Tony Fyler feels like death.
Like most Series 8 episodes, Death In Heaven divided fandom on broadcast. The Clara-Doctor; Michelle Gomez still being the Master; the death of the cosplaying (though desperately needy) Osgood; the super-Cybermen, being able to fly and weaponise the dead; the Mary Poppins moment; the flight safety briefing; Danny, at all times; Love being a promise that can break cyber-control (again, as in Closing Time); the lacklustre explanation for why Missy has done all this; the CyberBrig – my, what a lot we found to argue about. Let’s take another look and see whether Death In Heaven can still raise our blood pressure a year on.
First, the Clara-Doctor that caused such consternation the week before. Yes, of course she was lying. And let’s be fair to Clara for half a second (go on, try it, you might like it) if you knew as much as she does about the Doctor, and were faced with Cybermen ready to kill you as expendable, you wouldn’t pretend to be the Doctor too? Oh dearie me, you appear to have been vapourised. Nice playing with you – next! Was the use of her eyes in the credits justified? Meh – it helped for half a minute or more to sell the conceit of the pre-credit sequence, so why not?
Moving right along, yes, Michelle Gomez is still the Master, no, it wasn’t a joke, and here she sets about staking her claim to the role properly – her and her ‘lovely boys’ throwing the world for a loop, appearing entirely unconcerned when she’s taken prisoner by UNIT, the exquisite thrill of “D’you know what the best thing about knowing is? Not. Telling. You.” And then eesh – the killing of Osgood, showing this Master’s ability to twist the knife in a confidential way that even John Simm’s incarnation never managed. You want a good reason why the Master works in a female incarnation? It’s right there – she can say the things no-one else can get away with: “You don’t smell half as bad as you think you do” and so on, showing a kind of species-dislike that works only in the context of Michelle Gomez’ bonkers performance. Incidentally, yes, Osgood’s death feels right and necessary – the Master has never been shy of killing those close to the Doctor, and Osgood’s death is Missy establishing her right to join the line-up of incarnations.
The dark water works well as a threat, flowing as if with purpose, rising through drains, converting people as it goes. It’s either interesting or a plot hole that it confines itself to the dead – you can see it as Steven Moffat getting his zombie ya-yas out, and from the Cybermen’s point of view, it makes sense to take advantage of an abandoned resource before encountering resistance, but you could ask why it seems to focus entirely on the dead in its first phase. Danny’s back as ‘Heaven’ shuts down and people ‘go home.’ There are so many levels on which, as a plot, this doesn’t work – If you’re going to reintegrate human minds into the Cybermen but deny them emotion, a) why would you bother? and b) what software is running the mind routines? Presumably not human brains, as they will long have deteriorated beyond viability in the case of most of your army, so we assume a synthetic brain – at which point, given that you’re removing individuality in any case, see point a).
Danny’s return is particularly jarring in that he speaks like a Cyberman when he has his face plate on, but the instant it’s removed, he speaks like Danny Pink again, the rhythms and patterns of humanity in his speech. Faulty inhibitor, yes, but then why doesn’t Cyber-Danny sound more like Sally Phelan, the Cyberman who was getting married in the morning in The Age of Steel? The transformation from Cyberman to CyberDan doesn’t work, watched a year down the line.
The super-Cybermen on the other hand make sense within the Cybermen’s reason for being – to continually adapt, evolve, upgrade. Why they haven’t been able to fly before now is a mystery, and I even made the argument that they should be able to convert people through nano-clouds before it appeared on screen. So the super-Cybermen are something that still work, and while you can’t have an enemy that’s invincible every time they appear, the Cybermen can stand a little more invincibility in their armoury, having been vanquished over the decades in all manner of unlikely ways, from nail varnish remover to catapults and coins to self-realisation to love. So – super-Cybermen, yes.
It’s about at the point where Missy arrives with her umbrella that the wheels start to come off Death In Heaven good and proper though. The Mary Poppins thing is incidental, for all people have an issue with it. Viewed with hindsight it’s part of this Master’s incarnation to be far more whimsical and quixotic than those of the past, so why not drift in like Mary Poppins, just to make an additional mockery of people’s pain? The flight safety briefing seems to carry this gag too far though, and to go on too long. Meanwhile, CyberDan doesn’t move. At some point, it feels like we need a proper explanation of what’s become a trend in New Who – this idea that particular emotions are too strong to be quashed by the Cybermen’s inhibitor. Arguably, the inhibitor itself is a dodgy move, and they should have the body-horror of emotional cortexes being surgically removed from their brains at conversion, but if you’re going to have an inhibitor do the job, let it do the job, so blowing them up with love or somehow disobeying the cyber-conditioning when it’s convenient to the plot is no longer an option. The resolution where Danny saves the world here feels trite and ill-thought-out, particularly when Danny assumes enough of his personality to treat the cyber-armies like the Coal Hill Cadets. Missy’s reasons for doing all this too feel mystifying beyond the point of her ‘bananas’ nature. All this, all the death and threat, because she needs her friend back? It’s too low-key to be the capstone for the series arc that has introduced her to us and, to be fair, crowbarred her in to plenty of stories where she was an unnecessary intrusion. There’s bananas, and then there’s not being able to deliver the impact you’ve promised, and Death In Heaven’s ending fairly fizzles, rather than delivering any kind of bang.
The fourth ending – oh yes, count them up: Missy’s damp squib reasoning, the cyberDan ending, the shooting of Missy, then the ending where Dead Danny sends the kid he killed back to Earth (explanation, please? Missy moved between the worlds in her own body we assume, having subsequently seen her survive. The kid’s body will have rotted away, so how does he become more than a mind simply by wearing a bracelet that then fizzles out? Is he sustained simply by the power of the feels?) – makes us intensely grateful for the least logical of elements, meaning Danny won’t return (though it does then make us wonder if there’s not an enormous paradox at play – if Clara and Danny don’t have kids, then presumably Orson Pink looking exactly like Danny never happens, which means Listen never happens the way we see it unfold, which means Clara doesn’t inspire the young Doctor with the ‘Fear is a superpower’ speech and the whole damn thing falls to pieces). Ending five – the CyberBrig ending – has been described as somehow dishonoring the memory of both Nicholas Courtney, the Brigadier, and on some level, veterans everywhere. It’s twee, certainly, and another instance of the ‘love overcoming cyber-control’ for no good reason but storytelling convenience, but within the scope of the story, it makes some sense. Not much, especially as the Cybermen have gone to destroy themselves, and it does make us think of the lone CyberBrig still potentially being out there somewhere, but enough.
Ending six - the café ending, after the Doctor finds nothing where Missy said Gallifrey would be (in itself an effective moment) is tender, seeming to show this prickly Twelfth Doctor having grown some socialization skills. And the seventh and final ending – the Santa Claus ending – is an effective lead-in to the Christmas Special.
After a year, there’s still much to enjoy about Death In Heaven – its scale and scope, Michelle Gomez on great form making Missy a Master for a new age, super-Cybermen etc. But the fizzling out of its logic and its reason for being leaves it feeling like The Finale That Wasn’t, like the impact was never entirely focused into a single ending, meaning we need seven strands of semi-ending to dismantle all the tension and expectation that’s been built up within the story and the series. After a year, it still watches well enough until the endings begin, but don’t, whatever you do, subject it to a moment’s critical thought.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk