And so we reach the end of Doctor Who series eight, a run I’ve found particularly challenging to write about. I guess I’ll say a little bit more about that in the next post.
Until then, it’s season finale time. This review first appeared in DWM #481.
It was quite a few weeks ago now, but powerful images linger. Flying Cybermen ripping apart a jet, the roof of St Paul’s irising out into petals, graves gently rupturing and the Doctor falling through the clouds. But in the end it turned out that the Master had lied to the Doctor about Gallifrey, the Doctor was lying to Clara when he spoke of his plans to settle down, and she was lying to him regarding her future with Danny. Just this once, everybody lies! This was a surprising place to finish after those heights. An odd stretch of dramatic flatland from where we were left to wander into the closing titles.
It’s why, even now, I’m still not quite sure what I feel about this year’s Doctor Who two-part series finale. Of the episodes, I’d venture Dark Water, with all its come-ons, proved the more successful, although most of the memorable visuals came from Death in Heaven. It’s that conclusion – such a downer – that has most puzzled me. Expectation is to blame. I hoped to come away adrenalised, but instead felt morose; deflated by the fates of my favourite characters. Such hopes ran counter to the comparatively dour tone of this year, which has brought us the most self-consciously mature, morally conflicted and spiky reading of Doctor Who we have ever seen on TV.
The opening moments of Dark Water encapsulate all of that superbly. While Clara is professing love to Danny, and warming up to deliver her mea culpa (plus, let’s speculate, the news she’s three months pregnant), he’s killed off in an astonishingly blunt and functional manner. Off-camera, between sentences. Blunt, and functional – the way an untimely passing generally is. “It wasn’t terrible, it was boring… it was ordinary,” says Clara. The roadside shrine, the burden of flowers at home and the pervading sense of numbness all add to that, giving his demise real purchase in a show where death is infamously inconstant.
Doctor Who exploring bereavement and the afterlife is, in every fashion, a step into an undiscovered country, and this incarnation the best suited to play the part of Charon, thanks to his perfunctory relationship with human grief. “Danny Pink!” exclaims Clara. “Yeeees?” ventures the Doctor. “Is dead!” she says. “And?” he replies, a little bit hatefully. As a result, I was rooting for her during their beautifully performed Seven TARDIS Keys to Doomsday confrontation, but then mostly won back by our man’s “Do you think I care so little for you?” speech afterwards.
It’s a very idiosyncratic world we discover beyond the veil, and notable that the first thing Danny is conscious of is a desk and an in-tray. This is dark satire set in a bright, sterile environment, a place where death is cleaned-up and commoditised while the overly unctuous Seb worries about the normal coffee versus the good coffee. It feels like a very British parody, what with the form-filling and such, and when he boasts “the Nethersphere’s just a cool name we came up with during a spitball,” it made me wonder if what actually lies beyond is BBC Worldwide.
There’s a flipside to this. Pull back out of the sphere, we have the 3W institute and one of those peculiarly wonderful images that, more than the repartee or plot-twists, is indicative of Moffat’s unique strength. Fish tanks in a mausoleum. But… what is 3W? From Dr Chang’s response to the psychic paper (“Another government inspection? So soon?”) we can conclude it’s an officially sanctioned operation. One has to assume there was a seriously mesmeric ‘change of use’ planning request submitted to the City of London regarding its location inside St Paul’s. And who resides within? “It pays to die rich,” says the Doctor. Okay, so it’s a kind of cryonic chamber for the super-wealthy. But how, ultimately, is it connected to the overall master plan? Particularly as, once they’re revealed, the Cybermen seem able to reanimate any corpse, whether or not they checked in before checking out.
It’s certainly bold stuff. Although, sometimes I fear the waters became far too dark. “If you’ve had a recent loss, this might be – this will be disturbing,” warns Dr Chang. Then why say it? The ‘three words’ that gave 3W its name are simply nasty, contributing nothing substantive to the story. Nor even, really, a clever turn. The implication that Danny Pink – a character who’s been fashioned in the hope we’ll become fond of him – might at any moment feel the agony of being cremated is a horrid lure. But worse still is the thought of a young viewer watching at home who’s lost a loved one. Their sole consolation up to now has been: ‘At least they’re no longer in pain…’
Let’s come away from such unpleasantness. Rewind. It’s Thursday 7 August 2014. At the British Film Institute on Frontier in Space’s South Bank, a preview of Deep Breath has just played to the appreciation of fans and journalists. Now, questions from the audience.
Young fan: Steven, I just want to know, are you planning on bringing back the Master any time soon?
Steven Moffat: [Without any hesitation] No. [Big laugh from the auditorium] Sorry, I accidentally just said the truth.
For a lie to work, it must be shrouded in truth. So far, nothing. But Moffat continues. “I think the story’s sort of done. It was like Moriarty and Sherlock. (Yes, I know!) ‘You’re a great master-villain; but you know what you do, a lot? You lose. You’re always tremendously confident and then you’re humiliatingly defeated, and you don’t remember that the next time you pop up with your ridiculous plans’. The Doctor doesn’t really need an arch-enemy, so we go for new ones.”
Well, what else was he to do? For the sake of probity and the satisfaction of his baby-faced questioner, should a showrunner just spill his secrets? Never! However, in his obfuscation and his reasoning why the Master should apparently not return, Moffat actually provided insight into how and why Missy came to be.
Because the very greatest success of this story is certainly that: Michelle Gomez stepping out of the shadows to reveal the Gallifreyan dastard’s fetish for dress-up and disguise had reached its apotheosis. A new body at last! This fanboy had no problem with the gender reassignment visited upon the character. No problem with the fictional logic nor the real-life reasoning. The revelation of the Master’s existence at the end of Utopia in 2007 was one of modern-day Doctor Who’s greatest coups, but that was a trick that could only be pulled once in a generation. Or so it seemed. Moffat’s twist allowed Missy to have another go, and although the resolution of her identity wasn’t as momentously played as Professor Yana’s, it was at least still there to be played with, thanks entirely to this innovation.
Beyond, that, what does the change from Time Lord to Time Lady mean? I’d argue it’s given license for the return of the old-school Master. John Simm’s version of the role was interesting to a point, but I had felt in the anxiety of rationalising the character and making him ‘work’ for a modern audience, he’d also been broken. That was the renegade, literally, as a mad man. The poised delight and badness for the sake of it had gone. So indeed had the dainty, almost feminine charm. Missy – for one very obvious reason at least – recaptures all of that. Even before we knew for certain, it was there. “Clara, my Clara. I have chosen well,” she mused in her Flatline cameo, a remark that would also have been perfect for Anthony Ainley. A purr, a pause, a flash of that slightly rigid grin and he would have then vanished into a guffaw.
The story of the Doctor and the Master, of course, isn’t “sort of done” as Moffat feigned. In fact, it’s given fresh impetus in this adventure, which gets as close as we should ever want to providing a reason why the latter has always gone to such lengths to grab the former’s attention. Missy handing over control of the Cybermen to the Doctor is the ultimate statement of her efforts and the coming together of every “ridiculous plan”. All she/he has ever wanted is for him to realise that they’re just the same. As some kind of motivation, it rang true.
Michelle Gomez is having a whale of a time as Missy – and that’s communicated to the viewer. No line is left unmolested, as she switches between absolute malevolence, to a doe-eyed bad ‘wittle’ girl (“Say something nice”), to Nancy from Oliver! and, on occasion, jumping into a pure dead brilliant ‘Weegie’ accent. She’s kicking all the doors down and it’s fantastic. Doctor Who has been longing for an uncompromised villain like this for ages. When she crunches down on the vapourised Osgood’s glasses, it’s a sinful version of punching the air. Utterly glorious.
It’s such a shame then that as masterful as she defiantly is in the role, there appears to be some slight reservation in the script. “I couldn’t go on calling myself the Master, now could I?” she says. Ah, but it would have been good if you did. She barely, if ever, invokes that epithet again, and it just means that despite everything, there’s a small distance being maintained between her and that rightful title. Not that it really matters. We know she’ll return, and I believe when she does, any displacement of female form and her chosen, immortal sobriquet will be firmly in the past tense.
The Cybermen were in this story too. Do you remember? Those poor creatures, they haven’t been able to make a silver fist of it at all in any of their twenty-first-century TV adventures. One hoped that under the instruction of grand architect Moffat, we might finally have seen their resurgence, but no, they continue as bland spear-carriers. Maybe it’s something about the fact that production expertise means it’s now a relative cinch to realise them en masse. However, like anything in abundance, it serves to devalue them. It makes them seem generic. I’d contend the creatures’ scariest showing this side of the 1980s was in 2010’s The Pandorica Opens, when Amy was menaced by one lone, snapping Cyberhead (what is it about Moffat decapitating these poor chaps?). The species badly needs a Dalek to reinput their mission statement.
Nonetheless, it begins well for them, a kind of inside-out look at what they actually are. “Each body is encased in a support exoskeleton,” says Dr Chang, referring to human remains submerged in water. And there’s inventive fun with the 3W logo. “Who would harvest dead bodies?” ponders the Doctor, as the lift doors close, and the mirror-imaged idents meet to make up a Cyberman face. What a wonderful reveal – albeit one that was unfortunately undercut by the publicity announcing their return. From here, alas, they lose their import, instead embarking on a series of Doctor Who photo ops. They emerge from tombs, because that’s what they do. They pose on the steps of St Paul’s, as they must. One even pays homage to 1967’s The Moonbase, by popping out from underneath a sheet on a gurney. It’s true, they do now have the ability to fly, but that serves to make them feel just more generic. They’re like Iron Man drones; the ones he can’t even be bothered to paint up in his red and yellow livery.
To see Danny encased within one of their frames does, at least, remind us of their creepy origins, almost a zombie species who’ve taken one of our most cherished. But then to dig up the Brigadier’s corpse? Granted, it’s meant as a tribute to the character and to Nicholas Courtney’s portrayal, but I found this in poor taste. The idea that those are Alistair’s remains, freshly animated and now hoping for approval from the Doctor is… odd.
Good heavens. Bad Heaven? Where have we been? What did we see? The Doctor became World President, inadvertently accepting his inauguration while drinking tea from a saucer. Now that’s the Doctor. Instantly deriding the absolutely well-meaning and genuinely helpful Colonel Ahmed because of his life decisions? Ah. Less so. That Doctor? I just want to ask him to please stop being so mean to everyone. But perhaps that can happen.
Danny Pink! Is dead! And? By the story’s end, the Doctor himself sees that. But more so, on the day before Remembrance Sunday, he also realises that the soldier is something he is not: a good man. It’s an insight that has a profound effect on the twelfth incarnation, allowing him to resolve his own… not identity crisis, morality crisis. Maybe he’s ready to really be the Doctor again. “I am an idiot with a box and a screwdriver, passing through, helping out, learning,” he says. Yes! That’s entirely who you are. Why the Doctor hasn’t known this all along has been the greatest mystery of the year. I’m excited to see how he will now travel on from this realisation.
We’re back at the end. The Doctor can’t go home, Danny isn’t coming back, and Clara’s future appears grim. But underlying all of this – now that I’ve looked again – there’s still optimism. As ever in Doctor Who we have the promise of what’s to come next. (Christmas!) Fitting, really, that perhaps the most poignant notion we can take from this crazy, inventive, sometimes-weird season finale is the hope of life after death.