Caution: This review contains spoilers.
“Death in Heaven,” the series 8 finale of “Doctor Who,” pitted the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) against his nemesis and one-time friend from Gallifrey, the Master (Michelle Gomez). While the big reveal wasn’t so surprising (as it was speculated early on Twitter and the like), the chemistry between Capaldi and Gomez was quite seamless. You may have finished the episode with the sense that Gomez is the Master just as much as Capaldi is the Doctor. Michelle Gomez was an excellent casting choice for the role of Missy (the Master’s new name) by Steven Moffat.
Anyway, now we know that a Time Lord can change gender upon regenerating. The episode also toys with the idea of a female Doctor in two ways: 1) Clara’s (Jenna Coleman) attempt to escape the Cybermen by pretending to be the Doctor and 2) centering the opening sequence on Coleman rather than Capaldi. All the women seem to be scrambling for control in this chapter, as UNIT springs into action with the signal from Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) after she offers to take a photo of Missy and the Doctor. Close at hand is the Chief Scientific Officer, Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) who is at first amused to meet the new Cybermen, throwing a remnant of their predecessors at their feet to intimidate them.
After the Cybermen escape, the Doctor and Missy are tranquilized and moved to UNIT quarters, then to a plane. The Doctor is astonished to find that the directives set in motion by Kate have made him President of the World. “Vote for an idiot,” he quips just before the revelation. It was only a matter of time before Missy escaped her shackles and unleashed chaos. Meanwhile, there’s the threat that the Cybermen will rise out of the graveyards. It’s a hilarious and eerie moment when Missy sings Toni Basil’s “Hey Mickey,” complete with lyrics deliciously adapted with her own name. Unfortunately, we lose Osgood here, but evidently bow ties are not in at the moment.
Leave it to Missy to utterly confound the Doctor when she reveals that she gave his phone number to Clara during “The Bells of St. John.” There’s yet another gem for viewers as Missy mimics Clara (“Doctor, help me.”) while the Doctor runs for his phone. It’s a dangerous mix to have a control freak like Clara in control “of the man who shouldn’t be controlled” because it’s a weakness Missy was able to exploit.
“Am I a good man?”
What’s the point of Missy’s machinations? She wants to give the army of Cybermen to the Doctor. “I need you to know we’re not so different. I need my friend back,” she says. That brings me to idea of friendship in “Doctor Who.” Clara hurts Danny the Cyberman when she refers to the Doctor as her best friend. Though not always the best from his end, the Doctor can be an extremely devoted friend, as evidenced by his remarks to Clara in “Dark Water” – “Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?” The line is worth mentioning again, as Moffat also thought it was a very telling moment. The same devotion is evident when the Time Lord steps between Clara and Missy twice, each time with the intent of protecting Clara. On the second occasion, he insists on being the one to kill Missy.
During “Into the Dalek,” the Doctor asks Clara, “Am I a good man?” Such a loaded question on one level, which needs only a simplistic and light answer. The Doctor laughs as he declares, “I am an idiot with a box and a screwdriver!” That’s a fact we’ve known for a while but perhaps it marks the aspect of the Time Lord that we love best: a playful, self-deprecating honesty. For all his faults, the Doctor does try to help out. Whether it’s truly to help out or to satisfy his curiosity (something Danny despises) is beside the point, as one can’t see the Master/Missy ever lending aid in a selfless manner.
There’s the opposite of a powerful friendship, which is the case of a meaningful friendship that is irrevocably lost. That’s likely how one would characterize the dynamic between the Doctor and Missy, a complex history that Capaldi and Gomez effectively capture with their facial expressions and eyes. It’s in the dialogue as well, when the Doctor tells Danny, “I had a friend once. We ran together when I was little. And I thought we were the same. But when we grew up, we weren’t. Now, she’s trying to tear the world apart, and I can’t run fast enough to hold it together.” What an interesting carryover of the word “run” by Moffat! One could also call to mind the part at which the plane rips apart and Kate falls out (Missy’s doing). “Why’d you do that? You didn’t have to do that!!” the Doctor shouts at Missy in dismay. The building frustration comes to a head for the Doctor when he realizes that Missy’s coordinates for Gallifrey are fake.
I intentionally didn’t touch on one of the weaker parts of the episode: Cyberman Danny’s sacrifice serves both as a way to get the maths teacher out of the “Doctor Who” storyline and resolve the Doctor-Missy conflict (for now). Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) has always been an unconvincing character in season 8. Sure, it helps to have someone around to oppose the Doctor, but he comes off as annoying in those encounters. It’s not the same sense you get with antagonists like Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke) or Rory Williams (Arthur Darvil). Their jealousy and cooperative moments with the Doctor felt more natural and organic, qualities that never arose with Danny. Even the conversation following Danny’s heroics with Skovox Blitzer seems forced from Anderson’s end. There wasn’t much development either on the character of Seb (Chris Addison), who comes after Missy in the hierarchy of the Promised Land.
Overall, “Death in Heaven” is a strong way to close out season 8 of “Doctor Who.” The writing was more on par with higher quality installments of the series (series as its American meaning, not in the English sense). It would have been nice to devote more screen time to the Doctor and Missy because the scenes are really electrified with both characters present. There’s Michelle Gomez’s glee at being ahead of the Doctor, balanced out by Peter Capaldi’s exasperation and exhaustion as everything seems to fall apart for him. As I’ve said before, Capaldi is truly a virtuoso at sliding among a wide range of emotions in a given episode. Additionally, “Death in Heaven” plays out at times like a fast-pace spy flick with the airplane sequences and afterwards when the Doctor dives for his TARDIS. If you haven’t already seen it, you should check out the “Doctor Who Extra” for a behind-the-scenes look of this episode.
Waiting for Season 9
There are a few things to consider before we get to season 9 next year. We’re only a few weeks out from “Last Christmas,” the upcoming Christmas special (no, not the George Michael tune). Clara showed up in the promos for and there’s a lot to unravel there. Will Clara leave the show for good and leave a vacancy for a new companion? Peter Capaldi has signed on for more, which is a great piece of news. One wonders what other changes will be coming down the pipeline for “Doctor Who,” as we’ve already seen Capaldi’s influence on the show: the classically modern outfit and getting rid of the straightforward “boyfriend” moments with Clara.
As we wait for season 9, are there other characters who will be brought back? Missy? River Song? At the very least, one hopes that the writing quality will improve, which would be more likely if writers such as Neil Gaiman return, as has been hinted. In the meantime, one can look forward to the upcoming release of the DVD set for season 8. If you haven’t already, you can check out “The Thick of It” on Hulu. It’s pretty heavy on the swearing, as a word of caution, but it’s another chance to see Peter Capaldi and to be able to spot the Malcolm Tucker references in “Doctor Who.”
Coming next month, some U.S. theaters will be screening “Inside the Mind of Leonardo 3D,” with Capaldi in the role of famed artist Leonardo da Vinci. Stay tuned to this blog for my upcoming review of what appears to be a fascinating documentary from Julian Jones.
“Doctor Who” airs Saturdays at 9|8c on BBC America.