While last week’s episode, Dark Water – the part one of this two part series finale – felt like an agonising slow burn to get to a point we knew was coming after all the promotional material (that is to say, the fact that Cybermen play a big part in this finale), Death in Heaven, written by Steven Moffat yet again, leaps right into things with a rather witty cold open.
Death in Heaven is a wonderfully strong series finale for Doctor Who, which is always a good thing, but there are still some problems, some of which just simply boil down to acceptability of the content for what is essentially a family show.
Because The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) face off against a new way Cybermen have been multiplying, and it’s rather macabre: They are Cybermen that come from the dead bodies across the world. Robotic zombies, essentially, which is cool, terrifying, and definitely bait for many parental complaints to the BBC.
For the most part, the subject is handled as tastefully as can be. Normally a concept like this can be quite clever or at least well-tread fare for those who appreciate zombie fiction, but one can’t help contemplating the younger Doctor Who fans suddenly discovering that all those who are dead can rise from the grave as Cybermen.
This, in part, is part of the charm of Steven Moffat’s mind, in a way. A man long-able to turn anything in the real world, however monotonous, into something terrifying is a good skill to have as showrunner of Doctor Who. It’s just this particular concept that pushes some barrier of acceptability.
Also to credit Rachel Talalay, who once again directs this episode, regardless of the apprehension of the concept. The episode will certainly be higher up on those “Ultimate Greatest Doctor Who Story/Moments” lists.
Outside of the threat of the Cybermen is the real threat of the episode: Missy (Michelle Gomez). Her true motives revealed (and if you haven’t seen the episode or still haven’t inferred her motivation, that’s all will be said of that), Missy shows us her true colours. Which certainly include red for blood, because she has quite the psychopathic streak here. Her dynamic and interplay with The Doctor is the biggest highlight of this episode, one where she almost always has the upper hand on The Doctor, and it’s hypnotising to watch. Sure, she’s not entirely original a character concept, but Michelle Gomez plays her with the utmost brilliance (and if you need more Gomez for a fix, watch classic Channel 4 comedy Green Wing). There’s quite the villainous glee one can get from watching her do her thing. Somtimes it’s nice to have a Doctor Who villain that isn’t a robotic death machine.
And instead…a human…thinking…death machine.
Death in Heaven gives us the best of what Moffat does in writing Doctor Who (though sadly, no timey-wimey this episode) with not that much of his worst. It’s a few rungs below the 50th Anniversary at points, which is certainly a step up from his more recent Who work. It’s got great humour, there’s a lot of nice Who continuity to bask in, seemingly throwaway moments finally pay off in ways you don’t expect, and The Doctor has some of his best moments this series, which also means that you get some of the best Capaldi so far, and it’s fantastic.
Rachel Talalay is certainly the best director for the job, here. She does so well to bring about the strongest performances in each and every actor. You get laughs, you get sheer fear, you may even get some tears. Some shots, like the Cybermen rising up from their graves, may even be deemed iconic Doctor Who imagery for years to come, and other sequences are chilling in such a way you may even shout “No!” at your TV screen (who am I kidding, computer monitor).
The weak link however, is tragically, Clara. Yet again. The Doctor and Missy and the Cybermen (not to mention the return of UNIT with Jemma Redgrave and Ingrid Oliver reprising their roles as Kate Stewart and Osgood respectively) grip you for the majority of the episode to such an extent that when the action cuts to Clara’s story, everything grinds to a halt. It’s a shame, but her story this episode is so much weaker that most of the emotion you’re meant to feel is instead replaced with the thought of “Get back to The Doctor!”
It’s not the greatest series finale, but one that has a fair few sucker punch moments. Capaldi channels his best work yet, and the antagonistic chemistry concocted by Michelle Gomez is so captivating. A wonderful game of cat and mouse between such likeable and watchable adversaries. There’s evil and there’s madness in Death in Heaven, but what does one expect in this show of a madman in a box?
There’s quite a few flaws in the logic this week, and a few choices are questionable. Others are brilliant and make for great Doctor Who, and boy do we want to see more of this Doctor Who.
But really, eyes need to start to dart to the calendar.
Whatever’s next for the Doctor, hopefully this Christmas he’ll be nice. Because who knows what this Doctor can do next.
Whatever it is, it’s gonna be exciting. And that’s what Doctor Who has needed. Series 8 has delivered. Bring on Series 9.