Death in Heaven

Story No. 274 Squeee!
Production Code Series 8, Episode 12
Dates November 8, 2014

With Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman
Written by Steven Moffat Directed by Rachel Talalay
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: The President of the Earth is not a happy man.


"Happy birthday, Mister President" by Donna Bratley 24/6/18

Lead writer sets up sensational finale, doesn't quite deliver and nobody is remotely surprised. Death in Heaven isn't a disaster - just a disappointment.

Love, apparently, is a promise. An implausible romance between two ill-matched schoolteachers saves the human race. Pass the sick-bag!

If I'd ever believed in the Clara/Danny romance, that major thread might have worked instead of feeling over-long, overblown and hideously mawkish. It's like watching the final moments of Doomsday to see Clara tearfully declaring her love for her deceased partner before she sonics him into the cyber-sphere; I know I'm supposed to be moved, but I'm downright bored. Get back to the Doctor and Missy - they're a credible partnership at least!

On the subject of Missy, I don't see any sense in her plans. Does she want an army of cybernised corpses to storm the universe herself or is she really crackpot enough to present it to the Doctor and think it'll make him her friend again?

If nothing else her offer - and her very pointed "No one thinks they're righter than you!" - ends the agonising the Doctor has undergone all series as to his own basic nature. An idiot with a box, wandering around and helping out where he can, always aware of his limits - and his flaws - is my kind of Doctor.

UNIT are a bumbling let-down - again. It's a smart twist that Missy herself causes them to descend at exactly the right/wrong moment and their first appearance bodes well - Osgood is charming, Kate's a competent leader with a dry sense of humour (her exchange with the Doctor over his payroll status is a moment of levity in a classic standoff) - but things go downhill fast once they've knocked out their president and carried him off to the official plane.

I'm not sure why, name-recognition apart, they bothered casting the excellent Sanjeev Bhaskar to be the butt of the Doctor's man-scout barbs. It's a sheer waste of talent. Always uncomfortable, the President of Earth's nastiness toward a uniform is particularly hard to take here, whether because of the desperate stakes or the likeability of Bhaskar's performance. I'm all in favour of a dismissive Doctor without time for the social niceties, but this pushes it too far.

I'm glad Kate took Daddy's portrait along for the ride, and I'm in a tiny minority: I found the notion of the Brigadier absolutely refusing to accept alien control of his mortal remains far more emotional than the shouty heroic demise of Cyberdan. The Doctor's solemn salute and quiet "thank you" to an old friend resolutely at his shoulder in death as he was in life... call me a sentimental idiot, but it got me. And he got to shoot the Master too - wonderful!

Anyway, if poor old "P.E." can miraculously find the "strength" to overcome cyber-control it's an absolute certainty the Brig would too!

Another black mark against UNIT is their casual attitude to restraining the most dangerous of prisoners. Handcuffs? The most dim-witted guards in human history? It's as if they want her to escape!

Her cold-blooded killing of the only smart member of the organisation on show (who I didn't care for in the anniversary special but was converted to just in time for her demise) is shocking in its flirtatious brutality. The Doctor offering her a place aboard the TARDIS was a neon sign signalling Osgood's fate, but it also teed up a real standout scene as the two Time Lords come face to face in the cargo bay.

Capaldi and Gomez make a sensational double act, both able to infuse tension with comedy and vice versa. It's astounding that they manage to convey cold dislike and ancient affinity in every exchange. I particularly love his cool "piece of cake" as the planet's president is summoned from questioning the captive; and his soft, resigned "You win" matched by her quietly triumphant "I know" as he steels himself to save Clara's soul at his own expense. Tennant and Simm tried to capture the best of enemies/worst of friends dynamic but never nailed it (the writing didn't help them, to be fair). Capaldi and Gomez do, and it saves the episode.

The Cybermen pollinating Earth's graveyards is grotesque, slightly silly and makes for surprisingly chilling viewing. Shots of silver hands clawing up from beneath tombstones should be cheesy, but Rachel Talalay makes them into moments of visceral horror. There's less she can do with the flyers attacking the presidential jet or the massed take-off into the clouds - those are some of the least impressive computerised visuals of the year.

Dan the Cyberman gets his grand heroic exit - which I find off-key and a touch embarrassing. It's almost a relief to see his resentment of the Doctor remaining intact to the last, but if I'm supposed to sympathise with his snarling against the old General who understands the consequences of his strategic call much too well, it doesn't happen.

If the Twelfth Doctor was as cold and unemotional as his words can imply, it'd be an effective rebuke. As he's not - Capaldi's subtle expressions have been making the point since Deep Breath - it's a final fit of pique from a desperate man in an impossible situation. Perhaps it's also a last blast against the man who always - she couldn't have made it clearer - came between him and the woman he loves.

Amy's eventual choice made sense: I can't imagine Clara doing the same, because neither can she. The one man she'll always forgive, her best friend... hard words for her dead lover, but essentially the woman addicted to the Doctor and his life we've seen all series. And, for once, a dead character does stay dead. Thank you, Mr Moffat!

The final moments are, astonishingly, actually poignant. I've always found the Fourth Doctor's restrained farewell to Sarah-Jane more affecting than the recent "Look at us! This is sad! Did you get that? SAD!" companion exits, so the low-key nature of this one hits home. And they're both lying for "the right reasons" too. It couldn't finish on a more bittersweet note.

It ends too with a spine-tingling reminder that great actors don't need words. I knew Peter Capaldi was a superb actor when he took the role. Series 8 alone proves he's a great deal better than that.

Old Friends by Niall Jones 12/1/23

Outside an iconic London landmark, an alien army rises. One of humanity's deadliest enemies has arrived, hell-bent on conquest and destruction. The Doctor is the only person who can save the world. This scenario is familiar from several classic Doctor Who stories, including The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Invasion and Doomsday. Its opening scene even pays homage to one of the classic series' most iconic images: Cybermen marching down the steps of St Paul's.

Despite this, Death in Heaven is a very different kind of story to the ones that it references. While UNIT and the Cybermen do matter, they aren't what the story is really about. There is no great battle between humanity and the forces of darkness. While there is one thrilling action scene, the story is not an action thriller. Like the episode that leads into it, Death in Heaven is about a dysfunctional relationship, but, whereas Dark Water is all about the Doctor and Clara, Death in Heaven focuses on the Doctor and Missy.

By changing the Master's name, Steven Moffat gives himself the freedom to re-imagine the character in a way that might not have otherwise been possible. By only revealing her true identity at the end of her first full appearance, Moffat ensures that it is Missy's character - charismatic, funny, whimsical and ruthless - that defines her, rather than her place in the series' canon. She is allowed to be slightly more ambivalent than other incarnations of the Master - still very much a villain, but one who seems amoral rather than downright evil.

The success of Missy as a character derives not only from Moffat's writing, but also from Michelle Gomez's performance. She is scene-stealingly good, radiating unpredictable energy and wicked glee. When she's on screen, you simply can't look away. This charisma doesn't detract from Missy's cruelty, however. She kills the much-loved Osgood for fun, crushing her glasses beneath her heels after doing so. The calculated nature of the act is far more chilling than any depiction of actual violence, while the joking and taunting that leads up to it emphasises its casual nature.

When the renegade Time Lord first appeared in Terror of the Autons, it was possible to imagine that Jon Pertwee's dandyish Doctor and Roger Delgado's suave Master could have been friends, but that dynamic hasn't existed between subsequent incarnations of the characters, even when emphasised by the plot, such as in Last of the Time Lords. What makes Missy so interesting is that she reignites this possibility. The fact that both the Doctor and Missy are played by Glaswegian actors creates a superficial parallel, but their connection runs much deeper. In contrast to Last of the Time Lords, it is the Master who wants to rekindle their friendship. When Missy shouts at the Doctor that 'I need you to know we're not so different', the anguish feels real; when she says that 'I need my friend back,' there's a musicality to her voice that highlights her emotion and makes you believe in the sentiment. Missy even shares some of the Twelfth Doctor's key characteristics, including his irreverent sense of humour. These parallels challenge the Doctor, but, contrary to Missy's claim, they also underline the differences between them.

The revelation that all Missy's plans have been about giving the Doctor a birthday present - which just happens to be an army of Cybermen - not only highlights her obsession, but also reveals the extent to which she fails to understand him. In her mind, the Doctor's sense of morality holds him back from being the hero he claims to be and highlights his hypocrisy. With an army of Cybermen, he could truly make the universe a better place. It's an insane idea, but, from an admittedly warped perspective, it does make a kind of sense, as the population of one planet is wiped out to save countless others.

Presenting the Cybermen as Missy's 'boys' pushes them to the periphery of an episode that, in its first few minutes, seemed to be all about them. Nevertheless, Death in Heaven highlights why they have been such an enduring feature of Doctor Who. By focusing on Danny, the one Cyberman not fully upgraded, the story emphasises the fear that underpins the Cybermen, the loss of humanity to uniformity. The Cybermen have always been most interesting in stories focused on this fear. Death in Heaven adds a twist to this by suggesting that becoming a Cyberman might be an attractive fate. Remove everything that Doctor Who viewers know about the Cybermen, and, for someone like Danny, torn apart by his emotions, you can see why having them deleted might be a tempting prospect.

Although their basic design has become iconic, what makes the Cybermen interesting isn't their physical appearance, but the idea behind them. At their best, they are a dark mirror of humanity. In Death in Heaven, the physical and conceptual sides of the Cybermen are neatly married. When they do strike, they do so in considerable style, tearing apart the plane that the Doctor and UNIT are travelling on in an action scene that could be straight out of a Bond film. For the most part though, they are a passive presence. In a key scene, they awaken, rising from beneath tombstones and busting their way out of morgues. Despite their technological appearance, they have become zombies. Ironically, a species predicated around survival has become the undead. It's a clever way to put the emphasis back on the Cybermen as a concept, while also providing horror movie chills.

When the three key elements of the story combine at the end - Danny, the Cybermen and Missy - they do so in a way that personally challenges the Doctor, but ultimately ends up strengthening him. The question of 'am I a good man?' that has been hanging over the season is finally answered. The Doctor is 'not a good man', 'not a bad man', 'not a hero', 'definitely not a president', but 'an idiot with a box and a screwdriver. Passing through, helping out, learning'. Here, Moffat rejects the messianic depiction of the Doctor that characterised episodes such as A Good Man Goes to War. After all his soul-searching, the Twelfth Doctor realises that he is still just a madman with a box.

The episode's final scene, in which the Doctor and Clara lie to each other for what they think is the final time, is gloriously bittersweet. The Doctor's rage at finding that he has been tricked by Missy is genuinely shocking, while the line 'never trust a hug: it's just a way to hide your face', resonates. This quiet conversation not only showcases Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman's considerable acting talents, communicating depths of emotion in relatively few words, but also highlights the extent to which the Doctor and Clara will go to protect each other, even as they betray the other's trust.

What Death in Heaven does is to take Doctor Who apart and put it back together again in a way that is recognisable, but also subtly different. Concluding a series in which the Doctor is portrayed as much darker than usual, it reaffirms his moral but mischievous character. The story also reinvents the Master, not just as a woman but also as an ambivalent villain, sowing the seeds for Series 10's plotline about Missy's redemption. Even the Cybermen are reinvented in a way. Despite all this, the story is firmly rooted in Doctor Who's history, as evidenced by the return of UNIT and the visual references to The Invasion. In short, it uses nostalgia and familiarity to create something exciting and new.

Death in Heaven isn't perfect - for many fans, the reincarnation of the Brigadier as a Cyberman is a step too far - but it is nevertheless a hugely enjoyable and richly layered end to Series 8.