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Doctor Who: Death in Heaven (Review)

Welcome to the only planet in the universe where we get to say this. “He’s on the payroll.”

Am I?

Well, technically.

How much?

Shush.

Death in Heaven doesn’t work quite as well as Dark Water. Then again, it has a lot more to do.

After all, Dark Water was a sublimely extended joke – a forty-five minute gag. It is easier to affectionately parody the excess of the Davies-era finalés in the first part than it is to offer a straight-up imitation of those same finalés in the second. This simply isn’t the sort of season finalé to which Moffat’s style lends itself. This is very much a return to the scale and mood of The Parting of the Ways, Doomsday, The Last of the Time Lords or Journey’s End – the type of big emotive farewell season-ender that the show hasn’t done in quite a while.

"Hm. It used to be a lot easier to inspire terror. Time was five Cybermen marching around St. Paul's Cathedral..."

“Hm. It used to be a lot easier to inspire terror. Time was five Cybermen marching around St. Paul’s Cathedral…”

This is a different beast than The Name of the Doctor, The Wedding of River Song or even The Big Bang. After all, although The Big Bang was the second part of a season finalé with the entire universe at stake, the bulk of the story featured familiar characters in a relatively confined space. In contrast, Death in Heaven is very much structured as an “event” story built around an iconic adversary and teasing the departure of a long-term companion. It is full of big emotional beats and stunning set-pieces, placing the entire Earth at the mercy of a massive extraterrestrial threat.

Most of Death in Heaven feels like Moffat is writing in a strange language; he knows the words, but the grammar does not entirely fit. And yet, despite that, Death in Heaven mostly works. It doesn’t work as well as it might; it isn’t the strongest script of the season by any stretch; it is a little disjointed, a little all over the place, a little too giddy with itself in places. However, it is as clever as viewers have come to expect from the show and the writer, remaining in tune with the season’s core themes and putting an impressive capstone in Peter Capaldi’s first season as the Doctor.

Psycho selfie!

Psycho selfie!

As with Dark Water, and with large stretches of the season before it, there is a sense that Moffat is consciously channelling the mood of the Davies era. This sort of bombastic finalé set on modern-day Earth is the sort of season finalé that one might have expected at the height of David Tennant’s tenure in the role. Indeed, Moffat even cheerfully resurrects the Davies-era tradition of teasing the Christmas special by having the Doctor receive a surprise guest in the TARDIS. As Santa introduces himself, all that is missing is Capaldi exclaiming, “What? What? WHAT.”

There are Cybermen plotting to take over the world! There is a global response! There is a threat to the entire universe! There is not only one big returning bad guy, but another big returning bad guy! The stakes are impossibly high! At the same time, the show’s reasonably long-serving companion is departing! And there’s a big emotional hook in the episode that relies on the Earth-based supporting cast! This is all very much in a style of finalé that Doctor Who has not produced in a while.

Point and shoot...

Point and shoot…

As one might expect, there is a sense that Steven Moffat is not entirely conversant with this sort of storytelling.  Moffat is a writer who tends to prefer sly winks and nods, wry irony and bitter subversion. The finalés were always something of a danger zone for the Davies era, a point where the show could easily seem a little too full of itself, a little too over-the-top. Doctor Who is already a heightened show, and dialling that up to eleven could be a risky proposition. Even if the universe did not implode, there was still a risk that the show might.

At its best, these sorts of bombastic finalés could give the audience the sassy Dalek and Cybermen banter in Doomsday; at worst, the trite “clap your hands if you believe” schmaltz of The Last of the Time Lords. Introducing the Master in this context seems to tempt fate. John Simms’ iteration of the character was gloriously over-the-top – to the point where he spent much of The End of Time literally starving, waiting for the opportunity to gorge upon the scenery. The Master is the Nicolas Cage of Doctor Who baddies; sometimes he works, sometimes he does not.

"FEED ME SCENERY!!!"

“FEED ME SCENERY!!!”

The Daleks and the Cyberman might have catchphrases and routines, but it takes the Master or Davros to truly turn Doctor Who into something of a Christmas panto. Distilled to the character’s purest essence, the Master is a villain with no tangible motivation, no indoor voice, and no real consistency. The Daleks and the Cybermen are frequently contradictory or silly, but that level of inconsistency baked into the Master’s premise since Logopolis or Castrovalva. If not earlier.

Michelle Gomez’s delightfully larger-than-life performance decides to embrace the character’s excess. Watching Dark Water or Death in Heaven, it almost seems like Missy is threatening to capsize the episode. Missy repeatedly makes it clear she has no real consistency  – no internal logic – beyond the fact she is “bananas.” When Osgood begs for her life, pleading that she could be useful, Missy concedes that she has a point. “Oh, yeah, that’s true. That’s definitely true. That is a good point well made. I’m proud of you, sister. But did I mention bananas? Pop.”

Scouting ahead...

Scouting ahead…

It is a tremendous go-for-broke performance. Gomez is absolutely wonderful. As with Simm, there is a sense that she is just cutting loose with the character – which may be the only way to play the Master at this point in the character’s life cycle. Derek Jacobi brought seething anger and horrifying rage to the character in his quick turn in Utopia, but it is hard to imagine that brief iteration holding down a two parter on this scale while keeping the show close to family friendly.

Death in Heaven embraces the absurdity of the character, a villainous mastermind who hatches a delightfully complex and convoluted plan that ultimately turns out to be quite small in scale. As is often the way in Moffat’s Doctor Who, the epic is ultimately personal. This does not always work as well as it might; as with any good interpretation of the Master, Missy is by turns camp and terrifying, but the show occasionally struggles to walk the line and keep everything under control.

Messin' with Missy...

Messin’ with Missy…

On the one hand, Missy’s murder of Osgood is perfectly balanced; it is both darkly funny and also relentlessly grim. In contrast, Death in Heaven also gives us the short sequence where Missy casually murders Seb when he requests “permission to squee” as the Doctor sky-dives after his TARDIS. It is a short little interlude that feels at odds with everything around it, a moment that veers as away from the careful balance of silly and terrifying that Death in Heaven builds around Missy.

There is a sense that Moffat is not entirely comfortable with the set-up work he has to do in the first half of the episode; the scale and spectacle and the megalomania that is necessary to get the characters to the graveyard towards the end of the episode. In The Sound of Drums, the Master’s lesson about the proper usage of the word “decimate” was both horrifying and darkly funny. Here, Missy’s threat to destroy Belgium is a wry callback to Time-Crash, but the horror implicit in the instruction is never quite conveyed.

"This new modern art stuff is great!"

“This new modern art stuff is great!”

Which is where Death in Heaven gets interesting. The first half of the episode is very much riffing on the Davies era. It feels quite similar to the set-up on any of Davies’ series finalés. There are important people in important rooms, expensive set-pieces and a massive sense of scale. However, Missy and the Cybermen promptly arrive and shed that familiar set-up. The actual climax of Death in Heaven hues a lot closer to the traditional Moffat season finalé format; a bunch of named characters surrounded by the enemy in a confined geographical location.

So the actual resolution of Death in Heaven plays out between the Doctor, Clara, Missy and Danny Pink in a graveyard surrounded by Cybermen. This is much like The Wedding of River Song features the Doctor, River, Rory and Amy in the pyramid surrounded by the Silence; or The Big Bang features the same four characters in the British Museum threatened by a Dalek and the end of the universe; or The Name of the Doctor features the Doctor, Clara, Vastra, Jenny, Strax and River on Trenzalore surrounded by the Whisper Men.

"Hm. My big red button does not seem to be working. This is a crap remote."

“Hm. My big red button does not seem to be working. This is a crap remote.”

As such, Death in Heaven transitions around the half-way point from a very familiar and typical Davies-era season finalé into the now familiar form of the Moffat-era finalés. It is quite a clever structure, for all the difficulty that Moffat has with the first half of the episode. It allows Moffat to side-step some of the more glaring problems with the structure employed by his predecessor; most obviously, the necessity for a overly-convenient deus ex machina to resolve a plot that just keeps escalating. Bringing Death in Heaven down to Earth is a clever move.

Indeed, Death in Heaven offers a number of effect indicators of this switch from one style to another, such as the use of flashbacks at the climax of Death in Heaven. It is a technique that Davies would use in his finalés as proof that he had actually set up a given plot point – the “bad wolf” flashback montage in Bad Wolf, or the elements coming together at the climax of Utopia to identify Yana. In contrast, these flashbacks have nothing to do with plot details; instead, they provide an effective thematic throughline for Moffat. They provide a clear arc to the season.

"So, this probably isn't the time to ask, but what are my benefits?"

“So, this probably isn’t the time to ask, but what are my benefits?”

This makes a great deal of sense. After all, Moffat is a writer who tends to be less interested in story than theme or character. However, it does leave some unsatisfying holes in Death in Heaven, a sense that not all the bricks are fitting together as well as they might. It occasionally becomes a little distracting or awkward, as if something is slightly and almost imperceptibly “off” about the whole exercise. One of the benefits of done-in-one finalés like The Wedding of River Song or The Name of the Doctor is a sense of compression, helping glide over potential plot holes.

For example, the ultimate explanation for why the Missy brought Clara and the Doctor together is stunningly arbitrary, even by the Master’s notoriously lax standards. It turns out that Missy just wanted the Doctor to find a companion that would eventually lead him to her door at just the right moment. It seems like a fairly byzantine execution of a fairly simply scheme; why not just ring the TARDIS and summon the Doctor personally once everything was in place? Then again, this is the villain behind Time-Flight.

Getting his Hannibal Lector on...

Getting his Hannibal Lector on…

Of course, this revelation is ultimately in keeping with the broader themes of the Moffat era as a whole. The Name of the Doctor made a point to stress that it was wrong to think of Clara as a mystery rather than a person; it would be a little hypocritical if it turned out that Clara was actually an even bigger mystery all along. In a way, the biggest purpose of the Missy reveal is to close off a dangling plot thread from The Bells of St. John, explaining how the Doctor and Clara wound up together in the first place.

There are other sly nods towards Moffat’s distinctively subversive storytelling style. In her confrontation with the Cybermen, Clara teases them with the promise of the Doctor’s real name – a trivial point that became an arc across the show’s fiftieth anniversary season. As with Clara’s nature as “the impossible girl”, the show made it quite clear that the Doctor’s actual birth name did not matter. The Cybermen in Death in Heaven would seem to agree. “This information cannot be confirmed,” they state, making it quite clear that the Doctor’s real name is irrelevant.

Here comes Santa Claus...

Here comes Santa Claus…

Still, the revelation that Missy put Clara and the Doctor in contact is far from the only connection between Death in Heaven and The Bells of St. John. As with Silence in the Library and The Bells of St. John, Moffat is building an episode around the horrors of technology. Given the writer’s own notoriously difficult relationship with on-line fandom, it is interesting to ponder whether the writer’s recurring motif of monstrous networking is an intentional nod towards the horrors of the internet. Of course there are actually monsters in “the cloud.”

Like the idea of “Cybermen in cyberspace” or the connection between “Missy” and “Master” from Dark Water, this revelation feels like a very clever bit of word play. “We’re in a cloud?” Danny asks Seb. Of course they are; what fun would an afterlife be without a cloud – even if it is ultimately just a “data cloud”? Still, it provides a nice update of the concept of the Cybermen, anchoring the technophobia most associated with the Cybermen in the most modern sorts of technology. It doesn’t do that much with the Cybermen themselves, but it is a clever update.

You just can't get the cyber-parts these days...

You just can’t get the cyber-parts these days…

While on the subject of that original meeting between Clara and the Doctor all the way back in The Bells of St. John, it is interesting that Dark Water and Death in Heaven provide the audience with a birth date for Clara. Dark Water revealed that Clara was born on the 23rd November; an appropriate date for the companion travelling with the Doctor for the show’s fiftieth anniversary season. However, Death in Heaven also provides the year. It turns out Clara was born in 1986.

This would make Clara the same age as Jenna Louise Colemen, and could just be a convenient production touch to ensure that the actor and character are roughly in step with one another. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that Clara was born right between the broadcast of Terror of the Vervoids and the broadcast of The Ultimate Foe. It is likely a happy coincidence, but those episodes represent the last introduction of a companion whose own continuity was out-of-step with that of the Doctor. The Doctor met Mel at his trial before he met her as a companion.

 

A walk among the tombstones...

A walk among the tombstones…

With its focus on Missy, Death in Heaven understandably reduces the Cybermen to little more than hired goons. Here, the Cybermen are Missy’s muscle in the same way that the Toclafane were during The Last of the Time Lords. While Death in Heaven has some haunting ideas about the process of conversion, the Cybermen themselves are largely treated as generic Doctor Who aliens. There is no Cyberleader here, no personality to their invasion. Although their methods are creepy and uncomfortable, they exist primarily to make Missy a more credible threat.

This feels like a rather fitting pay-off from Dark Water, where the Cybermen were treated almost as a generic big returning Doctor Who monster with a few quirks rather than a big deal in their own right. There was a mystery-monster-shaped hole in Dark Water, and the Cybermen ended up filling it. In a way, Death in Heaven acknowledges the identity issues that the Cybermen have had over the years. It does not try to get around the fact that Cybermen work best as iconic Doctor Who baddies, rather than as an entity with their own characterisation and agenda.

A tightly-knit U.N.I.T.

A tightly-knit U.N.I.T.

Missy is very clearly the focus here, and Death in Heaven gives Michelle Gomez a lot of room to do her stuff. The Cybermen could just as easily have been brainwashed clone armies of Sontarans made from recycled human remains or revived Silurians or some previously-unmentioned race of gobbledy-gook bad guys that use a similar method of conversion. For all its scale and drama, Death in Heaven is an intimate drama that pivots around the relationship between Missy and the Doctor, and Clara and Danny.

The episode’s central scene does not unfold in an epic location like St. Paul’s Cathedral or inside a jumbo jet, but in an anonymous graveyard. Although the episode capitalises on Missy’s inconsistency to give us a number of big set pieces, allowing any internal logic issues to be brushed aside with the assurance that she’s just “bananas”, the conflict between Missy and the Doctor is rendered intimate and personal. Death in Heaven does not revolve around some plot to conquer the universe, but a desperate attempt at reconciliation.

Recharge in piece...

Recharge in piece…

When he revived the character for his third season on the show Russell T. Davies played up the comic book nature of the relationship between the Doctor and the Master, with clear shades of Batman and the Joker at work. Steven Moffat pushes it further, building off the typical “not so different” attempts at rationalisation and justification that define the Joker’s relationship with Batman in stories like The Killing Joke or The Dark Knight. “I need you to know we’re not so different,” Missy begs. “I need my friend back.”

The story at the heart of Death in Heaven was never about alien invasions or raising the dead or conquering the planet. Despite the fact that climax of Dark Water was built around the reveal of both the Cybermen and the Master, the actual cliffhanger was given to Danny Pink trying to deal with his own guilt. The Cyberman invasion and Missy’s violence against U.N.I.T. are both distractions from the heart of Death in Heaven. Despite its impressive high-stakes sequences, Death in Heaven comes down to four characters talking in a graveyard.

Bury bad news...

Bury bad news…

Missy doesn’t want to rule the world or build an army. She just wants to know that the Doctor is no different than she is. She wants to know that the Doctor is not – to revisit the question articulated in Into the Dalek“a good man.” She wants to proof that her childhood friend is not entirely lost to her, that she could still be reunited with him. While the Master needed similarly personal reassurances in The Last of the Time Lords, begging the Doctor to hear the drums that drove him to war, it wasn’t as clearly foregrounded as it is here.

Serving the essential functions of a series finalé, Death in Heaven foregrounds a number of themes that have been running through the season. The Doctor answers that most quintessentially Moffat question – he may be a great man, but is he a good one? For her own part, building off themes hinted at in Flatline and In the Forest of the Night, Clara tries to bluff the Cybermen by claiming to be the Doctor, a gag so effective that she even gets to take pride of place in the opening credits. Her eyebrows replace Peter Capaldi’s.

The impossible girl...

The impossible girl…

It is hard to read Death in Heaven in its original context. In one of those great “life imitates art” stories, Jenna Louise Coleman had planned to depart at the end of the year; much like Clara planned to depart after the events of Kill the Moon. However, Coleman had such fun producing the season that she decided to stay on; a rather delightful mirroring of Clara’s own decision at the end of Mummy on the Orient Express. However, Death in Heaven was originally written as part of Clara’s departure arc, setting up Last Christmas.

Despite Coleman’s decision to stay on, Death in Heaven and Last Christmas are both very well-structured as potential departure points for the character. In fact, Moffat’s departure scene for Clara in Last Christmas was written so well that the episode ultimately kept it in the broadcast cut; there was just one last-minute addition made to the scene. Ironically, Clara’s big non-departure at the end of the season might just be one of the strongest companion departures in the history of the show; or, it would be, if she actually left.

Dan, Dan the Cyberman...

Dan, Dan the Cyberman…

After all, Moffat has cleverly written the season to a point where both the companion and the Doctor can mutually decide to go their separate ways. There’s no contrived force of nature working to keep them apart, no overly-melodramatic goodbye forced at the last minute. Instead, two people who are very good at lying decide to hide their pain from one another. It is a heartbreaking and effective sequence that demonstrates what an asset Coleman is to show, and how far the Twelfth Doctor and Clara have come.

Other themes recur. One of the major recurring themes of the season has been the Doctor wrestling with issues of class. In The Caretaker, he went undercover as a janitor. In Into the Dalek, he pointed out that security is weakest in the larder. In Time Heist, he pointed out that the way to infiltrate any secure location was through the service corridors. This working-class heroism seems at odds with both the character’s title as “Time Lord” and Danny’s accusation that the Doctor is really an officer at heart.

An idiot with a box...

An idiot with a box…

Although the Doctor dismisses that challenge at the end of the episode, it does ring a little true. Missy is presented as a dark reflection of the Doctor, after all. In Deep Breath, she even conceded that the accent was an affectionate affectation. “I do like his new accent, though. Think I might keep it.” So while the Doctor has been busy infiltrating the working class, Missy has been exploiting “the wealth and mortal remains of wealthy idiots.” The “3w” scheme is very clearly aimed at those with money to fund such services. To quote the Doctor, “it pays to die rich.”

Death in Heaven makes the point that the Doctor is somewhat hypocritical when it comes to matters of class and rank – as his relationship with U.N.I.T. demonstrates. He pointedly refuses to salute the U.N.I.T. officers. “Oh, don’t do that,” he warns Colonel Ahmed. “You look like you’re self-concussing, which would explain all of military history, now I think about it.” It is pithy and condescending, in keeping with his attitude towards soldiers across the season in general – and towards Danny in particular.

Less Seb the better...

Less Seb the better…

However, when Kate Stewart pointed out that all her father ever wanted was a salute, the Doctor softens significantly. “He should’ve asked.” He cracks wise about the sort of leaders who manage situations like this. “We don’t want Americans bobbing around the place. They’ll only start praying.” Nevertheless, he takes to the position of “World President” comfortably enough to rub the Master’s nose in it. “Remember all those years when all you wanted to do was to rule the world?” he taunts.

Jon Pertwee has become a stock comparison for Peter Capaldi. There are a lot of obvious superficial reasons for this. Pertwee was an established older actor when he took the role, much like Capaldi. Capaldi is frequently costumed in a black coat with red lining that evokes Pertwee. Both actors are tall and skinny with light hair. In a way, Death in Heaven plays on these similarities, playing off a lot of the internal contradictions of the Pertwee era and the difficulties reconciling that phase of the show with what we know about the Doctor.

Even Heaven has to pay its power bills...

Even Heaven has to pay its power bills…

After all, for all that the character is an intergalactic wanderer, the Third Doctor was a civil servant. He was part of the establishment. He got paid, and used government facilities. He was best friends with a soldier, despite his dislike of violence. There is a fascinating dichotomy there, something that doesn’t quite fit with how the character has been portrayed in other incarnations. It is very difficult to make the Third Doctor fit with any of his predecessors or successors.

Death in Heaven teases a number of possibilities. Perhaps the Doctor is very good at lying to himself; the show has certainly suggested that in the past. After Kate Stewart drugs him, the Doctor protests, “You think your father would have done this?” She replies, “We both know he absolutely would.” Her father was willing to commit genocide in order to keep the human race safe, and the Doctor forgave him. He was a good soldier, displaying many of the qualities that the Doctor mocks and resents in Danny. (The Brigadier even retired and became a teacher.)

Up in the sky!

Up in the sky!

It is also possible that the Doctor likes power; that he is comfortable in a position of power. For all that the Doctor seems to challenge and undermine authority, the Third Doctor seemed to integrate with the upper class quite well during his time on Earth, and seemed to grow accustomed to the privilege afforded his station. Here, the Doctor seems terrified at holding that sort of power in his hand. He is horrified of the power that comes with the bracelet, as if he does not trust himself with it. Perhaps he knows his own history.

“Give a good man firepower,” Missy reflects at one point in the episode, “and he’ll never run out of people to kill.” The phrasing feels a little pointed – harking back to Moffat’s own A Good Man Goes to War. The Doctor is a man who is capable of destroying entire planets and vanquishing armadas. He can blow up entire fleets and trick allies into murdering one another. The character has a history of questionable decision-making and ethical ambiguity. Death in Heaven suggests the entire Pertwee era might count.

"Well, to be fair, I am a bit of practice at the old two-part invasion of the earth stories..."

“Well, to be fair, I am a bit of practice at the old two-part invasion of the earth stories…”

Even the climax of Death in Heaven plays with the idea. After the Doctor makes his speech about not being “an officer”, Danny Pink still identifies him as “a general”; in contrast to describing Missy as “a lunatic.” The Doctor refuses to allow Clara to kill Missy, but is willing to let the Brigadier do it. He even salutes the Brigadier for sparing him from that atrocity, letting him off the moral hook. It is a moment that draws attention to the Doctor’s occasional hypocrisy. For all that the Doctor dislikes soldiers and murder, he is willing to use them for his own ends.

As with the climax of Kill the Moon, Death in Heaven is not entirely convinced by the Doctor’s big stirring speeches. While the Doctor rants and raves about how he would never turn on Danny Pink’s emotional inhibitor, he finds the ground slipping out from under him once it is clear that he needs to turn on Danny Pink’s emotional inhibitor. “And didn’t all of those beautiful speeches just disappear in the face of a tactical advantage, sir?” Danny goads, quite correctly. For all his speechifying, the Doctor still sacrifices Danny as a tactical manoeuvre.

Boxed in...

Boxed in…

Airing three days before Remembrance Day on the centenary of the First World War, Death in Heaven also provides a nice cap to the “soldier” arc running through the season. Building off the themes established in Mummy on the Orient Express and in keeping with the general historical narrative of that conflict, it is an episode that praises the bravery of the soldiers while questioning the morality and authority of those in command issuing the orders. Missy kills countless people in what is ultimately a personal grievance with the Doctor.

This theme is reflected in the Cybermen; these silver warriors are the perfect army. They have no emotions; no judgment; no opinions; no morality. They do what they are ordered to do, with no room for human feeling or compassion; as such, they can be ordered to do truly terrible things. However, Death in Heaven suggests that these soldiers must remember and hold on to their humanity. Danny saves the world by appealing to the humanity of the Cyberman army, reminding them that they are ultimately human beings.

Grave decisions need to be made...

Grave decisions need to be made…

Death in Heaven is decidedly political. This was a rather provocative piece of television to air the night before Remembrance Sunday. In fact, The Royal British Legion’s Festival of Remembrance aired pretty much directly after the episode. This was an episode of a family television show airing during the centenary of the First World War that revealed that a major heroic character shot and killed a young innocent boy while in the service of his country. In fact, the opening scene of Dark Water has Danny walking past the Welsh National War Memorial in Cathays Park.

As with Mummy on the Orient Express, these connections are unstated, but are clearly present. Death in Heaven is a charged and politicised piece of television. After one of the Cybermen explodes over London, Missy pointedly observes, “Cybermen don’t just blow themselves up for no good reason, dear. They’re not human.” It is very strange to see such blatant (and uncomfortable) references to modern warfare in a family-friendly genre show airing on the country’s top broadcaster.

Attack on the Cybermen...

Attack on the Cybermen…

This is to say nothing of the episode’s less-pointed political commentary. Now that the Conservatives are in government, Death in Heaven suggests that it might be time to reassess the tenure of Harold “I’m definitely not meant to be Tony Blair” Successfully identifying Missy, Oswin informs the Doctor, “We do have files on all our ex-prime ministers. She wasn’t even the worst.” It is a very wry and very cynical little gag, recalling the venom of The Beast Below.

This is bold and brave British television, television that seems quite keen to tweak the nose of the audience. It is a show that seems sure to generate no small amount of debate on controversial topics. Doctor Who has always been a family show, and it deserves a great deal of praise for being willing to broach these sorts of charged and potentially controversial issues at a very pointed time. Although the show has not engaged directly with the legacy of the First World War, it does linger at the margins of the season.

Portrait of a hero...

Portrait of a hero…

Death in Heaven is shrewd enough not to make too much of the Doctor’s angst. Although he would rather keep Missy alive, there are no tears shed. The Doctor does not break down like he did at the climax of The Last of the Time Lords. The Doctor is not the character who has lost everything. The Doctor is not the character who made an impossible sacrifice. Death in Heaven acknowledges that the Doctor gets to survive without paying too steep a price himself. Excessive angst would be indulgent or gratuitous.

At the same time, it is an episode that is keen to emphasise that the Twelfth Doctor is not completely detached; that he does still feel pain and hurt, even if he masks it well. Trying to articulate the difference between himself and Missy, the Doctor explains, “Pain is a gift. Without the capacity for pain, we can’t feel the hurt we inflict.” Danny finds that a little funny. “Are you telling me seriously, for real, that you can?” he asks, incredulously. Of course the Doctor can feel the hurt he inflicts, even if he hides it well.

Osgood done good...

Osgood done good…

Indeed, the final scene between the Twelfth Doctor and Clara brings their arc a full circle since Deep Breath. The Twelfth Doctor has never been too touchy-feely, shunning hugs from his companion. It would be easy to attribute such behaviour to cynicism or grumpiness. Instead, the Twelfth Doctor has a surprisingly sweet justification. “Never trust a hug,” he tells Clara. “It’s just a way to hide your face.” Given how important the character’s face is to him – and the importance the season places on seeing the character’s real face – it seems like a good enough reason.

Death in Heaven also raises the issue of Gallifrey for the first time since The Time of the Doctor. The search for the Doctor’s home planet has not taken over the show as some commentors feared it might in the wake of The Day of the Doctor. Gallifrey is certainly not a priority for the Twelfth Doctor; it was scarcely mentioned at all this season. In fact, Missy very cleverly figures out that the Doctor hasn’t even bothered to look for his home planet. “It’s returned to its original location,” she teases him, “didn’t you even think to look?”

"These Cybermen are much cooler about having their pictures taken than those Daleks..."

“These Cybermen are much cooler about having their pictures taken than those Daleks…”

Of course, Gallifrey is not there. However, the fact that the Doctor travels hopefully to those coordinates proves that he hasn’t even begun to search out his lost people. In a way, Missy’s whole sinister plan feels like a wry nod to the possible return of Gallifrey. “The dead are coming home, Doctor,” she boasts. It is a phrase that could just as easily apply to the looming resurrection of the Time Lords as much as the conversion of the dead. It seems the Doctor and Steven Moffat are not particularly interested in the return of Gallifrey; just in removing the blood from his hands.

There is also something heart-warming in the closing scene, with a perfectly-cast Santa Claus interrupting the closing credits to insist that all this doom and gloom simply won’t do. It is playful, clever and self-aware. It acknowledges that Death in Heaven is a rather heavy episode and that no small amount of relief is needed. Moffat is a writer who doesn’t tend to like dark or cynical endings, so tempering Death in Heaven with the promise of a delayed happy ending is indeed a delightful touch.

Their relationship disintegrates...

Their relationship disintegrates…

Death in Heaven is not the strongest episode of the season, but it is a well-constructed season finalé that does wrap up many of the themes of the season. It finishes up what has been a tremendous run for the show, and hints at great promise for the future.

You might enjoy our other reviews from Peter Capaldi’s first season of Doctor Who:

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3 Responses

  1. A very interesting review (how did you get it out so quickly?) This was a fun, if uneven episode.

    I always found the classism running through this season a little jarring. Moffat of course is the writer who gave us ‘Coupling’ – maybe the ultimate affectionate portrayal of the modern British middle class – so the lionisation of the working class always rang sort of false for me. Danny Pink in particular with his throughly respectable teaching job (in a show were teachers have traditionally been bastions of the middle class) and his loud reverse-snobbery sometimes came across as a man who protested too much but unfortunately we are seemingly supposed to take him at his word.

    (I guess too, I’ve read too much history to swallow another “lions led by donkeys” narrative, or find it particularly brave.)

    I very strongly suspect we haven’t seen the last of the electronic afterlife. They even have the perfect excuse to bring someone back – quite apart from the Master, Osgood is smart enough to figure a way to keep the thing woring and bridge a once only portal to the land of the living.

    Maybe I’m the only one but I would have loved if the show had gone ahead with Clara as the real Docotor a Capaldi as companion.

  2. I’ve of two minds. I think Moffat has, well, run out of ideas. (Three sexy ladies who fancy the daughter and control computers with digitized souls…right) Still not keen on Clara – will NEVER be keen on Clara. That undermined the entire season. 😦

    I do think Moffat has a good grasp on the Doctor and his rogues gallery. His weakness is writing for the companion, particularly female companions. It’s sort of like writing a fine Spider-Man but lacking the same depth for Peter.

    On the other hand, this is the most coherent Moffat finale yet. He deserves a cookie.

    • I agree with you there. To be honest I think Moffat has always had certain… issues with female characters.

      In fact I’ve been thinking on it and suddenly realised that Missy is not intended to be a FEMALE character at all – she is very clearly intentionally written and acted as a male in drag whose actor happens to be a woman. Which possibly makes sense for a traditionally male character who regenerate in a female body but on the other hand… well, like I said Moffat has issues with writing gender.

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