“Death in Heaven” finds showrunner Steven Moffat channeling his inner Russell T. Davies. And I mean that in a good way. Whereas, as Nu-Who’s inaugural showrunner, Davies would sporadically fall prey to his own personal fanboyish indulgences, as well as a propensity for bombast, he also never failed in designing his stories for maximum emotional impact. If Davies wrote from the heart, it could be said that Moffat writes more from the brain, turning his focus to the cool and complex scenarios that come with being a traveler of time and space. That’s not to say Moffat’s tenure has been bereft of emotional bullet points, but they often end up going hand-in-hand with one of his mind bend-y, high concept gimmicks.
What makes “Death in Heaven” such a unique Moffat-penned finale lies partly in its relative simplicity. In spite of the worldwide implications of Cybermen rising from graves in every country, the focus of the episode is very much small in scope (though that’s probably also to do with budget reasons). Moreover, because the Cybermen are still adjusting to renewed life, they aren’t particularly active throughout the hour. What some might construe as underwhelming action, however, later proves to be set-up for some serious character-based emotional fireworks. In the end, the episode feels akin to something Davies would have concocted in his darker moments (i.e. the entirety of Torchwood).
And by dark, I do mean dark. After last week’s “Dark Water” set a new standard for the disturbing areas Doctor Who could venture into, “Death in Heaven” pushes things slightly further. It’s certainly the darkest series finale since the show’s revival, but this is not strictly because of the content. Of course, the idea of billions of dead bodies being resurrected as Cybermen is a horrific one, and the shocking murder of Kate Stewart’s assistant (and Doctor fangirl) Osgood is an especially harsh plot beat to witness. Beyond that, however, the episode is perhaps most notable for its lack of the typical upbeat Who conventions. Sure, the world is saved at the end, but it comes about without a rousing speech from The Doctor, an inspiring act of courage by his companion, or a fantastical cure-all solution that completely restores the status quo and brings Danny back to life. It’s a victory with no sense of triumph.
Picking up just after Missy reveals her true nature, both The Doctor and his nemesis find themselves captured by UNIT and taken aboard a government plane. In the wake of the Cybermen invasion, the world’s governments have elected to put an emergency procedure into place—namely, making The Doctor the official President of the Earth. Considering how active The Doctor has been with saving the day for all these years, it’s nice to see the world officially acknowledging his authority.
Back in the 3W Headquarters, Clara attempts to stave off an attack of Cybermen by pretending to be The Doctor (the opening credits even play along with the gag by including Jenna Coleman’s credit ahead of Capaldi’s). Just as Clara finds herself out of excuses, she’s suddenly recused by what appears to be a rogue Cyberman. The Cyberman transports her to a cemetery where it removes its mask, revealing itself to be the last remains of Danny Pink. While the general concept of The Cybermen as robotized humans stripped of emotion is a distressing one as is, the image of Danny’s rotting, distorted face behind the robot mask is an almost unbearably sad sight to behold. Danny promptly begs Clara to activate his inhibitor switch in an attempt to escape the emotional turmoil that he’s currently feeling.
Back on the plane, Missy manages to break free from captivity, disintegrating Osgood and sending Stewart flying out of the plane in the process. The Doctor manages to escape, and meets up with Clara just as she is about to switch on Danny’s inhibitor. The Doctor commands her to stop and explains that Danny will become a full-fledged Cyberman and murder her. The Doctor tries to convince Danny that his pain is what’s keeping him human and that he should help them by providing info on what the Cybermens’ plans are. It’s here that Danny presents The Doctor and Clara with a real Sophie’s Choice scenario. In order to learn and communicate the Cybermens’ plan, he will need to have his inhibitor turned on. Faced with an impossible decision, The Doctor has no choice but to be honest—he needs the information. Confronted with planet-wide destruction, Danny’s humanity is mere collateral. The Doctor tries to apologize to Clara, but she simply takes his screwdriver and performs the deed. As we soon see, this won’t be the only hard decision the two will be forced to make that day.
It’s then that Missy appears and explains her motivations. As it turns out, in her own twisted way, she put this Cybermen plan into place as a means of getting closer to The Doctor. She offers him control of the vast army (via a mechanical bracelet), pointing out that he can use it to properly police the Universe, essentially blurring the lines between a protector and a warlord. “I need you to know we’re not so different,” she says. “I need my friend back.” To sweeten the pot, she even offers him the coordinates to Gallifrey.
After looking over at Danny, The Doctor comes to a realization. He hands the control bracelet to Danny who, despite having his humanity seemingly erased, still manages to cling on to some notion of his earthly identity via his love for Clara. According to The Doctor, love is not just an emotion but also a “promise.” He bids a final goodbye to Clara before commanding the entire Cybermen to fly into the skies and burn up, thus putting an end to the menace once and for all.
If that weren’t enough, The Doctor is again faced with a difficult choice. Clara wants Missy dead so that she can never again cause any harm. Not wanting Clara to have taken a life, The Doctor volunteers to kill his eternal frenemy. Just as he is about to pull the trigger, however, another rogue Cyberman guns down Missy. Upon seeing that this robot also rescued a nearby Kate Stewart when she was ejected from the plane, The Doctor realizes that this is the Cyberman version of Stewart’s late father/his former companion, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. The idea that both Danny Pink and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart’s are able to overcome the Cybermen programming because of love is not exactly a fresh idea, and runs the risk of being super corny. Still, in an installment this awash in darkness, it’s the kind of hopeful concept that’s worth including.
The episode subsequently ends with neither The Doctor nor Clara having gotten what they truly wanted. Though given a chance to bring himself back to life, Danny—to Clara’s dismay— instead opts to resurrect the young boy he killed in battle as a soldier. Clara chooses not to relay this information to The Doctor, leading him to believe that Danny was indeed brought back and that Clara and Danny will be living happily ever after. Likewise, Clara expresses her happiness when The Doctor tells her that he found Gallifrey. This, however, is also a lie. A quick flashback reveals that Missy’s coordinates lead to nothing but empty space. And so the episode ends with both The Doctor and Clara going their separate ways, each mistakenly believing that the other is in a happier place.
To paraphrase Marty McFly, this is pretty heavy stuff.
That’s not to say the whole ordeal is all doom and gloom. After an entire season spent serving as an eccentric enigma, Michelle Gomez’s Missy/Master finally gets the chance to let loose. Much like John Simm’s Master from previous seasons, Missy endows her Mary Poppins-from-hell with an unsettling manic mania that brings to mind the likes of The Joker (were he to dress like an English nanny). Her ability to shift from girlish, pouty glee to somber, steely-eyed menace is truly a marvel to behold. It’s a shame that the series (once again) appears to kill the character off because I truly would have loved a few more appearances from Gomez as The Master.
Ultimately, “Death in Heaven” cements Series Eight’s status as an extended character study for both The Doctor and Clara. While both David Tennant’s and Matt Smith’s Doctors had their definite moments of internal struggle, one always had the feeling that they had a firm grasp on who they were, and what they were supposed to do. Capaldi’s Doctor, on the other hand, has spent the majority of this first season attempting to reconcile his cold, alien nature with the burden of being the Universe’s protector. Whether it’s asking if he’s a good man in “Into the Dalek,” claiming not to be a hero in “Robot of Sherwood” or his haunting words to Clara at the end of “Flatline” (“You were an extraordinary Doctor…goodness had nothing to do with it”), The Doctor always seemed to be struggling with a brutal identity crisis. Not since Christopher Eccleston’s arc from battle-scarred cynic to benevolent Christ figure in the first season, has the show so deeply explored the notion of a conflicted Doctor.
Likewise, now free from the mystery of being “The Impossible Girl,” Clara’s tragic loss comes as the culmination of a season-long struggle. Does she want to stay with the strange new Doctor, and accept all the complications it entails, or cut herself off to enjoy a more Earth-bound life? Now, the death of Danny, along with the guilt she no doubt feels after lying to him for so long, appears to have left her in a state of mental flux.
But enough of this dreariness! Judging from the episode’s phenomenal last minute teaser, this year’s Christmas special will give us the long-awaited team up of The Doctor and Santa Clause (played, in a genius bit of casting, by Nick Frost). Lord knows, this Doctor and his companion could use a little Christmas cheer.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.