Season 8, Episode 12—“Death in Heaven”
Well… that was… fine? I guess?
I spent the past few days trying to understand what the hell I just watched on Saturday night, hoping that somehow I would have a eureka moment regarding some of the baffling developments that plagued the finale. Oh sure, the episode had some moments of brilliance and a hug that could force even the most stoic fan to sniffle, but overall it was a disappointment after the nearly flawless “Dark Water”. “Death in Heaven”, sadly, was a perfect example of this season’s difficulty in balancing emotional veracity with plot coherence.
So what did “Death in Heaven” do right and where did it go wrong?
To the recap!
Last time we saw our heroes, Missy (aka the Master) had been editing recently deceased humans’ consciousnesses and downloading those minds into updated Cybermen bodies. This process apparently avoids that whole “capture people and cut their brains out” bit that the Who henchmen’s union had lobbied against.
At 3W, Clara tries to avoid being vaporized by pretending to be the Doctor. The audience ignores the fact that Cybermen could easily scan her body for a second heart. The audience also ignores the fact that Steven Moffat included this section in the episode just so he could use the line “Clara Oswald never existed” in the finale trailer.
Outside, the Doctor is saved from a premature showdown with Missy by UNIT, the United Nations’ military organization in charge of fighting extraterrestrial and paranormal threats. When UNIT commander Kate Stewart orders the Cybermen to surrender, the zombie robots pull an Iron Man and fly off into the air while presumably winking at women and attempting to fight alcoholism.
Once above the Earth’s major metropolitan areas, the baddies explode and release a pollen that can transform decaying organic material into Cybermen. Somehow we’re supposed to ignore the fact that most of these corpses’ brains would have decomposed into powder that is useless to the ‘updated’ occupants. The episode also asks us to overlook the fact that Missy never explains how the pollen can distinguish between human organic material and other organic material such as that rabbit your cousin loved a little too tightly a few years ago.
Sidenote: is Missy’s weapon an iPhone wrapped in one of those cases made for people whose hands are basically made of butter?
Inexplicably, Danny’s body is transformed into a Cyberman while in a morgue… even though it’s pretty damn clear that 1) he never touched the pollen-filled rainwater and 2) we’re far enough into the future that Danny has been dead for months, and 3W is a thing that exists. I mean sure, 3W could have been happening in secret somehow in the present, but don’t you think news of Dr. Skarosa’s afterlife research would have ended up on reddit pretty damn quickly if that were the case?
Outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, UNIT tranquilizes the Doctor even though he’s their ally because reasons. When he boards the organization’s plane, the Doctor is stunned to find the Earth has chosen him to be its President in situations involving full-scale alien invasions. No word yet on whether his presidential anthem is “E.T. ” by Katy Perry or David Bowie’s “Starman”.
Once she wakes up, Missy teases the Doctor with knowledge of their home planet’s true location. I swear, if this show wasn’t PG this scene would have been played out with a lot more ballgags and whips (potential title: “50 Shades of Gallifrey”).
Upon conferring with UNIT higher ups, the Doctor figures out that Missy’s 3W experimentation on the pollen-dispersing Cybermen had been the first phase of the grander plan. The Doctor then hypothesizes that Missy has been using her TARDIS to capture and store minds in her Matrix Data Slice across space and time (we saw evidence of this in the period piece “Deep Breath” and the futuristic “Into the Dalek”). Cut from this episode are scenes of recently uploaded people from olden times burning iPads (“Satan’s picture books”) and screaming “witch!” at their Nethersphere counselors.
Somewhere in the cargo hold, Steven Moffat clasps his hands together and laughs in a Montgomery Burns -ike fashion as he makes Missy kill off the adorable Osgood.
Back at 3W, the Cybermen prove to be the type of super soldiers who are easily fooled by a child’s game of Guess Who. Before they get a chance to ask Clara whether the real Doctor would wear a beret or not, the Cybermen are interrupted by Cyber-Danny who cyber-zaps Clara in the head before cyber-caporizing his fellow zombies. Clara then wakes up in a cemetery, because why should Danny take her to a safe place that’s far away from murderous robots?
The romantic atmosphere of ominous clouds and gravestones is ruined, however, once Clara unknowingly spits out at Cyber-Danny that she and the Doctor have an unbreakable bond that is based on total honesty. Feeling betrayed, Danny takes off his mask to reveal his grotesque rotting corpse (great job, makeup department!). As a last request, he asks Clara to be his sexy Dr. Kevorkian and put him out of his misery by helping him delete his ability to feel. Unable to effectively kill Danny, Clara calls the Doctor for help.
Up in the air, Missy reveals that she was the one who gave Clara the Doctor’s number and I don’t buy it one bit. Wouldn’t Clara remember what the “woman in the shop” looked like? Unless the Master went through a previous female regeneration methinks Missy is a lying liar. I also call bullshit on her elaborately keeping the Doctor and Clara together, primarily because her ultimate plan would have succeeded just fine without a pesky controlling companion asking the Doctor to go to “hell”. While I give Missy some “I’m a loooOOOOooOOOon” leeway, it seems like a lot of work for an insubstantial reward. Also let’s face it, we’re all still hoping Amy was the woman in the shop; a UNIT officer’s comment that the organization was tipped off to 3W’s weirdness by a Scottish lady did nothing to deter me from adopting this theory.
Temporarily tiring of playing with the Doctor, Missy calls upon her Cyberman cronies to terrorize UNIT and destroy the plane. Narrowly escaping death, the Doctor hops on his TARDIS and travels to the graveyard in order to convince Danny to keep his emotions. In a beautiful speech, the Doctor champions the value of pain, explaining that feeling loss is what helps guide our morality. When Danny sneers at the assertion, the Doctor retorts that while he may not show it, he is acutely aware of the price paid for his heroics.
“Pain is a gift. Without the capacity for pain, we can’t feel the harm we inflict.”
Aiming to prove that the Doctor cares more about his missions than saving him, Danny reveals that the only way to find out how to save the Earth is by tapping into the Cybermen hive-mind as an emotionless droid. I know Danny was trying to make a big point about how the Doctor can talk big because he isn’t the one whose life is on the line, but come on dude; it would be pretty damn selfish if the Doctor chose to save one of his friends while leaving millions of others at the whims of a Vaudevillian villain. ‘Dem’s the breaks, kid. Like the Doctor poignantly said in “Mummy on the Orient Express”: “Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones, but you still have to choose.” Of course the Doctor only has to make these choices because he puts himself in the position of saviour, but the planet can’t always save itself like in “Forest of the Night”. Sometimes, like when an alien super villain attacks the Earth, someone has to step up and find a solution, no matter how morally repugnant it might be.
With no other conceivable way to find out Missy’s plan, Clara tearfully takes the reins and inhibits Danny’s emotions. Unfortunately the act is done in vain, as the hive-mind fails to reveal a solution to the impeding cyberpollen rain.
There to gloat is Missy, who underlines how perfect her plan is: the more the Cybermen kill, the more dead bodies there are to turn into soldiers. In a shocking twist, Missy reveals that her army was not intended for her use, but rather the Doctor’s. “Armies,” she states, “are for people who think they’re right, and nobody thinks they’re righter than you.” When the Doctor recoils at her assertions, Missy insists that despite his protestations, the Doctor subconsciously desires a weapon that could help him satisfy his insatiable desire to save the world. This is a very interesting assertion. After all, the Doctor has for decades saved the day with the help of friends who were inspired enough by his hero complex to sacrifice themselves for the “greater good”. If we drill down, is an army of self-sacrificing Cybermen that much different than weaponized companions?
When pressed to explain herself, Missy admits that her ultimate goal has been to reunite with the Doctor after forcing him to admit that they are power-hungry creatures who deserve one another.
Faced with the unwanted gift, the Doctor reflects on who he is and whether he wants to take on any of the roles that have been foisted upon him. Is he a president? Is he a general? Is he an omnipotent superhero? Turns out, the Doctor is none of these things:
“I’m not a good man. And I’m not a bad man. I am not a hero. I’m definitely not a president. And no, I’m not an officer. Do you know what I am? I am… an idiot with a box and a screwdriver, passing through, helping out, learning. I don’t need an army. Never have, because I’ve got [humans]. Because love is not an emotion. Love is a promise.”
Whaaaaaaaat a load of bullshit.
While his statement could be interpreted as an admission that he doesn’t always know what’s right, it seemed more like an attempt to absolve the Doctor of accountability for his actions by playing the “oop, I’m just a big ‘ol dummy who doesn’t know better” card. You can’t just wash your hands clean by stating that you never meant to be a hero; if you act like a saviour people will regard you as one. Has the Doctor never heard of “with great power comes great responsibility”????? Sorry bud, but you can’t just jump into people’s lives, mess with their fates and then respond to criticism by claiming you just did your gosh darn best.
And REALLY? “Love is not an emotion. Love is a promise.”? That’s glib. You’re GLIB, Doctor.
And UGH, Danny is the only Cyberman who wasn’t obeying Missy’s commands because THE POWER OF WUV? The people Missy could command were just schmucks who didn’t love their friends and families enough, eh?
After the day is saved, Missy takes one last stab at winning the Doctor’s friendship by blurting out Gallifrey’s supposed coordinates. Blind with rage, Clara threatens to kill Missy. Wanting to keep Clara’s soul intact (apparently wanting to murder keeps you in the clear), the Doctor offers to take on the task of killing the enemy. Wow, the Doctor does the dirty work himself for a change! What a poignant lesson! …Well, except that this plot point is completely undone by the fact that Kate Stewart’s father, the Brigadier, kills Missy instead. So once again the Doctor is relieved of having to make a sacrifice. This is the point in the episode where I start tearing my hair out.
We’re then treated to a lame rip-off of Ghost…except the payoff is a bullshit, ham-fisted child saving afterthought instead of a sexy pottery scene. Shit should have been CUT.
Later on, Steven Moffat comes back to destroy you once and for all with a heartbreaking coffee shop scene. Operating under a misguided sense of loyalty, Clara and the Doctor both lie about their grief in order to help the other achieve what they think is independent happiness. Danny’s dead, Gallifrey is lost, and Moffat is an emotional troll. I mean seriously, did any of you keep it together during the Doctor’s TARDIS breakdown? Jesus H. Christ, that cut deep.
BRB, sobbing forever
We then end the episode with SANTA.
Overall opinion: Okay, so this episode wasn’t terrible, but it was certainly muddled enough to detracted from the heavyweight performances of Jenna Coleman, Peter Capaldi and Michelle Gomez as Missy.
Steven Moffat’s cleverness, much like M. Night Shyamalan’s twists, has proved to be a double edged sword: because the show is sold on its intelligence, the audience expects a certain level of storytelling when they tune in. Normally I’m able to suspend disbelief for sci-fi shows (women find William Shatner attractive? I’m on board!), but “timey wimey”/”power of love!” explanations simply don’t cut it when you bill your main characters as clever boys and girls.
Going into a season with a new Doctor and a relatively unknown (and disliked) companion, all the writers had to do was lay down a solid story in order to let the actors win over the audience. For their part, the performers threw themselves into the story and built an incredible connection that was both believable and tragic. Unfortunately, most of the episodes this season pulled away from this bond with distractingly nonsensical storytelling. For every scene in which characters delved into the mythos of the titular hero, the audience was thrown a plot point that left a sour taste in its mouth (I’m not a medical professional, but if you had digestive issues they were probably caused by “Time Heist”). The finale in particular required the audience to overlook and assume so many things that the episode’s nuanced character moments got lost in the “wait, what the fuck?” shuffle.
Despite what my grumblings and nit picking may have you believe, I really liked season eight; this is particularly why I was demanding so much of the finale. Unlike the unwatchable season 7, the past twelve episodes eschewed pointless space adventuring in favour of slowing down, focusing on emotion, and asking difficult questions. While the show didn’t always make a coherent point, I admire Doctor Who for challenging itself and its audience. Once a chore, the show is now appointment viewing again.
Although I’ve previously gushed in my reviews about Jenna Coleman as Clara, I also want to go on record and state that I adore Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor. After four seasons of a protagonist defined by his child-like wonder, it’s lovely to see a Doctor whose pathos aligns with the realistically dangerous side of heroism. While Capaldi has been criticized by some for being too grumpy, I personally think the actor does a beautiful job of balancing his curmudgeonly nature with a sense of humour and warmth. I can’t wait to see what Twelve gets up to next!
Doctor, to an officer: “Love your outfit. Are you in the scouts? Are you a man scout? Didn’t know they had those.”
Missy, counting down: “7. You know from the minute you slop out, you’re rotting? Decaying? The stench of you, phew. Never gonna get this place clean. Three.” / Osgood: “Three?” / Missy: “I’m accelerating for dramatic effect.”
Missy: “Boys, blow up this plane. And then… I don’t know, Belgium, yeah? Kill some Belgians. Might as well, they’re not even French.”
Doctor: “Never trust a hug. It’s just a way to hide your face.”
Clara: “Travelling with you made me feel really special. Thank you for that. Thank you for making me feel special.” / Doctor: “Thank you for exactly the same.”
‘Til Christmas, Whovians!