TV Episode Review: “Doctor Who” “Death in Heaven” (08.12, 2014)

Written by Steven Moffat

Directed by Rachel Talalay

I’m not a fan of the Cybermen. I’m not a fan of UNIT or the Doctor’s relationship to it. Still, the Master is my favorite villain, so I thought this had a chance. I was wrong. It’s the kind of overly militaristic, far-too-fight-heavy, extremely overblown episode that both UNIT and the Cybermen tend to bring with them. Indeed, the Master’s presence was so tangential to what was going on that she could easily have been replaced with almost any other character without it mattering.

Even when the Master reveals her final plan to prove that the Doctor is her, it feels tacked-on to an otherwise completed story, and it falls flat, coming across as a reworking of the skyscraper interrogation from The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK 2008) that hardly even bothers to change the dialogue. And in its zeal to copycat that film’s climax, it misses a fundamental piece of the relationship between the Doctor and the Master: love. The Master and the Doctor love one another, but if this were your introduction to their relationship, you wouldn’t know it. That’s a failure.

The episode also has problems in its obviousness: as soon as the Doctor mentioned the portrait of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, it was clear that he was going to be there in cyber-form, so then when Kate fell out of the plane, I knew he was going to save her. Danny, as always, is so relentlessly selfless that the irredeemably selfish Clara cannot understand his willingness to give up his own life in order to send back a child he killed during his time as a soldier–and that was clearly the only reason to introduce that child an episode earlier. The Doctor of course finds that Gallifrey is not where the Master claims that it is but doesn’t want Clara to feel guilty over their separation, so he lies to her while we are being shown the “shocking” revelation that the Master, who might never have said something truthful in any of his/her various incarnations over the last half-decade, was lying.

Otherwise, the biggest problem with this episode is that it has too much plot and seriousness, lacking the fun, humor, and goofiness that have always characterized the best of Doctor Who. Because of that overdone, over-serious plot, it’s actually boring. It’s too busy moving from one plot point to the next for any of the clever dialogue that has always been Moffat’s strength. It’s too busy trying to tug at our heartstrings to allow any of the fun back-and-forth between the Doctor and Clara that has often been the saving grace of this season. Add that all up, and we get a very un-Doctor Who episode, and not really in a good way.

This season started off with some real promise. The first few episodes were mostly good (especially the fantastic “Listen”) and Peter Capaldi proved himself capable of great depth and strength in the lead role, with his Doctor also showing a great amount of separation from earlier Doctors. And then it just fell apart. The writers didn’t deserve the Doctor they were given, and he deserved better scripts. Sure, they were saddled with Clara Oswald, but attempting to make her interesting by adding a terrible soap opera romance was still a bad idea on their part.

It seems Clara is probably on her way out, though the BBC has already said that she will be involved in the Christmas special. Perhaps a new companion is what Moffat and company need to get the show back on track after a couple of very rocky, disappointing seasons, but I’m starting to fear that it’s Moffat who needs to go for the show to return to its best.

Notes

  • Sometimes, I get the impression that Moffat is actually engaged in a childish battle against the ghost of Russell T. Davies. Did he write a season finale starring the Master to try to one-up the triptych that ended season three? If he did, he failed. And it’s not the fault of Michelle Gomez, who was every bit as good in the role as John Simm ever was. The idea of making the Master female was sort of interesting, but then Moffat didn’t do anything with it. Instead, he just used it as a way to throw people off the scent of who this was.
  • For all that his acting has been a problem this season, Samuel Anderson actually played his poorly-written departure sequence as well as he has played anything.
  • Did anyone else just want to throw up on seeing Santa Claus? Yuck.
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