“Turns out the afterlife is real – and it’s emptying. Every graveyard on Earth is about to burst its banks.”
One of the frequent (and justified) criticisms of Steven Moffat’s tenure in charge of Doctor Who is that he tends to undercut the sense of jeopardy by presenting death as something that can always be revoked. He even made a running gag of it with the many deaths of Rory Williams. But now, in a story that was far darker and far bleaker, he’s confronted the reality of death – and its consequences – head on.
As season finales go, Death in Heaven was light on the usual bombast and spectacle (though that’s not to say they were entirely absent). Instead, it focused on what had clearly become the most important story arc this year, foregrounding the three main characters’ dysfunctional, unhealthy relationship and making it pivotal to the resolution of what turned out to be a very dark sci fi arc.
Last week, I referred to the Cybermen as being “mechanised zombies”; never has that been truer than in this episode, in which they had gained the power to recruit from the dead. The Cyber “pollen” distributed over the Earth’s cemeteries was entirely in keeping with the nano-tech style of conversion displayed in Neil Gaiman’s patchy Nightmare in Silver. But as it fell in the rain on the graveyards alone, the effect was reminiscent of 1985’s zombie classic Return of the Living Dead; and the Cyber hands breaking through the ground below the tombstones was a call back to pretty much every zombie movie ever made. This was dark territory indeed, and Robert Holmes would be proud. It’s perhaps lucky the show had moved to such a late timeslot, as this felt like pretty strong stuff for teatime.
On a more negative note, if you do find the often dubious science in the show objectionable, this plot was unlikely to placate you. The mechanics of Cyber conversion have never been consistent in the show; their early stories paint them as cybernetically augmented humans, their brains tinkered with but their bodies mostly retained beneath all the tech. When they were reintroduced by Russell T Davies, the conversion retained nothing more than the brain, surgically altered and implanted in a mechanical skeleton.
Now, it seems they can make do with little more than the skeletons of the long-deceased, and the physical brain is no longer needed; it’s been replaced by downloaded minds from Missy’s ‘Cloud’. I can sort of go with that – the mind as software independent of a biological repository – but if they don’t even need that, why bother with the corpses at all? They’re not likely to get much advantage from having a human skeleton, so it’s hard to see why they wouldn’t just go entirely robotic, and still use those downloaded minds.
While that’s a fair and logical point, it would have diffused the script’s very real, and actually quite harrowing, musings on the nature of death. And to be fair, the plot thread woven through the season turned out to hang together pretty well. Last week, I wondered why the Half-Faced Man (a clockwork android) and the robots from Sherwood Forest would be of any use in this scheme. This week it became clear – it was minds that Missy needed from the Doctor’s ‘victims’, not their bodies – minds being the only thing lacking from the corpses she was going to revive as Cybermen. Once uploaded into the ‘Nethersphere’, those minds could be cleansed of all those troublesome emotions, ready for use in the new Cybermen.
Yes, it is a bonkers plot, but as Missy kept helpfully reminding us, she’s “bananas!” Michelle Gomez had a whale of a time in the part this week, still played as a berserk Mary Poppins. Now fully revealed as the next incarnation of the Master, she reverted to her full on Scottish accent, to marvellous effect. As with John Simm’s deliberate dark reflection of David Tennant’s Doctor, the accent served to illustrate another of the episode’s themes – that Missy and the Doctor were ‘not so different’. It’s a hackneyed gambit, used in almost every hero/villain debate in genre stories. But it worked well here, partly due to the audience’s knowledge of these characters’ long history together – even if you’re not a long time fan, the script spelled out clearly enough that these were two friends who’d grown very far apart. More crucially, however, the idea of them not being so different underlined the morally ambiguous, questioning portrayal of the Doctor from the start of this season, throwing into sharp relief the question of whether he really is, as he claims not to be, a “hero”.
This season seems to have delighted in portraying its three main characters in moral shades of grey, and the way this episode addressed that was fearless and uncompromising. Those doubts, lies and manipulations weren’t really ‘resolved’; none of those three went away having learned a lesson and changed their ways. But all were forced to confront those less than pleasant aspects of their natures, and if they haven’t dealt with them, at least they’re now aware of them in a way they never were before.
Despite the spectacle of flying Cybermen bursting out of the unfolding roof of St Paul’s Cathedral, and the thrilling set piece of the UNIT plane being attacked in midair by flying Cybermen, the heart of the episode was that quiet, intense scene in the graveyard as all those characters met up and confronted their demons, and their opinions of each other. Having been reinvented as a ‘control freak’ this year, Clara was true to form in basically manipulating the Doctor to come to her and Cyber-Danny, throwing her phone to the ground safe in the knowledge he’d track her down by it. Her path was laid down early by her audacious attempt to convince the Cybermen at 3W that she was actually the Doctor herself; she was so convincing that, given Moffat’s track record with twisty, timey wimey plots, I actually found myself wondering if it was true, an interpretation deliberately fostered by the use of Jenna Coleman’s eyes in place of Peter Capaldi’s in the title sequence.
But no, thankfully she was lying – and she admitted as much herself, claiming to be “the greatest liar in the world”, a fact that Cyber-Danny acknowledged. Ouch. And her defiant claim that the Doctor was the one man she would always trust and never lie to was blatantly wrong in light of all the lying she’s done throughout this year, to the Doctor as much as anyone. I couldn’t help noting that, at the very end of the ep, they were still lying to each other, albeit with the best of intentions. Each wanted to make the other feel better; but neither was telling the truth, which was that both were left disappointed and devastated. Clara by Danny’s final, altruistic self-sacrifice, and the Doctor by Missy’s lies about where Gallifrey was.
The Doctor too was forced to confront his self-doubts, first by Danny and then by Missy. While his usual insult of calling Danny “PE” was softer and tinged with sadness (Peter Capaldi was amazing this week), Danny’s retort of calling him “sir” was as full of venom as ever. In keeping with his contempt of officers, he got to refer to the Doctor as a “bloodsoaked general”, and spat contempt at the Doctor’s own passive aggressive manipulation of getting Clara to do his dirty work and shut down Danny’s emotions, rather than get his own hands dirty.
Which, of course, is something the Doctor has always done, as pointed out by Davros in both Resurrection of the Daleks and Journey’s End. In a season whose signature has been the Doctor’s dealing with moral dilemmas (some more successful than others), this lengthy scene presented him with dilemma after dilemma. Not only did he have to sacrifice Danny’s remaining humanity for a “tactical advantage”, he was then confronted with Missy’s true plan – to hand the Cyber army over to him. Because, as she put it, “only someone who’s right needs an army. And no one thinks they’re righter than you.”
It felt like a callback to all those stories where the Master gave the Doctor the opportunity to rule the universe at his side; but here it was less of an idle boast and more of a plea for acceptance. Missy, bananas though she was, wanted their friendship back every bit as much as the Doctor did. But while her ‘gift’ of a Cyber army might have been meant to curry favour, it also served to underline the hypocrisy of a ‘hero’ presented with the means to achieve his idea of ‘goodness’ and rejecting it. Clara underlined the point later by mentioning (accurately enough) of Missy/the Master, “if you’ve ever let this creature live, all the deaths she’s caused are on you.” On top of Danny’s earlier contemptuous reply that if the Doctor could feel the pain he inflicted, “shame on you”, we were left with a very dark picture of the show’s nominal ‘hero’.
So it felt like a real affirmation that this was the Doctor we’d always known when he rejected all that temptation and declared, “I’m not a hero – I’m an idiot with a box and a screwdriver. Passing through, trying to make things better; learning.” Yes, he may not always do the right thing or take the right decision – but he tries to do what is best for everyone, and properly questions whether it’s always the right thing. In a season which has often felt like an extended replay of the ‘moral dilemma’ scene from Genesis of the Daleks, this was an affirmation that the Doctor may not always be a “good man”, but he always tries to be. And isn’t that the best any of us can say?
He also reaffirmed his allegiance to Earth, as he grudgingly accepted the mantle of ‘world president’ in the emergency, spurred on by Kate Stewart. It was great to see Jemma Redgrave again, and Ingrid Oliver as Osgood; indeed, Osgood’s very real death was one of the more heartbreaking aspects of the ep, and I’m betting quite a few fans will be in uproar about that. As with last week, the attention given to the dynamics between the main characters left little room for any others, and Kate and Osgood were about the only fleshed out ones this week. Full marks to Sanjeev Bhaskar (sadly underused) for making the best of a small role, and Chris Addison was as fun as ever (“permission to squee!”), but they were little more than window dressing.
However, there was one guest character ever present throughout, and he really is (sadly) dead in real life. The portrait of Kate’s father, Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, was conspicuously visible in all the scenes set in the plane’s boardroom. It paid off when one of the revived Cyber-corpses turned out to be no less than the man himself, saving his daughter from the crashing plane, then sparing the Doctor from finally having to get his own hands dirty by killing Missy before the Doctor could.
It is a lovely touch, and vital to the plot, that one of the revived corpses should be the Doctor’s oldest friend and Earth’s staunchest protector (though I’ve no idea when Missy would have gotten ahold of his mind). But I did wonder a bit whether it might be considered in dubious taste to have the Brigadier resurrected for a final farewell as a faceless Cyberman after the death of Nicholas Courtney, and I suspect that might be a bit much for some fans. Still, the intention was obviously honourable, and it did give the Brigadier one last hurrah as a very real hero.
This was a very intense season finale, in which the emphasis was (rightly to my mind) on these characters rather than a spectacular threat to the Earth/the galaxy/the universe/all of reality/time itself. There was a real threat, yes; but in the end, the reason for its existence, and its resolution, was the relationships between all these characters, and their own demons and internal damage. Despite her apparent death, I’m betting we haven’t seen the last of Missy, and after all the Master inexplicably escaped death on numerous occasions before. So that doesn’t really reinforce the ‘Moffat-cheat’ of death never being permanent.
Had Danny made it back, it would have been just that kind of cheat. But if anything, he was the only one of the main characters who did find resolution and redemption, choosing to give up his own life to give the child he’d killed a second chance. A powerful and thoughtful finale to a season that, it I’m honest, has been more than a bit patchy. It was so bleak that I can’t be that surprised they had to lift the mood halfway through the credits with the surprise appearance of Nick Frost as Santa. Just when it was going so well
Still, I doubt this is the final end for the Doctor and Clara. And unexpectedly, I found myself really hoping not. I’ve actually come to like Clara since she stopped being a puzzle piece and started to have a personality, however flawed it may be. This didn’t feel like a full resolution, and there’s a Christmas special to come. Hopefully they’ll be reconciled, or at least able to tell the truth to each other. Christmas specials are usually light, frothy affairs, but given the angst-ridden tone this year, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this year’s is heavier than usual…