It might have provoked a barrage of complaints to the BBC, but this is exactly what I was hoping for from the Capaldi era. The brave new era of the show, with our abrasive, complex new Doctor at the helm, was pitched as being darker, more adult. It was leaving behind the cuddly, child-friendly Doctor and the simplistic storylines and voyaging into deeper, darker waters (ho-ho!) In this finale, the show has never been more dark or confronting. You really couldn’t find a more controversial topic than life after death. You really couldn’t find a theme upon which the show had to tiptoe more carefully. And it came close, perilously close, to crossing the line. “Don’t cremate me!” has to be one of the most confronting moments in the show’s history. The portrayal of the afterlife in general, at least before it was revealed what it was all about, was as provocative as anything the show has done before. Even the conscription of the dead into a Cyberman army posed a very uncomfortable thought. I loved it. As provocative and disturbing as it all was, it was utterly captivating plotting for exactly that reason. This is what the show can do when it dares to be bold and challenging.
So the finale plays with compelling ideas. The set-up is exceptional. This was all about the Doctor and Clara going looking for Clara’s dead boyfriend. We’re treated to arguably the best scene in the entire series when Clara (apparently) tricks the Doctor into taking them to a volcano so she could blackmail him into going back and saving Danny. Absolutely stupefying viewing, both actors nailed their parts, especially Jenna, who mesmerises the viewer with her acting as though through some kind of hypnotic power. The raw, powerful emotion of that scene was sold perfectly. It was so powerful the viewer is left dazed and disoriented for a while after the facade suddenly drops. We’re barely ready for when the next blow hits when the Doctor pronounces that he cares too much for Clara for her betrayal to make a difference. Oh, the feels. Oh, Doctor! Clara, puffy-eyed, blubbering mess that she was, looked exactly how I’m sure we all felt at that moment. This, surely, was the moment any lingering uncertainties and insecurities about our new Doctor vanished. Good man? No. He’s a great man.
And so they go looking for Danny. The Tardis takes them to 3W, where the dead sit gruesomely in water tombs. We learn the apparently horrific true nature of death, enthralled all the while. Bleak scenes of Danny in the “Nethersphere”, a uniquely depressing vision of the afterlife, keep captive our unwavering attention. It’s at this point the revelation of the Cybermen is sprung upon us. I say “sprung” — anyone who had been even vaguely following Doctor Who week to week in 2014 would have known the Cybermen were the baddies of this finale. But those sequences are duly chilling nonetheless. Those rotting skeletons rising in their water tombs, the water draining away to reveal the shiny steely armour and those blank, empty, staring eye-sockets. The menace of the Cybermen, for once, feels real, and the Cybermen’s emergence from their watery tombs evoke those iconic scenes from the villains’ classic story, The Tomb of the Cybermen. The Cybermen’s dramatic appearance was beaten only by the revelation of Missy as the Master at the very end of the episode. “I couldn’t very well keep calling myself the Master, now, could I?” Where was your jaw? Don’t lie — it was on the floor, where it damned well belonged. The episode threw us uber-fans at first by Missy’s describing herself as the Time Lady the Doctor “left behind”, sending us all into frenzied speculation. I’m sure the names “Susan” and “Romana”, maybe even “Jenny” or “River”, came to more than a few of us.
That was Dark Water, which I regard as very nearly a masterpiece. I’m afraid I didn’t find Death in Heaven nearly as impressive. I know I’m not the only one who thought the second half of this finale was something of a letdown after an exemplary first half. Dark Water ended on a torturous cliffhanger and set up what I expected to be an equally well-composed and sublimely-written second half. I think its biggest mistake was in trying too hard to escalate the adrenaline and action. Dark Water was totally devoid of action (it didn’t bother me), while Death in Heaven seemed to flounder around quite a bit, delivering up a disorienting battery of action sequences, but almost abandoning the plot, or, rather, disgorging all the plot in the last ten minutes of the episode in a disconcerting crescendo. I was surprised when I realised Death in Heaven was a full 60 minutes’ length. It felt far too rushed and fast-paced to be an hour-long episode. It takes particular effort to make 60 minutes of Doctor Who feel like another 45-minute story that gives the impression that it’s screaming for more time.
Additionally, after the fantastic work Dark Water did in establishing the menace and the chilling threat of the Cybermen, Death in Heaven failed with distinction to deliver on the promises of being the story that makes the Cybermen scary again. Far from it. Well, I concede that the idea of “zombie” Cybermen with the uploaded minds of the dead was inspired, and carried plenty of potential. Additionally, the Cybermen possessed real fear factor in the action sequences: when they attacked the airship, when they emerged zombie-like from graves and mortuaries. The Cybermen really are at their scariest when they evoke the feel of zombies, rather than robots, something the early Cybermen stories succeeded in doing, and which Dark Water capitalised on.
For the most part, though, the Cybermen in Death in Heaven failed to exploit the genuinely interesting idea of Cybermen with the downloaded consciousnesses of the dead, and reverted to all the worst depictions of the villain. Once again the Cybermen were portrayed as little more than killer robots. No, actually, it was worse than that. They weren’t even robots, they were just unthinking automatons that obeyed a bracelet. They even did an ironic aeroplane safety demonstration at the command of Missy. The letters “ffs” appear more than once in the notes I took for this review in relation to that sequence as I was watching it. Moreover, once again the apparently irreversible Cyber-programming was inexplicably overcome by the power of love. “Love is a promise”, as beautiful a sentiment as that is, is not an explanation—it’s a cop-out.
So, what did I like about Death in Heaven? I’ve mentioned by gripes first because they really do rather ruin the episode, and compromise the integrity of the finale as a whole, for me. But, equally, there was plenty that impressed me. I described the graveyard scene at the end as a disconcerting disgorgement, and it really could have been better paced — the episode as a whole could have. But that didn’t necessarily make the content of that scene any less compelling. This is at least one aspect of the episode which has improved in my estimation upon rewatching, mostly because I understand better what was going on now (again, scripting issues). I really appreciate that scene as the culmination of the Doctor’s character arc over this series. I mentioned in my review of Flatline that the Doctor had already come a long way in his self-realisation since the beginning of the series, but it’s only upon being given absolute command of a Cyberman army that it became clear to him: he’s not a good man, but he tries to be, and helps where he can. And that’s what’s important. Here we see a Doctor finally assured of his own identity, no longer the self-doubting old man brooding upon his own morality.
Something else I enjoyed immensely about Death in Heaven, and about this finale as a whole, was Missy. Is Missy my favourite incarnation of the Master yet? She just might be. Michelle Gomez was utterly bewitching as the Master’s latest persona, a deranged, psychotic, delightfully mad Mary Poppins who channels dexterously all the menace and unsettling madness of her predecessors while at the same time forging her own unique, exciting interpretation of the character. Missy shockingly proved her ruthlessness when she murdered Osgood so cruelly, seemingly for pleasure. But she also brings a depth of character to the Master that, in all honesty, the character really needed, when it was revealed that Missy mobilised the Cybermen army in the hope of being validated by the Doctor, by showing the Doctor they were not really so different. The Doctor-Master relationship is a complex one, and it’s satisfying to see the character written with this firmly in mind, as opposed to a generic arch-enemy. If only as much care were given to the writing of the Cybermen in this story…
There’s a lot more I could write about, but I’ve covered the main points, and, I think, to go on would be to start rambling. So what’s my overall impression of this finale? It fares well, after everything. I think Dark Water was certainly close to perfect, and the faults in Death in Heaven are grievous, but they at least don’t ruin what, on the whole, is a fairly enjoyable and gripping finale. To be sure, the substantial disappointment of the second half was that it so manifestly failed to follow up on the exciting ideas and set-up of the first half, but the episode still holds up well enough, and there’s enough of real value in there, not to consign this finale as a whole to the pile of “could-have-beens”. It was a good story. It could have been better, much better, but, for what it was, ultimately it fared well. I would certainly watch it again for my own enjoyment, something which is a pretty important test of my impression of Doctor Who stories. So I’m going to be generous with this one, notwithstanding my gripes.