Thoughts on Dark Water/Death in Heaven

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I thought I’d begin this blog by offering my review (of sorts) on the series 8 finale, Dark Water/Death in Heaven.

In general I quite enjoyed the finale. I found a lot to like, and found myself utterly captivated by the unfolding drama more than once. However, there was also causes for criticism. Dark Water was, in my opinion, as close to a masterpiece as Doctor Who has come since 2005: it had a superb high-charged emotional scene (the volcano scene), the Doctor-companion relationship was taken unrepentantly to daring pastures new, there was a heavy religio-metaphysical-philosophical theme, the menacing return of the Cybermen in a style harking back to The Tomb of the Cybermen and The Invasion, the revelation of Missy as the Master, and all-round genuine thrills and chills, not to mention ended on a torturing quadruple-pronged cliffhanger. However, Death in Heaven was rather a letdown after the exemplary first half. It felt messy, poorly paced, and, after presenting the audience with a confusing twist, ended the conflict with a wholly unsatisfying resolution. The letdown of DIH rather brought down the quality of the finale as a whole, which is unfortunate, as the first half was exceptional.

What I liked

  • Missy — Michelle Gomez’s performance as Missy was absolutely superlative. A female incarnation of the Master was always going to be a gamble for Doctor Who, but Gomez pulled it off brilliantly, definitively making the character her own. She played a compelling Master/Mistress, a deranged and psychopathic Mary Poppins whose sense of humour unsettles just as much as amuses. Missy exuded both menace and madness, but also showed her human (or at least less inhuman) side in that brief moment where she pleaded with the Doctor, “I just want my friend back.” I certainly don’t think we’ve seen the last of Missy, she’s too compelling a character to kill off (the fact that she was visibly atomised notwithstanding).
  • What happens after you die? — the compelling concept, at least for the first half of this finale, was life after death, a refreshingly serious and heavy theme for this new series of Doctor Who, especially when much of New Who has been very much Marvel-style action stories. I didn’t mind that paradise/the Promised Land/the Nethersphere turned out to be a Matrix data slice (Time Lord technology) set up by Missy to “harvest souls” (so to speak) for her undead Cyberman army — that’s to be expected with Doctor Who, and I don’t think I’d have been happy if Doctor Who presented a definitive view on the afterlife or religion.
  • The graveyard scene — speaking of the Doctor-Master relationship, the dialogue between the Doctor and Missy in the graveyard was excellent. Apart from adding depth to the Master’s character that, to a degree, was lacking with John Simm’s Master, in Missy’s apparent motivations for creating an undead Cyberman army (“I want you to see we’re not so different… I just want my friend back.”), it satisfyingly culminated the running theme in series 8 of “Is the Doctor a good man?” Although it was a little confusing as to what the answer to that question was; he mentioned something about his companions, which seemed fair enough.
  • The volcano scene — in this scene, the dynamics of the Doctor-Companion relationship were taken further than ever before. We saw Clara betray the Doctor, not only blackmailing the Doctor by threatening to destroy the Doctor’s access to the TARDIS, but making good that threat when the Doctor would not concede to her impossible demands. It was a high-charged scene that had me more gripped than I can remember with Doctor Who. Not only that, but the scene was followed with one of those fist-pumping, heart-warming moments when the Doctor agreed to help Clara get back Danny, saying that he cared too much for her for her betrayal to make a difference. To Clara, at least, that was the moment when it became clear that the Doctor was a good man, a great man. And he is.
  • The Cybermen in Dark Water — the Cybermen were never more menacing and threatening in this finale than when they weren’t doing anything.
  • The Doctor’s domestic abuse of Sexy — finally we have some progress on the searching-for-Gallifrey plot. Missy knew where Gallifrey was, supposedly having escaped from it. I particularly liked the scene in which the Doctor entered the co-ordinates given to him by Missy into the TARDIS, only to find, to his violent disappointment, that he had been deceived. The rage of the Time Lord is always a sight to behold.

What I didn’t like

  • The Cybermen’s portrayal — the Cybermen felt threatening when they were sitting in their tombs, but, for the rest of the finale, they were quite rubbish. The zombie Cybermen with uploaded minds was an interesting idea that didn’t quite work out. That’s because New Who (and, admittedly, much of Classic Who after the 1960s), completely misses the point of the Cybermen in portraying them as little more than killer robots, a cross between Terminator and Iron Man. The Cybermen may as well be robots, without need for human bodies or minds. When the Cybermen are portrayed in this way, interesting ideas with potential, like the zombie Cybermen in this serial, come to nothing, when the entire zombie-Cyberman army are made into unthinking automatons that obey a magic bracelet. Apart from this, the Cybermen did not feel like a threat at all during this finale, except when they attacked the Valiant (that moment when the Cybermen’s head appeared at the plane window was scary, I’ll admit). The maudlin feel-good “love beats Cybermen” meme again destroyed all the work the episode had (unsuccessfully) done in making the Cybermen feel threatening. I hoped the Cybermen would be rehabilitated in this serial, having been given poor stories since 2005, but I was disappointed.
  • So… why was Missy interested in Clara again? — the hints throughout the series about Missy’s pseudo-celestial role in bringing the Doctor and Clara together suggested that Missy’s interest in Clara would be one of the big arcs that would be resolved in this finale. And so it was, sort of. This was explicitly addressed in the finale, but it wasn’t quite clear what Missy’s interest in Clara was. Missy seemed to be saying that she brought the Doctor and Clara together because she thought they’d hit it off. There was also something about Clara being an instrument to bring the Doctor to 3W (which was far from assured, from Missy’s point of view). If this is really all there was to it, my faith in Steven Moffatt, generally strong, has suffered a significant blow. Knowing Steven Moffatt, there may well be more to this than it seems (and Clara is returning for the Christmas special), but it is equally likely that Moffatt thinks this revelation is more clever and impressive than it actually is. From my point of view, if there is no more to this mystery, it would be completely unsatisfying and infuriating.
  • No explanation for sex-change regeneration — after it was revealed that the Master had become a woman, a tide of debate in the fan community was unleashed about Time Lords’ ability to regenerate into the opposite sex, and, more specifically, the prospect for a female Doctor that Missy’s identity had potentially opened. Although not closed to the prospect of a female Doctor, I am nevertheless quite sceptical. I also don’t like the idea that Time Lords are basically asexual in that they have no “base” sex and could, by default, regenerate at random into any sex or none — the history of the programme seems to contradict this idea. In any case, for these reasons, although I’m not necessarily opposed to the concept of Time Lords swapping genders, I was hoping for an explanation as to the circumstances in which a Time Lord could regenerate into the opposite sex, and preferably that it wouldn’t be established that regeneration is random and that the Doctor is equally as likely to regenerate into a female as a male form. By leaving the question hanging like that, and by having the Doctor act as though the Master being a woman is nothing out of the ordinary, the idea that the Doctor could randomly regenerate into a woman has been virtually de facto confirmed until it is established otherwise.
  • The Doctor’s anti-soldier prejudice — We see more of the Doctor’s inexplicable and absurd prejudice against soldiers in his dialogue with Colonel Ahmed, which we first saw in The Caretaker in with respect to Danny Pink. I felt sorry for poor Colonel Ahmed, who looked visibly hurt by the Doctor’s insensitive and disrespectful remarks. I know I’m not the only one wondering where this anti-soldier prejudice of Twelve’s, amounting to outright contempt bordering on loathing, has come from. The Third Doctor never seemed to have a problem with the Brigadier and co. when he was working with UNIT (Three’s irritation and mild annoyance was not the same thing as Twelve’s callous loathing). I very much hope this isn’t an instance of woefully misguided characterisation in an attempt to make some delinquent political point, which would be more offensive than anything Doctor Who has come out with in its 50-year history.
  • The resolution — It was confusing and unsatisfying. The Doctor gives the bracelet to Danny who orders the Cybermen to destroy themselves in the atmosphere. Why couldn’t the Doctor have ordered the Cybermen to destroy themselves again? Is it because he didn’t want to appear to be an officer, or he didn’t want to order CyberDanny, CyberBrig, the CyberPonds, CyberSarah-Jane, etc, to their deaths? Whatever it was, it felt like an anti-climax, and Danny’s speech was eye-rollingly platitudinous.

Dark Water rating: 10

Death in Heaven rating: 7

Combined finale rating: 8

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