Doctor Who ends well with ‘Death in Heaven’
I wanted to leave some time for the dust to settle before I posted this review. I know that sometimes I can finish watching something and think it was great and, after a few days thinking, realise how bad it actually was. I wanted to make sure I had clarity on this episode and on the series as a whole. I think it’s obvious that, for the most part, I’ve really enjoyed this series. Even from the beginning, it seemed like Moffat had a renewed focus on telling the kind of big, bold sci-fi stories that he wanted to. Of course it had its issues early on in adjusting its ‘comic relief’ elements to fit the tone of the rest of the show but it quickly recovered and has, in Listen and Mummy on the Orient Express, presented two all-time great episodes.
I understand that people have complained that this series has had too much Clara and not enough Doctor; that it’s got too dark for children and not in a hide-behind-the-sofa way more in a oh-god-I-have-never-fully-considered-my-mortality way. I think that this is a progression for the programme; this is the series that ended with two friends drifting apart and began with a Tyrannosaurus Rex throwing up the TARDIS. GK Chesterton was famously paraphrased by Neil Gaiman when he wrote, “Fairy tales are more than true: Not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” In many ways, I think that Who can get away with any darkness it presents as long as it gives us a St. George to slay the dragon, a reminder to the hypothetical scared children watching that their hypothetical fear is natural and beatable. So – Death In Heaven. SPOILERS AHEAD.
We begin exactly where last week’s episode ended: Danny’s dead, Clara’s alone and the Doctor is being menaced by the Mistress and her undead Cyberman army. I’m just going to say this now; this finale was chock-full of great performances. I can’t say enough how much I loved Michelle Gomez this week. While John Simm tried hard to make The Master work, he always seemed like a weak attempt at mirroring Tennant. Gomez presents a faint hint of similarity to Capaldi (mainly from their perfectly complimenting Scottish accents) but every time Capaldi zigs, she zags, her demonic Mary Poppins presence is by turns brilliant, hilarious and terrifying. It’s clear that Moffatt is having a lot of fun with her character as she’s given a lot of the best lines in this episode.
We get a welcome return of UNIT and the Brigadier’s daughter, a character whose steely presence needs more screen time in the upcoming series. There was also an appearance by this episode’s prepped-for-death exposition Doctor. I don’t know if Moffat’s saying something about the show but a lot of episodes this series have involved doctors being killed. We then get one of the cruellest jokes played on the anti-Clara campaign as yet; Clara is being held at gunpoint by a Cyberman and she tells him he can’t kill her, she’s too important; Clara never existed, she’s the Doctor. Cue credits, Jenna Coleman’s name first and her eyes come up in the credits. It doesn’t matter that this is a fakeout to allow Clara to bargain her way out of danger, I enjoy watching this series acknowledge its reactions and play with them.
The episode starts to slow down a little in the middle. The entire plot line involving the Doctor being randomly appointed President of Earth is just silly. Doctor Who can handle the preposterous. Killing the moon because it’s a dragon, okay. London is covered in forest and there are apparently only twenty people there, sure, why not, but this section doesn’t even seem plot motivated. Nothing the doctor does while he’s president is influenced by his position of power; he just happens to be there so that his plane can be blown up to set up the finale in the graveyard.
Once it hits the graveyard, the proverbial shit truly hits the proverbial fan. The dark clouds are bringing back the dead as Cybermen, Danny has returned and want to have his emotions removed, the Doctor wants to save the world, the Mistress wants to destroy it and all Clara wants is for the man she loves to not be in pain. The effects department do a fantastic job on making Pink as a Cyberman look hideous and destroyed and the direction here by Rachel Talalay zips appropriately. Despite everything being put into place for a fantastic finale, something here failed to move me. It was as if the finale was trying too hard to eke emotion out of its position and it came off as forced and a little manipulative.
It did however allow for a clever payoff to the otherwise unnecessary Presidential sequence, when The Mistress puts the Doctor in charge of the Cybermen. Power corrupts and the Mistress wants nothing more than to corrupt the Doctor but the way the scene plays out reminds us that the Doctor is not uncorrupted to begin with. He’s not a good man, he’s not even a man; he’s just an idiot in a blue box with a glowing screwdriver and a great taste in suits. I appreciated what was happening here but, once again, never felt the emotional connection of the best of Doctor Who.
Also, after an entire series of boosting the role of Clara, this finale made her actions almost ancillary to the plot. She serves to motivate the various male characters into their respective plot roles but never really serves her own individual purpose. Despite all this complaining, I did think it was an effective if not stellar episode. There was a particularly nice moment involving Missy revealing co-ordinates to Gallifrey, the Doctor threatening to kill her and an appearance by Brigadier Cyberman. However, I do hope that this isn’t the last we see of Missy and her AI Seb (Chris Addison) as they have been great fun this entire series.
It seems appropriate to end this series’ run around Remembrance Sunday with an episode about death, the soldier’s promise, remembrance and moving on. The dead sacrifice themselves so that the living can carry on doing so. Even down to the last moment Danny keeps this promise and allows a child whose death he may have caused in Afghanistan to live in his place. I’m going to miss Danny already; he was a straightforward good man in a programme quickly running out of good and straightforward.
We end on lies and destruction. The Doctor is no closer to finding Galiifrey and Clara is not able to face returning to the TARDIS in light of losing the love of her life. Everything ends or at least pauses. For now the Doctor and Clara travel apart. As a whole, I think this series has done a fantastic job of showing how the Doctor and Clara are like two negative magnets: Both pushing against each other yet so remarkably the same.
Eventually these two will be pushed together as much as they don’t want to but for now they are accepting that they have to be apart. It isn’t an easy moment; it’s messy and uncomfortable and utterly true. As a two parter, this hasn’t been fantastic. As a Master story, this might not have much competition, but it’s still the best that new Who has done. As a capper to a fine series of television, it was fantastic.
And then Santa turns up. Anyone who thought Doctor Who wasn’t for kids anymore, Santa just turned up.