Doctor Who Season 8 draws to a close and Peter Capaldi cements his legacy as a truly spectacular Time Lord.
Way back in the “Deep Breath” premiere, Doctor Who featured a scene where the Twelfth Doctor argued with a homeless man about what his new face meant. On one level, it was just a funny moment pointing out that Peter Capaldi’s familiar face now belonged to a regenerating Doctor. (Capaldi previously appeared in an episode during David Tennant’s run, and had a major role in the Torchwood: Children of Earth spin-off.) But on another level, the scene raised the question of why this Doctor was so different from every other modern version, both physically and emotionally.
Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, and Matt Smith’s Doctors were young, energetic, and most importantly, optimistic. But the twelfth regeneration is old, stand-offish, and noticeably pessimistic when it comes to humanity. Several episodes have shown this Doctor doing the exact opposite of what we expected after seven comparatively consistent seasons. That’s not a criticism of Capaldi’s performance; far from it, he’s a great Doctor. Nor am I saying the Doctor must be young; the War Doctor made a lot of sense (and had a self-aware sense of humor on occasion). But it’s hard for long-time viewers, myself included, to reconcile these personalities. And that’s a shame, because Capaldi’s performance deserves to be judged on its own merits, not constantly compared to what we’ve already seen.
That’s why “Death in Heaven” is such a significant episode beyond simply being the latest Doctor Who finale. Outside of drawing current plot threads to a close, saying goodbye to Jenna Coleman’s Clara, and setting up a global threat only the Doctor can overcome, it fully answers the questions from “Deep Breath” and “Into the Dalek”. Why this face? And is the Doctor a good man?
Want the spoiler-free explanation? This is the same Doctor, the hopeful mad man with a time-traveling blue box. But his new face, and behavior where he keeps everyone at arm’s length? That’s a defense mechanism for those inevitable moments where he can’t save everyone…. or more importantly, must say goodbye to someone he loves.
Saying more than that starts to get into Blue Journal territory, so let’s end with this: “Death in Heaven” resolves the question of whether this Doctor is a good man. It features familiar faces and old enemies. It’s fun, epic, and a blast to watch. And best of all, it ties up the most annoying Season 8 plot points in a neat little bow, implying we’ll never have to see them again.
Then it makes a promise: Next Christmas, we’ll get back to something fun and silly. Until then, you can watch the stunning conclusion on BBC America or digital storefronts like iTunes.
And with that, we move onto specifics, starting with a recap from last episode:
- Danny Pink was killed in a car accident, prompting the Doctor and Clara to seek “Heaven” to find him.
- The afterlife exists, and it’s run by the 3w corporation to provide immortal souls with some level of comfort after death.
- Just kidding! The afterlife is actually a surprise plot to transform dead bodies into Cybermen, and the invasion is about to begin.
- The entire scheme was orchestrated by Missy from the beginning, who long-time Doctor Who fans know better as The Master
When we last left off, Missy revealed herself as the Master just as the Cyberman army roused itself from its slumber. Usually, this would be the point where Cybermen open fire on every major world city until the Doctor saves the day. But instead they surprise everyone, including the Doctor, by… doing absolutely nothing. The Cybermen stand stock still on the streets, which even prompts a few civilians to take pictures with them. It’s a little confusing, but makes clear that Missy/The Master has something sneakier in mind. Not that she gets much of a chance to explain it, because their arrival prompts UNIT to rush onto the scene.
It turns out that UNIT has actually been conducting its own investigation of the 3w corporation, so when the Cybermen appear they’re fully prepared. It’s also a great chance to see some welcome faces like Kate Lethbridge-Stewart and Osgood, who haven’t appeared since “Day of the Doctor”. Osgood’s attire has noticeably changed, having dropped the Fourth Doctor’s scarf in favor of the Eleventh Doctor’s shirt and tie combo. But given her obvious Doctor crush and the events of “Day”, that’s highly appropriate, and a nice touch for fans missing a dash of something “cool”.
But the Cybermen aren’t interested in attacking UNIT, at least not yet. Instead, they launch themselves into the atmosphere and detonate, spreading rainclouds across the Earth filled with nanites. As it rains, all the dead bodies Missy interacted with for countless generations immediately awaken as Cybermen.
Last week’s explanation of Heaven was certainly creepy, although it still strained our disbelief. The true story makes a little more sense in context to Doctor Who lore: After the Doctor saved Gallifrey last season, Missy was able to escape with her own Tardis and traveled into ancient human history to create the concept of an afterlife. By tricking wealthy humans across time into giving up their wealth for immortality (think of how the Pharaohs placed immense importance on preserving their bodies), Missy gained enough wealth to support the 3w corporation and start a Cybermen army. Once established, every single person who died found their mind downloaded into a digital cloud, where they were coerced into deleting their emotions so the Cybermen didn’t have to.
Take a moment to let that sink in. This episode literally turns every single dead person on the planet into a Cyberman, including (I assume) your own family and ancestors. That not only makes “Death in Heaven” impressively large in its scope, but leaves a darkly personal touch lingering behind the surface. Every single graveyard and morgue now has Cybermen emerging from them, which I suppose is the closest Doctor Who will get to a Romeroesque zombie apocalypse. But it also reflects the personal stakes of the finale, especially as events move forward.
So how exactly did 3w manage to download every single deceased human mind across time and space? Who cares! That’s how.
So what’s happening with Danny Pink? It turns out that since Danny never had a chance to delete his memories before the Cybermen activated, he’s a self-aware Cyberman, and the first person he wants to see is Clara. Clara, meanwhile, is busy trying to convince the Cybermen that she’s a regenerated Doctor, using her detailed knowledge of his personal life to delay them until he comes up with a rescue. There’s an impressive number of callbacks to past episodes here, including references to the Doctor’s various wives and children. I’d even forgotten that Clara learned the Doctor’s real name, although this episode doesn’t reveal what it actually is.
Of course, when Cyber-Danny finds Clara, she thinks he’s just another Cyberman, so he has a chance to trick her into finally telling the truth. Danny pretends to threaten her in an effort to learn the Doctor’s location, to which Clara bravely replies that the Doctor’s her best and truest friend, and that she’d do anything for him. With the truth finally out, Danny reveals his identity, and decides he does want his emotions to be turned off for good.
Hold the phone. That’s stupid. Clara just admitted that the Doctor was her best friend, not her exclusive Gallifreyan soulmate. There’s nothing she said that contradicts loving Danny, or prevents them from having a relationship. Yes, I get she’s admitting the Doctor is an essential part of her life. But they both already knew that. What’s the lesson here? “Wow, my girlfriend has a life beyond mine, so I guess it’s time to kill myself?” That’s super gross. Not to mention Danny’s upset because Clara’s willing to die for another person, Doctor or not.
I get that “Death in Heaven” wants you, the audience, to feel sad. It’s trying to be “Doomsday”, where the Doctor and Rose are cast apart forever. It’s trying to be “Journey’s End”, where Donna tragically loses every memory of her adventures. We’re used to this, it’s a Doctor Who thing. But there are far better ways to do it. How about Danny says “Clara, I’m a Zombie Cyberman now. Our love can never be.” And then he flies into the sun. But don’t have him succumb to an artificial conflict that Season 8 kept forcing down our throats. And definitely don’t have Clara completely agree with him and help switch Danny’s emotions off. These are supposed to be semi-reasonable adults, not confused, angsty teenagers.
The worst part is “Death in Heaven” actually gives a perfectly valid reason for disabling Danny’s emotions: He can’t fully access the Cyber network with his feelings getting in the way. Boom, done. It’s self-sacrifice and blaze of glory time. But Doctor Who insists on contextualizing it with the “Clara keeps lying/the Doctor can’t be trusted” mentality that got old months ago. It really sours an otherwise solid finale, and I sincerely hope Steven Moffat got it out of his system so we can focus on something else next year.
Thankfully, events involving the Doctor and Missy are much more engaging. Michelle Gomez fantastically channels the Master/Doctor love/hate relationship that made previous versions so compelling, even throwing in John Simm’s sociopathy to keep things unpredictable. Capaldi, in turn, really sells the idea that Missy isn’t some villain, but an old friend he can’t trust any longer.
And after the Cybercloud forms in the skies, UNIT has its own surprise revelation: If an alien incursion reaches a certain threat level (which the Cybermen have), all human nations immediately turn their authority to a single Earth leader. The Doctor seems annoyed with this idea, but is shocked to discover as the most qualified person in the room, he is now the President of Earth. That is perhaps the best Doctor Who premise I have ever heard, and I would love to see more of it. Sadly, it’s barely used even in this finale. The Doctor doesn’t actually give any heroic speeches to armies (or dismantles armies because he thinks they’re useless and violent), he just walks around his version of Air Force One for a bit before Cybermen attack and he has to think up a new solution. Still, it’s a brilliant concept, and I really hope it gets brought up again in Season 9, even if just to flesh it out a little more.
Having effectively ended his short-lived presidency, Missy brilliantly starts dropping all kinds of metaphorical bombshells. First of all, she knows where Gallifrey is, although she isn’t ready to share that information just yet. Also, not only was she controlling the rise of the Cybermen, she manipulated the Doctor and Clara’s entire partnership. That mysterious woman who gave Clara the Doctor’s phone number? The one who placed the newspaper ad in “Deep Breath” that helped them find each other? It was the Master all along, giving him a companion he would travel into Hell for, which is exactly what he did. (It’s possible Missy even orchestrated hitting Danny with a car, although that’s not entirely clear.)
The reason for all these manipulations? It’s not to rule the world, or else she would have attacked by now. It’s a little more subtle: she’s providing the Doctor with his own Cyberman army. Missy isn’t interested in conquering a planet anymore, she wants her oldest friend from Gallifrey back. But instead of, you know, apologizing for her crimes, she decides the Doctor needs to see that he’s as sociopathic as she is. So she gives him an entire planet of Cybermen, which he can use to wipe out the Daleks, end civil wars, and bring about the peace he claims to believe in.
The past few Doctors (except maybe the War Doctor) would absolutely have turned her down. But this version has been just morally grey enough to raise a few doubts, and there’s a moment where it seems like the Doctor might actually join Missy for a change. But then something amazing happens… the Doctor smiles. You know that smile. The one where he’s figured out exactly what needs to be done instead of moping about this bleak universe he needs to save. And with an honest-to-God glimmer of hope in his eyes, he says:
I am not a good man! I’m not a bad man. I am not a hero. I’m definitely not a President. And no, I’m not an officer. You know what I am? I am an idiot! With a box! And a screwdriver! Passing through, helping out. Learning. I don’t need an army. I never have. Cause I’ve got them. [points to Clara and Danny] Always them.
I’ve waited all season for a speech like that, from an eternally-optimistic Doctor who never compromises in the face of darkness. And wow, does Capaldi ever pull it off. It’s been a long time coming, perhaps too long, but it was so very worthwhile once it finally arrived.
True to form, the Doctor turns control of the army to Danny Pink, realizing that even an emotionless soldier will protect those he loves. Danny leads the Cybermen into the sky and detonates, burning up the Cyber cloud before it can cause any more damage to the Earth. The Master reveals the location of Gallifrey before being struck down once again, in a absolutely perfect way that deserves not being spoiled here.
Of course, it’s still a Doctor Who finale, so not all can be well. Clara has lost Danny, who knew of a way to save only one Cyberman from death, and gave it to the child he’d killed as a soldier. (Somehow. Just roll with it.) When the Doctor investigated the Master’s coordinates, he couldn’t find Gallifrey. So when Clara and the Doctor meet again they’re both grieving, but don’t want to hurt the other with their own pain. So Clara lies, saying that Danny is alive, while the Doctor lies, saying that he’s returning to Gallifrey. You’d think they would have learned their lessons by now, but given the theme of the season it’s oddly appropriate. So much of their stories this season revolved around deception and lies, so it’s only fitting that’s what causes them to part ways, even if they do it with the best of intentions.
But what it leaves us with is very promising: a fresh slate where the Twelfth Doctor can begin a new storyline without the dark baggage holding him back this season. A version of Capaldi’s Doctor that can be a little more humorous and light-hearted, like we’ve seen in other, non-TV mediums. And while it’s a little sad that Jenna Coleman’s Clara (who was exceptionally well-developed this season) won’t be a part of it, we’ll soon have another Doctor who better reflects this new era in the Doctor’s life.
I, for one, can’t wait to see where it goes.
Bottom Line: “Death in Heaven” wraps up Season 8 with the glorious return of the Doctor’s fabled optimism, and (miraculously) does so without sacrificing Capaldi’s dark edge. While some flaws from earlier episodes still exist here, they’re brought a logical, exciting, and dramatically satisfying conclusion that paves the way for future episodes. The Twelfth Doctor has just cemented his legacy as one of the greats, and Whovians new and old won’t be disappointed.
Recommendation: Do you have any lingering doubts about the Twelfth Doctor? “Death in Heaven” will resolve them and leave you anxiously awaiting Season 9. Watch it.[rating=4]