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TV Review: Doctor Who 8.12 “Death In Heaven”
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Dr. Geek, Ph.D.   |  
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Doctor Who Death In Heaven

Doctor Who
Season 8, Episode 12 “Death In Heaven”
Directed by Rachel Talalay
Written by Steven Moffat
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Samuel Anderson, Michelle Gomez
BBC America
Air Date: Saturday, November 8, 2014

The end has finally come and with it, reckoning. A number of threads were left hanging after “Dark Water” last week. What is Missy/The Master planning? Is Danny really dead? What will happen to Clara? How do the Cybermen fit in? It was all a bit of a mish-mash. It was difficult to see where the dramatic payoff would come from, and how it would finally let viewers look back at this season’s story arc.

While I believe this final episode, “Death In Heaven,” competently checked off all the boxes and answered everything, excellence came only in flashes. Michelle Gomez is responsible for much of it. The scene in which Missy finally pulls back the curtain to reveal the reason for all this to the Doctor comes to mind. The sequence between Missy and Osgood is also quite chilling. The rest of it merely services the arc. Give some credit to Steven Moffat for turning the Cybermen into zombies, and then a platoon of soldiers, but that’s all they are. Likewise, Danny’s part in the finale all fits, but it’s nothing spectacular for all its final flash. In all, it’s been a quality season that set the bar high. This finale meets that bar, but does not dramatically surpass it.

This episode underlines the fact that the Cybermen need to once again stand for something other than serving the momentary needs of a particular episode writer at any given time. They’ve appeared as something other than set dressing eight times in the revived series. They are given a reboot in a parallel universe in “Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel” and allowed to infiltrate our Universe along with the Daleks in “Army of Ghosts/Doomsday”. They appear one more time during the Davies/Tennant era in “The Next Doctor” after the Daleks damage the walls of reality in “The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End”. In each of these three appearances during the Tennant era, they are presented as a terrifying inevitability of a technically integrated society, a sort of scary next step in human evolution.

That sort of pretext ended when Steven Moffat took over. The need for a Universe-hopping back story was jettisoned, no doubt because, much like the Daleks, it was getting tiring to provide some excuse for having them in the series. This effectively turned them into horror movie stand-ins for other monsters: a guardian monster of an ancient evil in “The Pandorica Opens”, the controllers of cybermats that go bump in the night in “Closing Time”, proxies for demonic possession in “Nightmare In Silver”, and now some “Night Of The Living Dead” zombies in “Death In Heaven” (kudos to Rachel Talaly for putting Clara in replay of the opening of that film). The one exception is a Cyberman that plays Wilson to Matt Smith’s Castaway in “The Time Of Doctor”, which is just played largely for comedy. While all that provides some interesting textures to the show, it says little about what gives the Cybermen an identity. They are just parasites that use humans to reproduce. The Borg in the Star Trek universe have used that idea far more effectively in the years since the Classic Series ended.

I already wrote about the importance of turning the Master into Missy last week. So let’s discuss how Missy ultimately serves the story and the story arc. Equivalence was a heavy theme for Season 8 of soldiers with soldiers, of the Doctor with officers, of the Doctor with heroes (like Robin Hood), and of the Doctor with Clara (we even get to see Jenna Coleman‘s name first in the credits this week since Clara pretends to be the Doctor.) Here, Missy attempts to impose equivalence of another kind on the Doctor: equivalence with herself. This is logical because the original reason for conjuring the Master up in 1971 was to provide the Doctor with an equal Earth-bound adversary to fight.

The only thing that potentially separates them is thin veneer of good intentions. Her contention is that the Doctor will ruthlessly use the same tools she does to achieve his ends and tempts him with a monstrous army of Cybermen at his disposal to prove it. This is the motivator for the Doctor to finally answer his question “am I a good man?” from “Into The Dalek”. He’s hardly an “idiot with a box”, but he’s also not someone who seeks to control and dominate with an army as the Master would do if given the chance. Is a hero from a fairy tale? No. Is he still a hero? Yes.

Finally, the Danny and Clara arc is resolved. I’ve complained that Danny isn’t a horribly well developed character; he isn’t the Rory to Clara’s Amy. We come to discover that he’s more or less given just enough back story to motivate his actions in these last two episodes. We learned about the tragedy that motivated his exit from the Army in “Dark Water”. Now we learn about the consequences of his life after that this week. It plays well enough, but it would have been nice to know more about him. What doesn’t play out as obviously is how the Doctor and Clara part as a result of his actions.

The ugly implication is that travel with the Doctor is a joy but generally comes with a horrible price for life afterward. Rose pines for the Doctor she loves, until she’s given one. Sarah Jane Smith pines for his return until adoptive motherhood brings its own satisfactions. Donna Noble touches Time Lord consciousness and must be exiled back to the mundane life she desperately wanted to escape and must forget everything. Amy and Rory are permanently cut off from friends and family, living 75 years in the past. Now Clara loses this great love of her life, and awkwardly can’t bring herself to reveal that to the Doctor. There’s still something of a thread in Orson Pink from “Listen” left dangling, but I suppose that will depend on Jenna Coleman returning next season or (as it is rumored) not. That is not a hero’s journey. Would it hurt to show a companion living a better, fuller life after traveling with the Doctor?

So there we have it: the end to Season 8. I think it was something of a return to form after the Matt Smith years got a little wobbly toward the end. Peter Capaldi has proven to be more than capable as the Doctor. Jenna Coleman was allowed to play a darker and more complex character this season than before. Episode quality was relatively high, with at least three episodes (“Listen”, “Mummy On The Orient Express”, and “Flatline”) worthy of showing up on lists of the show’s best, and others (“Kill The Moon”, “Robot of Sherwood”) bringing some unique thrills to the season. All seasons of the show should be so lucky.

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