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In the End, No One Gets What They Want. Doctor Who: “Death in Heaven”

Since its rebirth, Doctor Who has made regular use of the bittersweet finale, always mindful to stab you in the front just as its patting you on the back. Huge, as in sizably huge, threats tend to demand great emotional sacrifice in kind. We can’t save the world without losing Rose, the Master, the Ponds, or even a Doctor or two.

The Eleventh Doctor’s reign flipped that formula, reveling in victory, saving everyone with a speech and a smirk, and demonstrating that getting backed into a corner just made the Doctor all that more clever. This was a man who, before he departed, even figured out a way to undo his greatest sacrifice.

With the first season of the Twelfth Doctor now concluded, we can say with certainty that sacrifice is once again a companion on his journey. But there is no joy in “Death in Heaven”s return to the bittersweet. Because there’s nothing sweet for us to take away.

We’ve seen Daleks turn our own planet into slag but somehow nothing on Doctor Who has seemed quite as brutal as the events in “Death in Heaven.” There’s a cruel edge to the storyline, one that I think is only somewhat warranted by the presence of the Master. We expect death, destruction, and a distinct lack of honor to what the Master says and does, but Moffat’s script seemed to go out of its way at points to really grind that in. To, in essence, promise something wonderful specifically to the viewer, and then snatch that possibility away.

This unsettling feeling really comes into clarity with Osgood’s death. Early on in the episode we see the meek fandom stand-in be brave and think beyond herself in thwarting the Master. She still adorns herself in the scraps of the Doctor’s history and nervously defends that approach, but that she defends this at all feels triumphant. Plus, her intelligence is obviously a credit to UNIT since she’s out there on the front. The Doctor teasingly recognizes this as well, and suddenly he’s muttering “All of time and space. Keep that in mind.” And a million Tumblr accounts combust with the possibility of Osgood getting to actually travel with the Doctor.

Then she’s killed by the Master, taunted for being too foolish to get close to Time Lord business as her glasses are noticeably ground into the floor. And yes, that’s in character for this incarnation of the Master but damn, Moffat, that is ice cold.

Doctor Who: Death in Heaven

At first, I darkly respected Moffat for essentially killing the puppy. Osgood is a tertiary character we would identify with more readily than even Clara or Danny, so the opportunity to kill her would give the story quite an impact without derailing anything. And that’s exactly what I felt. Wow is the Master entertaining to watch but make her pay, Doctor. Rally with fire and anger. Burn at the center of time like you ought.

That, as we saw, doesn’t happen. Mostly the set just tosses him and the Master around while the phone rings and we strain to hear what should be a tense, emotional scene. Then, as if we weren’t already convinced of the Master’s evil, the episode tosses Kate Lethbridge-Stuart, heir apparent to one of the most beloved companions in the show’s history, out of an airplane.

All while Clara is on the phone with the Doctor asking how she can essentially kill ZombieCyberDanny’s soul.

“Death in Heaven” hurts, you guys.

And maybe that was a larger thematic point that Moffat was trying to make through the tone of this episode and the season at large; that Capaldi’s Doctor is going to be dark and his life is going to be hurtful and either you want to watch that or you don’t. That this is a Doctor that might be far closer to reality than you would like. Imbibe at your own risk.

But if that is the lesson we’re supposed to take away from this season then I don’t at all feel like it’s been realized through the Doctor, but rather through Clara. Where “Death in Heaven” as a whole is a disappointing, uneven episode, Clara and Danny’s emotional arcs remain blessedly solid. While the Master and the Doctor’s storylines struggle to approach one another, Clara and Danny bring their arcs throughout this season to an end that, even in victory, feels powerfully, properly bittersweet.

It begins before the credits themselves do, with Clara outright claiming that she’s the Doctor. It’s a wonderfully literal twist on the journey she’s been on this season, growing from companion into Doctor, having to repeatedly make the hard choices and forgive the unforgivable. It resonates nicely with her actions at the beginning of “Dark Water,” as well. We’ve seen her hijack the Doctor for her own desires. Now she’s taken on his name and is using his reputation to stave off death in the same manner that we’ve seen him do many times before. The fiction of Clara as the Doctor has never been as close to reality as it is in this episode, and even the fiction of the show’s credits bow to this new reality, placing her name first and showing us her face instead of Capaldi’s.

It also introduces a much-needed tension to the episode that the Master’s murder spree simply can’t create. Clara is the Doctor now, but as we all know, the Doctor is ever destined to lose those he cares about most. And eventually this culminates in the episode’s very, very, very best scene, with Clara pointing the sonic at her true love’s heart, his dead face pleading with her to finish him.

Doctor Who: Death in Heaven

Clara knows that it has to be her. Despite the Doctor’s pleas that Clara can’t switch off Danny’s feelings, it’s the only way to allow Danny to access the Cybermen’s hive mind and make their ultimate plans known to the Doctor. Danny, as ever, sees right through the Doctor’s nobility. Those grand speeches about the sanctity of Danny’s life melt away when the Doctor needs Danny to die for the greater good. And although Danny is right about the Doctor—has always been right about the Doctor—he continually chooses to forget an important fact, namely that Clara is also the Doctor. She makes the choice, the sacrifice, that she knows will win the day. And so this season of Doctor Who concludes with Clara, not the Doctor, sacrificing the heart of those closest to her. It is the ultimate endpoint of her time with the Doctor. All of time…all of space…there is nothing more that he can show her.

It’s funny, but the person whom the Doctor brings the best out of is the person who insisted on being the furthest from this incarnation of the Doctor: Danny. (He’s the DoctorDanny! …sorry.) Here is a soldier turned schoolteacher, the very kind of small life that the Doctor used to rejoice in the presence of, who ends up saving the entirety of humanity in a blaze of honesty. Here is a man who never tried to dig in his heels when he found out just how impossible his girl was, rather, he supported and loved her, even when it killed him. (And it did kill him.)

And ultimately it was that devotion that saved the day. Was this what the Doctor sensed when the Master gave him control of her Cyber army? Did seeing Danny sacrifice himself jolt him into a determination to be the man who inspires that kind of action? Was Danny the actual moment of truth for the Doctor?

Because it sure didn’t seem to be anything the Master actually did, regardless of how much weight the episode’s plot gave her actions. While I found “Death in Heaven” quite satisfying in regards to how it closed out the relationship between Clara, the Doctor, and Danny, I found it abysmally lacking in the relationship between the Master and the Doctor.

And it wasn’t that Michelle Gomez wasn’t giving it her very best, either. In fact, her charisma made the absence of story between the two characters all the more glaring. Here was a loony with deep emotional ties to our main character, heart on her sleeve, and here was a Doctor who barely got any time to slow down and chat with her face to face. It seemed like every time they were in the same area, the Doctor was remembering another thing he forgot to ask her.

Doctor Who: Death in Heaven

Subsequently, the Master’s motivations didn’t really have any impact if you didn’t know the history between the two characters. For the Master to want to the Doctor to see that he’s just like her makes sense within that context, but that context doesn’t exist within this episode or “Dark Water.” Oddly enough, the Master’s plot seems more in keeping with the events of “The End of Time” or “The Sound of Drums.” Sure, having the Master admire the Doctor as the leader of an army, the president of Earth, and so on plays well into this incarnation’s hatred of soldiers and his own skills as a general, but that admiration comes out of nowhere.

The Master’s choice of pairing Clara up with the Doctor has the same effect. Something something about a control freak being paired with him, in a way that was designed to, I guess, bring out the general in the Doctor and make him more like the Master? Again, this comes out of nowhere. If anything, the Doctor has become more like himself as the season has worn on.

Despite how little sense the Master’s plan makes in these proceedings, Gomez was still a lot of fun to watch, and a worthy adversary for Capaldi. Which is why, and here we come back to how “Death in Heaven” piled on the bitter and forgot to add in the sweet, it was maddening to see the Master get disintegrated.

Doctor Who: Death in Heaven

Gosh, if only there was some character known for truly challenging the Doctor, who forces him to extremes and makes him grow and solidify as a character. And who we didn’t just disintegrate. Oh well. Guess the opportunity to further explore that is gone. Back to not looking for Gallifrey.

There’s something to be said here about the Doctor’s choices and having to live with the consequences of his actions, but I’m not sure “Death in Heaven” really intends that. You could justify the Master’s death by saying that, well, the Doctor seemed like he was going to kill her anyway, for one, and if he didn’t actually want the Master dead then he wouldn’t have supported the military-industrial complex that produced the Brigadier and UNIT et al. And maybe there’s a larger point there. That the Doctor can’t stop being a general and this is why he hates this aspect of himself so much, because now it’s cost him the one chance he had at finding his home.

Doctor Who: Death in Heaven

You wish the Master had been around to witness the Doctor’s last sitdown with Clara, because even though the Doctor doesn’t want to steamroll over the universe with a Cyber Army by his side, he has no qualms with crafting lies that are just as big, if not bigger, than the ones that the Master tells. They are alike in this sense, that much is certain. The Doctor lies, the Master lies, and Clara as the Doctor lies right along with them.

Because in the end this is the only way any of them can move forward. The Master didn’t even know what to do with herself without the prospect of hiding herself from the Doctor. Clara can’t bear to tell the Doctor that Danny didn’t cheat death, and the Doctor can’t bear to tell her that his people are still gone and that he’s more alone than ever before.

So they lie to each other, and life moves on, but no one gets what they want.

 

Thoughts:

  • How weird was it to see Matt Smith as the Doctor in that flashback? I love when the show does that. Makes you realize that you think of the new guy as the definitive Doctor now.
  • So did Zygon Osgood die or Real Osgood? Real Osgood needed the inhaler…or did they both need it by the end of “The Day of the Doctor”?
  • God but this was a bleak episode. Even with the fun James Bond dive the Doctor made towards the TARDIS.
  • So…is Santa essentially going to tally the Doctor’s entire life to determine whether he’s on the naughty or nice list? Nick Frost, I like you, but that sounds like a thankless task.
  • Children and grandchildren he assumes are all dead? BLEAK. EPISODE.
  • So, despite the stumble of this season’s finale, this has been one of the most interesting and substantive runs of Doctor Who that I’ve watched in (what feels like) a long time. Is it the fleshing out of Clara? The nicely handled Danny subplot? Capaldi’s acting chops? It’s probably all of these and then some. It’s even more of an exciting season for me when I think about how a Doctor’s first season tends to be their shakiest, and how the characterization gets even more solid in seasons to come. The thought of an even more cohesive Twelfth Doctor next year is exciting, and Capaldi and Moffat and company have already far exceeded my expectations this year.
  • THE DOCTOR WILL RETURN IN…whatever’s going on here:


Chris Lough has found watching and writing about this year’s season of Doctor Who extravagantly rewarding, moon dragons and all.

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