Warning: Contains a whole lot of spoilers.
Let me save you some time. If you wanted a precis of ‘Death in Heaven’, you could do worse than look at Steven Moffat’s To-do list.
“Here’s the problem,” said Emily, as we packed away half-eaten bags of Chinese nuts, finished off the plum and blackberry wine (homemade, although not by us) and tried to keep Edward away from the Lego. “Generally speaking you see occasional bad episodes of Doctor Who and you think all right, fine, perhaps they’re building to something a bit more interesting. And then you get this, and you realise they’re doing nothing of the sort.”
This little observation came at the end of a discussion (complete with quotes, in silly voices, from yours truly) that tried to determine whether tonight’s finale was in fact better or worse than ‘Fear Her’, ‘A Town Called Mercy’, ‘Evolution of the Daleks’ or ‘Journey To The Centre of the TARDIS’. It’s telling when you find yourself having to drudge the back of your memory to recall those stories you’d sooner best forget in order to cushion the blow that is the mess you’ve just experienced. It’s the equivalent of doing a Tequila slammer, in which you fill your mouth with pungent, fiery liquid while juxtaposing it with sourness to counteract the general unpleasantness of the whole concoction. Some people like Tequila slammers, of course. Myself, I’ve never seen the point.
You know how you get some New Who episodes that chuck a bad idea at you and it’s bad and you hate it? And then you move onto something else very quickly that perhaps isn’t quite so bad and you sort of forget about the bad bit until the end when you look back? Well, ‘Death in Heaven’ is worse. It’s not one bad idea, it’s a whole heap of bad ideas thrown at you with the sort of merciless onslaught that grave robbers probably got when they were sitting in the medieval stocks. Not since ‘The Wedding of River Song’ have I wanted an episode so badly to end before it completed its running time, and not since that very same episode have I seen such a cacophony of stupid, pointless and empty concepts dressed up as storytelling, only to find myself in an apparent minority when it comes to appraising an episode that everyone else seems to be describing as a ‘classic’.
Where to start? Well, we’ll begin with the Cybermen, whose role tonight was to stand in a cemetery. The plans borne out by Missy in ‘Dark Water’ came to fruition with the latest upgrade in Cyber technology: the natives of Mondas have, it seems, found a way to resurrect the dead. Hence the consciousnesses of the deceased were harvested inside the Matrix until they were ready to be reborn: “Every tiny particle of a Cyberman,” explains the Doctor, “contains the plans to make another Cyberman”. The U.N.I.T. chap he’s explaining this to (Sanjeev Bhaskar, this week’s stunt casting) looks as incredulous as we do at this revelation. The one-size-fits-all ‘nanotechnology’ solution is thus implemented as an excuse to have an army of the dead rise from their graves in order to destroy and then enslave humanity, the day before Remembrance Sunday, while a dead soldier looks on.
It could be that Moffat didn’t plan this on purpose. Its questionable timing may be nothing more than simple bad luck. Or perhaps the BBC knew what would happen and knew that they’d be able to bat down any complaints using the “this storyline was handled with dignity and respect and we are sorry for any offence that may have been caused” card, figuring that the show’s advocates on Gallifrey Base would do the rest. The other week I complained about the abortion subtext in ‘Kill the Moon’, suggesting that you can’t handle big issues within the confines of a forty-five minute drama. The problem with ‘Death in Heaven’ is that it doesn’t really handle anything; it basically digs up a hundred thousand graves and then leaves the ground covered with soil.
So am I overreacting when I suggest that the theme was in poor taste? Perhaps. But the fact of the matter is that while I’ll defend the BBC to the grave, I find it increasingly difficult to trust them. After years of being stuffy and responsible they seem to have found a second childhood, and now the corporation behaves like the teenager that you allow to have some freedom in the hope that (s)he’ll grow up a bit, only to find that said teenager has been rather reckless on social media and is frankly misspending his pocket money. They can handle themselves without my input, I daresay, but you can’t help shaking your head in despair.
I’d leave it at that. But the fact that the nano-conversion debacle isn’t the worst thing in the episode is, I think, a measure of how far down the slope we’ve come. Danny Pink, as it turns out, is back, but wearing armour, having been able (somehow) to retain his humanity even as he’s crammed into a metal suit. It’s almost disappointing when he doesn’t start weeping oil. If they’d had the usual nonsense they use in stories of robotic possession, where the mutated hero has a gun trained at the head of his sidekick, who is urging “Fight it! Fight it, Sam! You’re still in there! Don’t let it take you!” then I’d still be rolling my eyes, but at least we’d have seen some sort of conflict. Instead we are left to assume that love conquers all, even enforced robotic conversion, and I really thought we’d left all that behind in 2011.
Danny, at least, gets the exit he deserves, basically saving the world while the Doctor makes a couple of speeches and banters with Michelle Gomez. It’s a send-off of sorts for Samuel Anderson, even though (despite the episode’s final scene) I suspect we have seen neither the last of him nor his girlfriend, who gets to do a pointless opening monologue where she pretends to be the Doctor – a scene concocted, as Emily put it, in order to create an ambiguous teaser. I may have been wrong about Missy being the Master (even though it wasn’t a serious guess) but it was patently obvious that Clara’s apparent character transformation was nothing more than clever editing. Her final scene with the Doctor is quietly dignified, at least, as she wanders off down the same street they landed upon in ‘Deep Breath’ (and which, at least within the context of the show, is supposed to be Glasgow, making very little sense).
Pulling the strings of the Cyber puppets, Michelle Gomez is just about the most watchable thing this week. She manages to be sinister without being irredeemable, and crackpot insane without descending into the sort of overacting we saw in every scene featuring John Simm. Far too much is made, unfortunately, of the nature of madness, but there are some lovely moments with the Doctor and with Osgood, even if having her singing “Oh, Missy, you’re so fine” to the tune of ‘Mickey’ seems like far too much of a stretch.
Unfortunately, we see far too little of her. Moffat crams a hundred things into an hour of television, and you’re left with a whistle-stop tour of great ideas unused; seeds that have been left to gather dust on the stony path where they’ve landed. The Doctor’s role as President, for example, is given next-to-no context beyond the words “Emergency protocols”, and is not explored because there simply isn’t time for him to actually do anything before his Air Force One is attacked. There is also the ludicrous question of the flying Cybermen, who now have rocket boots simply because the plot demands that they have rocket boots. There’s no context given: the Cybermen are now basically the writer’s dream, a monster you can change according to how you need an episode to run. “We are being told that these metal men are known as Cybermen,” a radio DJ announces early in the episode. “But unlike the accounts we have on file, they now have the ability to fly.”
That doesn’t stop Kate Stewart (the ever-watchable Gemma Redgrave) dumping a 1968 Cyberman’s helmet on the ground in the opening scenes, effectively throwing down the gauntlet – a challenge to which the 2014 Cybermen respond by later sucking her out of a plane. It’s such a sudden and undignified end (at least Ingrid Oliver gets a few last words before being zapped into oblivion) that you know there is no possible way that it can be final – this isn’t Buffy, after all. Deaths here are long and drawn out, and usually accompanied by tinkly pianos.
But the discovery of Kate at the end of the episode is coupled with what is perhaps the most horrid thing that happens this week, when the One Good Cyberman turns out to have a body double. “Hooray for the Brigadier,” read the GB comments. “He finally got to kill the Master!”. Or “Oh, I am LITERALLY weeping buckets. So sad.” Perhaps (s)he had turned over to The X-Factor by mistake, just in time to catch someone securing a place in next week’s show before even singing a note by dedicating a performance to their dead grandmother. Or perhaps I’m just dead inside, given that the only thing I wanted to do when the Doctor saluted (which was in no way foreshadowed and not obvious at all) was throw things at the TV. Never mind the fact that no explanation whatsoever is given for the Brigadier’s ability to override the Cybermen’s programming (at the expense of any other deceased human being who might have been similarly impassioned); it’s a pitiful, horrible way to deal with the death of a soldier. “Wish hard enough,” Moffat seems to be suggesting, “and you too can rise from the grave to kill Hitler.”
Teasingly, ‘Death in Heaven’ offers up a false ending, interrupting the story’s downbeat conclusion with what is quite possibly the most ludicrous thing to happen in Doctor Who since Hugh Quarshie attempted an American accent. It’s as if we’re being offered, at this point, that most unlikely of scenarios: a happy ending. The fact that this message is delivered in the way it is almost suggests a nod and a wink on the part of the creative team – an acknowledgement, in a way, that what we’ve just had to witness was both stupid and depressing, but that they’re going to put things right. The Office – the British version, at least – ended its second series on a depressing note but gave us a Hollywood ending in a two-part special that saw Tim finally pair up with Dawn, while an understanding blind date offered a glimmer of redemption for David Brent. Could this frankly disastrous series of Doctor Who be about to spin round and offer a fun, light-hearted and yet emotionally satisfying conclusion?
After everything I’ve been complaining about these past few weeks, it’s almost too much to hope for. But it is nearly Christmas.