Well, this is it: the end to one of the most dissapointing series of television I’ve ever been privy too. Yes, season eight of Doctor Who had a tantalising amount of promise, and delivered in a slim ratio of episodes- but more often than not, was churning out one-shotters than landed somewhere between mediocre and actively violating. We’ve swung from the dizzying highs of Listen, to the dismal lows of Deep Breath and- whisper it- Kill the Moon. But with a solid first half of a finale under our belt from last week, we swing into action for the last time until the Christmas special with Death in Heaven, with a major metropolitan centre overrun with cybermen (for, by my count, the third time), and the soaringly glorious return of The Master, as Missy. Ready to crack on?
I said last week that the success of Dark Water really rested on how good this follow up was- if this hour-long special really cocked it up, the impact and power of that first half evaporates into nothing. Until this episode was broadcast, Dark Water hung in an odd kind of halfway house, wherein it had been broadcast and seen and critiqued, but no-one could really give a definitive opinion on it yet. And now we can.
I don’t think Death in Heaven was as good as last week’s outing. I think there were some spectacular high points to the episode, though, and those do not deserve to be buried underneath the niggling problems that arose. Firstly, let’s talk about those performances. It came down to a central four: Clara, Danny, the Doctor, and Missy. Right off the bat, let’s talk about Michelle Gomez: I imagine one of the most offputting things about bringing the Master back was that John Simm was devastatingly good in his take on the character, a psycopathic, charming, charismatic, slightly saucy nemesis that had an unassailable hold on our lead character. But Gomez sold it with style, more than living up to the mantle of the character and practically leaving me swooning over her best moments. She was magnetic, brilliant, and any number of synonyms for greatness that define how good that performance was. She was magnificent.
Jenna Coleman, too, did very well it what would essentially prove to be her send-off episode. Like last week, it was her interaction with Danny that served as the emotional core of the adventure, landing just short of schmaltzy and remaining tremendously affecting throughout. She became the first assistant to make an active decision to let the Doctor go, as opposed to being taken from him or having him taken from her, which gave her a pleasing bit of agency. Did anyone else get the feeling that we’ve still got a lot of questions about Clara that need to be answered, though? The most pressing one for me is where the knock-off Dannys (Dannies?) we saw earlier in the series came from, and I’d still really like to know about the whole being-scattered-throughout-the-Doctors-timestream while we’re on the subject. Samuel Anderson was sensational, as ever, despite the fact that I’m furious to see one of the most succintly drawn, consistently performed characters leave the show after only a handful of really meaty episodes. I would have loved to have had more time to really get under his skin and enjoy that performance a little londer. Capaldi had a blinder too, with his climatic scene- discovering that Missy had lied to him about the location of Gallifrey- carried out in silenced audio but with maximum pathos. It was stark, dramatic, and a centrepiece for this incarnation.
And while we’re on the good stuff, let’s mention Rachel Talalay’s direction, which was brilliant, how excellent the cybermen looked, a beautiful nod to the Brigadier, and what was broadly a pretty solid script when it came to the talky scenes. But I’m sure you can see where this is going, and I won’t keep you waiting much longer; I was pretty underwhelmed by the series finale.
So many interesting points were brought up in last week’s episode that seemed to be muted or ignored here. Danny meeting the child he killed, only to choose to send him back to the land of the living to Clara at the end of the episode, made sense, but could have used a bit of fleshing out. And when you consider the hour-long runtime, surely they could have cut silly little scenes, like the one where the Doctor is declared President of Earth (which bore no relevance to the plot that I could fathom), to make room for some building-up there. I was also seriously disappointed by the lack of Missy in the episode; sure, she was there, and she did wonderfully when given the screentime, but the script was far more interested in the dull rehashing of Army of the Dead from series two than it was with their reincarnation of the Master. In my eyes, at least, that’s a mistake. I’m dissapointed to assume that this is the last we’ll be seeing of Michelle Gomez’ incarnation of the Master, as she barely got time to inhabit the character before she was snatched offscreen by the Brig.
There was also the problem of the cybermen themselves, as they’ve now been given the ability to fly (because SHUT UP), and appeared to fly about using fart power which was upsettingly hilarious. On that point, why would UNIT assume that, after finding out the cybermen could fly, the safest place for the Doc was in an aeroplane? It all smelled like a spurious excuse to have a slightly shite scene of the metal men tearing the plane apart, and killing off tertiary characters who’d been given enough screentime to lead me to believe we were supposed to care about them. Speaking of which, say farewell to Oswin, who bought it by being a huge idiot in front of Missy in a stupid, stupid sequence that I can’t even be bothered touching on.
Broadly, I’d say Death in Heaven reflected the quality of the series overall. It hit some strong emotional notes, but too often was focused on creating glam action sequences and MAKING A POINT than it was about telling a really good story. I’ve been on a rollercoaster with series 8, sometimes magnificent, sometimes getting stuck upside-down in a loop-the-loop for half an hour and making me feel a bit sick. But with a new dawn and new plot points to chase for Capaldi’s Doctor, cut loose and on his own, I’m confident that what we saw this year was simply the teething stage for a character who’s going to make us forget Into the Dalek ever existed. Death in Heaven wasn’t a goodbye, despite what it looked like: it was a big, brash hello to Capaldi’s solo Doctor, cut free of any Matt-Smith related trappings (sorry, Clara, Oswin, etc) and given a chance to shine on his own. I want this series to be wonderful again, and, given some time to recharge, re-evaluate, and re-assistant, I think it will be.
SERIES 8: AN OVERVIEW
Episodes rated, from worst to best: Kill the Moon, Deep Breath, In the Forest of the Night, Into the Dalek, Death in Heaven, Flatline, The Caretaker, Robot of Sherwood, Time Heist, Mummy on the Orient Express, Dark Water, Listen
Best Moment: Danny’s final “I love you” to Clara in Dark Water. Heart-explodingly poignant.
Worst Moment: “I HAVE A DUTY OF CARE”. THEN DON’T TAKE YOUR STUDENTS TO THE MOON.
In A Sentence: Even it’s staggering highs couldn’t obliterate the cringing lows, but cherry-pick Capaldi’s wobbly first series and you’re left with some great television.
Out of Ten: Six.