I Need My Friend Back – “Death in Heaven” Review

Time to get these bad boys finished up.

I’ve heard it said recently that Moffat is better at rewriting Russell T. Davies scripts than either of them are at writing original works. While I wouldn’t go that far (it does a gross disservice to both), I can’t help but agree with the fact that Moffat does like to play around with repetitions, both from his previous work and the works of others. While some might call this theft and accuse him of endlessly repeating himself, I prefer the more acceptable terms “theme” and “motif.” Of course he repeats ideas. That’s how you establish meaning in a story.

clara hugAnd while I don’t think this is just a straight rehash, Moffat is, in a way, revisiting some earlier Davies ideas. “Death in Heaven” is largely playing with the same toys as “Army of Ghosts”/”Doomsday” and “The Sound of Drums”/”Last of the Time Lords.” It’s an interesting mash-up, to say the least: On the one hand you have the Cybermen-ghosts plot, and on the other the Master/Mistress vs. UNIT. But what that doesn’t take into account is how much Moffat has subtly changed and evolved the show since those earlier seasons. Many have noticed the way Moffat modeled his first season (series 5) on the RTD formula: Opening modern-day alien invasion; Futuristic political satire; Historical; two two-parters mixed in with standalones; Epic two-part finale. In series 6 he upended this structure, switching the finale and the premier episodes, chucking the second two-parter, and creating the most arc-driven season yet. In series 7 he zagged the other way, doing away with two-parters altogether and nearly any sense of an arc-plot at all, creating the most episodic season yet. Now, at the end of series 8 with the triumphant return of the epic two-part finale, we can see the fruit of all this experimental labor. Only by discarding, upending, and rewiring the traditional RTD formula could Moffat finally distill what it was about it that worked. In many ways this season has been a return to that form, but a wiser and more mature version of it. Series 6 and 7 had their growing pains, for sure, but they taught Moffat an awful lot about how to structure a bloody fantastic season of television, and series 8 shows that he has in no way lost his mojo. It’s almost as if, by referencing these earlier Davies finales, he’s acknowledging his debt to his predecessor while boldly and unapologetically taking Doctor Who into new territory.

And let’s face it, there’s something about the two-part finale that just works. The extra room allows the characters to breathe in a way they simply can’t otherwise. “The Wedding of River Song” is a great example of what happens without this room, although it’s not without its virtues. “The Name of the Doctor” worked mainly because, in retrospect, we can see that it was the first in the “of the Doctor” trilogy, and not really a singular episode at all: It resolves the Impossible Girl arc, yes, but sets up the War Doctor for “Day of the Doctor” and Trenzalore for “Time of the Doctor.”

Interestingly, not only is “Dark Water” / “Death in Heaven” Moffat’s first true two-part finale since series 5, in a way it’s his first attempt to do his take on the Davies finales. “The Pandorica Opens” / “The Big Bang” did have epicness and two-parts, but it definitely broke the Davies tradition of ending the season on the theme of loss. The Ninth Doctor, Rose, Martha, Donna, the Tenth Doctor: Davies finales are always about “the parting of the ways.” “The Big Bang” and “The Wedding of River Song” both emphatically reject this and end with the ultimate expression of unity: Weddings. Even “Name of the Doctor,” for all its elegiac tone, is more about setting up the reunification of the Doctor with his lost past than it is about actual loss. Strax, Jenny, and Clara are all recovered. The Doctor’s death is, again, averted. Moffat loves his “everybody lives” happy endings, and by golly he’s good at them.

But not this time. For the first time, Moffat goes past the surface homage to the Davies era and evokes its most permeating themes, as well: “Everything has its time and everything ends.” The episode itself is as disturbing as any in the new Doctor Who so far. The notion of ghosts returning in “Army of Ghosts” horrified the Doctor, but the true horror is averted when we find out they’re actually Cybermen. Here, Moffat pushes that further. The ghosts are Cybermen, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still ghosts. They are the souls of the dearly departed, downloaded and upgraded into new and terribly efficient bodies. All of the mechanics of resurrection without the spirit of rebirth. It’s a terrible fate, and Danny spends the episode begging Clara to kill him. Compared to this, the Cyberplot of “Doomsday” is a laugh riot.

After all the morbid body-horror, we get the true death of Danny Pink – something the New Series has been quite resistant about doing to its main characters. Especially following his shocking off-screen death at the beginning of the previous episode, his subsequent torment and ultimate self-sacrifice seem even more cruel. The Doctor can harrow hell in search of Clara’s lover, but even he cannot reverse the effect of an ill-timed car. Like the Doctor’s voice calling Rose to Bad Wolf Bay, Danny gives his one last goodbye to Clara from the other side. But unlike Rose, it’s not for himself or his beloved, but to keep his final promise as a soldier. With one chance for true rebirth, he grants this grace to the person he wronged: The little boy who was killed as thoughtlessly and senselessly as Danny was. Like the good teacher he is, Danny takes care of his kids first.

doctor-who-death-in-heaven-capaldi-gallifrey-heartbreakFollowing this new emotional trauma, we get the parting of Clara and the Doctor and the culmination of all the lies they’ve told each other. Danny is alive. Gallifrey has returned. Hooray. Too bad it’s all lies. The Doctor lies, remember, and so does his Doctor-wannabe apprentice Clara. She’s been preparing for this moment all season. Their final hug, recalling the Doctor’s insistence that he’s no longer a hugging person in “Deep Breath,” is, as he notes, “just a way to hide [their faces].” I’m not sure which is worse, her watching the TARDIS drift away, bound for a new round of adventures, while she goes back to an empty apartment and ordinary life, or the Doctor’s painfully hesitant peek out the door to find, as expected, Missy lied and Gallifrey isn’t there after all. And he can’t even go try to get the real information out of her because, oops, she’s dead now. Peter Capaldi’s Doctor has been so stoic all season that it was truly difficult to watch him, as despairing and lonely as we’ve ever seen him, break down in those final moments. In fact, things end so bleakly that Moffat pulls out the old RTD trick of sneaking in one final note of silliness before the end. Previous entries in this category include glimpses of the Tenth Doctor, Donna, and the Titanic. This year we get a satsuma-wielding Father Christmas. (More on the clues buried in this final scene in my “Last Christmas” analysis.)

All this makes it sound as though “Death in Heaven,” as its name would suggest, is unrelentingly grim. And it largely is. The gray and silver dominated color pallet, overcast atmosphere, and crushed blacks tell you everything you need to know about the tone of this piece. But, as ever with Moffat, there is light among the dark, and often in the strangest places. The black humor established by Seb and Missy in part one runs rampant in the second half, and Michelle Rodriguez in particular is on fire. She is every bit Peter Capaldi’s match in wit and confidence. She gives John Simm a run for his money in both his cruelty and his mania. Her taunting and ultimate murder of Osgood is by turns hilarious and disturbing and infuriating. “Do you have any more friends I can play with?”, holding her limbs loose like a marionette, showing her regard for life. She does what the Doctor cannot (or will not) – conquering death just to make a point. Raising an unstoppable army as a (anniversary?) birthday present to the Doctor who’s too polite to ask for one. Just as with Tennant and Simm, there is a draw there. There is something charismatic about the Master in all his and her incarnations, and once again we see the dark mirror image of what the Doctor could become, especially now that the Time Lords are (theoretically) restored. “All those bad guys winning the wars? Go and get the good guys back!” the Mistress mocks the Doctor, but it’s not a joke at all. He’s already done that, he just hasn’t exactly located them yet. Whether it’s Moffat or someone further down the line, I can’t wait to see how the Doctor reacts to actually meeting his people again. That will be one fascinating, yet awkward, reunion.

psychotic marry poppinsNot only is Missy a foil for the Doctor, but for Clara, too. Her late Victorian/early Edwardian dress evoke Clara Oswin Oswald from “The Snowmen,” and of course both have a habit of flying around with umbrellas like that other famous turn of the century nanny, Mary Poppins. And while there is clearly a difference in both degree and motivation, both Missy and Clara make extraordinary demands on their Doctor, who they both call their friend repeatedly in this episode, forcing him to prove his loyalty to them (or not). And he does, on all occasions. He gives in. He empties Hell so Clara can try to save Danny. He is willing to kill Missy both to satisfy and to save Clara. And in doing so, he concedes Missy the win. They’re not so different, after all. In the end, his soul is saved by the one thing which separates him from Missy: His companions. Not Clara (she’s too screwed up for the moment), but that most loyal and soldierly of all companions, the Brigadier. After a whole season of griping about soldiers, we see the Doctor face for one last time the one soldier who he will always salute.

In case you couldn’t tell, I quite like these episodes and was absolutely satisfied with the season. As the news of season 9 starts trickling in, I find myself getting excited all over again. I’ll be back soon to cover “Last Christmas,” wrap up some general thoughts, and look forward to next fall.

 

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About Katherine Sas

I graduated from Messiah College in 2009 with a B.A. in English Literature. I'm a student of all things arts and humanities, in particular Tolkien, the Inklings, and the fantastic and imaginative tradition in storytelling.
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