Doctor Who Review: Death in Heaven

doctor who death in heaven review steven moffat rachel talalay cybermen missy michelle gomez peter capaldi samuel anderson

Love is not an emotion. Love is a promise.

So actually, when I first watched this, I didn’t like it all that much.

I had problems with the second half in particular. It felt discordant, really, and rather sloppy. “Tonally inconsistent” is what I went for, I think. To an extent, I’d stand by that still.

But when I came round to rewatching it, with a little bit of distance and having had some time to ruminate on the episode a bit more, I did enjoy it a lot more.

I mean, it’s not perfect, and that’s a little bit of a shame, because I’d really been hoping for that. Probably unwise, admittedly, but still, that’s what I wanted. There are a lot of good ideas here, that’s certainly true, but the worry I had was that they weren’t really executed very well. Some things were better than others. Certain things were not executed as well as they could have been; others should have been left out entirely.

Admittedly, that paints a pretty negative picture of my opinion, and that’s not quite true, because there’s a lot of things I really did enjoy. Like, for example, Michelle Gomez. Wasn’t she just fantastic? Quite possibly the best Master of the new series (sorry John Simm) and I’d wager she beats out quite a few of the classics too. I get the feeling I’d end up just listing each and every one of her scenes if I were to start to pick favourites – but weren’t each of her scenes, especially with Peter Capaldi, just really, really compelling?

doctor who death in heaven review michelle gomez missy the master graveyard I just want my friend back steven moffat rachel talalay

But, hey, there’s nothing wrong with listing. The death of Osgood was a pretty wonderful moment (though I will miss her) and I totally agree with Moffat’s decision there – killing Osgood sets Missy up as a villain in a way that all her actions couldn’t really. We’re invested in Osgood, and the audience likes her, in a way that we wouldn’t be with Colonel Ahmed. It reminds me of this thing called a “pet the dog” moment actually – the idea being that if a character pets a dog, the audience will like them, because generally the audience will like dogs. Here, then, Moffat had Missy kill the “dog”.

Quite a lot of wonderful humour in there too; a favourite line of mine was, probably surprising no one, “Kill some Belgians, they aren’t even French”. Lots of very funny lines; but all ones which could have fallen flat, I think, if it wasn’t for the strength of Michelle Gomez’s performance. She really did hit every beat it was fantastic.

The characterisation there was absolutely on point. I realise a lot of people are accusing Moffat of getting it wrong, but no, they’re mistaken – elaborate schemes simply for the Doctor’s attention, and constant attempts to get their friend back (wasn’t that so sad?) have always been part of the Master’s MO, right from day one.

It also lead quite fantastically into the culmination of one of this series’ quasi-arcs – the question of whether or not the Doctor really is a good man. It’s been one of my favourite parts of this series, in fact, and I’m quite pleased with the resolution of it. Indeed, I’m hoping to do a full post on it soon (though with my time management skills, that could end up being closer to series 9 than to now) so I won’t comment on it much, but still, it was fantastic.

The use of the Master as the Doctor’s mirror concluded that thread quite well, and indeed rather poignantly; Missy’s attempts to get her friend back only confirmed to him that, despite his doubts, they really were pretty different. Dramatically, I think it has a lot of weight, and it was possibly the smartest way to draw that aspect of the series to a close without getting oppressively bleak.

And, of course, you’ve got to love this moment of realisation. Peter Capaldi is so wonderful:

I’m not a good man! I’m not a bad man! I’m not a hero! I’m not a President! And no, I’m not an officer! You know who I am? I am an idiot –  with a box and a screwdriver, passing through, helping out. And I don’t need an army, I never have.

And I mean, that’s to be expected, isn’t it? Peter Capaldi, the Twelfth Doctor, the highlight of every scene he’s in. Absolutely wonderful.

doctor who death in heaven review twelfth doctor peter capaldi I am an idiot samuel anderson danny pink michelle gomez jenna coleman cybermen

Same goes of course for Jenna Coleman. And in this case I’d also say Samuel Anderson. The scenes they had together were… they weren’t poignant, that’s not quite the right way to describe it, because that implies a level of serenity I think. Their scenes were a bit distressing sometimes. In a good way, I mean; they were all very emotional moments, and certainly quite impactful ones.

The writing of those scenes was generally pretty good; nice bit of dramatic irony (I know technical terms!) where the audience knew who Danny was, yet Clara didn’t. I quite liked that; on the whole, that’s not the sort of thing I find that impressive, but here it’s clear enough that Danny would be a Cyberman, so those scenes where Clara finds out where made more effective because the audience already knew.

Really gotta love their acting though, don’t you? I mean, again, I find myself at a loss for words because I’ve used most of them already. Regardless, they both absolutely sold each moment; Danny’s final speech and sacrifice, Clara’s anger at Missy, and their goodbye as Danny lost his emotions. It all lead into a pretty wonderful ending…

As endings go, it was very melancholy, wasn’t it? I actually really liked it, for the most part. The Doctor and Clara, lying to each other, trying to make the other happy, not realising that they were both as miserable as sin. I’d go so far as to say actually that the Doctor lying about Gallifrey, and intercutting the Doctor’s scenes with Clara against the silent anger of his “finding” Gallifrey is quite possibly one of the smartest things Steven Moffat has written. The final moment with Clara simply walking away was wonderful, and I think it would have been a pretty appropriate place to leave Clara, if not a happy one.

(At the minute, I haven’t watched the Children in Need clip, although I am aware that it makes it clear this isn’t quite the ending. It’s a shame, admittedly, because I really did quite like this idea… but I do trust them to still make it work. Possibly.)

doctor who death in heaven review cybermen danny pink the brigadier rain steven moffat rachel talalay graveyard

Now, while there were plenty of other brilliant things in the episode (the Cloud base! Skydiving into the TARDIS! UNIT!) the ending was also where the episode began to dip in quality, so it makes sense, I suppose, to segue into my own criticisms of those moments.

Going in chronological order then…

I wasn’t impressed by the Brigadier. I know, I know, but hear me out here. Ultimately, his appearance was superfluous – we all know that the Master is coming back, so the Brigadier didn’t save the Doctor from any hard decisions or realities there. When the Master does come back, it’s simply going to make this moment look a bit rubbish, and the Brigadier ineffectual. And, also… where does that moment actually work, in terms of the plot? How does it work, in terms of the logic and the rules? Why didn’t the Brigadier fly away and explode with the other Cybermen? Perhaps more importantly, where is he now? The thing is, other than being kinda sad and touching for a few short moments, the whole thing really does just fall apart if you think about it, and doesn’t quite work as what it was meant to – a salute to the Brigadier. The inclusion of Kate really is enough.

Clara’s “Two weeks later” moment, Danny’s potential resurrection, wasn’t handled all that well I thought. Part of it was time restraints, I think, and it seemed like there might have been another draft which worked better. A lot of exposition was delivered by Clara, and very quickly, and then the glowy portal talking and the boy emerging happened faster still. Certain aspects of that were a bit contrived as well – it was pointed out on another site that it would have been better if the explanation was not that the bracelet was running out of power, rather that it could only take one person at a time in one direction at a time. Maybe then if that scene was longer, perhaps there’d be a little more time to process things, and for them to be better developed, meaning one would get the full impact from it, if that makes sense. (Mind you, I did like the Doomsday parallels, that was a nice touch.)

As well as that, not entirely convinced the boy had enough set up for his moment to work. He was, after all, entirely mute, and didn’t have a screen time totalling more than a few minutes across both episodes. There’s also the fact that, you know, he’s a very young child, probably doesn’t speak English, his parents are almost certainly dead, he comes from a war torn country, and he himself has been dead for a least a good couple of years – what exactly does Danny expect Clara to do here? Now, admittedly, I can’t quite think of a way to make it work better, which undercuts what I’m saying a little. The scene struck me as off, regardless.

doctor who death in heaven review samuel anderson danny pink clara oswald jenna coleman child boy antonio bourouphael

Final complaint, and perhaps an obvious one.

I didn’t like Santa Claus.

I know, I know. It was just… I think it was a mistake, to place that post credits scene there like that. It was tonally inconsistent to say the least, and completely at odds with the ending we’d just had for Clara. The problem isn’t Santa Claus himself – the Christmas special looks fantastic! – but rather the placement of his appearance was very, very jarring. In The Writer’s Tale, there’s a discussion between RTD and Ben Cook wherein they talk about the merits of having Cybermen turn up at the end of Journey’s End, after Donna’s goodbye moment. The decision in the end was to leave them out, because they’d distract from the emotion of the moment; a trailer at the end would do the same job of looking forward to the future.

It seems odd to me that a similar choice wasn’t made here, because the same arguments apply pretty much exactly. Even to the point that they played a trailer as well! Very odd. Not the end of the world, admittedly, but it did detract from the quality of the rest of the episode.

doctor who review series 8 clara oswald disappears in crowd jenna coleman exit leave cybermen twelfth doctor lies peter capaldi steven moffat

Okay then so.

Death in Heaven.

In a nutshell?

Some excellent ideas. Some excellent execution of those ideas. But also, similarly, some flawed execution of those ideas, which ultimately brought it down a bit.

A mark out of ten is… difficult, I think. Really, it’s an 8.5 out of 10, but I dislike giving half marks. So I will, I think, round down to 8/10, because I don’t think it’s quite good enough for a 9.

(On another note, apologies for the lateness of this review. Real life got in the way, I’m sure you know how it is. Across this week, I am hoping to write pieces about the series as a whole, and the character arcs of the Doctor and Clara – I’d expect those to be up at some point around the weekend.)

Related:

Doctor Who series 8 reviews

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