Doctor Who: “Death in Heaven” Review

doctor who death in heaven artWell, Whovians, Season 8 has been a wild ride. While the first half of the season may have been a bit bumpy, the second half seemed to have a slightly more cohesive story, chugging forward toward the two-part season finale.  And oh what a finale it was: action, drama, and feels galore. One of the most common criticisms of Moffat’s work as Doctor Who showrunner is that he won’t give his characters lasting, meaningful consequences to their actions. This time we get some serious consequences. I can’t say much more without a spoiler warning, so here we go!

doctor who dark water claraWhile the show still kept its “idea of the week” style, each episode built on Clara’s character development, her story becoming a steadily stronger thread holding the series together. In part one of the two-part finale, “Dark Water”, Danny is suddenly killed by a hit-and-run car while talking to Clara on the phone. A few weeks later, a distraught Clara tries to blackmail the Doctor into going back in time to save Danny. She throws his TARDIS keys into an active volcano, but the Doctor refuses to change time. After she throws away the final key, the Doctor awakens Clara from what turns out to be a shared hypnotic vision. The volcano wasn’t real, but the emotional damage was. Clara believes she’s mortally wounded her relationship with the Doctor, but the Doctor reassures her that his feelings for her cannot be shaken by such a betrayal, and agrees to help her.

They travel to the mysterious Nethersphere, the land of the dead. In a room with strange skeletons in tanks of “dark water,” they meet Missy and Doctor Chang, and learn that the dead are conscious. Meanwhile, Danny attempts to come to terms with death, and we discover that he accidentally killed a child when he was an active duty soldier. Clara calls Danny, and tries (and fails) to get him to prove his identity so she can rescue him. It seems that Danny, in an effort to protect Clara, doesn’t want to be rescued. Missy drains the skeleton tanks, revealing that they actually contain Cybermen. The Doctor realizes that the Nethersphere is created with Time Lord technology, and demands Missy tell him who she is. As Cybermen begin their invasion, Missy reveals that “Missy” is short for “Mistress”: she’s the Master.

doctor who death in heaven unit“Death in Heaven” picks up with Clara facing down three Cybermen, insisting that she’s the Doctor in order to trick them into letting her go. We’re nearly convinced, too, when one of the Cybermen stuns her. Missy reveals her plan to use Cyberpollen to reincarnate the dead into a Cyberarmy, and the Cybermen fly away. Citizens gawking at the Cybermen turn out to be members of UNIT, who capture Missy at Osgood’s signal. Kate Stewart stuns both the Doctor and the Mistress, and UNIT takes them on board a huge Air Force One-style plane. When the Doctor awakens, Kate informs him that protocols in place have made him President of Earth, with the world’s military forces at his command. He’s not happy about it.

Clara, meanwhile, confronts the Cyberman who stunned her with a speech about her loyalty to the Doctor, and the Cyberman reveals himself to be Danny. His emotion inhibitor isn’t active, and he begs Clara to turn it on. Clara calls the Doctor, who meets Clara in the graveyard. The Doctor refuses to turn on Danny’s inhibitor, making a speech about the value of pain. Danny tells him that the only way to find out what the Cybermen’s plans are is to turn on the inhibitor and fully link his mind with the hivemind, and that his nice speeches don’t matter now that there’s a tactical advantage in play. Clara asks for the sonic screwdriver, and after saying “I love you” one last time, she turns off his emotions. Danny reveals the next stage, a Cyberpollen rainfall to convert living humans.

Missy suddenly appears in the cemetery after a ludicrously easy escape, and informs the Doctor that her Cyberarmy is a gift for him. Now he can conquer any world and win any battle, and see that he’s no different than her! The Doctor protests that he doesn’t want that power; he’s not a good man — he’s an idiot with a box. He passes the Cyberman control bracelet to Danny. While Danny no longer has his emotions, he still loves Clara, because love is a “promise,” not an emotion. He gives a speech about a soldier’s promise to protect and commands the Cyberarmy to fly into the Cyberpollen clouds and explode.

Missy suggests that she and the Doctor return to Gallifrey, and gives its original coordinates. Clara wants to kill her, and the Doctor promises to, but before he can, a blue Cyberman laser disintegrates Missy. The Doctor recognizes this Cyberman as the Brigadier, and salutes him. Having rescued his daughter Kate from falling out of the plane, he flies away. Two weeks later, Danny realizes that the Cyberbracelet is good for one trip back to the real world. Instead of joining Clara, he sends her the child he accidentally killed, and she agrees to reunite him with his parents. Clara meets up with the Doctor, intending to tell him some bad news, but instead both lie to each other. The Doctor tells Clara that he found Gallifrey, when the coordinates led to nothing, and Clara pretends that she’s back with Danny. The Doctor tells her that he understands that she doesn’t want to travel anymore, too busy with her life with Danny. The two part, with a final long shot of Clara walking away.

doctor who danny cybermanMoffat’s given us a whole lot of consequences, and they rob us of our happy ending. There is no way out for Danny, even when the way is handed to him. Danny’s a soldier, and makes the ultimate sacrifice. Letting Danny come back would cheapen that sacrifice. It’s a good end to a season-long thematic arc. We’ve long known that the Doctor dislikes soldiers, yet often acts like a military man. Danny struggles with his past not because he’s ashamed of being a soldier, far from it. It’s a core part of his identity, and you could even argue that he becomes the best version of a soldier when he goes to his death. For all its criticism of soldiers as gun-toting idiots, the show tells us that soldiers sacrifice everything in order to protect those they love and the land they live in. Danny is forced to give up his body, his mind, and his life in service to the greater good. He does so willingly, with the promise to Clara: “You will sleep safe tonight.” It’s a powerful moment, and especially appropriate for the weekend before Britain, the U.S., and other countries commemorate the end of WWI on November 11.

There’s no way out for Osgood, either. Killing such a fan-favorite character really brings home Missy’s brutality. And now that Missy’s dead, the Doctor has no way of finding out how she really came from Gallifrey; we see him breaking down, punching his TARDIS console in anguish. After suffering such a heartbreak, I can’t imagine Clara wanting to continue traveling with the Doctor. I never liked how much she and the Doctor lie, especially when they’re lying to each other. But it does fit with what we know of them, and I suppose some of us are supposed to hate it. It leaves their parting with some unfinished business, which might get wrapped up in the Christmas special.

The second half of this season has finally given us some solid, consistent character development for Clara. Yes, a lot of it has more to do with telling the audience that Clara is a certain way than actually showing it. I’ve never really believed that Clara was a control freak, unless we’re talking about giving her a reason for being such a liar. But we have seen her come into her own when it comes to solving problems like a companion. She starts the season facing down death with tears in her eyes, so we know she’s capable. Later the Doctor throws her into choosing between the ambiguous future of the human race and the life of a unique, unborn creature. Clara’s furious that the Doctor leaves her to figure out what to do without help. But a few episodes later when the Doctor is trapped in his TARDIS and can’t help her, Clara takes charge, finds a way to save the Doctor and fend off the monsters long enough for him to banish them back to their dimension. Just when Clara’s really hitting her stride as a companion, she’s forced to make a heartbreaking Doctor-like decision, more or less killing the man she loves in order to save the world. The Doctor is supposed to make his companions realize their own worth, right? We see so many of his companions really coming into their own during their travels with him. But as Clara shows us, the Doctor often leaves devastation in his wake. There’s no big reset button for Clara this time, even if it’s there when the Doctor really needs it. That’s the difference between the Doctor and humanity; the Doctor is a hero of legend, and we’re still rooted to the real world, and have to take the bad with the good.

The finale did leave some questions unanswered, and the biggest one for me is Orson Pink. It’s heavily implied up and down that Clara and Danny have children, and I thought for sure that Clara would be pregnant. From her actions in “Kill the Moon”, to her decision to finally tell Danny everything, to her “bad news” for the Doctor in the finale, I thought this was right up Moffat’s alley. But we didn’t get that revelation (thought I suppose there’s time in the Christmas special). On the one hand, I’m happily surprised they didn’t go that route, but on the other hand, it leaves a whole timeline in question. Time can be rewritten, I guess.

But overall, this was a very strong finale. Michelle Gomez was an absolutely brilliant Master, and her upgraded Cybermen were fresh without being over the top. We’ve been critical of Moffat’s slapdash use of religious themes and imagery in the past, and I may have rolled my eyes at the idea that Missy’s responsible for humanity’s idea of an afterlife, but overall the focus was on the action and the science, and the idea of the Promised Land quietly fell away. The tough decisions faced by Clara and the Doctor reminded me of Torchwood, and the two-part style gave us enough time to really build the story and give important scenes enough breathing room for the audience to get their full emotional impact. It was a sad ending, much more bitter than sweet, and I’m glad. I can’t wait to see what the writers dream up for Christmas. We’ve been promised Santa Claus and a trip to the North Pole, with some slimy green monsters. After such a depressing season finale, I really hope Christmas will give us some Doctor Who-fueled cheer.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments.

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  1. Pingback: Checking in with The Doctor: Series 9 Midseason Review | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

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