Death in Heaven
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Rachel Talalay
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman,
Samuel Anderson, Michelle Gomez,
Chris Addison, Ingrid Oliver,
Jemma Redgrave, Sanjeev Bhaskar
Premiere 8 November, BBC One
This review contains plot spoilers.
Death in Heaven’s pre-credits sequence plays with the idea of a female Doctor; it’s a notion which hangs over this finale. The cheekily modified title sequence lends unexpected credence to Clara’s assertion as to who she really is, deftly borrowing a trick from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although in the end all of this proves to be little more than a diversionary tactic.
There can be no doubting Steven Moffat’s ambition – this episode caps a story that has taken Doctor Who to some pretty dark places for a ‘family’ show, and concludes a series that has combined romps and dead-ahead monster stories with experimental, unusual and outright fantasy-driven tales. There’s a sense of the showrunner cutting loose and ditching tried-and-tested timey wimey devices in this episode; Moffat clearly relishes writing for a “bananas” Master, and takes care to show us the danger and potency of the character, particularly by killing off a returning friend of the Doctor’s. It's a version of the Master that seems indebted to Big Finish’s explorations of the Doctor-Master relationship, specifically framing this archest of arch enemies as a “childhood friend”. Moffat makes Missy’s agenda more personal than ever before: what she wants isn’t simply world domination, but rather full recognition of the fact – as she sees it – that the Doctor is her mirror image (it’s almost as if she’s read a scriptwriting manual on how to represent heroes and villains in the contemporary screenplay). This partly replays tropes from the tenth Doctor’s showdown with Davros in series 4. And it further develops Moffat’s thematic interest in the implications, or possibilities, of a warrior-like Doctor, something that's chillingly explored via the Doctor's use of any tactical advantage he can lay his hands on.
More than anything, though, this finale integrates the series that has come before: flashbacks to a range of episodes including Deep Breath and Robot of Sherwood pull series eight together impressively, representing a satisfying rather than gimmicky story arc. I’m tempted to suggest that this is Moffat’s finest series finale yet, as he riffs shamelessly on the “tomb of the Cybermen” image and idea, seeking to make the Cybermen as terrifying as possible (and delivering in spades).
Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson all put in impressive performances – something enhanced by Rachel Talalay’s smart and assured direction – but the episode belongs to Michelle Gomez as well as her channeling of John Simm in the role. I realize that many of us would have liked a regeneration scene, but what we get is, in a way, more substantive than that. Gomez’s heightened and exaggerated performance consistently calls her predecessor to mind. Her mocking lip-biting is a joy to behold, as is her choice of pop music (even more narcissistically self-centred than the Simm-Master). And the child-like way that Gomez chooses to interpret a line about playing with more of the Doctor’s friends is also spot on. I very much hope she will return in the role, as there’s real scope to further explore this somewhat retooled relationship between Time Lord/Lady peers.
Death in Heaven offers another terrific piece of narrative trickery from Moffat. Having directed audiences to consider how the Doctor and the Master are the same (or not), we instead end up with a very different mirror image, as Clara and the Doctor face each other across a gulf of mutual deceit, both of them seeking to protect and release the other. And, most wonderfully of all, Moffat transforms what has up until now looked like a bit of mildly flailing comedic business – the Doctor’s aversion to hugging – into an emotional sucker punch, as the Time Lord explains why he doesn’t trust a hug. That instantaneous shift from slapstick froth to brutal truth might just be the darkest moment in the episode – it’s not a fantastical scenario of uploaded minds and upgraded bodies, just the simple, stark recognition that even those we most care about, and deeply trust, might nevertheless choose to lie to us about matters of life and death.
As well as lacking full-on time travel shenanigans (bar Missy’s acknowledgement that she’s been patrolling up and down the Doctor’s timeline, by way of explaining her earlier episodic appearances), this finale also plays out like a fairly linear continuation of Dark Water. Other Moffat two-parters have sometimes taken off in a whole new direction. Here, we get the shifting perspective of UNIT’s involvement, and the Doctor’s unexpected rise to mastery of Earth, but there’s still very much a sense of organically developing ideas from episode eleven. And if some of Dark Water’s darkness is backed away from, the Master’s made-over identity is nonetheless firmly embraced (though we are deprived of seeing Missy’s TARDIS, unless one counts Saint Paul’s as occupying the role). Unfortunately, I think Seb represents a slightly miss(y)ed opportunity, despite offering a pay-off to Missy’s initial explanation of her status. And although Seb’s final word offers a moment of fan referentiality (only someone as black-hearted as the Master could possibly be opposed to a good squee), it would have been interesting to see Chris Addison properly facing off against his The Thick of It co-star Capaldi.
This is an episode sprinkled with special, fan-pleasing moments, not least of which is the manner in which a much-loved classic series character is cleverly and poignantly featured. And it is an episode which, for me, integrates sentiment and intellect more thoroughly than, say, The Angels Take Manhattan, and in which the graveyard setting feels thematically relevant and earned rather than a case of set dressing or overt emotional manipulation. Clara’s (latest) story really feels as if it’s been completed here, although the cunning false ending, and Nick Frost's eyebrow-raising debut, both promise further adventures (and these moments were omitted from an advance screening of the episode, as well as from its BBC preview for journalists).
Is the Doctor a “good man”? Did you ever really, truly doubt it? And has series eight offered a good run of episodes? More than that, it’s been startlingly great in its overall consistency, its risk-taking, its freshness and its vision. Much of this series, and Capaldi’s effortless, bravura inhabitation of the role, is surely up there with the very best of Doctor Who times past. Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin and the many other prime movers behind this run of episodes all deserve hearty recognition.