The Good: Some wonderful character, plot and acting moments, Decent effects
The Bad: Plot falls apart completely in the last act, Hinges entirely on what comes next, Too frequently insults the viewer’s attention.
The Basics: “Death In Heaven” leaves so much unresolved that the early awesome moments and middle, well-executed character moments, are undermined by the thoroughly mushy end.
When a serialized television show continues to hinge its success on the next episode, it puts an impossible amount of pressure on the narrative and a great deal of stress on the writers to deliver upon the promise of their current endeavors. The current season of Doctor Who was unfortunately plagued by a continual sense of deferring; the episodes tied together poorly and the serialized elements of the season required an incredible, unreasonable, amount of faith in writer and executive producer Steven Moffat. Halfway through the current season finale of Doctor Who, I was ready to cheer and hail Moffat for his genius.
But then, Moffat drops the ball. In fact, it is hard to watch a writer/showrunner drop the ball so very far and hard as Moffat does in “Death In Heaven.” For an episode that starts so well – despite completely neglecting the final moment of the prior episode – “Death In Heaven” falls apart in the least pleasant ways. When Moffat and director Rachel Talalay are not insulting the viewer’s intelligence, they are oscillating between big character moments and a lack of sensible resolution that guts the emotion of the rest of the episode.
Clara manages to talk her way out of being executed by claiming that she is The Doctor. The Doctor is shocked by the Cybermen appearing on the streets and people not being horrified. His apprehension turns into a quick victory when U.N.I.T. comes to rescue humanity and they put him in charge. Missy is captured, the Doctor gets the Cybermen to flee, but a cloud of ninety-one cybermen launch from St. Paul’s. Missy explains that the Cybermen are about to destroy themselves over major population centers and pollinate those cities. As Danny Pink is told that he will be returned to his body with “an upgrade,” the Doctor realizes that the Cybermen are going to take control of the dead. Conscripted by Kate Stewart as the wartime President Of Earth, The Doctor takes charge on U.N.I.T.’s plane above the deadly Cyber-clouds encircling the Earth.
With Clara rescued by Cyberman Danny, she finds herself in a graveyard encircled by nascent Cybermen. As Clara exposes Danny Pink and he begs for release from his human emotions, Missy breaks free and takes down the plane. The Doctor arrives at Clara’s side where he attempts to use Danny to learn the Cybermen’s endgame. Danny’s sacrifice leads Missy to make an offer to The Doctor that pushes him to the edge of his ethical limits and forces him to make a choice that will once more tug him away from those he cares about most.
“Death In Heaven” gets off to a rousing start and Steven Moffat plays a dangerous macguffin; Clara claims to be The Doctor and Moffat plays that out in the way that keeps the audience creaming until her next scene; the opening credits put Jenna Coleman first and put her face in the place of The Doctor’s in the opening credits! It’s such a shit bluff (equivalent to Joss Whedon finally adding Amber Benson to the main cast of Buffy The Vampire Slayer in the very episode in which her character is killed!), but it’s pretty cool for a few mindblowing moments where it appears that Clara could be a future version of The Doctor (can’t be the current Doctor because we saw Matt Smith turn into Peter Capaldi in the prior finale!).
So, after playing a bluff, Moffat and Talalay go into utterly insulting territory. First, the identity of The Cyberman is ridiculously played out. Danny Pink in Cyberman form carries around a piece of paper that informs the viewer that he used to be Danny Pink. The level of insult to the intelligence of viewers who are expected to understand temporal paradoxes and the like that they would no leap to the conclusion that the one cyberman who keeps protecting Clara is Danny Pink is incalculably high.
After the plot goes to absolute shit, what saves so much of “Death In Heaven” is the level of character and performance in the episode. Robbed of his big character moment that capped off “Dark Water” (reviewed here!), Danny becomes a hero and foil to The Doctor. There is a wonderful novelty to The Doctor – who has spent the entire season decrying soldiers – being put in charge of the world’s militaries. Moreover, the choice Missy gives him is incredible and the way he works himself out of the corner he is painted into is lovely.
It is Danny, though, who becomes the hero of the day. While there is so much to the Cybermen that has been undermined, much like the Borg in the Star Trek franchise (probably why the Cybermen and Borg were teamed up in the graphic novel crossover reviewed here!), “Death In Heaven” has the Cybermen making a decent amount of sense. Missy is essentially a Cybercontroller and Danny Pink’s presence in their ranks – but outside them – is adequately explained by his inhibitor not being activated (which makes sense because he was never shown deleting himself in the Nethersphere). Danny’s emotional self plays perfectly in the episode and actor Samuel Anderson does a masterful job of portraying his character’s emotional conflict. In fact, the success of the episode’s character elements comes because Anderson has such screen presence that he can stand toe to toe with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor and credibly call him out on his bullshit.
Even Jenna Coleman is good in “Death In Heaven.” Coleman plays off Anderson wonderfully, but her most intense moment comes near the climax of the episode and her anger is beautifully played. Michelle Gomez takes the reins from John Simm and she captures so many of his mannerisms (especially with her eyes) that it makes the transition from his iteration of the character to hers entirely credible. Missy is a wonderful antagonist and given how she seems to have a TARDIS of her own, it seems likely that Gomez would be able to return again!
Sadly, after all of the build-up and the strong moments of character connection that make it appear that The Doctor has lost his very soul and Clara’s presence in his life was engineered after she executed the role of Impossible Girl journeying through The Doctor’s entire timestream, “Death In Heaven” collapses. Viewers are expected to forget entirely that Orson Pink in “Listen” (reviewed here!) mentioned time-travelers in his family, implying that Clara and Danny were his ancestors and so the episode builds to an unpleasant and entirely artificial narrative low-point. The Doctor and Clara finish with their most extreme senses of loss, but the loss can only work with a complete paradox; otherwise, Clara’s loss has to be resolved and the only possible way for that to occur is with The Doctor’s help.
The result is an episode that is unfortunately inconsistent. The places it pays out for past investments are generally good, but the execution of some of the big emotional moments only work if one exists in a Doctor Who vacuum and for those people some of the other big moments (like the identity of the Ultimate Cyberman) have no resonance. The result is more deferral and, especially for a finale, that is unsatisfying.
For other season finales that had a lot of weight to bear on the resolution front, please visit my reviews of:
“Zero Hour” - Star Trek: Enterprise
“The Beginning Of The End” - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
“Radioactive” - True Blood
[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Eighth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the debut season of Peter Capaldi as The Doctor here!
For other Doctor Who episode and movie reviews, please visit my Doctor Who Review Index Page!
© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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