Last week's Doctor Who, the first half of the Series 8 finale was, all hyperbole aside, one of my all-time favorite episodes of Who. Easily in the top 5. Right there with "The Eleventh Hour" and "Blink." The concept of exploring the afterlife, and the way that concept weaved in a villain I had long grown tired of was utterly refreshing, leaving me incredibly excited about "Death in Heaven," the second half of that finale. Unfortunately...while still a solid episode, things didn't turn out quite as well.
Captured by UNIT, The Doctor and The Master (Missy) find themselves in the midst of an international crisis as Cybermen take over and convert the world's dead, raising an army that threatens to destroy the entire world. Meanwhile, Clara continues to look for Danny as he finds himself in yet another strange, new situation.
So let's just get the disappointment out of the way, because there are a few things to genuinely appreciate about this episode. Part one of this finale, "Dark Water," did an exceptional job of having The Doctor and Clara explore the afterlife, weaving in Time Lord technology and the Cybermen in ways that felt refreshing. This episode sees Missy's plan come to fruition, and, while it still plays with the idea of using the recently departed, the entire concept devolves into nothing more than making the Cybermen zombies. Is this Doctor Who trying to be a more family-friendly Walking Dead? Not exactly, but writer Steven Moffat does not do anything to make the genre feel refreshed. The image of Cybermen rising from and walking around graves is somewhat unsettling, but it all just feels like a fascinating idea turned to something we've seen hundreds of times before.
But this isn't where the disappointment ends, unfortunately. Much of the rest of the dropped ball feeling of part of this episode comes from plot threads that feel simply waved aside for the sake of convenience or wrapped too neatly for the sake of a happy ending. While many were excited to see that Missy ended up being The Master, it mostly left a lot of questions as to how she escaped her prison. This is done with some quick hand-waving of The Doctor saving Gallifrey in "The Day of the Doctor" also saved Missy. Not the worst of explanations, but certainly not something which will satisfy many fans. The other bit of hand waving comes in the form of the child Danny killed during his time as a soldier. What could have been a nice bit of wrapping up of Danny's arc felt more stupid than anything as, seemingly at random, a bracelet which gave one control of an army of Cybermen could also return you from the dead (but, of course, only once). This is probably the biggest head-scratcher of the episode, making for a very rushed conclusion that is not in any way satisfying.
Fortunately, there are a lot of good things to say about this episode. Easily the biggest plus is the stellar acting by all of the main cast. Peter Capaldi finishes off his first series as The Doctor in great fashion, further solidifying himself as my favorite. His feeling that hugs hide a person's face help to show just how expressive an actor Capaldi is, showing so much of his character in his facial expressions than he ever does in his dialogue. Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson get to finish off their arcs with Clara and Danny respectively in a mostly satisfying way. Though Anderson probably performs better out of the two, Coleman's Clara has improved greatly as this series goes on, giving us some fantastic moments of vulnerability when the fun of being The Doctor's companion stops. Michelle Gomez is easily the greatest aspect of this episode as her portrayal of Missy is not only iconic in terms of previous iterations of The Master, but she firmly plants herself as one of Doctor Who's most memorable villains.
The Master is probably one of the better handled aspects of this episode. Something which is only further made enjoyable by Gomez's performance. Being a fan who has only seen the 2005 relaunched Doctor Who, The Master has never been that fascinating a villain to me, though I certainly understand his importance to the canon. Fortunately, Gomez changes that in her performance as Missy, but that is also aided heavily by Moffat's exceptional writing of the character. Having The Master's manipulation of The Doctor tie-in to the series-arching exploration of his morality is handled exceptionally well. We are reminded ad-nauseam of how the two Time Lords knew each other as children, but it is not until The Doctor is offered control of the army of Cybermen that it feels believable that The Master wants to help her old friend. Not that there isn't some evil involved, and it is something which Michelle Gomez pulls off well, showing just how ecstatic getting under The Doctor's skin makes her.
And then there's the ever-changing relationship of The Doctor and Clara. The two part ways in the midst of each other's lies at the end of this episode, but it seems highly unlikely this will last. No companion ever seems to leave The Doctor without some sort of permanent change. While there are rumors that Jenna Coleman will leave us at the Christmas special, I can't help but wonder if we will find ourselves in a Series 7 type situation where half of Series 9 dispatches with a returning companion, while the second half introduces someone new. Nevertheless, Capaldi and Coleman deserve at lease one last episode together, as the two do have great chemistry. Their conflicting personalities, as Missy brings up, work together exceedingly well. So much so that it is going to be hard imagining Capaldi adventuring with anyone else.
"Death in Heaven" is not a terrible episode of Doctor Who. "Dark Water" is definitely one of my all time favorite episodes, even if many of the plot threads are mishandled so haphazardly in its second half, but "Death in Heaven" is not the worst episode of the series by any means. It is an episode with plot threads and a climax so deeply rooted in classic Doctor Who, that newer fans cannot help but feel a little left out on the feelings of satisfaction. Ties to the classic series aside, "Death in Heaven" is an acceptable end to an incredibly strong Series 8, but there are definitely better ways certain elements could have been dealt with.
Final (Until Christmas) Thoughts to Ponder:
- They say Missy is gone, but I'm sure most of us have our doubts. We did, after all, see her teleport a few times.
- The search for Gallifrey is brought up for the first time in almost a year. Moffat has been known to let plot threads hang around for a while, but I have an inescapable feeling that this search could be a huge part of Series 9.
- The Doctor mentions that Missy has a TARDIS somewhere. Could we see that show up in Series 9 or will it just be forgotten?
- Santa Claus randomly shows up at the end of this episode and I'm not sure how I feel about it, but I do like the idea of the character being played by Nick Frost in the upcoming Christmas special.
- Somehow, Santa Claus has access to the TARDIS. Could Santa be a Time Lord? It would certainly explain delivering all those presents in one night as well as Santa's seeming immortality.