Just over a year ago, Steven Moffat assured us that with Series 8, he and the Doctor Who production team were “going to get a bit raw at it, and do it in a different direction.” Because as much fun as the Matt Smith era was for some of us (those of us under ten, that is), it was very definitely a self-contained period in the show’s history – and once Malcolm Tucker was announced as the joint oldest ever successor to the youngest ever incumbent’s tenure, it was obvious that a new angle was going to have to be explored. But could Moffat jettison the magic, the make-believe, the folk story aspect he’d been infusing the show with ever since his fairy dust had cured an old lady of only having one leg back in 2005?
The answer, of course, was no. Steven Moffat can’t do Doctor Who “straight”, no matter how hard he might try. And with Death in Heaven, he was definitely having a go at it. As Dark Water ended on the promise that the Nethersphere might somehow be yet another means for Moffat to end a series with a parallel consciousness storyline, so the series finale began with the Nethersphere banished to the sidelines and the Cybermen brought front and centre. For once, Moffat was writing an old school end to the series in which one of the Big Three (Daleks, Cybermen, Master; okay, two of them) would face down the Doctor the conventional way, in a good old-fashioned invasion storyline. At times it felt almost as if Russell T Davies was still haunting the building.
But ordinary isn’t good enough for Mr Moffat. For the past three months, he’s been setting the scene for the finale. Once upon a time, this might involve little more than dropping a repeated meme inconspicuously into the preceding episodes (”Bad Wolf”, say), although when practised with more conviction it might involve positioning your pieces carefully around the board in order to facilitate a move like the one that brought Rose’s family back together at the end of Doomsday. Piquing people’s curiosity only to break their hearts with the solution. Moffat himself has preferred using the ultimate resolution as a Chekhov’s gun, scattering the answer to his puzzle hither and thither until the audience are either perceptive enough to dismiss its simplicity as a solution, or so damned confused as to be clueless to what’s going on. Series 8 hasn’t done any of these things.
It’s done all of them. And it’s been astonishing.
We’ve seen enough of Missy and of the dead this year to know they’d live large in the final two-parter, and last week Moffat gave us an episode that was essentially all about a single creepy idea: the dead connecting with the world from beyond the grave (an idea that united the corpses, the companion’s boyfriend, the Cybermen themselves and even the Doctor’s ex-deceased one time best friend). This week, in that surprising us by giving us the answers in the early fashion he loves to employ, he kept everything and turned the whole thing on its head. He also kept the promises he’d been making, although oftentimes we didn’t even realise that’s what he was doing. He even smuggled out some gifts for his critics.
Danny Pink. Who finally earned the Doctor’s respect (a respect that was not reciprocated) in one of the most breathtaking scenes ever committed to Doctor Who. Just as last week the Cybermen were deployed to distract from the Missy reveal, so that worked as a microcosm of the series as a whole; the vignettes of the erstwhile Master collecting the dead were really just a misdirection, diverting our attention from the real story of the series and the importance of Danny Pink. Faced with the challenge of not being able to kill off a companion (something that’s not truly possible in the modern series, much as it’s been hinted at and even partially experimented with), and confronted with the criticism that Moffat’s previously departed characters don’t know how to stay dead, the showrunner had one option this year and almost everyone assumed he was going to wimp out. He did not.
Moreover, he even used the death of Danny Pink – the biggest red herring he’s ever exercised, given how we all anticipated it to be a red herring (an assumption exacerbated by the short scene the BBC put out as a preview) – to address something he signalled as far back as The Wedding of River Song. Death in Heaven, and in fact Series 8 as a whole, is a living dedication to Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. From the very first, when the newly up-cycled twelfth Doctor expressed an aversion to soldiers, we became aware that the military would somehow figure large by the end of this last episode. And with his companion falling for an ex-soldier, and that relationship proving the mechanism by which we have experienced her journey this year, so we might have predicted that in some manner the military would prove either the Doctor’s downfall or his salvation by the end of this instalment. Enter Missy.
We’ve seen that the Master has sanity issues before. John Simm’s last appearance in the role was as a lunatic superhuman, dribbling his way to a redemption of his own at the end of The End of Time. Everything reverses. Now, it is Gallifrey that is at risk, and Missy has a new plan; it’s either a masterstroke or the most misjudged plot point ever, but the Doctor’s best friend and greatest nemesis wants to destroy his favourite planet as a birthday present. Nobody saw that coming. More pertinently, however, what Missy is really doing is providing the Doctor with an army of his own, and the chance to win every battle he could ever want to fight. It’s a choice reflecting that which he backed out of when faced with saving Danny or saving the world a few minutes earlier, and one which we know he must take the opposite course with. We finally see the Doctor returned to what he has always truly been, the maverick outsider who saves the day not by conventional means of force but by outthinking his opponents, by deceiving them into defeating themselves, or by simply being the lone voice of sanity in a world gone mad. It’s his entire relationship with the Brigadier symbolised as a single choice. And when the Doctor chooses to be the Doctor, to carry on with his crazy-paving existence the way he’s always done it, there is both a price and a reward. Fortunately, Missy’s device also operates as a teleport, and hopefully this isn’t the last we see of her in the form of the dazzling Michelle Gomez. And just as fortunately, the collateral damage which extended as far as Osgood – Moffat for once showing just how far his antagonist will go by killing off a likeable and sustainable character – doesn’t stretch to Kate Stewart.
The sight of Peter Capaldi, dressed in an approximation of the third Doctor’s outfit, saluting a Cyberman is as incongruous as it might have been bittersweet. If the Brigadier is to be acknowledged, then I guess he’d have been chuffed at being recognised in so idiosyncratic a fashion; the old stiff upper lip would hardly have called for tears, after all.
At the end of all this, Moffat has one more trick to play, one more criticism to address, and one more junction to navigate. All storytelling is founded upon coincidence and conceit, and so it comes as no surprise that for Danny’s death there is a get-out clause. But Moffat chooses to pull the rug one more time, and as is his wont he does so in a manner that has entirely been prefigured throughout the series. By giving up the child he killed, Danny saves not only his own soul but also Doctor Who – Series 8 has travelled to some dark corners but the perpetuated death of a minor would have been a murky location indeed. And for once, returning a character to life is neither a fudge nor is it mawkish – and not just because it means Danny must stay dead. It also represents the end of the journey for the Impossible Girl.
There have been two other themes riding under the coat-tails of Series 8, each of which has been somewhat contentious. The repetition of the phrase “shut up”, and the amount of lying that the characters, particularly Clara, have been doing to one another. Both are addressed in Death in Heaven’s final scene, possibly the most grown-up that Doctor Who has ever been.
In a reflection of Danny’s “I love you” moment from the conclusion of the previous episode, Clara uses a happy thing, a happy lie – the idea that she and Danny can have a happily ever after – to part on good terms, rather than using Danny’s death in a game of blame and shame with the Doctor. What is particularly gratifying about this sequence is that, for once, the Doctor is doing exactly the same thing; his face when confronted by the empty space that should have been occupied by Gallifrey is a picture of loss, a loss compounded when he uses that happy lie of his own to allow Clara an escape back to what ought to be the best kind of normality. Doctor Who has never been so bittersweet, and it is the underplaying that gives this scene the edge over Doomsday. Either of the characters has every opportunity to speak up and continue as before; but they shut up, and by each of them allowing the other a happy ending, they neither of them end up with one.
Death in Heaven contains some of the spookiest images in a particularly spooky series of Doctor Who – the Cybermen emerging from the homes of the dead – it has a new interpretation of a familiar character that is charming, volatile and unhinged – and a great deal of fun – and it has enough guts and gusto to keep the members of any generation of the family occupied throughout. But it is also perhaps the most emotionally rewarding episode of Doctor Who in its entire 51 years. Steven Moffat was right, it was raw, an unfamiliar journey through familiar territory to a destination we’ve seen many times before, and yet that still felt untested. Only Sarah Jane Smith has ever parted company with the series on such poignant terms; Clara Oswald has been her match throughout Series 8, and Death in Heaven is as devastating as it is beautiful.
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