Love, Lies and Loss: Doctor Who’s “Death in Heaven”

Season 8’s two-part finale, “Dark Water”/”Death in Heaven” was easily my favorite story of the season, which has been plagued by an odd combination of ideas and performances that frequently never quite gel. Moreover, it’s only the second time a season finale has left me satisfied, the first being Season 3’s “Utopia”/”Sound of Drums”/”Last of the Time Lords”.

You might be sensing a theme here.





Cyberman being revealed in "Dark Water" on Dr. Who
Hidden in plain sight: Dark water reveals only organic matter, disguising Cybermen as moving skeletons

It’s not just that “Dark Water” brought together my two favorite villains, the Cybermen and the Master (who first appeared in “Utopia”). Indeed, the Cybermen are a bit of an afterthought here. They might just as well have been nameless cyborgs, if it weren’t for the truly stunning reveal of their involvement (somewhat ruined by trailers advertising their appearance).

And I’m really not a fan of Time Lord gender-bending, in part because the writers apparently can’t escape the lure of sexuality questions. I’m sure the slash-fic writers were wetting themselves over every awkward leer and kiss.

That point aside, however, Michelle Gomez was as convincing as any male actor in the role (now known as Missy rather than the Master), full of Anthony Ainley’s malevolence and John Simm’s insanity.

The real plot here were the relationships between the characters: the love between Danny and Clara, the increasingly complicated and untenable relationship between Clara and the Doctor, and the continuing waltz that is the Doctor and the Master, played out better here than in any previous story, old series or new.

The Master isn’t merely an age-old nemesis, nor is his connection with the Doctor simply that they are the last two Time Lords. A very long time ago, they were best friends. It’s never been addressed exactly when that ended; presumably, it was sometime roughly contemporaneous with the Master deciding he needed to rule the universe.

“Old friend, is she? If you have ever let this creature live, everything that happened today, is on you. All of it, on you. And you’re not going to let her live again.” – Clara

The Doctor, being the righteous bastard he tends to be, feels a responsibility both for protecting the universe from him and protecting him from himself. In “Last of the Time Lords”, the Doctor volunteers to take the Master into eternal custody rather than handing him over to Earth authorities. (The Master, incidentally, considered this literally a fate worse than death.)

In “End of Time”, the Season 6 finale, we see the Master throw the Doctor aside when the Time Lord president (whom I refuse to call Rassilon) attempts to kill him. The overt motivation is revenge against those who put the maddening drums into his head, but there may also have been just a momentary shred of friendship still in play.  After all, he could get his revenge just as easily after the Doctor is struck dead.

“You know the best part about knowing? Not telling you.” – Missy

In “Death in Heaven”, Missy’s motivation is entirely the tormenting of the Doctor: implying she knows where their lost homeworld is but refusing to share, hiding murderous Cybermen in plain sight in St. Paul’s Cathedral; killing Kate Stewart’s personal assistant, Osgood, for no better reason than she can; blowing Kate out the cargo bay doors in front of the Doctor.

Cybermen in "The Invasion," 1969
Cybermen in “The Invasion,” 1969
Cybermen coming out of St. Paul's in "Death in Heaven."
Cybermen in “Death in Heaven,” hidden in St. Paul’s for no better reason than to redo this shot.

Amid all of this, she plays so beautifully to their former friendship. She offers up a deadly army as a birthday gift, mockingly attempting to court his approval.  And, for a few maddening moments, I think the Doctor considered she might be serious in her own, twisted and completely insane way.

“Armies are for people who think they are right. And nobody thinks they’re righter than you. Give a good man firepower and he’ll never run out of people to kill.” -Missy

There are, indeed, things the Doctor could easily do with an army, such as defend worlds from the Daleks. But why just defend? Why not actively destroy? His hatred for them was been well established. And after that, what might be next? It’s an argument of slippery slopes and a test of absolutely power corrupting absolutely.

“I need you to know we’re not so different. I need my friend back. Every battle, every war, every invasion. From now on, you decide the outcome. What’s the matter, Mr. President? Don’t you trust yourself?” – Missy

You may notice that the Doctor does not attempt to prove himself incorruptible. Instead, he sidesteps it altogether, refusing to take control of the Cyber-army, as if worried he might just do what Missy hopes.

Typical officer. Got to keep those hands clean.” – Danny

The Doctor has a long history of decrying violence and mocking the military.  He does it pretty much every time he encounters UNIT.  And yet, he continues to work with UNIT, sometimes giving them the means of destroying the enemy.  But he doesn’t do it himself.  There’s only a handful of episodes he’s even picked up a gun, yet he directs those with them fairly regularly.

Cybernman hand clutching Danny Pink's paperwork.
The identity of the Cyberman is revealed to the audience by the medical examiner’s report clutched in his hand.

Danny’s got a point.

“Clara, watch this. This is who the Doctor is. Watch the blood soaked old general in action…Didn’t all of those beautiful speeches disappear in the face of a tactical advantage? Sir.” – Danny

For all his insults toward those in uniform, you would think he’s never killed a Dalek or a Cyberman.  You’d never have guessed he poured anti-plastic into the Nestene Consciousness. He let Cassandra die of rapid dehydration. He rather vindictively trapped the Family of Blood in endless isolation.

One doesn’t need to invoke the Time War to discuss the self-righteous morality of the Doctor.

The Doctor insisted Clara not switch off Danny’s emotional inhibitor. Pain is a gift, he says, justifying continuing Danny’s torment.  And yet, when once something was to be gained by Danny more fully integrating into his new existence as a Cyberman, the Doctor was quite willing (if reluctantly) to make the sacrifice.

And he manages to sacrifice Danny twice. First was turning on the emotion inhibitor. The second was handing him the Cyberman control unit, knowing Danny would self destruct and order the other Cybermen to do the same. The Doctor could have just as easily given the command himself, but this way the wasn’t directly on his hands.

His reluctant attempt to murder Missy, was, in my mind, his redemption. No more keeping his hands clean.  Time to sacrifice some of that righteousness.  He doesn’t do it out of vengeance, nor does he do it out of justice. He does it to keep Clara from doing it, to keep her conscience clean. And then, quite fittingly, his own conscience was saved by what was left of the Brigadier, the soldier the Doctor never stopped lecturing about being a soldier.

And the Doctor acknowledged the gesture with a salute, the most respect he’s probably ever shown the Brigadier since he first appeared on the show in 1968. Soldiers sacrifice so the rest of us don’t have to.

“Never trust a hug. It’s just a way of hiding your face.” – the Doctor

Doctor discovering Missy has lied about Gallifrey
Discovering Missy has lied about Gallifrey’s location, the Doctor completely loses his shit in what I find to be the most dramatic scene of the season.

This is possibly the most tearing-jerking exit of a companion since Rose. Clara’s relationship with the Doctor has always been odd, to the disappointment of some fans. She was too bossy, too dismissive, too like to the Doctor. She tried juggling a normal life with a life on-board the TARDIS, which worked reasonably well until she fell in love with Danny Pink, and suddenly her loyalties were split, and she found herself lying to both of them.

The final scene between Clara and the Doctor largely summed up their relationship. The Doctor made great presumptions concerning what she was about to say, instead speaking for her. Clara decides his fiction is better than the truth and keeps silent. The Doctor then covers his own loss – discovering the Missy has lied about the location of Gallifrey – with a lie of his own. Finally, they part ways with a hug, both sides knowing they have completely misrepresented themselves to the other, because the fiction is better than the truth.

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