The final episode of an overall strong series, Death in Heaven takes us back to the question Peter Capaldi’s Doctor posed at the very beginning: is he a good man? The answer, in a roundabout way, is yes, but there are plenty of caveats and it is these which make the eighth series stand out from its most recent predecessors.
The Doctor is a good man. Missy offers him the chance of a ready-made army to go out into the universe and do good by force; he turns her down. But he hesitates and is tempted. The Doctor is a good man. He won’t allow Clara to turn on the poor, late Danny Pink’s emotion inhibitor, insisting even painful emotions are better than feeling nothing at all. But once he realises Danny is his ‘tactical advantage’ he u-turns more readily than a Coalition Minister. The Doctor is a good man. He lies to Clara about finding Gallifrey so she doesn’t feel like she has to stay with him. But in doing so he never finds out that Danny hasn’t returned to her and so ends up leaving Clara a lonely, grieving figure. His propensity for lying has rubbed off on Clara too; there’s a definite feeling that their story has been left open but for the time being it is a little bleak and distressing (until Nick Frost shows up as Father Christmas).
It’s a darker version of Doctor Who than we’ve seen in recent years, with a curmudgeonly Doctor who is more liable to insult his companion than he is to hug them – because hugging is just a convenient way to hide your face from the other person.
So much of Death in Heaven ties up the myriad of threads and themes that have been scattered through the series whilst also setting up new storylines for the next outing: Missy almost certainly isn’t dead, Gallifrey is out there somewhere and The Doctor still needs to come to terms with his eyebrows. This is all to the good and exactly what we need from a finale. The execution, however, felt a little inconsistent. While director Rachel Talalay admirably kept up the pace for the whole hour, there was an awful lot of explaining and frantic talking rather than our main characters getting the opportunity to do much. Putting the Doctor on the plane and separating him from Clara and Missy felt like a waste of screen time, whilst the threat from the Cybermen was quickly diluted as they drunkenly staggered about the graveyard we spent a little too long in, waiting for the rain. The narrative felt all over the place for a good chunk of the first half hour.
On the whole, these issues are superceded by the impact of the larger arc of the series and some truly fantastic moments: characters actually died! (R.I.P. Osgood, Seb, Colonel Ahmed – surely the briefest cameo ever?), Michelle Gomez’s Missy continued to delight with her spark and unpredictability, the Brigadier was fondly saluted and each emotional beat packed a significant punch; I definitely had something in my eye during the key moments.
An imperfect, clunky in places finale, then, which somehow seems fitting when you consider the imperfect Cybermen who ended up saving the day. The overall feel of the eighth series, of Capaldi’s Doctor and (if she returns) Clara’s development as companion is incredibly energising for the show as a whole. There is a definite sense that this a matured regeneration in terms of its themes and tone but, as the other episodes have proven, there is still room for comedy, silliness and moments of genuine, spooky fear.
We’ve got a lot of time to dwell on what has been a very enjoyable series and speculate on what is still to come. If Death in Heaven is anything to go by, we’re in for a treat at Christmas but the next major test of this incarnation of Doctor Who will undoubtedly come in 2015.
See you there. Contributed by Jane Harrison