Doctor Who, Series 8, Episode 12, “Death in Heaven”
November 8, 2014, 8:00 p.m. (EST), BBC
Over the course of this series, Doctor Who has played with the question of just who the Twelfth Doctor (and by proxy all of his predecessors) really is behind all the bluster and affectation. Is he a good man? Is he a hero? Is he an officer? Is he a fairy tale? Throughout “Death in Heaven,” which in a lot of ways feels like Steven Moffat’s capstone on who The Doctor is as a character, all of these options are teased out in some way, and none of them ever really seem to fit. If series eight used “Who is The Doctor?” as its defining mystery the way series seven used “Who is Clara Oswald?”, series six used “How does The Doctor cheat death?” and series five used “What is the crack in the wall?”, I would argue “Death in Heaven” provides the most satisfying answer to a Moffat mystery we’ve yet seen. Because the only answer to the question is the answer that’s been staring us in the face all along. Who is The Doctor? He lays it out himself in one of the best speeches Moffat has ever given his best orator:
“I am not a good man! And I am not a bad man. I am not a hero. And I’m definitely not a president. And no, I’m not an officer. You know what I am? I’m an idiot! With a box. And a screwdriver. Just passing through. Helping out. Learning. I don’t need an army. I never have. Because I’ve got them. Always them. Because love is not an emotion. Love is a promise.”
The Doctor is a mad man with a box, stumbling into situations that put him out of his depth, and then swimming desperately for whatever surface he can find. He shows up in someone’s darkest hour, on their darkest day, and he does what he can. He doesn’t always save everyone. He doesn’t always do the right thing. He isn’t always your friend, or your lover, or your mentor. He is just an idiot with a box, a screwdriver, and more compassion and love than almost any being in the universe can fit. The Doctor is bigger on the inside, too. And he has a promise that drives him to keep going when others would quit, when the darkness threatens to overtake him, when it seems like there is no way out.
“Death in Heaven” is a marvelous finale in virtually every way. It ties up the series’ overarching themes about identity, morality, the costs of war and the costs of traveling with The Doctor. It features enough big explosions and action sequences to remind you how much Moffat loves a good fireworks display. It uses the Cybermen in the best way they have been used since at least The Second Doctor era, and possibly since all the way back in “The Tenth Planet” (excepting, possibly, a great Cyberman story in the ‘80s, the era of Who I’ve not yet seen. I know “Earthshock” is out there, guys, I just can’t comment on its quality yet). It is also an all-time great story about The Master (Mistress? Mastress? Take your pick) and what drives her insane plotting. And it ends with perhaps the best companion departure in all of New Who (though it sounds like the Christmas special might undo that a bit). So yeah, there’s a lot here to unpack.
I love the way The Doctor’s revelation about who he really is manages to not undo any of the thorny moral problems he has been confronted with all season. The Doctor doesn’t just learn he is a good man or a hero and brush off all the bodies and the suffering he has caused over the course of his travels. There’s no hint here that he is suddenly at peace about the role he plays in the universe. The only big lesson he learns here is that he is still learning, that there is room for improvement and that he has strides to make. Much like Clara’s admission in “Into the Dalek” that The Doctor may not be a good man, but he’s trying, “Death in Heaven” never says that trying is enough, nor does it seem to even think it. This is a season of television that is very conflicted about the character at its center from beginning to end, and I like that the show ties up his self-exploration in a way that indicates this is really an ongoing process for The Doctor. It’s as existential as all of his early yearning, this idea that he is continuing to become every time he strides out the TARDIS doors, that he will continue to be tested, and that he will fail sometimes. It’s also a new twist on his very name: The Doctor is a man constantly trying to learn more, to devise better ways to stop the monsters that plague the universe, to figure out inventive ways to save people, and to become a better version of himself.
Throughout Moffat’s tenure as showrunner, the fact that The Doctor lies has been a constant refrain, almost to the point where it has worn out its welcome (and far past it, for some fans). Yet the final scene between The Doctor and Clara is one of the best examples of this idea the show has ever come up with, a brilliant, brutal, and bittersweet twist on the lingering question of just what effect traveling with The Doctor has had on Clara Oswald. In that moment, in that coffee shop, both The Doctor and Clara lie to each other for what they think is the other’s own good. They make assumptions about the others’ needs and status, and they use those to make a decision for the other person. This is something The Doctor does a lot, and one of the reasons his lies are so deeply problematic. The Doctor takes choices out of other people’s hands all the time because he thinks he knows better (it also makes what he was trying to do in “Kill the Moon,” where he didn’t lie or manipulate or remove anyone’s agency, all the more interesting). Here, Clara does the same thing. Danny Pink is dead. Gallifrey is still out there, somewhere, floating in space in this dimension or in another one. Clara won’t get to settle down. The Doctor won’t get to go home. But the truth just sounds so painful, the burden it would place on the other party too great. The Doctor doesn’t want to tempt Clara with further adventures, and really, Clara equally doesn’t want to tempt The Doctor to just keep running. They both think this ending is fitting for the other person. They both think they’re making a great sacrifice for someone else’s happiness. They’re both wrong, because they don’t really communicate. They choose to lie.
The Doctor and Clara’s inability to communicate or fully understand each other has been a recurring theme all season. In “Deep Breath,” The Doctor sadly told Clara “You don’t see me,” and its been true of both of them ever since. It’s what has pushed them apart, but then, in some sense, its what pushes most of us apart from those in our lives. Series eight of Doctor Who is great television for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that it has constantly tackled a very adult theme about relationships, the give and take they require, and the barriers to success that fell so many of them. When Moffat promised a “darker” version of Doctor Who, I had no idea he meant a Doctor Who about how none of us can ever really know another person and how most of the time, that leads us to push people away when we should be pulling them closer. That ending is a serious downer, but its one I very much hope the Christmas special doesn’t immediately undo because it feels real in a way Doctor Who often only strives for. It feels true.
I want to write on how smartly this story uses the Cybermen, keeping them skulking around the edges like old-school monsters and returning them to the core theme of body horror which is so often forgotten when they show up. I also want to talk at great length about Michelle Gomez’s great work as The Mistress, and the way Moffat seems to get, like Russell T. Davies never did, that The Master is less The Doctor’s black mirror, and more a force of chaos and instability in his life. The Mistress’ plan here doesn’t always make a lot of sense, but that’s because the character’s plans never do, because they aren’t really supposed to. The Master is a character whose soul motivation is to mess with The Doctor, to launch hare-brained schemes for world domination so that The Doctor has someone to stop. Theirs is a twisted love story that’s less Holmes and Moriarty and more Batman and The Joker (“Death in Heaven” even has a convenient moment that lifts straight from “The Killing Joke” and plenty of other Batman stories, where Clara points out that by not killing The Mistress in the past, The Doctor is in some way responsible for all that’s happened). I wish I could write another 5,000 words on “Death in Heaven,” and maybe someday, I will.
For now, though, what a run. We’ve seen a lonely dinosaur wail at the sky about being the last of its kind. We’ve seen a mad Dalek discover and pervert compassion. We’ve fired arrows with Robin Hood, traveled to the end of the universe because we were afraid of the dark, broken into an impenetrable vault, found out that the moon is an egg, fought a Mummy on an Orient Express in space, seen a two-dimensional universe invade ours and watched a forest save us from annihilation. There is no other show on television that would let me write a sentence like that, and there probably never will be. This has been a phenomenal series of Doctor Who, perhaps the best in the show’s entire 51 year run. But it ends, like it must, with an open door, with an invitation. It ends by beckoning us forward. Let’s run again soon, shall we?
- Apologies for the absurd amount of notes here. It was a highly quotable episode, and I have thoughts that didn’t fit above about a lot of it.
- “Nice bow tie.” “Bow ties are cool.”
- “Welcome to the only planet in the universe where we get to say this: He’s on the payroll.” “Am I?” “Well, technically.” “How much?” “Shush.”
- “Eighty-seven, I think. OCD.” “Ninety-one. Queen of Evil.”
- “Well, when I said ‘Afterlife,’ I was being a tiny bit poetic. And, uh, ‘Nethersphere’ is just a cool name we came up with during a spitball.”
- “He said ‘Guard the graveyards.’”
- Chaplet Funeral Home. Wonder what Dodo is up to these days…
- “In the event of an alien incursion on this scale, protocols are in place. Your cooperation is to be ensured, and your unreliability assumed. You have a history.” “You don’t have a future without me.”
- “Sir.” “Oh don’t do that. You look like you’re self-concussing. Which would explain all of military history, now I think about it…”
- Clara’s birthday is November 23. Just like Doctor Who’s.
- “Why are you still alive?” “You saved me.” “I saved Gallifrey.” “Yes, Gallifrey too I suppose. There’s always collateral damage with you and me. It’s our Paris.” God, this is a good line. At first, I thought she meant Gallifrey, but of course, what she means is much, much worse.
- “What do you think?” “All of time and space?” “I’m sorry?” “Just something for your bucket list.” R.I.P. Osgood. I really thought she’d be magicked back by the end…
- “How can you win a war against an enemy that can weaponize the dead?”
- “If it was that important, why would you tell us?” “Well look at me. I’m bananas.”
- “Why would you bother killing me? I’m not even important.” “Oh, silly. Why does one pop a balloon? Because you’re pretty.”
- “Oh my giddy aunt.” The Mistress is also a Patrick Troughton fan, apparently. Too bad they never got to meet.
- “I don’t like being the President. People keep saluting. I’m never going to salute back.” “You know that was my Dad’s big ambition. To get you to salute him just once.” “He should have asked.” I’d be remiss if I didn’t salute the return of The Brigadier here. It’s a beautiful little moment, with some weird and sort of terrifying implications. Cyber-Brigadier is still out there…
- “There’s a Cyberman out there on the fuselage. But on the bright side, it’s not turbulence.”
- “Aww, she was really scared. Classic. Have you got any more friends I can play with?” Michelle Gomez forever, please. I want her Mistress to be a regular feature of this show for a long time coming.
- “The control freak and the man who should never be controlled. You’d go to Hell if she asked. And she would.” That this was The Mistress’ plan makes the perfect amount of nonsense. She kept Clara around until somebody in her life died on the off chance she would get The Doctor to find 3W? Well, of course she did. She’s completely nuts.
- “Oh, look. It’s the daughter one. Do you like her? I like her.”
- “Boys, blow up this plane. And, why not? Belgium. Kill some Belgians as well. They’re not even French.”
- “Permission to squee!” If only Seb’s fate was the fate of all who “squee”
- “Pain is a gift. Without the capacity for pain, we can’t feel the hurt we inflict.” Are you telling me, seriously, that you can?” “I can, yes.” “Then shame on you, Doctor.” “Yes. Oh, yes.”
- “And didn’t all of those beautiful speeches just disappear in the face of a tactical advantage, sir?”
- “I wasn’t very good at it, but I did love you.”
- “Happy birthday. Oh, you didn’t know, did you? It’s lucky one of us remembers these things.”
- “Oh go on, crack a smile. I want to see if your eyebrows pop off.” “All of this…just to give me an army?” “Well, I don’t need one, do I? Armies are for people who think they’re right. And no one thinks they’re righter than you. Give a good man firepower, and he’ll never run out of people to kill.” “I don’t want an army.” “Oh, now, that’s the trouble! Yes you do. You’ve always wanted one. All those people suffering in the Dalek camps? Now you can save them. All those bad guys winning all the wars? Go and get the good guys back!”
- “Conquer the universe, Mr. President. Show a bad girl how it’s done.” “Why are you doing this?” “I need you to know we’re not so different. I need my friend back.”
- “We are the fallen. But today we shall rise. The army of the dead will save the land of the living. This is not the order of a general, nor the whim of a lunatic. This is a promise. The promise of a soldier. You will sleep safe tonight.” Every problem I have had with this series’ treatment of soldiers pretty much evaporated here. Well done, Moffat. Well done, Danny Pink.
- “If you have ever let this creature live, everything that happened today is on you. All of it. On you.”
- “Of course. The earth’s darkest hour, and mine. Where else would you be?” Honestly, I like New Who’s treatment of The Brigadier more than I like The Brigadier himself a lot of the time. Though I hope the Cyber-Brigadier is not just a thing now.
- “Why don’t you like hugging Doctor?” “Never trust a hug. It’s just a way to hide your face.”
- “Doctor, traveling with you made me feel special. Thank you for that. Thank you for making me feel special.” “Thank you for exactly the same.”
- “What do you want for Christmas?” Nick Frost as Santa Claus? Count me in. See you all at Christmas.
Death in Heaven” is a marvelous finale in virtually every way.