Doctor Who does The Killing Joke: Death in Heaven Review

dw death in heaven poster

Another Doctor Who series has just come to an end, Series 8 has been one of the strongest to date, with the overall quality of episodes remaining high and new writers bringing in fresh ideas and actually quite a few of the better stories. The finale has quite a lot to live up to, and in some quarters its first part Dark Water has already proven to be controversial and its second to be Marmite in others. Putting that aside for the moment, here is my review the final episode of Series 8 and the second part of its finale, Death in Heaven.

Just make sure you get you tissues ready and a friend nearby to hug, because this episode may be brilliant or otherwise, but it surely is brutal.

Missy Does the Joker Proud

The episode picks up right where Dark Water left off, with Cybermen walking out of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) trying to war people to get away. Soon he, the Master/Mistress/Missy (Michelle Gomez) and the Cybermen find themselves surrounded by UNIT, headed by Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) and Osgood (Ingrid Oliver). The Cybermen fly off and disperse, one remaining behind before exploding and creating a cloud whose rain converts the dead into other Cybermen. Danny (Samuel Anderson) wakes up as a Cyberman, saves Clara and explains his situation in a graveyard. Both the Doctor and Missy are taken by UNIT aboard the aeroplane ‘Boat One’, which is soon attacked by Cybermen.

From here on out, the episode becomes both brilliant and brutal, as Missy and her Cybermen go on a killing spree. Newly-introduced Colonel Ahmed (Sanjeev Bhaskar) soon gets killed, seemingly followed by Kate soon afterwards. Seb (Chris Addison) gets killed off for getting to excited at the Doctor’s James Bond moment. The most painful loss is fan-favourite Osgood, whose growth since the events of The Day of the Doctor only serves to fuel viewers’ devastation. Osgood has attire incorporating the Eleventh and Tenth Doctors’, proclaims that “Bowties are cool”, uses her OCD to UNIT’s advantage,  and manages to impress the Doctor enough with her intelligence to be offered “Time and space”, only to be callously murdered by Missy moments later. It’s a punch to the gut I still haven’t completely recovered from.

This can’t end well.
(Copyright BBC)

Then Missy finally explains what this is all about. Firstly, she is indeed the woman in the shop who gave Clara (Jenna Coleman) the Doctor’s number and the one who put the adverts in the newspaper in Deep Breath. She wants Clara to stick with the Doctor because her being a control freak could “yank [his] chain” when she asks him to do the impossible. Secondly, all the death and devastation is meant to give the Doctor an army to do with as he pleases. At this point it becomes clear that Death in Heaven takes a cue from The Killing Joke and Death of the Family, Missy being the Joker to the Doctor’s Batman.  She wants to prove to him that they are the same, that, given the choice, he would kill and destroy if he thinks he is right. Her fixation with the Doctor is such that she offers him the coordinates to Gallifrey to go to together when her first plan fails, only to later goad him into killing her to prove her initial point. While the Doctor is saved from making that choice by an old friend, Missy still manages to win by having lied about the coordinates and seemingly died, leaving her adversary alone and devastated.

It has to be said, however, that, as menacing and bananas Missy is here, the depth or exploration of her relationship to the Doctor are rather minimal. Missy becomes a somewhat lonely figure when the Doctor describes how they used to “run together” and she later tells him, “I want my friend back.” The tragedy is that, as the Doctor tells Danny, she has lost her moral compass and empathy, and believes that he needs to be led astray as well for them to be the friends they once were. Her motivations here are somewhat understandable within the wider context since The End of Time, but that context is barely provided or explained here. It has to be said that Michelle Gomez does, however, manage to play Missy brilliantly, balancing menace and insanity quite well. I look forward to seeing her follow up her outstanding performance in Series 9.

“Permission to squee”
(Copyright BBC)

“Am I a good man?”

Even if Missy herself is underdeveloped, she does serve as the catalyst for the events concluding the thematic and emotional arcs of the series. The first episode has the Doctor ask if he is a good man, a question both he and audience wrestle with during the rest of Series 8. Into the Dalek has him using the death of a person to his advantage and ‘Rusty’ see the hatred in his soul, telling him that “You are a good Dalek.” The Doctor then meets Robin Hood in Robot of Sherwood, and meeting a hero who lives up to the legend gives him someone to contrast himself with. He learns that he creates his own fear in Listen, and Time Heist brings up his self-loathing when he expressly dislikes himself as the manipulative Architect. When Clara takes over in Flatline and does well, he tells her that it is not because she is ‘good’. Speaking of Clara, the Doctor also values her friendship enough not to help her despite her ‘betrayal’ in Dark Water.

The Doctor also has a distinct dislike of soldiers throughout the series, seemingly beacuse of their willingness to kill. He does not take Journey along with him in Into the Dalek because of her military background, and immediately assumes Danny is a PE teacher because of his. Danny, in turn, somewhat truthfully compares him to an officer in The Caretaker, not unlike Davros revealing his soul to him in Journey’s End. Here he nicknames Colonel Ahmed “Man Scout” and blames military history on self-concussing brought on by soldiers’ saluting.

His identity and willingness to sacrifice others like a general comes up again in Death in Heaven. He is made president of the Earth and all its armies put under his command, although he doesn’t use his position for much. More importantly, he faces this reality when he confronts Danny and learns that he has to lose his emotions to tell him what Missy’s plan is. His grief at having to sacrifice what remains of Danny for the greater good is more muted than his predecessors’, yet made so very palatable by Capaldi’s performance.

It is when Danny perseveres that the Doctor finally admits that he is neither a good man, nor a bad man, but “an idiot with a box and a screwdriver” who learns from his companions. It echoes the same sentiment expressed in Meanwhile in the TARDIS when the Doctor confides in Amy that he can’t see the value of the universe without another perspective around. In this case, he realises the importance of humans’ belief in fundamental forces and his learning from them, as Danny’s love for Clara allows him to keep his promise of love to her and save the world in the process. Ironically enough, in her attempt to show how similar they are, Missy brings up a major difference: in an effort to control everything, she, unlike the Doctor, doesn’t notice the single Cyberman who doesn’t obey her orders.

(Copyright BBC)

(Copyright BBC)

“I’m the Doctor”

Clara also has her own journey, perhaps the most formative of this series’s protagonists. As much as she was an archetypal companion in The Name of the Doctor through to The Time of the Doctor, it is in Series 8 that we finally get to see more of her actual  personality and growth. When the Doctor asks her if he is a good man, she can only answer that she doesn’t know, but that he at least tries to be. When the Doctor leaves her to make an impossible choice in Kill the Moon, she berates him for abandoning her and letting her almost make the wrong choice. In Mummy on the Orient Express Clara learns that “Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones. But you still have to choose.” She thus decides to stay on, lying to Danny in the process, and takes over the Doctor’s role in Flatline, as she lies to those around her to save their lives.  Danny learns about her lies in In the Forest of the Night, and Clara chooses to accept the Doctor’s offer for otherworldly wonders rather than stay behind with the children and Danny, even if their love still goes strong. When she does decide to come clean about her travels with the Doctor in Dark Water, out of nowhere, Danny dies as he crosses the road while she begins to tell him the truth over the mobile phone. Devastated, Clara finally comes to the conclusion that she is owed more than Danny’s ‘boring’ death, and threatens the Doctor to take her to Danny. She is further distraught as she contacts Danny, but cannot get him to persuade her to join him. It’s been a pleasure seeing Jenna Coleman have more to do this series and flex her acting muscle ever so successfully, and the trend continues in the finale with gusto.

This episode opens with Clara in full swing as the Doctor, lying as necessary to save time until she can be rescued from the newly awakened Cybermen. When it is a revived Danny that rescues her, she has to confront her addiction to the Doctor and the guilt she feels about its role in his death.  Faced with his pleas to end his emotions and suffering, Clara is forced to truly become the Doctor, as circumstances force her to sacrifice Danny. Even when the Doctor is unwilling to do it to uphold honour, she is the one who points the screwdriver at her lover’s heart and ends him for the greater good. It pays off in that Danny himself gets to retain his sense of self and save the day for her, but her loss and humanity get the better of her as she threatens to kill Missy, not caring for her own soul. Even if she is saved from that, she faces one final loss as Danny sacrifices a final one-way trip home to save the boy he had killed.

Despite losing all this and wanting to confront the Doctor about it, she doesn’t when he assumes Danny returned and lies about his finding Gallifrey. This final scene with both the Doctor and Clara lying to leave one another’s wrongly assumed happiness unspoiled by their real losses shows just how far they’ve come on their respective journeys. The Doctor admitting to Clara, mid-embrace, that he doesn’t like hugs because they hide faces from one another is a great call-back to Deep Breath and an exceptionally bittersweet moment. Their expressions – and Capaldi and Coleman’s brilliant acting – show the sadness lying beneath the veil, and you can’t help but both agree with the Doctor’s wisdom and want to cry along with them.

In the end, Clara and the Doctor depart each other’s lives as real friends, lying to each other only to be kind to one another. The fact that their friendship has survived their ordeal is a major victory, but that final undramatic shot of Clara walking off reminds viewers that it is a Pyrrhic one. This could have been a great way to end their companionship, but it seems we’re not the only ones thinking, “Doctor, you know it can’t end like that!”.

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Dan the Soldier Man

When first introduced in Into the Dalek, viewers immediately learn of Danny’s military past and that her remains troubled by the fact that he killed in the line of duty. He later becomes defensive when Clara mentions this fact on their first date in Listen, pointing out that he did help people while on duty. A future (from his perspective) Clara inspires his childhood self to become a soldier, as he dreams of his toy soldier – Dan the weaponless boss in particular – protecting him from the monster under the bed. When he meets the Doctor in The Caretaker, sparks immediately fly as Danny mocks his pomposity and immediately assumes he is like previous commanding officers of his, ready to push their subordinates too far. This proves to be an accurate assumption, as he consoles Clara at the end of Kill the Moon and rightly guesses that her anger shows she still cares enough about the Doctor and her travelling with him. Mummy on the Orient Express may not feature Danny heavily apart from beginning Clara’s lies to him, but it shows us that soldiers have a scope are not meant to be mere instruments of warfare. In the Forest of the Night shows us Danny taking his duties and protecting children seriously. Then Dark Water finally arrives and Danny dies thanks to Clara’s secrets. In the Nethersphere, he meets the boy he killed in Afghanistan and sacrifices his chance to be with Clara again since she could only join him in death.

With the same boy coming back to him as he is given the choice to delete his pain and emotions, he chooses to retain them and wakes up in a converted Cyberman body. Clara’s rescue is another great moment as CyberDanny gets the job done brilliantly, and their reunion drives the emotional core of the episode on. Despite having never been a proper companion of the Doctor’s Danny undoubtedly shares Clara’s place as the heart of this episode. He obviously feels hurt hearing Clara defend the Doctor as her friend who she would never lie to, and his first instinct is to aim his blaster at her. While he does not shoot her, the gesture says a lot about his feelings about his revived state and how the Doctor is responsible for Clara’s role in it before he ever gets his face plate off.

While at first wallowing in self-pity and asking Clara to end him for his own sake, Danny changes slightly when the Doctor arrives. He re-asserts his belief about the Doctor being an officer until the end, chastising him for hypocritically telling others to feel the pain they inflict after what he has done to him. When the Doctor realises Danny has to be sacrificed to save humanity and Clara orders him to let her do it, he again tells Clara that the Doctor cannot keep to his word when it comes to a “tactical advantage” and how he keeps his hands clean. He finally gets to prove himself by retaining his personality despite the inhibitor and taking control of the Cyberman army. Danny also gets to prove the worth of soldiers, as they do what needs to be done, not on the orders of a general or the whim of a lunatic, but a single loving promise to Clara: “You will sleep safe tonight”. As he gets his major send-off saving the world, it seems apparent just how much this already fully-realised character has been given the time to shine through these devastating events. The irony is that for all his distaste for the Doctor, it was the craziness that surrounds him that brought out the best in Danny.

As if to hammer this point home further, Danny gets to sacrifice himself one last time. Given the single chance to escape the dying Nethersphere by virtue of having had Missy’s bracelet, he sends the Afghan boy to the land of the living instead. In his own way, he lives up to the promise the Doctor aspires to, saving others in spite of the price he has to pay. Anderson’s truly emotive line delivery truly underlines how hard it is to let go of his own happiness for the sake of promises to be kept, making his choice all the more commendable.

(Copyright BBC)

Odds and Ends

First of all, I have to say that the episode deserves the 55-minute running time it got. It gives enough breathing space for all elements to be accounted for and explored, which proves to be very beneficial for a character-driven story. I would not have the balance between action and all the character interactions be preserved any other way.

There is also space for a couple of good nods to continuity. As Clara claims that she is the Doctor, she claims that he has been married four times, which would cover Marilyn Monroe (A Christmas Carol), River Song (The Wedding of River Song), Elizabeth I (The Day of the Doctor), and, presumably, Susan’s grandmother. Jenny from The Doctor’s Daughter is also mentioned as the Doctor’s “non-Gallifreyan daughter created via genetic transfer.” In a fun nod to Clara’s claims, and a Doctor Who first, the following opening credits sequence reverses Coleman and Capaldi’s credits, and Coleman’s eyes replace Capaldi’s. The flashback to Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor talking to Clara for the first time in The Bells of Saint John reminded me how much Capaldi’s Twelfth has become the Doctor now. It’s quite a contrast to the feeling Smith’s scene brought out in Deep Breath, which had to reassure fans that this is still the same Doctor. In a reference to further back in Doctor Who‘s history, when Kate confronts the Cybermen in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral, she brings along a Cyberman head from the events of the 1968 serial The Invasion, which saw the last confrontation with UNIT on the spot.

Speaking of Cybermen and continuity, in a series that hasn’t shied away from horror, the extent of the body horror they represent has never been more fully realised than in Death in Heaven. The Cybermen are established as being unable to live with their emotions in Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel, but having their heads blow off doesn’t give them much chance to express themselves. The more understated approach taken with Danny showing his mangled, crying face and asking to be effectively killed (again) is much more emotionally powerful.

(Copyright BBC)

In an episode including UNIT, Kate Lethbridge-Stewart and the returning dead, it would be impossible not to mention the late Brigadier. Kate subtly brings up the prospect of her father the Brigadier coming back as a Cyberman as well when asking – with understandable concern – how far back the Nethershpere has been collecting the dead. Surely enough, he manages to return, retain his independence and save his daughter. As Danny’s sacrifice proves soldiers’ humanity to the Doctor, it’s quite fitting to have Sir Alistair subsequently prove him right and save his soul by ending Missy himself. It respects the character’s history and gives us the face-to-face farewell we never got in The Wedding of River Song, the Doctor finally giving the Brigadier a well-earned salute. As fitting as this was for a final farewell between the two characters, part of me can’t help but be a wee bit curious what a Cyber-Brigadier spin-off would look like.

Now time for some minor criticism, especially regarding plot holes. Firstly, why was Osgood stationed near Missy and with the two most ineffectual guards in UNIT history? Secondly, while I appreciate the focus on Danny and his relationship with Clara, surely there could have been a larger number of individuals in a single graveyard strong enough to resist the emotional inhibitor? How did UNIT get the TARDIS out of the 3W if they couldn’t access it?

Otherwise – as is usual with Moffat’s finales so far – the details of supposed plot holes can be filled in with a little thought. What the Doctor explains as ‘cyber pollen’ could just be nano-bots which convert matter, thus explaining the need for a Cyberman retaining them to be sacrificed; the subsequent need to destroy further Cybermen to eliminate the cloud could just be the way re-purposed nanomites can eliminate other nanomites. It’s already something that we’ve seen the Cybermen use in Nightmare in Silver and which could easily have been refined by Missy, whose 3W has already developed ‘dark water’. Frankly, I find it refreshing that the series allows viewers enough space to connect the dots themselves with a succinct line as a clue, as it allows conversation to be more natural rather than focus on unrealistic exposition.

(Copyright BBC)

Murray Gold’s music also deserves a special mention here, particularly as he manages to provide us with quite a variety in this episode. The upbeat music accompanying the aftermath of Osgood’s murder underlines Missy’s insanity and evokes something straight out of Mary Poppins. It goes pretty well with Missy’s Victorian nanny aesthetic and her later scene floating down to Earth with an open umbrella. Gold also gets to channel John Barry on James Bond as the Doctor speeds mid-air down towards the TARDIS in a magnificent flurry of brass. Another stand-out track is the Cybermen theme, a welcome mainstay since their appearance in Doctor Who‘s revival and whose variations here are used to great effect. Its normal variation works well the water seeking out fresh bodies well, and the slow, dirge-like variation accompanies the horror of the Cybermen rising from their graves to great effect.

Conclusion: Series 8 and Beyond

Series 8 has been one of Doctor Who‘s most complex and emotionally rich, both since the 2005 revival and its inception in 1963. Much like the rest of the Series, Death in Heaven may be a bit uneven at times and may sacrifice definite logic for the sake of emotional moments, but it serves as a good finale which closes off three powerful and intertwined emotional arcs. The emotions conveyed are powerful and well-earned, backed up by stellar acting all round. I simply cannot praise Capaldi’s, Coleman’s and Anderson’s performances throughout the series enough, with Michelle Gomez providing a brilliant counterpoint for them to play off of in the finale. Indeed, while the finale doesn’t necessarily show off the intricacies of either the Master of the Cybermen as much as other stories, I don’t feel it needs to. They serve the needs of the larger character-driven narrative, which manages to be truly bittersweet and yet ultimately satisfying. Death in Heaven is by no means perfect, but I quite liked it and feel that it is definitely one of the better finales in recent years.

It’s certainly been an interesting year for Doctor Who, with Series 8 providing a major change in direction and with one of the bleakest finales since its return in 2005. It has been quite a ride, and with Capaldi’s Doctor already facing the Daleks, Cybermen and the Master in his inaugural series, it will be a thrill to see what new surprises hopefully await us in the rest of his tenure.

Next time, Nick Frost gets to play Father Christmas and fight aliens (xenomorphs and/or the Thing?) at the North Pole in a Christmas special only Doctor Who could give us.

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2 responses to “Doctor Who does The Killing Joke: Death in Heaven Review

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  2. Pingback: Doctor Who: The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar | The Maltese Geek·

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