Doctor Who series 8: Death In Heaven review

Spoilers: Doctor Who series 8's finale didn't let the side down after the excellent Dark Water. Here's our review...

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.

8.12 Death In Heaven

“Nethersphere’s just a cool name we came up with during a spitball”

Well, for a start, you have to feel sorry for Sanjeev Bhaskar. His joy when he landed a role in the Doctor Who finale proved to come with a sting. Turns out he was barely in Death In Heaven for more than a minute or two of screen time, before he was sucked out of an aeroplane window. Them’s the breaks, a phrase we’ve no intention of ever using again.

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Mind you, he was in good company. How many times have we got to the end of a series of Doctor Who, and bemoaned the fact that the show was too protective of its characters? That not since the day Adric met his maker at the end of Earthshock had anyone who could be classed as a companion paid the ultimate price for having the Doctor in their life?

“I’ve been married four times, all deceased. My children and grandchildren are missing, and I assume dead”

In Death In Heaven, they were dropping like flies, as if we’d segued into a particularly brutal sci-fi episode of Casualty. Whilst you wouldn’t quite call Danny Pink a companion, he’s been a major character in Doctor Who this year. And there was no ultimate get-out clause for him, at least not one that he took. Danny Pink is dead. As far as dead goes in Doctor Who, anyway.

We’ll come to him in a second though, because the sheer brutality with which Missy/The Mistress/The Master – can we agree on Missy for the rest of this review? – was killing people was something of a shock. The one that really got us in the first half of the episode was Osgood. We’re still devastated, in truth. What had poor Ingrid Oliver done? Returning after her role in Day Of The Doctor (this time in Matt Smith/David Tennant garb), here she demonstrated her OCD, got some of the best lines – “bow ties are cool”, a bit of Gerry Anderson trivia – and then got brutally murdered. It was sudden, and there was no get out. Sob. We want her back.

From Missy’s perspective? Even more people were brutally murdered. Kate Lethbridge-Stewart was chucked out the plane. Seb the funny AI interface was blasted (we’ll miss you in Doctor Who as well, Chris Addison). Colonel Ahmed? Gone. And even the Doctor was left plummeting to what looked like certain doom. Well, until the daft-but-hey-it’s-Doctor-Who homing TARDIS key kicked in.

Mind you, later on in the episode, something with a tinge of daftness gave the episode one of its many effective emotional moments. If we’d all been told before that Kate Lethbridge-Stewart would be saved by a Cyberman version of the Brigadier, then eyes would have rolled. And yet it worked (even if it stretched things a little). In fact, a soldier saved the day, not for the first time this series. And appreciating that Eleven’s already said one final goodbye to the Brigadier, we certainly didn’t begrudge another. He was thoroughly deserving of his literal final salute he got. In the nicest sense though, let’s hope that’s the last one.

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But back to the brutality of the main foe here. If your complaint in the past has been villains who explain their plot rather than just getting on with killing people, then remember and cherish Missy, and her gleeful way of spitting out lines. That she herself got destroyed in what looked like a slightly different blast at the end gives a possible way back for Michelle Gomez (was it us, or did she deliberately walk to a certain part of the graveyard to deliver her final words?), and we dearly hope it’s taken up (even if it’s just to do Mary Poppins again). She’s given the character of The Master/The Mistress a sinister edge that, with the best will in the world, John Simm wasn’t really given the same chance to do.

There were bits of the Missy explanation that will no doubt earn further investigation. She was, as had been suspected, the woman who gave Clara the TARDIS phone number back in The Bells Of Saint John, although there’s a question as to why Clara didn’t recognise her (albeit a fairly easy to resolve one). Her motivation, interestingly, was loneliness, something we’ve seen the Doctor wrestle with over the past few years. It’s more interesting than just trying to take over the world, certainly. Even if she might just have been lying. She’s proven she’s good at that.

“Typical officer. Got to keep those hands clean”

Fittingly for a story with Cybermen in it, there was steel in abundance in Death In Heaven. It stuck to its guns, and served as a fitting conclusion, both to what Dark Water set up, and to what the entire series has been building to.

That said, somewhat inevitably, the bulk Cybermen threat turned out to be the weakest of the three cliffhanger threads that Death In Heaven picked up. Uploading things to a cloud of pollen is hardly likely to win over those who struggled with a not dissimilar Mother Nature-esque resolve in In The Forest Of The Night, and the scenes with multiple Cybermen flying never really convinced. That said, those of us who have stuck with Doctor Who a long way have happily worked with less. It’s just the obvious CG moments really stuck out at times (with the exception of the rather marvellous shot of the St Paul’s Cathedral roof opening up. Who knew?).

Where the Cybermen themselves were at their best was where they usually are: when the focus was on just a few of them (and that’s, again, before we get to CyberDanny). Even a broken old-style Cyber helmet gave us a lovely nerd moment early in the episode.

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That said, these new Cybermen are quality beings, that sound sinister and feel like they could do real damage. The Cyberzombies marauding around in the background had their moments too, but again, as soon as we pulled back to lots of them, the computer work was overt to the point of being just a little distracting. And crucially, less convincing.

But Danny the Cyberman? We couldn’t take our eyes off him, and not just because of the weird way his robotics pinched his face. It’s Samuel Anderson, not Matt Smith, who should be cast in the new Terminator film off the back of his work here, and the gripping exchange with the Doctor, where Danny listened to the big speech and predicted what would happen, was arguably Anderson’s finest hour in the series. “Clara, watch this. This is who the Doctor is”, he said, with pretty much perfect delivery. If our grumble last week was that his story seemed to be following a Rory-lite path, then consider our words eaten. He was the heart of the episode.

Well, along with Clara. You can almost hear the chuckles of Steven Moffat with his pre-credits jape, too.

“I thought she might be The Master, regenerated into female form”

For much of this series of Doctor Who, it’s Clara who has taken centre stage, and made the more Time Lord-y decisions. You never had to go far on the internet to find someone calling the show ‘Clara Who’. Thus, it was entirely plausible – well, for a second – when she declared that she was the Doctor (having had four wives, we learn). Bonus points for changing the title sequence around too – we’re guessing you spotted that, and Jenna Coleman will have something to tell her descendants for the rest of time there. Mind you, the resolve of her own character’s descendant remains unclear. Some websites would have you believe that she might have been pregnant. Ahem.  But still: there’s the small matter of a Danny/Clara offspring to resolve.

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For now, we can’t help but heap more plaudits on Jenna Coleman. Right back in Deep Breath, we thought she carried the bulk of the work in the episode. Once again here, the emotional moments she excelleed in. Not through anything overt, either. Things like a haunted look in her eyes, moments of silence, almost what she didn’t do as much as what she did. Coleman has excelled in this series.

So has Peter Capaldi, of course. It feels like Doctor Who has undergone a real resurgence of sorts with him in the TARDIS, and his Doctor remains one you can barely keep your eyes off. When Danny was coldly telling him what he was going to do, the mixture of hurt and recognition in Capaldi’s eyes was quite brilliant. He gave a look of a man almost destroyed by the choices he had to make. As it would turn out, he managed to find some kind of peace with himself in Death In Heaven, working out just what kind of man he is and isn’t. It wasn’t much of a surprise, granted, but it was nicely played, as always. And we still suspect outright ‘warmth’ won’t become a prevalent quality in Twelve.

“That’s your answer for everyhting isn’t it? Vote for an idiot”

It would be fair to say, then, that Death In Heaven got an awful lot of things right. We argued in our spoiler-free review that it rounds off the most satisfying Who finale since 2005,  and we stick by that. It’s helped enormously that this particular story has developed and been explored over 100 minutes of screen time. The two parts allowed things to unfold at a steady pace, and director Rachel Talalay’s decision to hold things as still as possible, with quick cuts at a minimum, meant that the intensity dial could be turned up.

There were bits where it perhaps felt it slowed down a bit too much. The whole Doctor as the President on his plane bit – Missy aside – seemed to go on just a little too long (although any scene with a portrait of Nicholas Courtney in it is allowed a pass there), and in particular, we seemed to spend a long time in that graveyard. Noting the Carrie reference – another horror callout in a series that’s not been shy of them – it perhaps felt like the part when Death In Heaven got bogged down just a bit.

But then came Danny’s moment. And that, in turn, led to his ultimate sacrifice.

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We’d been talking about the significance of the final shot of Dark Water earlier in the week, and wondering why that episode ended on a reflection of the young boy that Danny had – we assume – killed back when he was a soldier. Thanks to the wonderful type of Doctor Who gadget that only allows one person to use it, Danny sent the young boy back, rather than returning himself to reunite with Clara. It was beautifully done, a strong emotional moment with real resonance to it (whether you saw it coming or not). Doctor Who has seen Twelve being openly critical of soldiers this series, yet here, Danny showed that honour and duty really mattered. In doing so, Kleenex presumably sold a few more boxes of tissues around the UK.

“I’m going to kill you in a minute. I’m not even kidding!”

So where does this leave everyone? To all intents and purposes, Clara and the Doctor have said farewell. There’s a strong chance, of course, that the Christmas special may reunite them. But if it doesn’t (even if they both appear in said special), then this felt like a natural, sad ending to their adventures. That Clara withholds at least one last secret from the Doctor seems apt as well. She’s left walking down the street, to a life with neither the Doctor or Danny in it. Again, at least for now.

As for the Doctor? Well, he’s moved forward, but still far from happy. He’s worked out what kind of man he is, but he ends – for the time being – his relationship with Clara with a lie himself. It tells you much that both of them do that. Home is still a pipe dream for the minute, but it’s likely to be on the agenda for series 9. It’s just he seems no closer to finding it – and his reaction when Missy suggested she knew his location told you how much it mattered (plus the TARDIS console bashing, of course).

Onwards with the Christmas special and series 9, then, both of which have a hell of a job on their hands to match what’s been achieved with series 8. Death In Heaven more than plays its part there, rounding off both a very good series, and a strong, confident finale. Whatever comes next, we’re already looking forward to seeing it.

Oh, and one last thought: poor Danny never did get that cup of coffee…

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Our review of last week’s episode, Dark Water, is here.

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