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'Doctor Who' review: A strong finish to an otherwise disappointing season

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All season long, Ross Miller and Kwame Opam have been debating the new season / series (depending on where you watch it) of Doctor Who — the first for 12th Doctor Peter Capaldi. All of which has led us to this moment: "Death in Heaven." Read on for our thoughts on the finale and on the season as a whole.

This probably goes without saying, but expect major spoilers below.

Ross: The Forrest Gump Theory

I always lower my expectations for Doctor Who finales. So much of each hinges on a contrived moment of deus ex machina (or to put it another way, super dumb luck) — some out-of-nowhere twist that exists solely to save the day. Some of my "favorites," so to speak:

  • Series 1, "Bad Wolf / Parting of the Ways" (Ninth Doctor / Rose): the "essence" of the TARDIS can turn you into a God; doesn't cause cancer.
  • Series 3, "Utopia / The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords" (Tenth Doctor / Martha Jones): The entire world, apparently, focuses on David Tennant, which transforms him from Gollum to a suit-clad, flying God-like person.
  • Series 4-ish, "The End of Time" (Tenth Doctor / Wilfred, sort of): the Doctor takes in an ungodly amount of radiation, but it's okay to hang out next to him and not get cancer. He then goes to a bunch of parties before deciding, oh shit, I'll die now.
  • Series 5, "The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang" (Eleventh Doctor / Amy): The memory of the Doctor brings him back into existence. "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue." Okay, I actually liked this one.

Which brings us to the end of this season, "Dark Water" and "Death in Heaven," which almost redeems this season for me. (Not quite, but we'll get to that.) Missy is the Master (again, we'll get to that) and all the dead, ever, come back to life as an army of Cybermen... as a birthday present army for the Doctor.

(There's no great place to put this, so I'll just say it bluntly: Michelle Gomez is amazing as the psychopathic Missy. She just seems to relish in the insanity of her lines.)

These two episodes could have easily been one. So much of each felt like padding in order to, I don't know, make the world seem bigger? The Doctor didn't need to be President of Earth to get to the graveyard — indeed, that whole thread seems like a convoluted excuse to call back to Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (assuming that was him as a Cyberman saluting the Doctor).

The Doctor's an idiot who tries to do good things

The only characters that matter are the Doctor, Missy, Clara, Danny, and the child that Danny killed in the war. Subsequently, the only scenes that matter focus on when these characters interact with one another. So let's get to the major scene. The Doctor has a chance to control an army, somewhat guilt-free (these people were technically dead anyway), at the cost of having to admit that he and Missy are not so different. The final choice wasn't entirely an act of deus ex machina (except for maybe that perfect bracelet toss or maybe the key-into-the-TARDIS thing), it was a personal choice. I like the Doctor's ultimate admission, that he's just an idiot who tries to do good things.

The Doctor, and I can't believe I never noticed this before, is basically Forrest Gump. Basically.

Kwame: What the hell is Cybermen pollen??

So many feels! Cybermen Selfies!

You know, I was initially was blown away by this episode. I watched it with my girlfriend, and there were a few moments when she (having never even seen the show) teared up. The big moments were just really effective. Having had a little bit of time to think about what we all saw, though, I'm still impressed by Steven Moffat pulled off even if some things were silly or messy.

All told, I think this finale brought a solid resolution for a lot of the themes and threads this season explored. We can't forget that, in true Who tradition, some bits were downright ridiculous, but if the aim was to leave me feeling satisfied and even a little drained, Moffat succeeded.

There are a handful of significant arcs that need addressing. Clara's evolution as a character is paramount, especially in relation to the Doctor himself and Mr. Danny Pink. Here, more than ever, she's the Doctor's equal. She "becomes" the Doctor again, recalling her taking on his role back in "Flatline," as a means of stalling for time. It's even her eyes in the opening credits instead of Peter Capaldi's (a nice touch). The funny thing is, no matter how good she gets at being the Doctor — lying, commanding others to do her bidding, gabbing theatrically with metal men — she's quick to reject who and what the Doctor is. She's never as apart as he is. She cares a bit too much, even if she's not good at it. And even if the Doctor is her best friend and the one man she'll always forgive, we see her inability to become him most in her relationship with Danny.

Now hold on. Before I get into Danny's plight, let me just say: what kind of nonsense is Cyberman pollen? Last episode, we found out that the dead are being kept in virtual reality heaven. The cloud, if you will. Here, Moffat takes the analogy to its very limits by having these digital souls somehow rain on the dead to turn them into Cyberman zombies. Look, I know the Cybermen are supposed to be menacing and all, but George Romero A. this was not. Seeing the resurrected robots shamble about wasn't so much scary as it was silly.

Danny's the hero where the Doctor isn't

Seeing Danny inside a Cyberman was affecting, though. Danny's a good man turned into a pawn in a sick game between the Doctor and Missy. Danny's the hero where the Doctor isn't, making his transformation that much more tragic. And because he didn't erase his feelings in the Nethersphere, he's fully aware of his resurrection. When Clara finally sees his ruined face, she's bereft of her Time Lord swagger. Which is a good thing, anyway, since she has enough power to boss the Doctor around. And his not returning from the dead means he's willing to make the hard choices that neither Clara or the Doctor seem capable of making. (Unfortunately, my theory that he and Clara wind up together and have time traveling descendants got shot to shreds as soon as he died. But I'm not complaining!)

As for the Doctor, well, he's facing off against his Joker. Seriously, their dynamic, as polar opposites who "aren't that different" is old-school Batman through and through. Here's where I can finally finally say that Michelle Gomez is fantastic. Give the woman a BAFTA. She's amazing. And the idea that Missy did all this — getting Clara and the Doctor together way back when, harvesting souls through time, making a deal with the Cybermen — all to prove that her old friend is just like her is insane. Genius but insane. And giving him the army of the dead as a birthday present?

Here's the thing is. I'm not sure even the Doctor is entirely satisfied in his being just an idiot with a box after that lovely, perfectly corny speech. He by now knows he's the "Good Dalek," the blood-soaked General. He's all these things. The only thing saving him are friends like Clara and Danny. Friends he can't keep because he can't always keep them safe. Who needs an army when you have friends you can put in harm's way? That's why he says Missy wins. It's people like Danny who sacrifice themselves for the greater good. People like Clara make him understand humanity. He's the one who's forced to live inside his blue box, doing good when he can but unable to go home. He can flirt with power, presidencies, and armies, but in the end he's alone.

TLDR: I like your Forrest Gump analogy, but I'm not letting go of my Batman fixation. It's really just too perfect.

Doctor Who and Missy selfie

Ross: All things...

Everyone's taking selfies these days — except, of course, for Amy Pond.

As far as bizarre Doctor Who plot points go, I'm willing to let Cybermen pollen go. I use Missy as my personal justification — she's a Time Lord, she's comfortable with super-compact technology ("it's bigger on the inside"). So if each of those pollen molecules has a Cyberman factory, sure, why not?

I'm glad to here this episode was self-contained enough that you could show it to someone with less of knowledge of this season, because I'd like to recommend this episode to someone without having to recommend they sit through this entire season / series (henceforth, just "season").

Danny was never used as well as he could've been, and I wish that decision scene was given more time on screen and played even more dramatically. It's such a pivotal moment, and the ultimate takeaway is largely overlooked: in handing Danny the bracelet, the Doctor is passing the blame but still manipulating the outcome. He is the blood-soaked General because he told Danny exactly what he needed to do. Sure, he was already dead, but his orders are still implicitly clear.

Fine, you win, Missy as the Joker is an amazingly apt comparison. Also, kudos to Moffat for writing a strong female character — and in my opinion, doing so by writing a compelling character that just happens to be female.

This season has been wildly inconsistent

That's my lead-in to discussing the season overall, which has been wildly and unfortunately inconsistent. One of my all-time favorite episodes ("Listen") and one of my least favorites ("Robots of Sherwood") existed so close to one another. The setup to the finale was more of a perpetual tease than it was actually combining everything. The thematic elements were loosely tied together (they didn't need to be, but it's worth noting because the effort that was clearly put there). Doctor Who has never been the kind of show that tells one continuous story over an entire season, instead offering vignettes that each define their own rules. That's powerful, in that you can tackle very serious issues by abstracting the concept and putting it on some weird planet where it's safer to go zany. Some of the best science fiction is ultimately a reflection of our own culture — the Twilight Zone knew full well how to strike this balance, and the best of Doctor Who tells very human stories in very silly and entertaining ways. Each episode writer works somewhat on an island — there is no Doctor Who writer's room, every one is someone freelance. That means we can get amazing stories from the likes of Neil Gaiman, but it also means we can have a pretty doldrum follow-up from another writer. Some of that is indeed the fault of Steven Moffat, showrunner and ultimately the head writer / the "editor" of the stories. I'll chalk this one up to an on-camera transition season, but next season needs more consistency.

Final personal rankings for season eight.

  • Must-watch: Listen, Death in Heaven
  • Fun as hell: Time Heist, Mummy on the Orient Express, Flatline
  • Should probably watch for sake of canon: Dark Water, Deep Breath
  • I could go either way: The Caretaker, In the Forest of the Night
  • Let's forget these existed: Into the Dalek, Robot of Sherwood, Kill the Moon

... And as much as I like Nick Frost, I'm really, REALLY not looking forward to a Santa Claus story. Ugh.

Kwame: On strong female characters and Cyber-Brigadier

You're right that this was a wildly uneven season, and it's definitely a fault of the writing setup the show works under. I've never felt more like I've been on a roller coaster ride than while watching this season progress. What happens is you get awful episodes like "Kill the Moon" bookended by solid entries like "The Caretaker" and "Mummy on the Orient Express." I suppose I can forgive the show feeling all over the place since, as opposed to Moffat's usual schtick of teasing the larger story, this season explored character in a much deeper way. That's what made this episode in particular so satisfying, despite some over-the-top silliness. We're already acquainted with the Doctor's problem with soldiers by now. We know Danny's past. We know that Clara is caught in the middle, even as she grows herself. And all those arcs converged in a graveyard, lending some serious gravity to the proceedings. That's good writing.

To your point about strong female characters, I agree to an extent. Clara's being positioned as the Doctor is important. Kate Stewart popping in to represent UNIT is important. Missy being such a formidable, bonkers adversary is important — she's the heart and soul of the damn episode. The Master regenerating into a woman is also probably Moffat's way of addressing the fans who were mad the Twelfth Doctor wasn't a woman or person of color. That said, there has already been some writing that this might be considered a cop out. Which is fair, and I'm now forced to wonder who will be the Thirteenth Doctor at this rate. All I know is that I'm forever impressed by Capaldi's acting.

And yeah. I love Nick Frost, but... come on now.

One more thing: you do realize that there's a rogue Dalek and Cyberman with the Brigadier's mind running around now right? Are they getting a sitcom?