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BBC1. 1.11.14 // 8.11.14.
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Rachel Talalay
And so to the series finale… In the days of classic Doctor Who this was rarely such a big thing: indeed some of the weakest stories often came at the end of a series, as if the production team had run out of creative energy. I doubt that many Doctor Who fans will number ‘The Reign of Terror’, ‘The War Machines’, ‘The Time Monster’, ‘Time-Flight’ or ‘The King’s Demons’ among their top fifty best stories. And the less said about ‘The Twin Dilemma’ the better. Only ‘The Evil of the Daleks’, which concluded Series 4 and was supposed to mark the last appearance of the series’ favourite villains, seems to have been planned as a sort of epic series-ending finale, while stories such as ‘The War Games’, ‘Planet of the Spiders’ and ‘Logopolis’ were different on account of being written as exit stories for Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. In my review of ‘Deep Breath’ I wrote a little about the best new-Doctor debut stories: the best old-Doctor exit stories might also make an interesting subject for a blog. But not this one.
Ever since the return of Doctor Who in 2005, however, things have been different. New Who has embraced new developments in popular television drama, particularly story arcs and season finales, which we’ve seen in American television since the heyday of 1980s soap operas such as Dallas and Dynasty and which has featured in millennial British dramas as different in their ways as Spooks and Downton Abbey. In fact it’s become something of a convention of new Who that it should build towards a big climax in which hanging story threads are pulled together and the Earth, or sometimes the entire Universe, faces its greatest threat since – well, since the last apocalypse was averted at the end of the previous series. Under Russell T. Davies this usually tended to involve the Daleks (as in ‘Bad Wolf’/‘The Parting of the Ways’, ‘Army of Ghosts’/‘Doomsday’ and ‘The Stolen Earth’/‘Journey’s End’) or The Master (‘The Sound of Drums’/‘The Last of the Time Lords’ and ‘The End of Time’). The Daleks have always been good for the ratings, while the return of The Master was part of a carefully-plotted story arc that also crossed over into the Doctor Who spin-off series Torchwood. Steven Moffat hasn’t brought us the Daleks, except in cameos, but he has rebooted the entire universe (‘The Pandorica Opens’/‘The Big Bang’) and has collapsed all time lines into one (‘The Wedding of River Song’). By those standards the return of the Cybermen might seem more of a routine threat for the Doctor to avert – though these were no ordinary Cyberman, and as ever there was a twist and a Big Revelation (spoiler alert!).
Throughout this series we’ve had tantalising cutaways to a mysterious woman – later named as Missy and brilliantly played by the coquettish Michelle Gomez – who has been welcoming deceased minor characters to an apparent afterlife variously referred to as the Promised Land or the Nethersphere. It was evident from her references to the Doctor as her ‘boyfriend’ that she was on familiar terms with him. This fuelled speculation within fandom that she might turn out to be The Rani – a renegade Time Lord (The Rani was hardly a lady!) who appeared twice in the classic series. Historically Doctor Who has struggled with sexy femme fatale type villains – which again would make an interesting subject for a blog – but The Rani, as played by Kate O’Mara, was an exception. In the end of course it turns out that Missy (short for ‘Mistress’) was none other than The Master.
This was a brilliant twist which I confess caught me entirely by surprise – though to be fair to the production team, in hindsight it all seems clearly signposted. It was a brilliant piece of misdirection by Steven Moffat to state at Comic Con that The Master would not be coming back. We know that the Doctor lies – and so does The Showrunner! This is another example of how Moffat has been willing to rewrite Doctor Who’s internal mythology in a way that will delight fans and provide new twists on old formulae. It was hinted in the 2011 episode ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ that Time Lords are able to change sex when they regenerate – though until now this had not been recognised as an official part of Doctor Who folklore. To some extent this revelation might be a way of stoking speculation about the possibility of casting a female Doctor – a debate that is usually traced back to a throwaway remark by Tom Baker when he was leaving the series and which became the focus of quite intense speculation last year before the announcement of Peter Capaldi’s casting. For the time being it refreshes the relationship between Doctor and Master by adding an undercurrent of sexual tension that is no longer there in the relationship between Doctor and companion. I hope we have not seen the end of Michelle Gomez as this character: while she was apparently disintegrated towards the end of the episode, this is little more than an inconvenience to a writer who has continually challenged accepted continuity.
Here The Master/Mistress was plotting to conquer the world with a new breed of Cybermen who have been resurrected from the dead – quite literally as it turns out. We know that the Cybermen are not robots but cyborgs who require human body parts to augment with cybernetic technology. For this reason I’ve always preferred the Cybermen over the Daleks as villains because what they represent is not some highly ideological fanatical distilled essence of evil but rather a cold and rational dehumanised version of ourselves. Now, it seems, the Cybermen don’t necessarily require living bodies. Hence the Nethersphere turned out to be a mausoleum where the dead are turned into Cybermen. This was a genuinely horrific concept that once again – after a few lacklustre outings such as last year’s ‘Nightmare in Silver’ – restored the Cybermen to their rightful place in Doctor Who’s hierarchy of monsters.
I’ve commented throughout this series on the increased prominence of homages to the classic series in Moffat’s Doctor Who. ‘Dark Water’, especially, included several visual references, including the mausoleum with its teardrop-eye motifs and hive-like opaque tombs (‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’) and Cybermen emerging from St Paul’s Cathedral (‘The Invasion’). I think these references work for fans while not alienating new viewers or getting in the way of the plot: this is where the use of homage in new Who differs from the self-referential pit into which the classic series fell in the mid-1980s. (‘Attack of the Cybermen’ is the best – or worst – example of this tendency: key plot points depended upon knowledge of two Cybermen stories from the 1960s, ‘The Tenth Planet’ and ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’, neither of which had been available for many years except as Target novelisations – indeed at the time ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’ was a lost Doctor Who serial). There were also other points that suggest a broader frame of cultural reference. The sequence of Cybermen rising from graves was pure Night of the Living Dead (1968). And am I the only one to think that the Nethersphere – which turns out to be a highly bureaucratic afterlife in which newcomers have to process their paperwork – might have been partly inspired by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s classic British fantasy film A Matter of Life and Death (1946)?
Indeed this story was very much a matter of life and death. The pre-title sequence of ‘Dark Water’ hit us with another shock: the death of Clara’s boyfriend Danny Pink in a car accident. This was the cue for a rather hurried ‘trust’ sequence in which Clara tries to force the Doctor to save Danny by threatening to destroy all the keys to the TARDIS only for it to turn out that this is a dream sequence and the Doctor wants to see just how far Clara will go. Danny, in the afterlife, comes face to face with a boy he had accidentally shot while serving as a soldier. It’s notable that, for a series that includes a great deal of death, Doctor Who rarely explores the consequences of death or its impact on the living. Who mourned the deaths of Sara Kingdom in ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ or Adric in ‘Earthshock’? Some of the scenes here came close to the 2005 episode ‘Father’s Day’, which remains the best example of Doctor Who exploring genuine emotional trauma.
Yet, for all of this, ‘Death in Heaven’ ultimately turned out to be an optimistic and affirmative episode. Danny is turned into a Cyberman and is so distraught that he welcomes the opportunity to turn on the inhibitor that will rob him of all emotional feelings. Yet when it is turned off he is still unable to kill Clara, as the Doctor had feared he would. Hence – rather like Yvonne Hartman in ‘Doomsday’ – it turns out that human emotion is strong enough to overcome Cyber conditioning. This reminded me again of A Matter of Life and Death, which ended with the suggestion that while in the universe nothing is stronger than the law, on Earth nothing is stronger than love. Furthermore, in what I thought a quite beautiful moment, it turns out that one of the resurrected army-of-the-dead Cybermen is none other than the Doctor’s old friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart who again is strong enough to overcome the conversion. How fitting that the Brig’s last action should be to save his own daughter’s life (Kate Stewart had apparently been thrown out a plane in flight during an earlier battle with the Cybermen) and so prompt a salute from the Doctor (“He always wanted you to salute him, just once,” Kate had told the Doctor earlier).
All told this was the most wholly satisfying Doctor Who season finale since the first David Tennant series in 2006 – and a marvellous end to what, in my estimation, has been the best series since the Christopher Ecclestone series of 2005. For one thing it was good to have a full series again rather than the split-season broadcast pattern that has prevailed since 2011: I hope that this will become the norm again and we won’t have any further attempts to persuade us that holding back half a run of episodes amounts to a brand new series. And for another this series has not been overloaded with the ‘timey-winey’ non-linear story-telling that infected Moffat’s first two series in charge in 2010 and 2011. Instead we’ve had good, strong stand-alone episodes with just enough of a story arc to keep audiences hooked but nothing that would deter a casual viewer or a newcomer to the series. There were no real duds – even the 2005 series had ‘Boom Town’ – and overall the quality of scripting and direction has been consistently high.
It’s also been the darkest series – both in content and in theme – since Doctor Who returned. Indeed there’s been more horror in this series – ranging from the jolly-romp variety of ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ to the more psychological horror of ‘Listen’ – than at any time in Doctor Who since the mid-1970s when producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes oversaw the series’ Gothic period. This might be an indication of where Moffat and Capaldi want to take the Twelfth Doctor. As for Capaldi himself, this has been a wholly successful debut series. Christopher Ecclestone remains my favourite ‘new’ Doctor but even his performance seemed to waver between seriousness and gurning comedy in some of the early episodes until Series 1 really hit its stride with ‘Dalek’. There’s been no such uncertainty with Capaldi, who has re-established the essential alien-ness of the Doctor while also affirming his underlying compassion (“Do you really think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?” he asks Clara in a telling moment in ‘Dark Water’).
I suggested in my review of ‘Deep Breath’ that it was too early to suggest that Capaldi was the best actor to play the Doctor since Patrick Troughton. It is no longer too early: he has restored a sense of gravitas to the role without losing the humour – a very difficult balance to achieve. Is it too early to suggest that he might turn out to be the best Doctor of them all?
James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and author of Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of ‘Doctor Who’ – A Cultural History, second edition, I. B.Tauris, 2013.