Monday, 10 November 2014

Death in Heaven

"Okay, f**kity bye."

Let me just start off by saying what a cool name "Death In Heaven" is. But if I were just to review the name, this would be a very short article and - to the disappointment of those looking for a quick read - I don't think it will be! Unfortunately, I don't think Death in Heaven fully reaches the level needed to elevate Dark Water. Instead, it manages to come out just above average, and that is mostly down to the efforts of one character...

Missy is The Master regenerated into female form, the graves of the planet are all about to give birth to Cybermen, Clara is trapped with an awakening Cyberman, and Danny looks ready to press delete. These are the cliffhangers we're given and what looked set to follow was more in-line with the Russell T Davies finales: Bombastic epics with an entire army to bring down. What we actually get is a mix of that and the more intimate, internally driven style of Moffat's previous finales. They combine in a way which comes out looking a bit messy and misguided.

"Come on Doctor, vogue for me."

Moffat said regarding the story that he wanted to do a Cyberman story, but that's not an impression I get from this episode. Not only do they play second fiddle to Missy (who wouldn't), but the Cybermen don't really do anything. This fits in with what we later learn about Missy's plan, but it's nonetheless rather unfortunate that the potential for an old-school Cyberman invasion is left totally unexplored in favour of them just wandering around graveyards. Shots of a metal hand rising from a grave are creepy certainly, but never followed up. Instead the main impending peril is relegated to the cloud which dispersed the 'cyber-pollen'. This cloud will destroy humanity... somehow. Similar to my issue with The Name of The Doctor, the main peril is an abstract one where the effect is never properly seen. Which means the climax of the plot doesn't come with the sense of urgency or danger that it should do.

Not an issue reserved for the villains, by the way. Much is made of the fact that The Doctor has been appointed President of Earth by UNIT, but neither of them get to do very much. The surprise attack on the Cybermen at the start is good, but it's about all we get beyond causing a change of scenery to the airplane. This is a major problem. While a very good episode, Dark Water was a slow burning tension builder. What Death In Heaven needed to do was immediately kick into top gear and to stay there, but what does happen is the momentum slows to a crawl by unnecessarily introducing UNIT and throwing the Cybermen cliffhanger careening into an anticlimax. From here the tension needs to be restored before the action can fire up again, and the episode never fully achieves this.

You would think The Doctor's priority would be to interrogate Missy or otherwise deal with the invasion, but it seems most of his time is spent reiterating that Cybermen are rising from the graves, and other things that we as an audience already know. He doesn't even interact with Missy until the plane is falling apart, begging the question of why she wasn't kept under sedation... But I digress. It may well be an interesting thematic choice to make the very clearly anti-military Twelfth Doctor the commander of the Earth, but it's cheapened by nothing changing at all as a result.

Indeed, in an episode where his chemistry with Missy should be sizzling and an absolute highlight, this is a disappointing finale for Capaldi. He gets very little of significance to work with and is forced to spend much of the time just reacting with looks of surprise and glaring.

"See, Clara, I always told you that one day he'd die and be reborn as an emotionless homicidal robot."

Elsewhere, one of the Cybermen rising from the dead is Danny Pink! CyberDan didn't activate his emotional inhibitor while in the Nethersphere, so he rescues Clara from the Cybermen in 3W and - for some reason - takes her to a graveyard. Not wanting to live as he is, he asks Clara to activate the inhibitor and it's all very sad. But as previously emphasised, I couldn't care less about Danny; and the audience can't be expected to when his character arc has been so woefully patchy.

Danny is once again serving as the link between soldier and civillian: converted into a cyber army, but not completely. However, as in The Caretaker, I find the military themes poorly handled. Danny again chides The Doctor by calling him officer, echoing his new role as President. The theme is furthered when (for reasons) Danny must have his emotion wiped to access the Cybermen hive mind and information about the clouds. What would The Doctor do for what is effectively a tactical advantage?

The problem is that Danny's harsh words ultimately ring pretty empty: Being at times contradictory to himself ("shame on you for not activating the inhibitor!", "See, look Clara, he's activating the inhibitor! BAD!") and otherwise just plain stupid.

The other problem extends all the way back to Into The Dalek: So what if The Doctor is like an officer, anyway? Yes, this Doctor has been established as being very dead set against soldiers, but the reason or logic behind why has been left unsaid. The Doctor does need to know what the Cybermen's cloud is going to do, regardless of whether the means make him an officer. Does it matter? Like... At all? It's not for Clara, because she was already helping to activate the inhibitor! Why should I care about this theme or this decision when the ramifications of it seem to mean less than bugger all?

Oh Missy, you're so fine. You're so fine, you blow my mind. Hey Missy. Hey Missy.

Missy is the true star of Death in Heaven. Michelle Gomez brings so much to the role: The mercurial, unbridled evil, the bananas unpredictability, the playful, funny, theatricality. There's even a little vulnerability and genuine affection at times; particularly in her interactions with Capaldi in the graveyard; which only serves to make her feel even more dangerous. I'm not usually a fan of The Master (or many villains designed as a foil type arch-enemy), but Missy is easily the best thing about the episode. You'll certainly see people dismiss her as being "another of Moffat's interchangeable women." Ignore them, for they are wrong. Missy is sensational and I hope she returns in the near future.

"And this is when I turned into Skeletor..."

In the absence of any significant threat from the Cybermen, it's up to Missy to provide the carnage. She delivers. Heartbreakingly. Yes, I am referring to her brutal and pointless murder of fan favourite Osgood! It may well be a rather simple narrative cheat to establish the threat she poses, but it is damned effective one. Osgood's death scene seems to have resonated quite a lot within the fanbase and (while also down to the lazy offer of companionship earlier), I think that's due to how pointless her death is. It's very common for relatively pivotal supporting characters to die by heroic sacrifice, or at least their murder has a clear purpose on the villain's part. Here, Missy just kills Osgood. For no reason. If not exactly innovative storytelling, it's nonetheless a great establishing moment and a very satisfying scene.

If I did have one criticism, it's be that - again - it's a bit stupid in its contrivance. It's a bit of a stretch to believe that Missy was able to break free from her cuffs, apply some lipstick, and get over to Osgood without the two armed guards doing anything at all. As mentioned earlier, why is Missy even conscious in the first place?

My other critique of how Missy is handled is that her reasoning for choosing Clara and keeping The Doctor with her are left disappointingly vague. It is explained that she was the "woman in the shop" who gave Clara the TARDIS phone number, and that she left the message to meet in the paper in Deep Breath. But... Why? We are told "you'd go to hell if she asked, and she would", bring The Doctor to her plan, but it seems like quite a tenuous reason (given her plan involves a massive invasion!) and a bit too convoluted. Sure this is The Mistress we're talking about, but I don't think it's fair to build up a mystery like that then just not do it justice. The reveal Missy kept The Doctor and Clara together doesn't seem to mean anything, in terms of the story or thematically.

"Why didn't you laugh at my Mary Poppins jokes?"

We approach the climax of the story now, yet it doesn't feel like much has happened. The Doctor has learned from the now-emotionless CyberDan that the rain will fall and kill everyone or something, and Missy descends Mary Poppins style on proceedings. It's only now that we learn of Missy's true plan: Hand control over the Cybermen to The Doctor. To prove they're not so different. Because Missy "wants [her] friend back." Touching, and a sincerely surprising twist. In any other episode, I'd probably be praising it to high heaven (lol) but given the episode is already suffering from a lack of threat, it seems a misjudged decision to take away from the one remaining source of malice.

The Doctor is then forced to reconsider the question: Is he a good man? The ambiguity over Twelve's character is something which has been dragged out across the entire season, and I do feel as though the conclusion given to us here is a bit of a letdown and arbitrary to boot. The Doctor is not a good man, or an officer, he is... A madman with a box An idiot. Erm... Okay. I still don't think we have a clear idea of what Capaldi's Doctor is truly like by this point, which is a problem. Throughout the series, playing up to the ambiguity has deprived him of many good, potentially character-defining moments and it has made it increasingly challenging to find a meaningful connection to him.

Not willing to command an army of Cybermen (omg, why not?!), The Doctor gives control to CyberDan, who then proceeds to burn the murderous clouds by exploding, a la The Poison Sky. Everything is explained for once: From why CyberDan is still Danny, to how the clouds are destroyed, so props to that. It's just... Well, it's a bit rubbish. Danny doesn't hurt Clara because "Love isn't an emotion, it's a promise", which is painfully hackneyed even by Doctor Who standards. And wrong. Danny only sending the boy he killed back to world of the living is justified by the ever-lame "only enough power for one trip". The very emotive speech Danny delivers before blasting off is just cringe. It's an anti-climax at best and embarrassing at worst.

Back in black, I hit the sack, It's been too long I'm glad to be back

There's a little aside to show that Kate (love Kate) was saved by the late Brigadier in cyberman form. I'm not sure why they did this. Maybe they thought it was a touching tribute but it feels in poor taste to me, and unnecessarily so since we've had tributes to the Brig in no less than three episodes already. The Doctor finally gives the Brig the salute he always wished for. The first time we heard about this wish was second hand in this episode - depriving the scene of any meaningful merit.

Eventually making it's way to the closing scenes (there is a bit of fatigue towards the end), Death In Heaven hits another high note with it's departure (?) scene for Clara. It's touching to see Clara and The Doctor lie to each other, and the dialogue is dead on. While the misunderstanding that the scene hinges on is a tad forced, the emotion of the scene is torturous enough that it doesn't matter. Though if this really is Clara's final episode (and it's heavily implied by Santa to not be), it will be disappointing that some of the development she has received in Series 8 didn't get a real pay-off.

While Death in Heaven has its fair share of good moments, it lacks a clear identity. It is both an epic , action packed invasion, and an isolated character piece. The themes it tries to communicate feel confused and sometimes contradictory. The plot oscillates between being too detail heavy and explanatory, and not enough. So I'm not certain as to what, exactly, I am supposed to take away from it. It's not the worst finale there's been - the tone is consistent, dark, and sombre; Missy is an excellent villain - but it's far from outstanding. It relies far too heavily on the elements which don't work, rather than the ideas (and the Capaldi!) which could have made it soar.