Written by Stephen Moffat
Directed by Rachel Talalay
Starring: Peter Capaldi (The Doctor); Jenna Coleman (Clara Oswald); Samuel Anderson (Danny Pink); Michelle Gomez (Missy); Jemma Redgrave (Kate Lethbridge-Stewart); Ingrid Oliver (Osgood); Chris Addison (Seb); Sanjeev Bhaskar (Colonel Ahmed) & Nick Frost (Santa Claus)
Here There Be Spoilers (EVEN BIGGER ONES).
And thus the eighth series of Doctor Who, the first series starring new Doctor Peter Capaldi, came to an end… a bitter end, for there is no other way to accurately describe the feelings the viewer is left with when the TARDIS disappears in front of Clara for what is quite possibly the last time. Our two heroes have been through a lot and, as usual, have been less than honest with each other but it somehow feels as if it is for the best. There’s a lot of pain that is inflicted on the Doctor and Clara during the sixty minutes of Death In Heaven, and (the silly mid-credits insert not withstanding) it is hard to sit back at the end of this episode with any sort of satisfaction. Death In Heaven has tried harder than any other series finale of Doctor Who in recent memory to give the fans everything they wanted and more. And it succeeds. And it fails. Let’s see if we can examine what happened and search our feelings to get to the root of this bipolar judgment.
When last we left our heroes, Cybermen were invading the streets of London, Clara was being advanced on by a Cyberman, Danny was dead and considering deleting his emotions and Missy had just dropped a bombshell: she is the latest regeneration of the Master. We haven’t had a cliff-hanger in quite a while and, by tradition, the resolutions tend to be a bit of a letdown. So it’s not so surprising when the Cybermen march into the street and just stand there while people start taking selfies with them. Clara’s reaction to her Cyberman is to tell it that she is actually the Doctor; an interesting twist that is propped up by a special credit sequence that puts Coleman’s name before Capaldi’s and substitutes his intense stare with her beautiful peepers (a trick that Moffat has played before during the last episode of his series Jekyll). It’s not bad, but it’s not great either; at no point during the opening fifteen minutes of this episode did I believe that Clara was actually the Doctor and we had all been victims of a long-running ruse. We simply know too much about Clara’s background to be taken in by this; she is simply doing what she does best, stalling for time until she can figure out her next move. Clara has certainly come a long way since her face-off with the half-faced man in Deep Breath; the scared girl who hopes that she can keeping stalling long enough for the Doctor to come and save her has evolved into a companion who can fearlessly hold off three Cybermen with a stream of bullshit that neither they nor the viewer believes for a second without any thought that the Doctor might leap in to the rescue. As the eleventh Doctor told Tasha Lem in The Time of The Doctor, “That is a WOMAN!” She certainly is.
Meanwhile, the Doctor finds he’s not fighting alone against Missy and the Cybermen; UNIT, led by Kate Lethbridge-Stewart and her trusty sidekick Osgood, descend on the street and take Missy into custody but are powerless to stop the Cybermen from launching themselves into the sky to pollenate the planet with their seed. Remember the Cybermites from Nightmare In Silver that could crawl inside your brain and transform you into a Cyberman? Same principal here, except they’re going to convert the dead; some of the best sequences in this episode involve the Cybermen rising from morgue slabs or reaching up from under the ground. So there’s only one safe place for the Doctor, now the acting “president of Earth” to command the world’s armies from, a UNIT sky bus. But they already know that the Cybermen have upgraded themselves into flying machines. Can they truly be safe?
I don’t know about the Doctor and UNIT, but there certainly a major lack of threat to the Earthbound population. Since the series began, it has been common knowledge that the Cybermen would be making an appearance in the final episode and the reality is that they are spectacularly underwhelming. There has been much criticism as of late about the way the Cybermen were treated while under the eye of Russell T. Davies (which I, for the most part, disagree with) but, whatever the complaints were, at least the Cybermen of series two (Rise Of The Cybermen, Age Of Steel, Army Of Ghosts and Doomsday) posed an actual threat to the planet: they touched you and you died of electrocution, they shot you with lasers, and they herded you up and took you to be processed into a Cyberman. Even during the somewhat disappointing Nightmare In Silver they were upgraded into unbeatable badasses; you had to blow up the planet in order to beat them. In Death In Heaven, they emerge from St. Paul’s cathedral and… stand around a bit. True, they can fly (and their attack on the sky bus is their most exciting sequence), but the climax of the episode is twenty minutes in a cemetery where they mill around without attacking anyone. The Doctor says that they’re confused because they’re newly born (and later it is suggested that it is because they are awaiting orders from Missy) but with the exception of the sky bus attack, they don’t do much except stand there. Wouldn’t it have made sense for the Cybermen to march on the living population to kill them and convert them? Well, it would have until Cyber-Danny reveals that a second rain will come that will convert all the living people of Earth to Cybermen as well. What???? What was the purpose of converting just the dead when Missy could’ve converted everyone on Earth, dead or living, all at once? None whatsoever as far as I can see and the poor Cybermen are reduced to the status of stationary boogiemen awaiting orders. This is not how you treat a classic Doctor Who monster.
Another good idea that doesn’t really see fruition is the Doctor being proclaimed President of Earth. Shuffled onto the UNIT sky bus and given ultimate authority over the Earth’s forces (a damned good idea, for once the Doctor doesn’t have to battle military red tape in order to get the job done), the Doctor’s reign as mankind’s Lord and Protector is short-lived and incredibly unproductive. He concludes early on that there really isn’t anything that the armies of Earth can do against the Cybermen; there are more of them than us and Cybermen cannot be defeated. It frankly feels like a letdown for the Doctor to be given so much authority and do little except wait for the Cybermen to arrive and crash the plane. The episode’s main failure is the fact that introduces great plot ideas that don’t come even close to paying off.
This review isn’t going very well at all, is it? Is there anything that can possibly save this very important episode from complete and utter failure? Well, I would like to mention that for every head-scratching moment in the plot, the episode more than makes up for it with character development and emotion. Death In Heaven is a draining experience in that it puts the characters we love straight through the mangler and forces us to look at the aftermath. It is here that we must now turn our attention to the unfortunate Danny Pink; killed in a stupid road accident in last week’s episode, he is further subjected to pain and injustice as a Cyberman. It is absolutely horrifying when he removes his faceplate: his dead skin has gone nearly gray and cyber-plugs are attached to his face. And to make matters worse, his emotional inhibitor is not switched on and is causing him incredible pain. Clara wants to end his pain, but doing so would sever Danny’s last connection with humanity. Three words come to mind when looking at Danny’s grieving and ravaged face: It’s not fair. Danny sacrifices himself twice during the episode’s finale, once when he leads the Cybermen into the sky to burn up the Cyber-clouds and again when he allows the boy he accidently killed to live again in his place. No one need ask, like the Doctor, if Danny is a good man. We knew the answer all the time, but the Doctor needed to find it out, so that he could let Clara go to him in the knowledge that he was good enough for her. The fact that he comes to this conclusion not knowing that Danny did not come back from the dead feels like a misstep; it is a wasted opportunity in the Doctor’s life. Maybe he would have taken to Clara and Danny like Amy and Rory. But then again, maybe it is the pain he still feels over their loss that motivates him to bring his travels with Clara to an end.
It is important to the series that Moffat has matured in his writing that he is finally allowing a character’s death to stand. It’s always heart-breaking when a character we like dies, such as Astrid from Voyage Of The Damned or Rita from The God Complex. In fantasy, there are times when a character’s death can be reversed, but in the Moffat era, this happened so often that it became ridiculous. Rory and Amy died and came back so many times that it became a joke even to them (when awaking in a dark unknown place in Night Terrors, Rory says “We’re dead… again!”) and it eliminated the series of suspense (what does it matter if Amy and Rory are put in deathly danger if they just keep coming back) and robbed the characters of their humanity; when Rory and Amy died for real at the end of The Angels Take Manhattan, what should have been an emotional tidal wave felt almost ho-hum. Been there, done that, sorry. We’ve even seen Clara buy the farm on a few occasions, but at least that was explained as part of her “Impossible Girl” story arc. So now that we are given the deaths of two characters we like – Danny and Osgood – and know that they are definitely not coming back, it feels as if we’ve been hit by a bus. Yes, I think I would’ve cheered if Danny had chosen to use the bracelet for himself, but his decision to let the boy he killed live is the right one, the one that the Danny we were getting to know (let’s face it, we really didn’t get to know him all that well) would have chosen. And Osgood’s death hurts as well, but we should’ve known that she was doomed the minute that the Doctor offered a space in the TARDIS to her (Rory in The God Complex: “Whenever the Doctor makes friends with someone, I get the urge to contact their next of kin.”). And because these deaths are so final, it’s alright for Kate to have been saved by the Cyberized version of her late father, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. It’s a great moment, and it gives the Doctor a chance to redeem himself for not being at the Brig’s side when the great old man passed on. Without the possibility of death, there is not only no suspense but there is also no reason to cheer when the smoke clears and we find that our heroes have survived one more time.
And what of the death of Missy, who is better known as The Master? This is one time when I do think that a character’s death should only be temporary. Sure it’s a cheat, but the Master’s timeline is full of cheats. How did he escape death at the end of Planet Of Fire to return in The Ultimate Foe? And how can he go from being swallowed by The Eye Of Harmony in Doctor Who: The Movie to finally reappear at the end of the universe in Utopia? I don’t know either. But it happened and we accepted it. The Master has to live on, and not just because our Doctor needs his arch enemy. Michelle Gomez’s Missy has been popping up, little by little, all through the series in sequences so short that we barely get an idea of who she is. Death In Heaven is the first time she’s allowed to shine and she doesn’t waste the opportunity. Like John Simm before her, Gomez’s Master chews the scenery and swallows it without a burp and I loved every moment of it. The build-up to her murder of Osgood is a perfect example of her character, manipulating the poor girl close enough so that she can whisper “I’m going to kill you in a minute,” giving a countdown and then ordering her, like all her other victims, to “say something nice” before their deaths. She’s kissing the Doctor one moment and then blowing up his plane next. The only thing that doesn’t work (and this is more down to the story than to the acting) is her plan: she goes through all the trouble to harvest and save dead intellects and turn them into a Cyber-army… to hand over its control to the Doctor. What? Because she wants to be close to him and make him see that they’re not so different after all. Huh? Did anyone really think that the Doctor was going to take her up on that? It feels insanely confused and botched, much like the reveal (the worst one in the episode) that it was Missy who gave Clara the TARDIS’s phone number. I still don’t know why she did that (Note to writers: please don’t give characters important exposition while they’re thrashing around in a crashing plane). Gomez’s turn as The Master is fascinating to watch and I hope that they will find a way to bring her back, but only if they give her character a plan that makes some degree of sense!
All of this leads to our two heroes sitting in a coffee shop, saying Goodbye. The Doctor is letting Clara go because he believes that she should settle down with Danny (Clara, who was trying to find a way to tell him that her traveling days are over, doesn’t bother to correct him) so he tells a lie of his own: his story that he has found Gallifrey and wants to go back home is pure codswallop (and Capaldi has never been finer than when he vents his frustration by beating the TARDIS console until it fizzles and sparks). The two of them believe that they are letting the other live happily ever after and they part with a rare hug, which the Doctor says he never trusts because a hug hides a person’s face. It’s a fitting epitaph for these two, they love each deeply but couldn’t find a way to be truthful with each other; the Doctor began their relationship on lies because he was trying to solve Clara’s Impossible Girl mystery, and then Clara felt the need to keep secrets of her own. Maybe it is for the best that the two of them part, and yet it seems that the series isn’t finished with Clara yet. Even the end of Donna’s travels with the Doctor, when she was forced to forget everything and reverted back to shallow old self, doesn’t feel as cruel as Clara’s slow walk away from where the TARDIS once stood. She’s in mourning, for both her boyfriend and for her amazing second life, and it seems important that we get one more look at Clara and know that she’s turned a corner and is getting her life back together. There is some talk that Jenna Coleman will appear in the 2014 Christmas episode, but rumors have tricked us before. As it is, we’re left with a sadden companion and a somber Doctor (until jolly old Kris Kringle barges his way onto the TARDIS). Death In Heaven is a sad ending to the eighth series but at least it forced our characters to grow and develop like they never did before. I only wish that the story had been worthy of them.