TV Review: Doctor Who – Death in Heaven (S8, E12)

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Director: Rachel Talalay
Screenwriter: Steven Moffat
Cast: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Samuel Anderson, Michelle Gomez, Chris Addison, Jemma Redgrave, Ingrid Oliver & Sanjeev Bhaskar

Note – If you haven’t seen “Death in Heaven” and don’t want to have it spoiled for you, look away now…

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZFZaqsaJ4eE]

I never expected “Death in Heaven” to meet the expectations set out by its predecessor – series finales in Doctor Who very rarely do (I still contend that “The Parting of the Ways” is the only truly satisfying Nu-Who finale to date) – but I did have at least some hope that Steven Moffat might finally be able to pull off something that didn’t rely on one of the big three cop-outs; reset buttons, timey-wimey nonsense and/or the power of love. Well, no such luck I’m afraid, as although Moffat has managed to construct a surprisingly straightforward and self-contained story, the latter half of the conclusion to Peter Capaldi’s first series as the Doctor falls victim to the most pungent cop-out of all; the notion that love can overcome all else.

The episode picks up immediately where last week’s excellent “Dark Water” left off. The Master is back. Cybermen are marching through the streets of every major city on Earth. Clara is trapped. Danny is dead. And now The Doctor, confronted with an impossible choice, is about to face the daunting realisation that this battle is over before it’s even begun. How, as he says, can you win a war against an enemy that can weaponise the dead? Simple answer; you can’t. An hour later, friends will be dead, enemies will be vanquished (though not permanently, surely…), and The Doctor will finally have an answer to the question that has haunted him throughout this entire series; is he a good man?

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With such a lot to cover, it’s both a blessing and a curse that “Death in Heaven” is ten minutes longer than standard episodes. On the one hand, the extended runtime allows Moffat to continue playing around with all the morbid ideas laid down in the first chapter of this two-part finale, resulting in more of the same dry and morbid humour that made “Dark Water” such a triumph, yet at the same time it means that the final fifteen minutes succumb to all the worst excesses of both Moffat’s contrived writing and the soap-opera sensibilities that the show still dabbles in following RTD’s tenure as show runner. It feels, in many ways, like an episode of two halves; the first is classic Who, complete with shocking deaths (that, for once, aren’t reversed…), sarcastic humour and a gloriously hammy villain, while the second is the very worst of Nu-Who, complete with forced emotion, daft twists and an altogether anticlimactic denouement.

As evidence of this, let’s take a minute to discuss poor Danny Pink (Anderson). Now, anyone who has followed my reviews of Series 8 will know that I’m not Danny’s biggest fan, and “Death in Heaven” – though unquestionably his finest hour – demonstrates exactly why. Last week, Danny finally developed something of a personality, albeit only after he was dead. This week, Danny bordered on likability… alas, this only happened after his emotional inhibitor had been activated. In effect, the issue with Danny is simple; not enough work has been done throughout the series to make me like him and, as such, I really couldn’t care less about him. The effect of his death on Clara was suitably sad, sure, but the entire character still feels as though he has been crowbarred in to the show simply to provide a dramatic and emotional ending.

Nonetheless, despite these criticisms, “Death in Heaven” still has a lot going for it. For starters, Michelle Gomez is marvellous as the Master, and her interactions with Capaldi – who, as it now goes without saying, is fantastic as always – make for some truly thrilling viewing. The characterisation leaves a lot to be desired (Missy is a standard Moffat villainess, complete with the fetishistic outfit) but Gomez plays her with really pizazz and really gets to the heart of what makes this monstrous individual tick. I’d have liked to see her interact with Jenna Coleman a bit more, not least because Clara’s searing hatred for what the Master has done to Danny makes for a brilliantly unpredictable stand-off in the final act, but other than that I have few complaints about any of the performances.

Similarly, the sheer scale of the episode is a wonder to behold. Doctor Who is often criticised for being tacky and for still possessing all the aesthetic qualities of its pre-revival incarnation, and let’s be honest, sometimes that’s truer than we might like. Here, however, Moffat and the finale’s director Rachel Talalay (Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare) really pull something quite impressive out of the bag. For the first 40 minutes or so, the episode moves along at a breakneck pace, with Talalay honing in on the vitals of every scene. The action sequences and the slow build-up of the Master’s “master plan” (sorry…) are nail-biting, while the emotional scenes in the graveyard – though shoddily written – are very well directed by Talalay, who really needs to come back and direct a few more episodes in the future.

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Now, one of my major criticisms of Moffat’s tenure as show runner has been his handling of the difficult subject of death. When people die in Doctor Who, they’re either miraculously rescued by the Deus ex Machina machine, or their death turns out to not really mean “death” at all, but a new beginning. When the title “Death in Heaven” popped up I expected much more of the same, and though the episode does fall into that unfortunate pitfall in the latter half, the death of Osgood (Oliver) was a truly shocking and chilling moment, and one that was exceptionally powerful. The Master has no qualms about killing innocent people, whether out of rage, jealously or just for the sheer kick of it, and Osgood’s death really helped to cement Missy’s rightful place as a truly horrifying incarnation of that vicious character. As Moffat himself rather poignantly puts it, “Osgood was the one we flung in the fire to make the Master burn brighter”. Nice…

It took me two viewings to decide whether or not I liked “Death in Heaven”, and I can understand why many viewers might find it disappointing. To me, the concept of the dead rising as Cybermen to wage war on the living is better suited to a series arc, rather than a quick two-part story at the end of a series. The potential in such an idea is so vast that it feels terribly wasted, particularly when Gomez’s take on the Master is so strong and when the stakes are as high as they are in the earlier part of this episode. Nevertheless, I’m ultimately satisfied with what Moffat has delivered because for all its faults and missteps, “Death in Heaven” is as ambitious as it is bonkers, and as far as I’m concerned that’s what this show should always be about.

★★★

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