Agh! So close!
Finales are tough, there’s no question about that, but after the lean, purposeful drive of part one, I had very high expectations for part two. Sad to say, while it delivered some excellent moments, Death in Heaven didn’t really work for me as a narrative, falling as it did into a pile of largely unrelated episodes; and it didn’t really work as drama because so little of it really resonated or indeed made sense.
Some of Steven Moffat’s recent work on the series has stretched the boundaries of narrative sense past visual poetry and into Dada-ist absurdism. The events at the end of The Name of the Doctor are basically incomprehensible nonsense, but everyone sounds so committed and the pictures keep whirling past the viewer’s eyes so fast, it seems inescapable that it all must mean something terribly important. I fear that this is an illusion and what we are actually watching isn’t storytelling, it’s – to appropriate a phrase from linguistics – image salad.
This has been largely kept at bay under Capaldi’s realm, with really only In The Forest of the Shite dipping into this kind of pretty-pictures-and-funny-lines-doesn’t-have-to-mean-much-just-let-it-wash-over-you montage effect. In the finale however, while nothing is quite as bad as the gibberish of the later Matt Smith stuff, there’s an awful lot which just doesn’t quite hang together.
Let’s start with that bizarre pre-titles sequence with Clara claiming to be the Doctor, which then segues into the titles, now sporting Jenna Coleman’s eyes in place of Peter Capaldi’s and putting her name first. With all the opportunities Clara has had to attempt the role of the Doctor recently, especially in the excellent Flatline, and given her dementedly absurd back-story, it’s clear that this is far more than a feeble lie intended to stall a plodding cyber-assassination. It would be gamesmanship of the most poisonous kind to redo the titles just for the sake of a completely pointless plot feint.
Well, it was a completely pointless plot feint, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit of a “fuck you” from Steven Moffat to the fans. The Next Doctor played the same stupid games but at least Jackson Lake’s mental confusion was integrated into the main plot a bit. Clara’s pretence is abandoned almost instantly and now it just feels like a retread of Flatline instead of a fascinating development of it.
Next, evil villains need an evil plan. Death in Heaven brings us two evil villains who presumably, between them, can muster at least one evil plan. But that doesn’t seem to be the case here. All the cybermen seem to want to do is plod around and cos-play at Iron Man (when they aren’t re-enacting the end of Carrie) and all Missy/The Master seems to want to do is make speeches. This is a significant drawback in what is supposed to be the great big dramatic culmination of 12 episodes of rollicking science-fiction adventure.
Outside St Pauls, things start briskly enough with Kate Stewart and Osgood marching up and taking control in a very pleasing way, and the notion of the Doctor on board Moffat One, forced to be President of Earth and take decisions for the whole human race is very striking and a logical progression from UNIT’s relationship with the Doctor in recent years. So – what will the Doctor do with this terrible power? Absolutely nothing. The Cybermen blow up the plane and the whole idea is completely forgotten about forever. You can essentially remove everything from Kate’s entrance to the Doctor’s arrival at the graveyard and you will have missed nothing essential to the plot.
It’s really not clear to me what is happening at these and other graveyards. Missy has amassed a collection of minds of the deceased (“software”) which she now proposes to turn into decant into waiting bodies in graves on Earth. But cyber-conditioning generally removes what makes people individual so the minds cannot be especially valuable, and they replace most of the flesh with metal, so the rotting corpses are going to be of little use. What they need is the great hunks of steel which make up most of the body, which Missy doesn’t supply and which just mysteriously finds itself six feet under after a brief downpour. So, anyway, Missy has created her metal army of obedient killers, who generally aren’t disposed to killing anyone today. But one is not so obedient. Danny Pink has come back in cyber-form but he still has his human memories and emotions, and apparently he’s the only one.
Why is this? Something to do with a button that should have been pressed, or not pressed, or sonic-ed or – I don’t know, look this is pretty unforgivably sloppy. To the extent that anything here makes sense, everything that happens once our four main protagonists are together in that graveyard depends on cyber-Danny’s disobedience, yet there is not one line to account for why he, out of countless billions of resurrected chrome corpses is the only one still in control of his faculties. Nobody else in love died in the last 48 hours across the entire world? C’mon, this is lazy, lazy stuff.
The Doctor is desperate to know what the cyber-army’s instructions are, and his moral dilemma with Danny’s emo-button is interesting, but when the light in Danny’s eyes goes out, he mysteriously fails to fall in line with the others and maintains his independence. Still, at least the Doctor now has the vital information he needs, so the horrendous sacrifice of Danny’s emotional life was worthwhile. No, it wasn’t. Danny doesn’t know anything and in any case, Missy is about to explain the entire plan anyway. All the Doctor had to do was wait two minutes.
And what is her ghastly, season-finale, earth-shattering plan? To give the Doctor an army. To make him the most powerful man in the… wait, what? First of all this is pretty thin stuff, dramatically. I do prefer my evil villains to have a rather more grandiose plan than simply Making A Point. And if their plan is just to Make A Point, it should at least leave a medium-sized trail of destruction in its wake (see The Dark Knight). But not only is Missy’s plan feeble, it’s redundant, because the Doctor was in the exact same position twenty minutes ago on-board that sodding plane.
Danny’s final speech contrasting the orders of a general with the promise of a soldier is, I suppose, the culmination of all this relentlessly repetitive soldier-talk we’ve had to put up with, but – and maybe this is just me – it didn’t feel like it resonated. The ending of The Big Bang is at least as nonsensical as the ending of The Name of the Doctor but the notion of the TARDIS being something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue is so beautiful that I just don’t care. Danny’s speech by contrast is less than the sum of its parts, an exercise in joining-the-dots, nothing more.
Better that I suppose than the ghastly necrophiliac resurrecting of the poor old Brigadier for a final Doctor Who hurrah. When you’ve got Jemma Redgrave on the payroll, you don’t really need to be constantly sticking her in Nicholas Courtney’s shadow – let her be her own character for christ’s sake and let us remember the Brig by watching Inferno or The Invasion.
Danny Pink, now inexplicably back in the Nethersphere, has the opportunity to resurrect himself with the aid of a magic bracelet, whose properties again make next-to no sense but I can’t bring myself to plod through the problems it presents. He selflessly offers the Iraqi sprog whom he shot in the face another chance at life instead, which is a scene which did have some power and resonance, finally. But this Noble Act Of Self Sacrifice strongly suggests that Clara is already pregnant with Orson Pink’s ancestor – either that or something is seriously screwed-up with the timelines. And then, finally we get the chance to resolve the ongoing Doctor/Clara relationship drama.
In an episode full of bizarre, incomprehensible plot muddle, this scene might just be the strangest. Both of these two people who have suffered so much, who have gone through so much together, are just purposelessly lying to each other for the sake of a cutely ironic bittersweet ending. Light years away from the power and raw honesty of their confrontation at the beginning of Dark Water, this is hard-to-follow, obscure and rooted in a psychology which I cannot begin to relate to or understand.
And then, Santa Claus shows up.
Well, what did I like? Actually, there is some good stuff here, among the debris. Once again, everything looks fantastic, with the colour grading in the graveyard scenes working particularly well to remind us of those oppressive clouds. Even though nothing that happens affects the rest of the story in any way at all, a lot of the stuff on board the plane works well, with Missy’s murder of Osgood probably a highlight, if you can stomach just how dopey she was to go over there. Not that it made a difference, as Missy was already free of her bonds at this point.
In fact, Michelle Gomez as Missy is pretty much the saving grace of this episode – funny, scary, mercurial and “bananas”, she’s a wonderful addition to the roster of actors to play the Doctor’s nemesis. I’m very keen for a rematch, hopefully this time when she’s thought of an evil plan.
And amid the whirl and flurry and nonsense of it all, Capaldi stands fiercely tall, a remarkable casting coup which has created an indelible version of this most flexible and yet most constant fictional character. For the season as a whole, I’m hugely pleased. For the final episode, I’m baffled and bitterly disappointed at the missed opportunity. The combination of Capaldi, Gomez and Coleman, plus a handful of stand-out moments means that this episode scrapes in with three stars.
So, here’s my run-down of Series 8.
Deep Breath, 3.5 stars, a bit bumpy but enjoyable enough
Into the Dalek, 4 stars, pushes all the right buttons
Robot of Sherwood, 2.5 stars, smug and silly
Listen, 4 stars, very well done, but a bit empty
Time Heist, 4 stars, less ambitious, but probably more successful than Listen, so it’s a wash
The Caretaker, 3 stars, shoddy production values and clumsy humour weigh it down
Kill the Moon, 5 stars, epic but divisive
Mummy on the Orient Express, Flatline, 4.5 stars, both basically perfect, but neither has a scene which can match the end of Kill the Moon
In the Forest of the Night, 1 star, even the title is wrong
Dark Water, 4.5 stars, fantastic take-off…
Death in Heaven, 3 stars, wobbly landing.
If anyone wants to know how in-line this is with fandom at large, readers of Gallifrey base who voted put these 12 episodes in a very narrow band of average marks out of ten from 6.89 (Robot of Sherwood) to 8.48 (Flatline) with In the Forest of the Night a significant outlier on 5.68.
The final ranking of stories according to this group is as follows (from best to worst)…
Mummy on the Orient Express
Into the Dalek
Death in Heaven
Kill the Moon
Robot of Sherwood
In the Forest of the Night
And there’s almost nothing between the top four. So, my own views are broadly in-line with fan consensus, but I’ve availed myself of a wider range of marks and I’m considerably more enthusiastic about Kill the Moon and a bit less excited about Listen.
That’s it for Doctor Who until Christmas, see you then. Next week – Star Trek.