This week’s season 8 finale of Doctor Who, “Death in Heaven,” tried to be a lot of things. If they had stuck with just following the final departure of Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), then it would have been a tear-jerking yet satisfying in its emotionally draining totality. Instead, we got a lot of unnecessary meta-references, a lot of deliberate head fakes, and a lot of, as the AVCLub’s Alasdair Wilkins called it, Moffat being “clever” instead of clever. This is not to say I did not enjoy myself during the episode… but, like most episodes this season, I could have enjoyed myself so much more.
Let’s start with the Clara head fakes. Knowing that folks feed off of every word of the previews of future episodes. Moffat inserted Clara’s phrase “Clara Oswald never existed!” as a way to get the internet buzzing about how maybe she really was the Doctor, or a hologram, or an invention, or something. Then the opening credits had Jenna Coleman’s name first, followed by her eyes, not the Doctor’s, in the opening graphics. Of course, all of this was 100% artifice, tricks used by a television creator to manipulate a television audience. Sigh.
Next we saw some more heart strings set up to be pulled. UNIT scientist and Superfan-stand-in Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) was back, first to get teased by the Doctor with a potential offer for future companionship, then to get murdered by the Master. We once again met the Brigadier’s daughter, Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), mostly so that we could show her resurrected cyber-father and pull on the nostalgia strings of the old fans. Heck, we even had the Chaplet Funeral Home, named for the first Doctor’s companion Dodo Chaplet, for no reason at all relevant to the story.
I guess the thing that bothers me about all these references is not that they exist, but that some past references are thrown in while other major parts of the past are completely ignored. Remember when Clara was inserted into EVERY part of the Doctor’s timeline, past and future? Why did she not know about Gallifrey, or the Master’s plan, or even Danny? Remember when the library (Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead) “saved” people, exactly like the Gallifreyan hard drives did, and then restored them afterward? Why couldn’t the Doctor do that with everyone in there (or at least Danny)? And didn’t we see a thing not too many Cybermen plots ago specifically about how the emotional inhibitor caused them to explode if it was turned off/on somehow? Why didn’t it do that to Danny? Maybe it’s like the deflector dish on the Enterprise, there to serve whatever function the writers decide it needs to serve this week. Oh, and remember how Eccleston & Tennant always had to tell their companions what setting to put the sonic screwdriver on? Why, then, did Clara have to just “point and think?”
Then there’s the general common sense things that some of the plot points presented, yet never resolved. Where did the Master get a Tardis, and where is her Tardis now? Did UNIT get it? What about this Gallifreyan hard drive? If there is a hard drive that can bodily restore people from death (as it did to the boy Danny killed), why wouldn’t anyone try to just give it a bit more power to restore some other folks? Why wasn’t Clara – the same Clara who dramatically (thought she) destroyed the Doctor’s Tardis keys in a volcano to get Danny back – doing ANYTHING at all to try and give that Nethersphere hard drive a bit more power? Are we really meant to believe that every nation on the planet agreed to cede power to an alien in the case of alien invasion? Seems a little counter-intuitive, and I also know there are governments who would refuse to do so solely because a rival nation signed on. Governments are petty like that. No, seriously, just flip on the news.
But let’s look at the good parts of the episode. First off, let’s talk about Danny. Really, he was what held this episode together for me. Clara’s fake Doctor prancing about would have just been dumb had not cyber-Danny come into the scene to call her on her crap. Clara’s ho-hum speech about how she’d never lie to her best friend, the Doctor, would’ve been just another empty half-truth without the emotional sucker punch of it being said to Danny, the man she supposedly loved. And even as Missy handed the Doctor the keys to intergalactic domination, it was Danny who turned “soldiers” into people once more. If there was a sentimental heart of the episode, it was his “promise of a soldier,” which brought into focus all the other weird soldier stuff that’s been going on this season. This played out even more in Danny’s last transmission to Clara, when he returned the boy he’d killed, instead of reviving himself. Because soldiers make sacrifices so that others can be protected.
I’ve heard some people comment on the high death count in this episode, and in season 8 overall. Given that the Missy plot involved weaponizing the dead, though, it does make sense. And Michelle Gomez did a splendid job of playing the “bananas” Master who killed so casually. Unlike her predecessor, John Simm, Gomez brought nuance to the Master’s insanity. What she did had a certain crazy logic to it, without the nonsensicalness of, say, turning every human into a Master clone to bring back Gallifrey. Sociopaths who are still slightly on their rockers are much more terrifying. Also, one never got the sense that she was concerned for her own well-being, because she portrayed that Master arrogance so perfectly. Not so much a “Mwa Ha Ha” arrogance, but a quiet assuredness that she knew her plans would succeed. And while I have no doubt that the Cyber-Brigadier’s blast did not actually kill her in the end, I do hope that she manages to hold on to this body a bit longer, as Gomez was a perfect blend of all the unsettling elements the Master should be, with just a hint of sanity to make it all make some kind of wicked sense.
From a technology/science perspective, the idea that the Cybermen now have the ability to upgrade via a single drop of water (a far cry from the massively involved and interruptable process we’ve seen in previous Doctor Who and Torchwood episodes) was kind of terrifying. Sure, the Master was in charge of this group of Cybermen… but what if others also learn that ability, others who aren’t tied to a magic control bracelet? And what is it about plots with a UNIT presence and massive fire in the atmosphere? Maybe Michael Bay & J.J.Abrams are also on the UNIT payroll. Who can say?
Most of the actors were more than decent, despite what the often up-and-down script had them doing. Moffat, like he sometimes does, occasionally got a little too carried away in his “cleverness” and forgot that we’re really here for the character interaction, not the random references. But still, Capaldi and the others sold the bits that weren’t particularly well written, and we thankfully got nowhere near the lightning-skull-faced atrocity of the last Master plot. Plus, for every “down” in the writing, there were several “ups” to counter it, especially at the end.
The final meeting with the Doctor and Clara, where they both lie to one another and we learn not to trust hugs, was some of the best writing of the season. And sure, the episode ended on kind of a downer, but I think that gives a bit more power to the many previous seasons and episodes that’ve had forced happy endings. In Eccleston’s run, the Doctor danced because “just once, everyone lived.” That lost meaning as we saw pretty much everyone live in most every episode after that. So Danny’s death, and the deaths of so many more across this season, gave us a bit more appreciation for Eccleston’s line. And it would take significant death to finally convince the Doctor that he’s an idiot. Only that could force him to look that hard at himself.
We won’t see the Doctor or Clara again until Christmas Day, when Santa Claus (played by Shaun of the Dead‘s Nick Frost) is totally going to bring Danny back from the dead and/or ensure that Clara’s possibly already existent pregnancy carries to term in her departure episode. Just you wait, it’ll happen. I’m making the prediction now. Until then, dear Whovians, keep listening for that vwhoop vwhoop, because they have yet to announce the new companion(s).