• 14th November 2014 • Review by Seb Patrick •
“Let’s see what we’re made of, you and I.”
So I’m naturally and sensibly going to start a review of this episode by talking about a different episode; but it’s because I didn’t assign myself “Dark Water” to review (“first part of a finale? Who wants to be stuck doing that?”) and then it turned out to be an ep that seriously challenged “Listen” for the title of my favourite of this series, so I need to get those feelings about it down as a matter of record. I adored the first half of this story – it felt like one beautiful moment of “paying off everything Series 8 has done thematically so far” after another, although perhaps its only downside is that it reached such an incredible peak with that post-volcano scene in the TARDIS that nothing else it did could match up. Although plenty of it had a damned good go.
Anyway, the only problem with a first-half as good as “Dark Water” is that the second half is also going to struggle to maintain a similar level – and that might explain the slightly odd feeling I had after its sixty minutes were up. It wasn’t that I hadn’t enjoyed it, it wasn’t that it wasn’t a great episode of Doctor Who; just that it didn’t give me the same unabashed, utterly thrilled feeling that its counterpart had, and furthermore that there were just a few things about it that made me feel uncomfortable.
It took a second viewing to confirm that they were almost all things that were supposed to make me feel uncomfortable, and as such, I began to feel a lot better about it.
“There’s been a bit of an upgrade.”
Before we get away from meta-commentary, however, one more thing: in last week’s review, Julian suggested that “Dark Water” was the beginning of “a finale constructed in the Russell T Davies style”. Very little about “Death in Heaven” refutes that. The Moffat finales up to this point have generally been the moments where the writer hands us the keys to puzzle box, then snatches it away from us at the last minute and replaces it with an entirely new one; delighting in criss-crossed storylines and unreliable narration, they’re the points at which a series-long storyline builds to a head.
The Russell finales, meanwhile, were generally two-part stories that were the biggest adventure of each series – an adventure that said series had built to, sure, but only in the sense of quietly planting a few hints as to what they might be about, and still otherwise relatively self-contained in and of themselves. And, usually, structured so that the first episode was quite different tonally and stylistically from the second.
The fact that the Series 8 finale followed this template rather than the established Moffat one is pretty fascinating; it only adds to the “Year Zero” feeling of this series, and even to the notion that Moffat is almost trying to convince us that the show’s being run by a different writer from the one who helmed the Matt Smith era. In effect, we are actually in the third showrunner’s era right now, because this series is as different from Series 5-7 as those years were from 1-4.
Serious question: have the Cybermen ever really been done right? I mean, I love them – but I love them firmly as a visual, as an icon, and as David Banks overdramatically crying “EX-cellent!”. From a story point of view, the Cybermen are a terrible recurring villain, because the only good story you can really do about them is their origin. “These are the terrifying creatures we become when we take our desire to survive at all costs to its natural conclusion” is a terrific story – but when you’ve done that, your only options are to do it again, or to try and come up with another story that’s basically just about fairly standard emotionless robots clanking around the place.
I honestly think that Russell was attempting to pull back to what makes the Cybermen good when introducing the New Series versions of them back in 2006. But it failed largely because the leap from “recognisable human” to “big silver robot” was too great. “Your brain is going to be put into a new metal body” just doesn’t give the right kind of visceral, body-horror feel; and nor does the story really work when that part of it is only the beginning, and the remainder of it is “And now these metal men are going to infest the Earth and take it over”.
“Death in Heaven”, it’s true, is also actually a story where “And now these metal men are going to infest the Earth and take it over” is the next stage of the plan. But where it differs is that that’s really not the part of the story it chooses to show us. It’s happening, sure, but it’s basically happening in the background. What the story lingers on is “And you’re going to be turned into one. And your loved ones. And even your dead loved ones, the ones you thought were safe. This is going to happen to them. They’re going to be trapped in a metal body. They’re going to have wires and bolts and stuff all over their faces. And they’re going to know it’s all happening to them, until the point they surrender to the loss of emotion and self-control. Isn’t that horrible?”
And that’s how you make the Cybermen scary. You don’t show a load of them turning up to conquer the world and stomping around corridors and shooting things. You just need to show us one of them, and show us who they used to be, and that the next one could be us.
(Or, y’know, it could be the Brig. But we’ll get to that.)
“The promise of a soldier.”
If there’s anything that I think Series 8 – which on the whole, has been by any standard a pretty monumentally good series of Doctor Who – has faltered on slightly, it’s been in successfully landing the character arc of Danny Pink. A straw poll of people I know who’ve watched this series has revealed something of a split between people who’ve liked the character, and people who’ve found him extremely difficult to warm to – with a greater emphasis on the latter, a camp I also fall into.
The problem is that the series as a whole has felt like it’s been deliberately building an unlikeable character – what with the emotional manipulation, the prickliness, the fact that he hates the Doctor – only for “Death in Heaven” to give us a payoff that suggests that we were actually supposed to be sympathising with him after all.
So if we were supposed to like Danny, and feel something in his eventual fate, then I think the series failed to successfully get that across in the prior episodes; and if we weren’t supposed to like him, then the jump to his heroic end feels forced and unnatural. It’s just hard to shake the feeling that Danny was kind of a dick, and while the imagery of his being turned into a Cyberman is superbly (and surprisingly horrifyingly) executed, it’s hard to feel the same emotional gut-punch as if it had been, say, Rory (or even Mickey) in there.
(And we still haven’t had the most interesting aspect of the Danny story – by which I mean Orson – resolved yet, although I’m wary of calling it a frustratingly-unanswered question given Moffat’s previous tendency to slowly and gradually wrap these things up rather than dealing with them all at once.)
“Say something nice!”
“I certainly don’t see any particular reason why the Doctor shouldn’t be female, or black, or anything else he so far hasn’t been. If that happens to be the right person for the role at the time, then so be it.
But here’s the thing: I also believe wholeheartedly that Peter Capaldi is the right person for the role at this time.”
Point neatly proven, I think, by just how much Michelle Gomez turned out to be the right person to play The Time Lady Formerly Known As The Master at this particular time.
I mean, seriously. If you’d said at the start of this year “Oh, and the Master’s coming back”, the eye-rolling would have been understandable. It’s very difficult to see just where the character could have gone after the John Simm years – and I suspect that’s why up to this point Moffat’s never taken the obvious and expected road of having Benedict Cumberbatch show up as him. It’s just not interesting.
But, well, quite aside from the deliberate blowing-open of future possibilities that allowing the character to change gender allows, Missy is instantly one of the greatest villains the revived show – and indeed, possibly the show in general – has ever had. Not just for the demented, freewheeling brilliance of Gomez’s performance (and I could go on for longer about just how good she is, but it’d feel as redundant as relentlessly praising Capaldi at this point), but for the complete shift in the parameters of a Doctor Who villain.
Because Doctor Who isn’t The Dark Knight. Villains don’t exist just to fuck shit up for no good reason. How it works is that there’s a plan – the more elaborate and ridiculous the better, especially if the Master’s involved – and the end goal is usually something nice and tangible and quantifiable, like “Take over the world”, and then the Doctor (who is at heart a problem-solver) shows up and stops it and fixes everything. It’s neat, and it’s clean, and it’s just how things work. But what does the Doctor do when there’s no goal beyond “I just want to screw with your head”? And never mind the Doctor, what are we, the viewer, supposed to do?
Missy isn’t just a threat to the Doctor. She’s a threat to us. She threatens our established notions of what this type of character should do. She threatens the narrow-minded beliefs of the corners of fandom who, through misogyny or transphobia or a foul-tasting cocktail of both, insist that she cannot be allowed to exist. Hell, she threatens the consciences of socially-aware Doctor Who bloggers who are carefully going back over our words to make sure we haven’t inadvertently caused great offence somewhere in our choices of names and pronouns.
Nothing will ever be easy or comfortable as long as she’s around. Isn’t it marvellous?
“Have you got any more friends for me to kill?”
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of “fridging” – a shorthand term for the concept of “women in refrigerators syndrome” – I’ll try and explain it as succinctly as I can. Essentially, it refers to the practice, especially prevalent in American superhero comics (its name is drawn from a particularly egregious example in the 1990s), of killing (or otherwise depowering, violating or similar) female characters for no purpose other than to elicit a reaction in a male protagonist. It’s an unhealthy practice, and making writers aware of just what they’re following in the footsteps of when they consider doing it to their own characters is, I think, a worthwhile endeavour.
I’ve already seen what happens to Osgood in “Death in Heaven” described as a fridging, and by the strictest definitions of the term, I find it hard to disagree. She is dispatched brutally, and suddenly – and while it’s arguably (not least because Moffat has said so) more for the purpose of establishing just how relentlessly evil Missy is than to drive the Doctor onto some kind of mad revenge quest, there’s little doubt that she is a woman treated as disposable fodder to serve a bigger premise.
But it’s also really, really good drama.
We like Osgood. We were just getting to know her. She was, in her short screen time so far, a well-developed character in her own right (think about all the things we’ve been flat out told, or able to infer, about her personality and background), and we already felt that there were many more stories featuring her to come. So to have all of that snatched away from us is a shock – and it hurts. It really does achieve what Moffat wanted it to (I’d liken it to the moment in The Avengers where Loki kills Coulson – ignoring what’s happened to that character since – as that’s the moment where Loki stopped being the “suave fun wise-cracking bad guy you secretly kind of like” and became “the guy you really hope the good guys get to pound into the ground”), and what’s more, it’s a timely reminder of what Doctor Who is all about. As if it wasn’t right there in the title of the episode.
Moffat’s been criticised in the past for the apparent lack of permanency when it comes to the deaths of his characters (although when you think about it, while they all ended up having long and full lives, we actually know the times and places in which all of Amy, Rory and River die). That’s not an invalid criticism either – Doctor Who has a long and proud history of keeping up the drama by ensuring that you know that nobody is safe – but if it has a payoff here it’s that the false sense of security fostered by previous years (not unlike when Torchwood, a show that treated death like a revolving door, did the same with Ianto) is utterly shattered, and it makes you feel it even more.
Still, losing the character so soon after “The Day of the Doctor” is one of the things that didn’t quite sit right with me coming out of the episode’s first viewing. Perhaps it’s because the anniversary special (which I’ve already rewatched more times than I’d care to count) is something that has spent the last year sitting in my brain as a slice of pure, unadulterated joy – but now, knowing what Osgood’s fate will be, that’s just been chipped away at ever so slightly.
Maybe that’s why, while it would be utterly cheap and tacky to reveal further down the line that it was actually the Zygon duplicate that died (or that the Zygon is going to take her place)… I would actually be kind of okay with it.
“Never trust a hug.”
Perhaps one reason why this episode doesn’t quite strike home with me the way much of Series 8 has is that in many places, it doesn’t really feel like it has to be a Twelfth Doctor episode. Sure, whenever he’s facing off against Missy it’s something new, and exciting, and frightening – and something that you couldn’t imagine Matt Smith doing. But equally, when he’s awkwardly assuming the role of President of Earth, or promising Osgood a trip through time and space, or skydiving into the TARDIS… it all feels somewhat like a leftover script that Smith simply never got around to filming. Compared with “Listen” or “In the Forest of the Night”, it just doesn’t seem like something that’s tailored for Capaldi’s Doctor, or that he can really stamp his mark on.
Until, that is, we get to the closing scenes. “Rule one: the Doctor lies” may have been established during his predecessor’s tenure, but nobody else could sell it quite the way Capaldi does during that cafe-based conversation with Clara. It’s a beautifully-wrought scene, Moffat the sitcom writer coming to the fore as two people refuse to admit the truth to one-another while the audience screams at them to just please do so this once.
And it’s made all the better by being intercut with the flashes to the Doctor’s failed trip to find Gallifrey, and the angry outburst that must rank as one of the most shocking things we’ve ever seen from the character. It’s not even just that he violently lashes out at the TARDIS, but that we’re made to watch him do so for so long. In contrast to much of the rest of the episode, this is the sort of thing that wouldn’t have felt possible before Capaldi took the role. And it’s utterly heartbreaking.
“Permission to squee!”
Another reason why “Death in Heaven” doesn’t quite feel like a perfect resolution to “Dark Water” is that it seems to disregard so much of the setup. Ultimately, it’s about a confrontation between the Doctor and Missy (and about Danny becoming a Cyberman) – but the logistics of hiding both those elements in plain sight mean that there are an awful lot of story strands that don’t really go anywhere. One in particular (Clara pretending to be the Doctor) is given prominence by the clever title sequence gag, yet is dropped almost immediately, and seems to serve no purpose other than to provide a shocking teasery trailer moment.
Similarly, given its significance to the mechanics of the plot, a lot of material relating to the Nethersphere feels like it’s outright missing – the resolution to the Danny-potentially-wiping-himself cliffhanger happens offscreen, as does the moment his consciousness leaves the matrix (if indeed it does at all – the episode is maddeningly unclear on whether the personality that inhabits the Cyberman is the same one that went to the Nethersphere, or if they’re both separate copies of a post-mortem Danny). An explanation as to exactly how Danny gets back to the ‘sphere after destroying his Cyber-body, or how it’s possible for the child to come back to life when sent back from it, wouldn’t go amiss, either.
(And yeah, I’m naturally going to be a little bit miffed about how little screentime the character who shares my name gets in this part. Especially given how much fun Chris Addison is. Still, he’s a computer interface – he could quite easily come back as Missy’s recurring companion, right? Right?)
But these are niggles. If “Death in Heaven” doesn’t always quite land on the logic or structural fronts, it hits where it matters – thematically and emotionally. It’s a dark, often painful, slight mess of an episode – but it’s impossible not to want to keep on talking about it.
“Where else would you be?”
If someone wanted to argue that having the Brigadier return for one last hurrah in the body of a Cyberman is a horrible and tasteless thing to do, I’d find it difficult to argue rationally with them. And yet, for reasons I’m still struggling to express, I have absolutely no problem with how it happens here. It’s outlandish, and ridiculous, but somehow – maybe it’s just in the execution and the way it’s sold – it works. And it’s kind of lovely.
Plus, it allows for the theory that the Cyber-Brig ultimately gets found by the Doctor on a market stall thousands of years in the future and, as “Handles”, is his longest-serving companion during some of his darkest days. Tell me you don’t get a warm, fuzzy feeling out of that.
“What do you want for Christmas?”
I don’t think I knew quite how much I needed to see Nick Frost turn up as Santa Claus at the end of this episode until it actually happened.
After a two-parter that, as already discussed, plays by a lot of RTD’s rules rather than his own, here’s Moffat pulling one of the strongest tools out of his predecessor’s arsenal. I’ve already seen a fair amount of criticism of this scene, the argument being that it completely punctures the downbeat feel of the story’s ending – to which the obvious response is Yes, that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do.
“The final scene? Well, same reason as ever, really. Like the runaway bride appearing in the TARDIS at the end of Doomsday, like the Titanic crashing into the TARDIS at the end of Last of the Time Lords, to end on an upbeat note. To say that the story isn’t over, don’t stop watching Doctor Who, ever. The Doctor’s life never stops, no matter how sad things get. Dry your tears, move on. New adventures to come. Otherwise, you might remember Doctor Who as a sad and bleak thing, which is maybe not so good if you’re eight years old.”
— Russell T. Davies, The Writer’s Tale
My niggle, though? That it should be “Father Christmas”, not “Santa Claus”.
“Am I a good man?”
And so, that’s Doctor Who Series 8. As you may have gathered from the fact that we’ve actually done a full set of reviews for the first time in 2010, it’s a series that basically all of us at this site have really clicked with. Even when it hasn’t always been perfect, it’s been endlessly fascinating – challenging, inventive and unusual in a way that Doctor Who hasn’t always managed to be over the last ten years.
Speaking as someone who had been starting to feel a little disillusioned during a lethargic seventh series, my love for current Doctor Who has been spectacularly revitalised, ever since “The Name of the Doctor” kicked off a superb return to form for Moffat’s writing that continued through the anniversary and regeneration specials, and right the way into this series. If “Deep Breath” was a slightly disappointing opener, very little else this year has failed to hit home for me: “Listen” and “Dark Water” sit comfortably among Moffat’s finest ever episodes; “Kill the Moon”, “Mummy on the Orient Express” and “In the Forest of the Night” show just how good this year’s new writer recruitment process was; and everything else was of a pretty universally solid standard. The weakest ep of the year for me was probably “Time Heist”, and even that I’d happily sit through again as part of a series-long rewatch.
A word, too, for the direction – on this programme, directors don’t usually get the headlines the way the writers do, but this series was possibly the most consistently visually compelling and distinctive that it’s ever had. It wasn’t just a case of one or two directors jumping out and putting their mark on the episodes – every episode had flair and style, and while a lot of the time this could be put down to attracting big names like Ben Wheatley and Rachel Talalay, even established Who directors like Douglas Mackinnon seemed to up their game to fit in with the series’ aesthetic.
I feel like maybe our reviews this year have somewhat undersold the contributions of Jenna Coleman. Naturally, we’ve tended to focus on just how brilliant Peter Capaldi has been; and there are many of us who’ve still never quite clicked with Clara the way we did with Amy and Rory. Actually, though, 2014 has been easily her strongest series to date – if the character suffered a little from the failures of the Danny arc, Coleman’s performances frequently rose above it. Faced with better scripts, better direction, and an astonishingly good lead man to play off, she could have looked weaker by comparison – that she began to make herself a more difficult act to follow is to her credit (and maybe we should have given her more of it).
So, yes. All in all, we’re pretty happy. But because we’re Doctor Who fans, we are of course now pessimistic that next year won’t live up to this one in the slightest. But even if it doesn’t, nothing is going to detract from the feeling of a year that has completely and utterly reaffirmed what it means to be a Doctor Who fan in the first place.
And I’m still quite proud of that “Listen” review.