrance Sunday in 2014, dealing as it does with death and commemoration (NB that last Sunday’s episode explicitly called out Halloween);
  • gender-swapping and the Master – worth noting that Kronos and Eldrad in Old Who also swapped gender, and also explores how gender affects the way we read the Master’s relationship with the Doctor – turns out of course to be prophetic for the central character of the show;
  • death, where Purser-Hallard skips over what for me is the central problem of bad taste in the story, and looks instead at the various and contradictory treatments of death in the Whoniverse (including within this story – what happens to dead Osgood? Let alone the Belgians);
  • whether or not the Cybermen are cyberpunk (on balance, not);
  • an appendix on the similarities between the story and Purser-Hallard’s own Faction Paradox novel Of The City of the Saved, which Purser-Hallard modestly says are probably coincidental or else flattering (having since read the entry on the City of the Saved in The Book of the War, it seems to me that they share only the most basic concept and every other detail differs).

Each of these is thoroughly footnoted and well argued, and the book succeeds in making me think a bit more about something I had not really expected to think much more about, and lifts my overall experience of the story (though I’m afraid still leaving it in the negative for me).

So there you go. Next up are Simon Bucher-Jones on Image of the Fendahl, and Jonathan Dennis on Ghost Light.

book cover

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Talons of Weng-Chiang (58) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Sun Makers (60) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Kinda (62) | Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Paradise Towers (61) | Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | Vincent and the Doctor (57) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Kill the Moon (59) | The Girl Who Died (64) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52) | The Haunting of Villa Diodati (56) | Flux (63)

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