So here’s the deal with “Death in Heaven”. Like the first part, “Dark Water”, it starts out a bit slow and then picks up, and there are some great moments. There are just two problems, and they are kind of big ones. First the whole solider/guilt story arc, while handled beautifully here, doesn’t have the build up from the previous episodes to really pack the emotional punch it should. The real problem is that Moffat seems to have stumbled across the main theme of what he was writing part way though and therefore missed the chance to properly build the emotional arc. The identity of Missy was never the important thing; it was about The Doctor coming to terms with his past as a solider and a warrior.
The second problem is one that I find even harder to get past: This series should have come at least five years sooner. The Doctor saved Gallifrey in the 50th and was excited about the prospect of finding it again, so why is it now that he knows he saved his people that he is so concerned with being a good man? Perhaps if this had been properly addressed throughout the series it would have made sense, but no. Instead we got a bunch of heavy handed allusions to the finale and Missy. This series really should have been about the search for Gallifrey, or even just a series of adventures with no hint of any arc at all.
And that’s why “Death in Heaven” falls a little flat. There was this appearance of a big build up and the payoff doesn’t quite make any sense when you try to piece it all together, which is unfortunate because in a lot of ways this is the best Doctor Who has been all season. While in the past I might been able to accept something as ridiculous as the fact that rain can instantly convert human remains into Cybermen, I haven’t bought into this series enough to cut the show any slack at this point. Even with the appearance of UNIT wasn’t enough to inject much needed emotional involvement into the episode. When they kill off two established and very likable characters like Kate Stewart and Oswald and I feel nothing, something is broken.
But then we get to the graveyard and Cyberman Danny trying to convince Clara to fully convert him into an emotionless machine, and it got me. Their exchange perfectly summed up their relationship, him the solid and constantly neglected rock that isn’t quite exciting enough to hold her interest, no matter how much she wishes he could. This is the best that Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson have been all season and it made me love Clara just a little bit more. It’s also the first time I have ever been attached to Danny, which makes his final sacrifice all the more gut wrenching.
And then there’s The Doctor and Danny—the former solider and the old grizzled general. This dynamic had been hinted on previously, but now it makes more sense. It’s the man who faces what he’s done head on, and the one who runs away. This is what I wanted from this season. For The Doctor to stop running, take a stand and confront his past, but that never happened. Instead we got a Doctor who was more childish and immature than ever. In the graveyard with Danny, he is finally forced to face his former life as a solider. It makes the omissions of the series as a whole all the more glaring.
Overall, the disconnect of the eighth series is so jarring, that even with a finale that is more or less everything that one could want from a Doctor Who series finale, that niggling feeling in the back of my mind can’t stop thinking that overall Capaldi’s run so far has been mostly disappointing. Even the massive improvement of Clara as a character and the introduction of Michelle Gomez’s wonderfully twisted Master can’t quite save it. Nothing can really redeem this slog of a season, except maybe Nick Frost as Santa Clause; we’ll have to wait until Christmas to find out.