Doctor Who Season 8 Finale Recap: “Death in Heaven”

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“Lying is a vital survival skill,” the twelfth Doctor said earlier this season, “and a terrible habit.” And it’s a talent both he and Clara put to use—for better or for worse—in this weekend’s Doctor Who season finale. Considering there’s been so much dishonesty between this pair since the start of the season—and so much tension caused by this dishonesty—it’s almost sweet that their companionship ended (or supposedly ended) on an untruth.

But first, the battle before the fibs. At the end of “Dark Water,” Missy had unveiled both her identity and her plan: she’s the Master, regenerated in female form, and she’s planning to take over the world by rebooting dead humans into Cybermen. UNIT intervenes—welcome back, Kate and Osgood—incapacitating both Time Lords with some sort of tranquilizer and transporting them to a base on a plane. There, Missy is handcuffed while the Doctor learns his disturbing fate. Since he’s saved Earth on so many occasions, all countries have unilaterally agreed that in a time of crisis, he automatically becomes President of the World. Meaning the soldier-hater has become the commander of every army on the planet.

Meanwhile, back on firm soil, the war is beginning. Mysterious clouds have unleashed localized rainfall—actually “cyberpollen”—above every graveyard on earth, which fertilizes dead bodies into Cybermen. One of these armoured corpses is Danny. But while he looks like a Cyberman, Danny still has most of his own feelings and memories. Meaning he can remove his faceplate and ask Clara for help.

Danny begs Clara to turn on his inhibitors—which would stop his terrible feelings of grief—but the Doctor advises against it. Once Danny doesn’t feel like Danny, he’ll feel like a Cyberman. Meaning he’ll feel nothing. Meaning he’ll kill everyone in sight. The Doctor, however, is wrong: Clara activates Danny’s inhibitors, but Danny doesn’t become a murderous automaton. His love for Clara persists, giving him the strength to lead a Cyberman army into battle against the Master.

It’s hard to hate the Master when Michelle Gomez’s performance is so fun. The character feels like it was created for the theatre rather than TV: the exaggerated facial expressions; her gleeful, over-the-top evil; the old-timey wardrobe. Why did the Master choose to dress like an extra from My Fair Lady when she knew she was enacting her plot in 2014? Because she knew this look would have a more dramatic effect.

There were a lot of elaborate special effects in this episode, but the most striking was Danny’s half-transformation into a Cyberman. Watching him remove his mask was disturbing for a few reasons. One: it was awful seeing him like that. (In “Dark Water,” Clara said she didn’t want to see Danny as an underwater skeleton—but she surely didn’t want to see him as a Cyberman, either.) Two: it’s a reminder that under the Cyberman armour, there are real people. Most Cyberman storylines involve “upgrading” regular humans into robots—and always it seems like their flesh disappears. But here we saw that the armour is really just a shell—and an unnervingly thin one.

Danny was an instantly likeable character, but it also feels like he never met his full potential. Not that he needed to travel in the TARDIS—his point about having enough excitement on Earth was well-taken—but his death feels pointedly unfair. He did not die from some time-travel or some Master/Doctor-related incident, but rather from a freak accident. Just a reminder that even for Clara (the control freak) and the Doctor (a lord of time), some things are outside their jurisdiction.

And perhaps their lies are a means to regain some control. When they meet up two weeks later, Clara pretends that she and Danny are back together—they aren’t—while the Doctor pretends he found Gallifrey—which he didn’t. They may not be able to control their own happiness, but they can somewhat control their friend’s emotions by saying what the other wants to hear. Lying is a survival skill: it helps protect those you love.

At the end of the episode, Clara and the Doctor parted ways. But this can’t be the absolute end! There’s too much still unanswered. Namely, what is Clara’s big secret? She was going to tell Danny, but she didn’t. Then it seemed like she might tell the Doctor, but she didn’t. And what about Orson Pink? If he is, as it was suggested, one of Clara’s ancestors, does that mean Danny comes back?

See you on Christmas.