Picking up from the various precarious cliffhangers we were left with last week, “Death in Heaven” goes pretty silly for the first 10 or 15 minutes. In the peculiar pre-credits sequence, Clara dives into an extended deceptive riff about being the Doctor in disguise so as to avoid deletion by a Cyberman. Even stranger is the decision to put Jenna’s eyes into the credits where the Doctor’s should be, which I guess extends the joke. This goes on for several scenes, and if nothing else, it’s sort of amazing to find out exactly how much she knows about the Doctor — maybe more than any other companion.
Last week I cracked wise about whether or not the Londoners would care that they’re being invaded, and it turns out I wasn’t too far off the mark: selfies. Oh, if poor Karen Gillan was watching, she must have cringed. Speaking of cringing, how about that Cyberpollen? Doctor Who often does weird stuff to get from point A to point Q or whatever, and after last week’s setup, I was curious as to how Moffat would have Cybermen rising from the grave. Never fear! Magic Cyberrain, made up of exploded Cybermen, pouring down on the cemeteries of the world somehow transforms dead bodies into living Cybermen. Surely it didn’t take long for the show to lose loads of viewers based on this process alone (some of the vitriol going around the net seems to confirm this). Don’t expect me to explain it all; I’m not even sure Moffat could explain this beyond what’s on the screen.
UNIT, in the form of Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), her asthmatic scientist sidekick Osgood (Ingrid Oliver), and a bunch of soldiers, arrive outside of St. Paul’s. They quickly secure Missy and the Doctor, taking the pair to a hangar, wherein resides Earth Force One. By this point in the episode, it’s pretty clear the stakes are high and that this is big, big, big stuff. But it gets even bigger when it’s revealed that the world powers have named the Doctor the President of Earth, should an alien invasion occur — placing him squarely in charge of everyone, and specifically the military. The Doctor becomes the thing he’s railed so hard against throughout the entire season.
Which brings us to Danny Pink. The Nethersphere shuts down, and all of the “souls” that existed in it return to their bodies, which are now becoming Cybermen. The episode goes to a great deal of trouble to make Danny Pink a Cyberman in the most winding, unpredictable manner possible. One wonders if much of this two-parter was structured and designed to get Danny to the spot Moffat wanted him in so that the emotional impact of the episode would work the way he needed it to. That’s really the key to appreciating “Death in Heaven”: You’ve got to lock yourself into the emotion of it all, and if that doesn’t work for you, the whole thing falls apart like a house of cards. On thematic and emotional levels, the thing’s pretty sweet. Sacrifice, betrayal, deception, moral ambiguity, guilt — all of these classic themes and ideas that have sometimes simmered and sometimes cooked throughout the season boil over in this finale.
Back on the airplane, shit is going down. Missy toys with Osgood, promising to kill her, and then she shockingly does just that (those were undoubtedly the worst UNIT soldiers ever, and they deserved to die for their failure to protect). The Cybermen attack on the plane is a major highlight, and though some folks will cry foul over flying Cybermen, the way they have this King of the Rocket Men look and vibe really worked. There was just something classically science fiction there that hit a sweet spot. No sooner than Osgood is toast that Kate is ripped from the plane, also seemingly dead.
Here’s something that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense — if Missy had gone to all this effort to get his attention, why would she be so quick to let the Doctor die in the crashing plane? Does she instinctively know that the Doctor will find a way out of any scrape? Those hoping for a Seb/Doctor confrontation were surely disappointed, but something tells me that part of the reason Chris Addison was cast in the role was due to the fact that he and Capaldi would have no scenes together. Your permission to squee has been denied, I’m afraid.
The second half of “Death in Heaven” is much calmer, cooler, and more collected than the first. One of the triumphs of the episode is how the Cyberclouds cast gloom and darkness all over the world, giving the entire climax this chilling funereal atmosphere. CyberDanny has dragged Clara to a cemetery, and the Doctor meets them both there thanks to Clara’s phone. She’s ready to flick the emotion inhibitor switch at Danny’s insistence, but the Doctor isn’t so quick to go there … until Danny pushes him. Those precious remaining emotions of Pink’s appear drenched in bitterness and spite. It isn’t difficult to blame the guy for any of this at this point.
Re-enter Missy, at her most Scary Poppins (an entrance that’s not particularly well executed, it must be said). Soon the truth comes out — the motivation for her plan. She built this army for the Doctor to use in his ongoing battles against the evils of the universe. It was a gift, apparently on his birthday; who knew? The script goes to great pains to paint Missy as “bananas,” and precious little in the episode feels as whacked and out there as this revelation … and yet it really sort of works. It would work considerably less if the rest of the plan had gone forward and destroyed all of living humanity as well. The Master wanting to reestablish some kind of deep connection with her old friend is deliciously warped motivation, which perhaps plays better with a female in the role. That said, the script never goes as far as it should with this new Master, and puzzling was the decision to blast her into nothingness, if for no other reason than the Master never really dies, so it feels a bit cheap. (And it will be quite lame if this is the last we see of Michelle Gomez.)
Though the Doctor could’ve just as easily ordered the Cybermen to do the same, CyberDanny gets to save the day, not once but twice, first as deus ex machina, and then later when he returns the young boy he killed in battle to the world of the living. How that worked I’ve no idea whatsoever, but by the time it happens it feels like an earned victory for Danny, so let it slide, just as we must accept that among the dead turned into Cybermen was the Brigadier. Old Alastair saved his daughter when she was sucked out of that plane, finally got to kill the Master (which he’d likely been angling to do since the 1970s), and received a salute from the man he most respected. Lethbridge-Stewart’s first job when he founded UNIT was to battle a Cybermen invasion of London, a story referenced here not only by the Cybermen marching outside of St. Paul’s, but also when Kate throws down a Cyberhead from 1968; more warped poetry at work.
The script’s biggest problem is that it wants to do and be anything and everything a Doctor Who finale can be. I called “Deep Breath” Moffat at his most restrained. “Death in Heaven,” at the other end of the season, is also on the other end of the spectrum: It’s Moffat desperately needing to reel himself in, and he finally settles down and does just that at the close in a couple of beautiful scenes between the Doctor and Clara. Still, after everything they’ve been through, the pair finds it easier to deceive one another rather than be honest. That doesn’t bode especially well for their future, assuming they have one. If not for the surprise tag scene with Nick Frost as Santa Claus declaring, “You know it can’t end like that. We need to get this sorted and quickly. She’s not all right, you know, and neither are you,” it seemed as though this was a fitting end to their travels together.
Nobody can ever accuse “Death in Heaven” of not living up to its title. Last year “Name of the Doctor” was a mostly great episode that punked out by not killing any of its characters off, even though it was a story line drenched in death. That does not happen here. Danny Pink is dead. Danny Pink is dead in a way that Rory Williams has nightmares about. Though Pink never got to be central to the story line in the same way as Rory, his death demands a moment or two of silence from the Whoniverse. It’s not a loss to be glossed over or forgotten.
After only two appearances on the series, Osgood’s death was surely the episode’s cruelest moment, because she’s one of us — she’s a fan of the Doctor. That hurt. Showing up in Smith’s bow tie and Tennant’s trainers, Osgood exudes a vibe that Doctor Who fans immediately embrace. She seemed as though she’d be with the show for years to come. These deaths say a lot about this new version of Doctor Who, coming on the heels of an era in which characters routinely died and came back to life. Make no mistake, Moffat has, to some degree, reinvented his schtick, which can’t be an easy thing for a showrunner to do.
This has been a mostly great season of modern Doctor Who. I’d place it alongside season one and season five in terms of the excitement I felt watching it. There has yet to be a “perfect” season of new Who, and this season doesn’t buck that trend, but who’d have guessed that in its eighth full go ‘round, after nearly ten years on the air, the series could feel this fresh? Peter Capaldi’s twelfth incarnation is a completely original Doctor; the series has never seen a portrayal of the central character anything like this. Jenna Coleman’s Clara Oswald has shot to the forefront of the great companions. Seems there’s a fair amount of Clara hate out there, but Clara doesn’t care that you don’t like her. She’s going to go about her business no matter what you think. As Missy put so fine a point on it, “The control freak and the man who should never be controlled.”
Odds and Ends
- Four stars may be too high for this episode, but three stars doesn’t feel like quite enough. Three and a half stars is about right to accurately reflect some disappointment over the convoluted script after the far more straightforward setup of last week.
- The Doctor: “The President? We don’t want Americans bobbing around the place. They’ll only start praying.” At the risk of alienating some of you, allow me to say that, as an atheist, the story line’s extremely secular point of view, even if fraught with bizarre inconsistencies, was most welcome.
- “Never trust a hug. It’s just a way to hide your face” killed me, as did the Doctor’s reaction to Gallifrey not being where Missy said it was. By the way, those coordinates — 10-0-11-00 by 02 (from galactic center) — are seriously old-school Who trivia.
- There were a number of Thunderbirds jokes here, all of which went entirely over my head, since I’ve never partaken of Gerry Anderson’s most iconic creation.
- The banging from the inside of the morgue lockers was reminiscent of the scene in the TV movie in which the Eighth Doctor emerged from the seeming dead.
- Lastly, I must give some serious thanks to all of the readers who checked in here week after week this season (extra special thanks to those who chimed in with their comments). It’s been a blast covering this particular year of the show, and I hope you’ve had fun reading and, more important, watching. See you at Christmas!