By the end of the harrowing events of “Death in Heaven,” the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) are looking like a pair of shell-shocked battle survivors, sharing a hug that’s actually a way to mask from each other the deeper wounds they’ve suffered. Both have had their hopes cruelly dashed: Clara of seeing her boyfriend, Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), again, and the Doctor of finding his lost homeworld, Gallifrey. But as we’ve seen many times this season, they’re both accomplished deceivers of each other, and the story ends with them peacefully parting, Clara maintaining the fiction that she’ll be sharing her future with Danny while the Doctor pretends to head for home. However, after this seemingly conclusive ending, the credits are interrupted by an intrusion from the next episode (the Christmas special, thankfully only a few weeks away), making it clear that the Doctor and Clara still have unfinished business.
Showrunner Steven Moffat neatly ties together the whole of Clara’s time with the Doctor, confirming that their initial meeting (back in last year’s “The Bells of Saint John”) was set up by the Doctor’s old adversary, the Master, now in the form of “Missy” (Michelle Gomez). After last week’s cliffhanger, when Missy’s Cybermen emerged from Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Moffat quickly establishes the worldwide scale appropriate for a season finale. UNIT forces, led by returning characters Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) and scientist Osgood (Ingrid Oliver), attempt to take control of the situation; these new Cybermen have the capability to fly, rapidly dispersing over the globe and exploding into clouds that blanket the world’s cemeteries. The Doctor and Missy are taken aboard UNIT’s flying base, where the former is astonished to learn that protocols are in place to install him as President of Earth in the event of alien incursion. He discovers that the clouds are producing rain that can convert the bodies of the dead into Cybermen, ready to be occupied by the minds Missy has gathered in the Time Lord data storage device, the Nethersphere—which include Danny Pink. Director Rachel Talalay delivers some macabre imagery of Cybermen pushing their way out of graves in the manner of a zombie film. As the Doctor says, “How can you win a war against an enemy that can weaponize the dead?”
After hovering around the fringes for most of the season, Missy finally takes center stage, and Gomez gives a fantastically charismatic performance. Missy is psychotically unpredictable, at times even hilarious, such as when she casually disposes of her minion, Seb (Chris Addison), or when she makes an army of Cybermen pretend to be giving an airplane-safety briefing. Amid the laughs, though, are moments of real nastiness, in particular the sadistic killing of the likeable Osgood, or the shocking moment soon afterward when she blows a hole in the side of the plane and Kate is sucked out to her apparent death. (The later twist, by which Kate is revealed to have been saved by a Cyberman who was her late father, the Doctor’s old friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, is a moving touch for longtime fans.) But when the moment comes to reveal Missy’s true intentions, Gomez gives her an almost pitiable vulnerability as we’re reminded that the Master was originally the Doctor’s oldest friend. The Doctor rejects the offered command of the Cyber army, and instead throws the control device to the Cyberman who was once Danny Pink. Despite being encased in heavy prosthetics, Anderson gives his most effective performance of the season; his final parade-ground style speech, before leading the army of Cybermen to sacrifice themselves and burn away the clouds, is a genuinely powerful moment.
Having spent most of her time last year as more of a puzzle piece than a character, Clara has blossomed this season—not so much because of the inclusion of the romantic storyline with Danny, but because of the scripts’ willingness to explore the effects (not all of them good ones) that traveling with the Doctor has had on her. Coleman has been consistently impressive at handling the variety of material, and in this episode she ranges from the fast-talking comedy of her “I’m the Doctor” bluff when she confronts the Cybermen at the start (made even more amusing by the clever idea of reversing the opening credits and showing Coleman’s face in the titles instead of Capaldi’s) to the unrestrained emotion of her scenes with the Cyber-converted Danny.
Capaldi’s Doctor is mostly in the background for the first part of the episode, as he struggles to keep up with Missy’s antics (though he does get a good moment, mocking her for all her previous scheming to rule the world when he’s just had control of it dropped into his lap). But once he’s in the cemetery with Clara and Danny, and Missy reveals her purpose in creating the Cyber army, it becomes clear that the entire season has been leading up to this point. Thanks to flashbacks from previous episodes (in particular, “Am I a good man?” from “Into the Dalek”), we’re reminded that the Doctor has been troubled by uncertainty about himself ever since he regenerated. It takes Missy’s offer of ultimate power for him to realize that he’s not a good man or a bad man, but “an idiot, with a box and a screwdriver…passing through, helping out, learning.” Capaldi shows an almost palpable relief as, after a year of doubt, the Doctor is finally sure of himself again.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: The interplay between the original Master (Roger Delgado) and the Doctor can be seen at its best in 1971’s “The Daemons.” Starring Jon Pertwee, with Katy Manning, it also features Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, who got to play an unexpected role in “Death in Heaven.”
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