Death in Heaven
Suddenly ... a lion
Ye have heard that it was said by them of
old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:
But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh
on a woman to lust after her hath committed
adultery with her already in his heart.
— Jesus Christ, Matthew 5:27-28, King James Version
Of plots and themes and lies and agonies ...
|Doctor Bond makes a death-defying leap into the arms of his Tardis ... oh, never mind. Screenshot from "Death in Heaven." Doctor Who copyright © 2014 BBC.|
William Blake wrote of seeing the world in a grain of sand, yet given all of time and space, Steven Moffat finds little more than shallow references to a better past, and contrived lies and ersatz emotions in the present.
From its disingenuous title to its lugubrious closing sequence, "Death in Heaven" is a long sequence of false accusations, pointless set-pieces, ersatz logic and two-dimensional puppets dancing, badly, at the end of tangled strings of story.
At its foundation, "Death in Heaven" is a monumental cheat, featuring a philosophical conundrum that isn't and a resolution to it that allows the Doctor to walk away from even that on a technicality.
Moffat provedies some effective (and even affective) scenes, but the story as a whole never makes sense, no more than does the series to which it serves as capstone.
Is the Doctor a good man? Is the love between Clara Oswald and Danny Pink one for the ages? Did Danny's experiences as a soldier really inform his character? Is Clara pregnant?
Yes, of course. No. No. Maybe; time will (or won't) tell whether that little detail dropped off the show-runner's bulletin-board.
Airborne interlude or, the Doctor is President (again)
|Is it me or are these the cutest Cybermen since the 1960s? Screenshot from "Death in Heaven", Doctor Who copyright © 2014 by the BBC.|
This week's story takes up where last week's non-story left-off. The Doctor has escaped Saint Paul's Cathedral but is surrounded by an army of Cybermen led by the Master (now calling herself Missy). Clara is trapped inside, surrounded by her own squad of cybermen.
To forestall her own death, Clara tells the cyberman they shouldn't kill her because she is the Doctor, and they need her alive. Thus we re-establish the series' theme: that the Doctor lies and that Clara caught the pathology from him.
Which makes no sense as, in this particular scene, the lie is no example of pathology, but a clever ruse born of necessity.
Clara's desperate prevarications delay the cybermen, but not for long; they determine that her claims are false and prepare to kill her. But suddenly (a word we'll see a lot of in this essay), another cyberman — one who knows her file well — appears, confirms that she's a liar, then — surprising everyone on-camera but none of us watching the show — destroys the others before transporting both itself and Clara to a graveyard. For Reasons. The rogue cyberman is Danny Pink of course, converted, but with his emotions still un-inhibited.
Meanwhile, a UNIT squad under command of Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (whom some will recall from an earlier episode, introduced as the daughter of the sainted Brigadier Sir Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart) appears in the nick of time to knock out the cybermen on site and to save the Doctor.
UNIT captures Missy and the Doctor. Missy because they know she's the Master returned, and the Doctor, because they know he's unpredictable and they are not sure he wants to be President of the World. (He doesn't, particularly, but it's a moot point, since his reign lasts about five minutes, before his command airplane is ripped apart by flying cybermen.)
Before that disaster, of course, Things Happen while flying. Secondary characters are killed and Dramatic Statements made. The Doctor and Missy argue and emote, though Michelle Gomez seems a little lost, presumably because her character no longer makes any sense. Dramatically, it helps if a villain's motivations have some internal consistency, even if they make little sense to an outsider. As we'll see, Steven Moffat disregards this completely in "Death in Heaven".
In any case, the airplane is destroyed, Missy teleports away, Kate Lethbridge-Stewart and the Doctor both plunge towards the ground. The Doctor survives by calling the Tardis to meet him in mid-air in a ludicrous scene I can only imagine would have been left on the cutting-room floor of the worst James Bond movie. Lethbridge-Stewart will also survive, through an even more ludicrous contrivance which I will get to below.
The last temptation of Doctor Who
|Speaking of ludicrous, Mary Poppins prepares the Last Temptation of Doctor Who. Screenshot from "Death in Heaven", Doctor Who copyright © 2014 by the BBC.|
As unconvincing as was The Ballad of Danny and Clara, The Last Temptation of Doctor Who is even less creditable, if (slightly) more entertaining.
When the Doctor returns to earth, Missy faces him with a full army of cybermen at her back and a cloud of destruction in the air, ready to kill everyone on Earth and convert their remains, too, into an army of universal destruction.
And yet, though she threw him from an airplane only a little while before, Missy now has something else in mind. It's time to Test the Doctor.
"Am I a good man?" the Doctor asked Clara in an early episode this year. Clara said something to the effect of, "You try to be," but Missy isn't buying it.
Steven Moffat has kept that question warm (if not percolating) throughout the series and we finally learn that Missy is his chosen instrument to launch an investigation into the nature of Good and Evil, the distinctions (if any) between a person's beliefs and their actions.
But unlike the 10th Doctor's slide into megalomania that came to a head in "The Waters of Mars", Steven Moffat's stab at philosophical depth is a pretty dismal offering. To call it sophomoric would be an insult to grade school students, never mind to university undergraduates. In terms of what we have seen, any doubts about the Doctor's status as a "good man" boil down to his unsentimental willingness to accept, and even to use, deaths he could not prevent so long as other lives might still be saved, and a tendency towards rudeness, as if good manners have anything to do with morality.
Nevertheless, Moffat brings Missy onto the stage in the role of temptress, like some Satan in Victorian drag to the Doctor's Crombie-clad Christ.
If that sounds ridiculous to you, not even Steven Moffat seems able to take his own Big Idea seriously. Consider the following "debate" that ensues after Missy has literally handed the Doctor control of the waiting cyber-army.
"All of this?" the Doctor asks, referring to the death and destruction that's already occurred, "All of it just to give me an army?"
"Well," Missy replies, "I don't need one, do I? Armies are for people who think they're right. And nobody thinks they're righter than you. Give a good man fire-power and he'll never run out of people to kill."
"I don't want an army!"
"Well that's the trouble — yes! you do! You've always wanted one! All those people suffering in the dalek camps &mdahs; now you can save them! All those bad guys winning all the wars, go and get the good guys back!"
"Nobody can have that power."
"You will," Missy declaims, "because there's only one way you can stop these clouds from opening up and killing all your little pets down here. Conquer the universe, Mr. President. Show a bad girl how it's done."
"Why are you doing this?"
"I need you to know we're not so different. I need my friend back. Every battle, every war, every invasion: from now on, you decide the outcome. What's the matter, Mr. President, don't you trust yourself?"
Non sequitur following nonsense following non sequitur following nonsense, ad nauseum, after which follows a bathetic and mercifully brief montage of expert character witnesses — including a couple of daleks and a saluting Danny Pink — telling the Doctor that He Is Just Like Them. (It's all a bit like Tony Blair and George W. Bush pointing at Chelsea Manning and telling her she's every bit the war criminal they are. But I digress.)
That is what Steven Moffat has been "building" towards for the past 11 weeks. "Armies are for people who think they're right" and "Show a bad girl how it's done."
The mind fucking boggles.
Compared to this, "Genesis of the Daleks" was a PhD dissertation on the Question of Good and Evil.
And as I said, even Moffat seems to realize his thematic climax is a house of cards built on the deck of a sailboat. The Doctor's rebuttal is almost comical in its lack of engagement with the charge.
After staring about for a second or two, Capaldi's Doctor bobbles towards the Mistress. "Thank you," he says, "thank you so much." He kisses her (why, Moffat? Why this is obsession with involuntary kisses and gropes?), then declares, ", then stands to reject her offer:
"I really didn't know, I wasn't sure ... Thank you!
"I am not a good man! I am not a bad man. I am not a hero, I'm definitely not a President. And no, I'm not an officer.
"Do you know what I am? I. Am. An idiot. With a box. And a screw-driver. Just passing through, helping out. Learning. I don't need an army — I never have — because I've got them [pointing to Clara and cyber-Danny]. Always them. Because love — it's not an emotion. Love is a promise. And he will never hurt her."
The premise of a soldier or, Cyber Henry V
|Samuel Anderson's Danny Pink does what he does best: look kind of sad. Screenshot from "Death in Heaven", Doctor Who copyright © 2014 by the BBC.|
Oh yes, other characters are still hanging around.
The Doctor tosses Missy's controller to cyber-Danny.
It's cyber-Danny's turn to make a Noble Speech, rallying an army of emotionless cybermen as if he were Henry V at Agincourt. Earth's darkest hour, army of the dead, etc.
Cyber-Danny leads the cyber-army (I'm getting really tired of that prefix) into the sky, where they blow up the cloud of cyber-zygotes and, presumably, themselves at the same time.
Missy then tells the Doctor that Gallifrey has (somehow) returned to its "original coordinates."
Then it's Clara's turn. Her boyfriend gone, she stoops for a weapon Missy has lost and determines to exact vengeance. Don't do it!, the Doctor says and Clara replies,
"If you ever let this creature live, everything that happened today is on you. All of it. On you. And you're not going to let her live again."
The Doctor says he will take on the burden of her guilt. "Clara, all I'm doing is not letting you kill her. I never said I was letting her live."
"If that's the only thing that will stop you, yes."
Clara surrenders the weapon and the Doctor prepares to execute his old friend. "Oh, Doctor! To save her soul?" Missy taunts, "but who my dear, will save yours?"
Suddenly, just as the Doctor is about to shoot, a lion leaps out from behind a gravestone and eats Missy!
Okay, not quite that bad. But close. (And at least SCTV meant to be funny.)
Absolution, from the ray-gun of a Cyberman
|A shot from the dark. Missy gets what's coming to her from a
Suddenly, just as the Doctor is about to shoot, an energy beam flashes from stage-right. Missy disintegrates right before the Doctor's surprised eyes!
The Doctor and Clara turn to see a lone cyberman standing by a gravestone. Just as the Doctor saved Clara from the sin of homicide, so too has a sudden cyberman saved the Doctor from the same fate!
The cyberman gestures towards a gravestone on its left, but Clara's eyes stray to her right. Somehow, behind four or five rows of gravestones, she has spotted the form of a woman lying perhaps 15 metres to her right. She and the Doctor ignore the cyberman and rush towards the fallen form.
Clara kneels by the woman and determines that she is still alive! What's more, that she is none other than Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, who was least seen falling from an airplane!
The Doctor quickly adds three plus six to arrive at two, realizing that the cyberman who didn't follow Danny into the sky and who just saved him can only be — of course! — none other than the cyber-shade of Brigadier Sir Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart himself!
That's right! With zero foreshadowing, the ol' Brig saves the day!
I wish (I really wish!) I could say it ain't so, but I can't. Because it is.
Not only does it happen but, like a first-year philosophy student, the Doctor is thrilled to take his salvation on a technicality. (Christ had a point when he said that a sin of the heart is still a sin.)
Of course, Steven Moffat has to follow bad moral philosophy with worse characterization.
Our grateful Doctor Who — suddenly a fan of all things military — stands to attention and offers the cyber-ghost of Brigadier Sir Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart a nauseating salute.
The cyber-ghost of Brigadier Sir Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart bows his metal head in turn, then blasts off on feet of flame, like Marvel Comics' Iron Man.
But Moffat's not done; somehow there is worse yet to come.
Dumbsday or, return of the Magical Negro
|Not Danny Pink. And where did he get the the body? Screenshot from "Death in Heaven", Doctor Who copyright © 2014 by the BBC.|
The story's epilogue blatantly echoes that of "Doomsday", the episode that saw Rose visited, briefly, by an incorporeal 10th Doctor bent on saying goodbye. But this time it is Danny Pink's ethereal whisper that wakes the companion, not the Doctor's.
It seems Danny is back in the Nethersphere, despite having said he would burn. For Reasons, Missy's control bracelet has just enough power to send one person back to the real world before the whole dimension implodes (or something like that).
Naturally (I guess) Clara is thrilled by the prospect of her laugh-a-minute boyfriend's return, but Danny the Good and Patient has other ideas, demonstrating what we should have realized at least six episodes ago. Danny Pink isn't a person, he's a magical negro.
He is so sorry, but he's sending the Afghani boy he killed in the war through the portal, not himself. Find his family, he tells Clara, even as she wonders where the kid got his body or the awful sweater.
Two weeks later, Afghan boy presumably reunited with his family and waiting for a drone with them, Clara has settled back into life as a teacher at the Coal Hill School. The Doctor decides now is as good a time as any to interrupt her lunch.
He spots Missy's control bracelet on Clara's wrist and patronizes her with a smile nauseating to behold. "You and Danny are together now. That's great, that's how it should be. But, the old man and the blue box, that's never going to fit in. So no more flying around, no more ... lying."
Clara tries to straighten him out, but the Doctor talks through her. "I've found Gallifrey," he says, and we cut to a flash-back: the Doctor pokes his head through the Tardis' door, then turns around to pound the control console so hard sparks fly. All's not well with the home-world, it seems.
But, in keeping with this year's tradition that best friends never tell one another the truth, the Doctor says he is going home for good. She matches his lie with one of her own. She and Danny are "going to be fine".
Clara then insists on a hug and, for once, the Doctor acquiesces. Clara asks why he's resisted them so fiercely. "Never trust a hug," he says as the camera pulls back to show, first, his anguished face, then hers. "It's just a way to hide your face."
O! Mr. Moffat, you do love your subtle ironies!
Cheat on cheat (on cheat on cheat)
That false emotional payoff caps an episode pretty representative of the whole of Steven Moffat's turn at the controls of Doctor Who. Crass emotional manipulation, sloppy plotting and slipshod execution almost force the viewer to wonder whether Steven Moffat can't write anymore, or if he just can't be bothered.
The internal evidence — his frequent and loving nods to the program's past in particular — suggests that sloth isn't the problem. Moffat loves the show; not wisely, but too well and far too myopically. Whatever the cause, the end-result is strictly amateur-hour level drama at best, but for some reason, no one at the BBC will call him out on it.
But what do I know? Maybe the BBC is right to let fan write for fans. The home ratings are good, it's popular overseas and, no doubt, the toys are selling off the shelves. Even people like me, who despise what the program has become, keep giving it free publicity.
Or maybe, just maybe, this coming Christmas will prove to be Steven Moffat's last turn of the wheel. Maybe, just maybe, the presumable return to Gallifrey, marking as it does the undoing of the last of Russell T Davies' changes, will be the occasion of Steven Moffat's passing of the baton.
|Steven Moffat's Doctor decides it's time to Support our troops! Just in time for another major war in the Middle East? Surely not, Mr. Moffat! Screenshot from "Death in Heaven", Doctor Who copyright © 2014 by the BBC.|
We can only hope. And further, we can hope that the next show-runner's keyboard belongs not to one of Moffat's boys club of genre writers, but to a relative outsider, someone with a proven track-record of creating intelligent, long-form drama.
Ladies and gentlemen, is it too late to petition for the drafting of Sally Wainwright?
The creator and writer (of every episode) of such fare as the excellent political fantasy, The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard, the touching but tough (and slightly weird) geriatric romance, Last Tango In Halifax and the brutal police procedural cum family drama Happy Valley, has the chops, the range, and the imagination to take the Tardis to worlds we've never imagined we'd like it to bring us.
We can hope. I can hope.
But now, I'm tired. I'm tired of being served garbage 8 or 10 times out of 13 and being told it's both nutritious and delicious, just because of the brand name and blue box painted on the tin.
We can only hope that someone with power at the BBC has the courage to hire someone to make Doctor Who a program worth watching again.