The Lure of an Afterlife, Doctor Who: Dark Water, 02/11/2014

I do not know whether an afterlife exists. Although my own life has begun to take a turn toward a religious tradition, I don’t believe that I’ll ever rid myself of doubt about such a plane. Although humans are remarkable creatures, and our self-consciousness gives us powers and potentials for narrative, memory, and identity that appear unique among the creatures of the universe, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to believe with certainty in an afterlife that preserves that narrative, that memory, that identity. I don’t know that we ever should leave that doubt entirely behind.

I hope we see more of Michelle Gomez as The Master,
as I find her the best Master the new series has done
yet, a perfect balance of camp and menace.
Dark Water, the penultimate episode of this season, seemed to answer that question pretty emphatically, though I should naturally warn you of 


before moving on. Because this entire afterlife scenario is an elaborate scheme of The Master, played with a wonderful sense of camp mischief and menace by Michelle Gomez. The whole mess is a grand over-elaborate scheme, truly one for the record books in The Master’s over-elaborate schemes, given that one of the central concepts of the character has always been the creation of ridiculously over-elaborate schemes. I’ll lay it out as best as I can articulate it, though its over-complication seems rather straightforward from the episode.

Sometime in the recent past, The Master escaped from the pocket universe where Gallifrey was hidden away, along with some stolen Time Lord technology from the Matrix to store, edit, and download memories, and hooked up with the Cybermen. After hiding a series of coded messages in television transmission signals all over Earth, she manipulated a scientist into translating the signals, which were voices pleading not to be cremated. 

Gomez solidified her superiority as The Master for me
in her murder of Dr. Chang, only pulling the trigger "as
soon as you've said something nice!"
This scared the living piss out of the scientist, who then drafted several other conscientious scientists and human resources people to coach the recently deceased into giving up their memories to her Matrix storage unit, where they would be edited for freedom from emotional attachments. She then built an enormous city shaped like the inside of a sphere inside her TARDIS for her workers and the mindless bodies of the recently uploaded. This was to convince her employees and the supposedly dead that they were actually in an afterlife, when they were actually inside a TARDIS parked in the centre of London. 

I say supposedly dead because Danny and The Master’s employees were actually just in a TARDIS parked in the centre of London. You can safely presume that part of The Master’s over-elaborate scheme involved taking the recently dead from the moments of their supposed deaths and resurrecting them with superior Cyber and Time Lord medical technology. You can presume this used whatever time-warping technology that snapped the soldier from Into the Dalek and the patrolman from The Caretaker to The Master’s Nethersphere TARDIS.*

* Which my girlfriend delightfully called The Netherlands. When you die, you go to The Netherlands. And they don’t even let you smoke pot there anymore.

Watching The Master's scheme play out for Danny, you
have to think about how horrible it is, and then you
realize quite how profoundly terrifying it is. At least a
planet-wide invasion of snarking homicidal spheres is an
honest form of oppression. Gomez's Master sends each
of her victims to a personal traumatic breaking point.
So after uploading their minds into storage, people’s bodies would be turned into Cybermen, and their rudimentary emotionless consciousnesses and personalities restored to their Cyber-bodies as they sat in stasis tombs, submersed in water that would hide the dead-giveaway Cyber-bodies from any inquiring aliens, time travellers, or The Doctor. At a moment where The Master’s new Cyber-army reached a critical mass for world conquest (and at a moment convenient for her to gloat in front of The Doctor), they’d be released throughout Earth.

The Master has actually done an excellent job of researching different human conceptions of an afterlife, if Danny’s encounter with the boy he accidentally shot in Iraq is an example of the typical treatment of new clients. Jewish theology conceives of the afterlife, in one significant part, as a place where you encounter everyone with whom you ever had some kind of effect on their lives, beneficial or destructive. And they call you to account for that. 

It’s one of the most touching moments in Dark Water when this little Iraqi boy sits silently in front of Danny, the young man who in the confusion and terror of battle in that terrible conflict shot this boy. Danny tries desperately to apologize, to express his sorrow and pain at what he’d done to this child, but the child walks away. Danny is confronted with his single most destructive act, which combines with his seeming rejection from Clara at the end of the episode to push him to the brink of deleting his memory. The solution The Master presents to this ethical confrontation from the Jewish tradition is the conception of afterlife from the Buddhist tradition where individual progress is overcoming emotional attachments to one's mortal life. When the episode ends with the sight of the boy reflected in Danny’s iPad screen, I think I’ll see him saving Danny from deletion next week.

I think it was very easy for The Master to co-opt people into her new Cyber-army. She exploits what The Doctor identifies as the most primal fear of everyone in the universe, the fear of death. Clara is driven to the point of betraying and trying to manipulate The Doctor because of her love for Danny and her terror of the prospect of his genuine death. Yet even though The Doctor plays Orpheus for his major action of the story, landing the TARDIS in the Nethersphere, he himself remains hostile to the notion of an afterlife, skeptical about the aspects of the afterlife that 3W staff display for him.

"Do you think I care about you so little that your betraying
me would even matter?" asks the Doctor before he takes
Clara to search for Danny. But it's still a betrayal.
And he turns out to be right, because 3W and the Nethersphere is The Master’s over-elaborate scheme to manipulate millions of humans across time and space to form a new Cyber-army. But there is a more profound irony to The Doctor’s relationship to the afterlife. 

The Doctor has achieved what The Master, throughout three decades of Doctor Who’s production, had been scheming to acquire: not only a new cycle of regenerations, but potential immortality, as he is unsure, if we remember our pivotal line of dialogue on this from Kill the Moon, where his regeneration cycle will even end. And he didn’t even really want them. The Time of the Doctor saw him accept the inevitability of his death, even though his death would have made the world he was protecting a wasteland. Clara helped him gain victory in that story, but it was, in a way, her first betrayal of The Doctor: she took away what he had come to accept. 

The Master, in contrast, strove for the bulk of Doctor Who’s history to be immortal. In The Deadly Assassin and The Keeper of Traken, he was little more than a walking corpse desperate to extend his life. And he remained on the hunt for new lives, new regenerations. 

I’m not sure now whether The Master is immortal, whether her regeneration cycle will end one day. But she has tried to cheat death for so long that the notion of an afterlife has become nothing more than a concept to hoodwink people in one of her typical over-elaborate schemes for power. She has turned the moment of people’s profound fear, the fear of death and the end of our lives, Danny’s confrontation with the moment of his greatest ethical regret, into a step in a bamboozle. 

This is why The Master is Doctor Who’s most awfully fearsome villain. I've never seen Capaldi's Doctor look so frightened as when she reveals her identity to him. He's right to be.


  1. Some really lovely observations here. I don't know why I hadn't twigged that they were probably all in her TARDIS.

  2. My golly, you are so right about them being inside her TARDIS, and I hadn't seen it either!

  3. Thanks for the compliments, Daru and encyclops. It's funny, but I read through some of the comments at TARDIS Eruditorum on Time of Angels, which directed me to Flick Filosopher's blog. I only had time last night to read the Dark Water review, but what I saw disappointed me quite a lot. And it wasn't just her aggravation that a continuity point from back in Logopolis was being ignored to develop this episode's story (though I found it disturbingly Levine-esque).

    Specifically, I'm rather tired of the complaint on the STFU circle that Moffat only has "two female characters," the one he likes and the one he doesn't like. Moffat writes sarcastic banter and camp in his adventure stories, and the common tropes of his style of banter seem to influence people to think that he only writes sassy MPDGs and campy bitches. It's almost as if Moffat's harshest critics can't understand how characterization can work in the style of a sitcom, and that the approach and instincts of a lifelong sitcom writer (which he is) will tend to recur in later projects.

    Honestly, my biggest problem with most feminist critiques of Steven Moffat (with some notable exceptions, like some lines where he should know better) isn't just that they're wrong; it's lazy reading.

    1. Sure thing Adam, have been enjoying your writing, so thanks.

      I haven't read Flick Filosopher's current review and frankly have given up on finding quality there as far her writing on Doctor Who goes now. I did enjoy her for some time - and not because she was always positive, but the analysis was interesting and written well. She just does not seem interested anymore and that makes for poor reading and feel like (as you say) lazy writing.

      I really enjoy well written critiques, as they are designed to make readers expand their thinking and to explore new ideas. Criticism used as attack just feels lazy and becomes boring to read.