Doctor Who: Series 8
Episode 12 “Death In Heaven”
by Steven Moffat
First broadcast: 8 November 2014
For my review of part 1, Dark Water go to: http://wp.me/p3KHHr-qy
After the intense darkness of Dark Water, in the words of Missy, “let’s not dwell on horrid things”, and move on to an all-out epic!
Death In Heaven, as with all Steven Moffat finales, has a lot of ties to tie, and as a result is a less perfectly-formed instalment than Dark Water. However, it is still arguably the most fantastic series finale we have had since Moffat took over. It has almost everything you want – action, fun, suspense, scale but also, miraculously, a sense of honest emotion. Again honouring the words of Missy, it isn’t too hard to find something nice to say about Death In Heaven…
However, there are not many nice things to say about the opening “Clara Who” scene. “Clara Oswald has never existed!” we are told…….. but it’s all a lie to keep herself alive. Which would be fine, it makes sense that Clara would lie. Why the opening titles also have to lie is beyond me. The fact that viewers disliked this cheat does not show a lack of appreciation for a good twist, because the twist is unnecessary and has no bearing on the plot whatsoever. It has no significance within Clara’s journey. As with Dark Water, we are extra-sensitive to Clara-related things as we think she might be leaving. But it doesn’t even make metaphorical sense, if you take it to refer to Clara’s special significance in this series, that (as in Flatline) she’s almost become the Doctor herself. In truth, Clara doesn’t come off very well in Death In Heaven. Moffat has often talked about how he writes the opening titles to grab a viewer, imagining them halfway to the pub, and aims to keep them at the TV. But surely you have to consider (using that analogy) the people that are going to be so annoyed that they chose the TV over the pub when they realise the cheat, that they switch it off and go to the pub anyway?
We begin where we left off last week, with some rather limp Cyber action. There seems to be an ever-raging debate about the ineffectiveness of the Cybermen as a threat. I’ve always rather liked them, and thought they were brought back excellently in 2006. Perhaps the calls for a Cyberman episode (like 2005’s Dalek, restating and rebooting their concept and fear factor for a new generation) are spot on. They lose their threat in Death In Heaven somewhat because both when they storm out of St Paul’s, and when they wake in the graveyard, no one gets killed! In both instances the Doctor and his friends just stand around and have a chat for a long time in front of them, when realistically they should be killed or converted immediately. Instead of posing for selfies.
The return of UNIT is very welcome, especially when it comes in the shape of Osgood and Kate Stewart – two magnificent additions to the Who tradition of recurring alien-fighting characters. I love the fact that Osgood approaching pretending to be a passer-by means that the Doctor and the audience are one step ahead of Missy. It’s such a small but deft quirk of the writing. And then there’s the wonderful Jemma Redgrave, marching over and lobbing a Cyber-head on the floor! “Manners, Kate,” one imagines the Cyber-Brig grumbling.
This review started with quite a few negatives, but it’s important to stress all of the marvellous things about this episode. Naturally the best lines go to the Master, with “87 – OCD”, “91 – Queen of Evil” being one such highlight. Whilst I can hardly imagine Roger Delgado singing something similar, “Hey Missy you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind” is also a stroke of genius. The funeral home sequence is incredibly well-realised – every year on Who is like a visual step up from the year before. This is also shown off when the flying Cybermen attack the plane. The warbling, echoing Indian-style Missy theme from Murray Gold is just glorious. But then when has Gold ever put a foot wrong? (Oh yes, this year’s title music. But apart from that…?)
The scene in which Missy kills Osgood is superb and heart-breaking. It is an acting tour de force from Michelle Gomez and Ingrid Oliver – both of whom are terribly valuable additions to the Who universe. Gomez is truly terrifying, bonkers in the most elegant sense, and Oliver plays up all the sharp intelligence and sweetness that made her such a success in the role to begin with. The writing is amazing here; “You know from the minute you slop out, you’re rotting, decaying…”, but what is truly amazing is that Gomez plays against the horror of the lines, with a sing-song sense of charm of wonderment. The real tragedy of the scene is not so much that she kills her (flagged up as it is for quite a while before), but that she destroys her victim’s glasses afterwards. All much-needed to establish the true cruelty of the Master.
It all comes to a head in a graveyard, and in many ways this is where the episode comes unstuck. The Cybermen rising from the graves is grimy and glorious, but then the set-piece continues, and continues, and continues. Moffat’s ambitious writing sadly often ends up like this – a fast-paced, gallivanting, plate-spinning tale can only gallivant for so long, before stock needs to be taken. This results in overlong, jarring scenes in one location where the regulars stand around and pick over the plot. For other examples, see the museum in The Big Bang (2010), the top of the pyramid in The Wedding of River Song (2011), the big golf ball thing in The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe (2011) and essentially all of Let’s Kill Hitler (2011). Over-complicated stories for family audiences leave us with a lot of admin to sort through at the end, which feels unbalanced.
Evidence of this is Clara wordlessly hugging her Cyber-lover for twenty minutes. It is downright absurd – Clara and Coleman are given little to do this week and are thus quite lacklustre until the end. I’m fairly sure if the man I loved came back from the dead I’d want to hug him too – but I’m also sure that it would be seen to get in the way to have a more complete emotional reunion between the characters. But that was what was needed. Who would just hug for twenty minutes while all sorts of stuff is going on around them, in a graveyard? How can that be the most dramatic option for a companion in a finale?
There are other problems here. Danny’s corpse make-up is, I think, too horrific for a family show. The thought of his dead body diced and wired up inside a metal suit disturbs me, let alone children. Samuel Anderson’s climactic speech doesn’t quite come off as the rousing moment it is meant to be, although Danny’s story is rounded off nicely with him sending back the boy he killed. It is a brilliant example of dramatic mixed emotions; it’s lovely that he chose to do that, but devastating he didn’t come back himself.
But back to the Admin Scene: I’m not convinced as to the reason given for why Missy wanted the Doctor and Clara together, both in The Bells of St John (2013) and Deep Breath (2014). Apart from the fact it pushes the plot along nicely, as an arc that needed much more consideration. The Doctor’s epiphany that he’s not a hero but “I.. am… an idiot!” was also good for the plot, but after being so conflicted for so long, it seemed a bit sudden. The writing may be lacking here but the performance of the Doctor lifts it – a floundering, captivating performance from Capaldi in particular. Plus, the image of Missy floating down from on high like Mary Poppins will stay with me forever. Genius.
I do feel like the Cyber-Brig was an unnecessary addition to the story – and, dare I say, tasteless. Having seen the mutilated upgraded Danny Pink, who wants to imagine the legendary Brigadier (whose actor, Nicholas Courtney, has also passed away) as a corpse in a metal suit? Of course it ties up the military themes nicely, but I think a heart-to-heart with Kate about the old days of UNIT would have done that just as effectively. Having said that, the salute was a nice touch, and the series only ever keeps referring to the Brigadier out of love and reverence, even if it is at times misjudged.
However, I am willing to forgive Death In Heaven anything that is wrong with it – for one very big thing that is absolutely right. The final scene in the café between the Doctor and Clara is the perfect pay-off for their complicated relationship, bristling with human mundanity and genuine, relatable emotion. It is two good friends lying to each other because they believe it’s for the best. The fact they both lie is genius, the fact that only the audience is aware that both are lying is double genius. “Never trust a hug. It’s just a way to hide your face,” has got to be one of the most heart-wrenching Doctor lines of all-time. It’s such an immersive, involving sequence, from the Doctor’s fiery rage when he slams the console, when Gallifrey remains lost, to the majestic sadness as Clara walks off down St Mary’s Street. This is all the power of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who with all the power of Russell T Davies’s Doctor Who too. This is what Doctor Who should be, because it is what great drama is, and great drama cannot just play to the sci-fi buffs. It has to make us feel something, it has to count.
The only criticism of this could be that – love Clara Oswald though I do – perhaps this should have been the end for her. It certainly would have ranked as one of the most tragic companion endings of all-time, knowing she and the Doctor could still be together but both thinking they have someone else. If Clara’s exit, when it comes, doesn’t measure up to this – or her character is less successful in the next series – then maybe Death In Heaven will represent the better path not taken. Although, if it means we get to keep Jenna Coleman for longer, then I shan’t complain. And just as the audience was thinking, but you can’t leave it like that! – in burst Santa saying the same thing…
Overall, this series of Doctor Who has been the most ‘fresh’ since 2011, and the most successful since 2010. Changing the leading man always gives the show a shot in the arm, and an actor as incredible as Peter Capaldi is one hell of a shot.
We have seen a darker Doctor, with a greater-than-ever resistance to military action (and companion boyfriend figures who happen to embody that). There were times when the anti-soldier Doctor felt unnaturally exaggerated, but his uncomfortable election as President of Everything made overt the themes the series had been grappling with all year. As an old faithful fan, I can’t help but think the idea was better and more subtly explored in Davies’s time, culminating in Davros’s “you fashion your friends into weapons” speech. There is also arguably an issue with the overriding narrative of the show, in that this Doctor should be more sure that he is a good man now that he has managed to end the Time War peacefully. However, it was meaty subject matter for the series, with a strong emotional awareness.
That is the true success of this year’s Who – the fact that for the first time since David Tennant blubbed his last line in The End of Time (2009-10), it felt like characters in Who actually had proper, logical emotional reactions again. This was mainly demonstrated through Clara, who has proved herself as one of the finest companions of all-time (thank you Jenna Coleman). However, one aspect of this strand didn’t quite come off, and that was the dynamic between the Doctor, Clara and Danny. Their difficult threesome seemed to veer wildly in purpose. At times it was about masculine rivalry (which we’ve seen with Mickey Smith). And then at times the Doctor didn’t seem that interested in Clara in any way, let alone romantically. At times it seemed like the point was Clara’s double life, but that wasn’t paid off in any way – instead, rather neatly, the complication was killed off! At times it was about Clara lying, but again, no admonishment, no pay off. The whole strand felt like it was working towards a point that it never quite reached, some sort of absolute showdown, reconciliation or final conflict. But perhaps this was more of a glaring problem because the rest of this year’s emotional arcs were thought out in admirable detail.
The show’s tendency to play around with story structure looks set to continue in the next series, with perhaps a greater awareness of the shades of the Doctor’s character that work best. As a result, I’m hopeful this Who year will build on the last.