09 November 2014

TV: Death in Heaven

review by Tom Newsom (Twitter | Flickr | Blog)

Clara is the Doctor! Well, probably. After Dark Water, you get the feeling that anything could happen, and it probably would. This finale was, like that opening sequence, surprising and epic and delivering on the character’s stories that have been building up throughout the series. A mad ending, as well as a fitting one. Like Missy’s plan (happily all that afterlife stuff is definitely an evil ruse), it might be a bit mad if you had to explain it all afterwards, but it delivers emotionally.

From last week’s slow set-up we’ve moved into pure awesome territory, though still with the big Moffaty ideas - he’s thrown a whole series worth into this story. The showrunner has said in interviews that writing the final two episodes this year was the most fun he’s had and you can tell. Huge stakes! Huge deaths! Missy being bananas! It doesn’t need to be said any more that it’s witty, or clever, or surprising, or brilliantly well made. And even with show’s history breathing down its neck, it’s amazing how much new things they can do with the character and the format. Everything in this episode feels like it’s never been done before, as well as being at the top of its game.

Some of that is down to budgets - trying to match the spectacle of a Marvel film at a fraction of the cost. The money clearly has been spent on the UNIT jet scenes, which offer the glorious set pieces of a Cyberman attack and Missy’s escape from captivity. There’s action, excitement and horror, as she shows that she’s the same Time Lord at heart, actually properly killing Osgood (oh no no no). Michelle Gomez is bonkers, relishing every line, stretching out the accents to breaking point, and always acting in impeccable character. She steals these last two episodes, if not the whole series, and as her fate is as clear as mud she WILL be back. The Cybermen also get a look-in whilst staying reassuringly silent with their new flying skills. Whilst it’s not always convincing elsewhere, I’m glad they spent the money on the night-time action sequence as it looks perfect and beautiful.

Then we’re abruptly back down to Earth and into (relatively) low budget territory, with Clara getting stalked around a graveyard in homage to horror, something in ace director Rachel Talalay’s roots. That the end-game is simply our leads standing around in a graveyard feels a bit small scale considering the whole of the human race is about to be killed - and perhaps it needed a few more wide shots - but then the stakes here are simply Danny and Clara. One man, who we feel for, disturbingly dead and Cyberised. It’s a horrible scene made even worse by Jenna and Sam playing it so bare and heartbroken. When the Doctor turns up, it turns into a character study paying off twelve episodes worth of introspection, coupled with an impossible dilemma about love and death and duty. Most dramas would kill for a scene like that even once a year, but it’s just the latest in a series full of them. It’s so much richer this year from the writers upping the drama, that we’ve truly been spoilt.

Danny and Clara are at the heart of the story, leaving the villains surprisingly in the shadows. This suits the Cybermen, who are back to being essentially henchmen, but it fits their faceless, almost communist, roots of an identikit inhuman race. They’re also creepy and horrific. Less well suited is the new Master. Her choice of plan deconstructs the character down to a notion that we’ve never really seen expressed before - evil yes, but only wanting the Doctor’s attention rather than boring old world domination - but doesn’t the character wait until they’ve won before they start bargaining? It feels like Missy hasn’t shown nearly enough bite as her previous incarnations by ceding so quickly.

The series has also been about the relationship between the Doctor and Clara - though here, they only really talk to each other properly at the ending. If you asked anyone’s for their favourite scenes this series, guaranteed somewhere in their top five would be one between the Doctor and Clara. The often powerful exchanges are the backbone of this series - think back to “I’m not your boyfriend”, “She cares so I don’t have to”, “I’m against the hugging”, “You walk our earth, you breath our air”, “Goodness had nothing to do with it”. And more recently, “Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?”, followed by “I’m exactly what you deserve.” It’s been the heart of this series and it’s all been leading to this - Clara being equal to the Doctor, and making decisions when he couldn’t go through with them. Even the final scenes show them as equals, yet again hiding their feelings (and their faces) from each other with their lies, the events causing irreversible damage to their relationship. Both of their fates are genuinely horrible, especially with Peter Capaldi’s strong reaction. Raw drama and raw emotion.

I’ve watched a lot of telly series, and I’ve come to a universal truth: final episodes are bloody hard to pull off. For a show like Doctor Who, with months of build-up and millions of fans, they must be even harder. Raising the stakes is far easier than lowering them again -think of all the comments on two-parters where the second half has ‘ruined’ it - especially if you decide to go on a fake-out and not deliver the action you were building up to all series. It’s a recipe for leaving viewers dissatisfied. Fortunately, this episode delivered that, tying up the ‘Good Man’ debate (and the idea of the Doctor being a General from The Caretaker), having a proper confrontation between our hero and new arch enemy (we’ve had too few of those in the last twenty years), and exploring Danny and Clara’s relationship one final heartbreaking time.

It’s on the last front that I think the episode still dissatisfies the viewer. The Doctor hates endings, and so does the show itself. Whilst it might be in keeping with the characters, Danny’s sacrifice and Clara’s last few scenes are realistic and downbeat and brutal compared with our dreams of a happy ending and a perfect romance for them. I wished this one didn’t end on two great big lies from our main characters, or three big lies if you consider that we don’t even know if Clara is going to be leaving here or not, so should we cry over it all or what? It’s the same with Danny - something about the open-ended nature of the programme means that exits no longer have the same impact. And the ambiguity elsewhere turns it into audience dissatisfaction for this show; the next series should be working towards the right balance of dramatic uncertainty and authorial intent that this year has wavered around. In some ways it’s been a year to love for all the wrong reasons: the Doctor is less immediately likeable, the companion doesn’t always get along, the journeys are more dangerous and less fun. But it’s also, on a technical level in every department, probably the best series of Doctor Who ever produced.

many thanks to
Tom Newsom (Twitter | Flickr | Blog)

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