This was always going to be the tricky one. Part one of two. I’ve actually never written a review of a partial story before. I mean, arguably An Unearthly Child versus 100,000 BC, but they are by distinctly different writers, and have their origins in different places. My point there was that it does make sense to treat them differently, even if it also makes sense to treat them as one. I sort of did with End of Time Part One and End of Time Part Two, but that was a slightly joke. So I think this is the first time I’ve ever really tried to think extensively about the aesthetic goals and merits of individual parts of multi-part stories.
Let’s start with the raves on Twitter, and the GallifreyBase ratings, which are 84.62% in the 8-10 range, 36.53% at a 10/10. Which is around what you’d expect a huge season finale to get if it’s working well, honestly. And as always with Moffat, it’s about expectations. In more ways than one. Everything that’s going to make headlines assembled the way you’d expect. Everything that’s based on clues given away in early episodes goes how you’d think. Yep, the Cybermen are using the dead. Sure enough, the Invasion homage is the cliffhanger. Missy is indeed the Master, which is a twist, but hardly the most shocking of them. The episode’s biggest twist came at the very beginning.
It’s a good twist. Danny, the sublimely ordinary good man, turns out to have no secrets, and dies in the most ordinary, mundane, banal way imaginable. A plot contrivance par excellence, existing only to set a larger story in action. It’s played well - for all that “he was hit by a car, it came out of nowhere” is a classic lame twist, the decision to start with Clara frantic and surrounded by post-its explaining the past of the series, as though there’s some terrible secret she’s about to reveal, hides the twist perfectly.
And it’s a big enough premise to immediately escalate the stakes. Getting the volcano scene out of the way early, as Clara’s actually very clever and desperate attempt to get the Doctor to do the impossible for her when she needs it, works wonders as well. It’s a one-two punch that quickly and efficiently ratchets the tension up to a breaking point.
It’s also worth looking at these sequences in terms of just being brilliant. Clara’s betrayal is such a perfect encapsulation of her character, good and bad. But what really makes it is the Doctor’s reaction, and it’s the details of Peter Capaldi’s performance that really makes it. Moffat writes them a good scene. But part of what’s so good about it is that it gives them an incredibly large range of ways to play it. It’s just Capaldi, Coleman, and a familiar set. The emotional beats are all clear. The genius is in where you put the emphasis. Coleman makes the wonderful decision to be angry at the Doctor for tricking her even though she doesn’t for a moment imagine that she has a leg to stand on in the “who’s in the right” argument. Her calm delivery of “fair enough” is a triumph. And then Capaldi makes the wonderful decision to make the one eruption of anger be “you let me down.” All of which sets up, so utterly perfectly, the best line of the season, “do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?” Delivered with such calm that it could come from any Doctor.
It’s a fairly big moment, in that regard, not least because it’s the first moment we’ve used the new series trick of really playing up the depth of the Doctor’s emotional connection with his companions for dramatic beats (something only done on the occasion of their departure before), but because it does it without resorting to any of the wide-eyed “go big” acting that Smith or Tennant would have used for it. It’s a moment with as much emotional depth as the entire Doctor/Rose plot - something that speaks louder than the never-said “I love you” of the Davies era ever could (a fact commented on, tacitly, elsewhere in the episode) - and yet you can imagine the line being delivered by Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker, or even William Hartnell.
And from there, it works like any other Capaldi episode. “Here’s a thing we’ve never actually done.” This time, the Doctor as Orpheus. True enough - fifty-one years and they’ve never done it.
Here it becomes impossible to go much further without looking forwards to next week. Moffat’s two-parters tend to quickly become exercises in complex plotting. His usual trick is to use the first part to set up a particularly elaborate premise, and then, at his best (Forest of the Dead, The Doctor Dances, The Big Bang) using his second part to move to an even more elaborate one. Certainly we seem set for this, with huge puzzle pieces we know are there not even slotted in place yet. Moffat uses the space afforded to build what’s an impressively complex apparatus of plot. The point is clearly to have it already in place for next week, where, equally clearly, it’s going to build further. That’s an interesting decision, but a welcome one that plays to Moffat’s strengths.
But what’s interesting is that, counterbalancing that, there’s a real sense of not being concerned over where the audience is. They’re expected to get to the conclusion of Cybermen well before the plot does, not least because of the trailer. The result is a nice sense of creeping menace, and a smooth, artful transition from putting the pieces together to taut suspense.
But as with the opening, the real beauty of this is the details. Danny confronting the kid he shot is astonishingly good and brutal, not least because we could have legitimately expected Clara at that point, making the “oh, wow, they’re really going there in Doctor Who” all the stronger. So is the stark horror of “don’t cremate me.” Such that we’re led to the edge of the bombastic finale we knew we’d have, but along a path that's surprisingly rich and textured.
Blimey. I can’t wait for next week.
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- So, as I guessed in comments, we’re redoing The Invasion with the Master in place of Vaughn. That’s, at least, what’s going on under the hood. Obviously there’s much more, but at the end of the day, that’s the conceit. I love how simple and untroubled the integration of classic series concepts has become for the show.
- It’s interesting to look at this one in terms of being for children. It has a very high degree of faith in its audience, albeit one that’s probably in practice going to be rewarded - Moffat’s observation that his “confusing” season six story seemed to make perfect sense to the kids is perhaps revealing here. All the same, this is stunningly dark, and is almost certainly going to actually upset some kids, especially any who might have had recently cremated relatives. It’s also perhaps worth remembering how eager they were to stress the bone-cracking sound effects in Flatline, a marked contrast to the removal of those sound effects from The Empty Child nine years ago. They seem to almost be spoiling for a fight over being “too scary for kids,” and yet aren’t actually getting one, which says so many interesting things.
- I really do find how spoiler-immune this finale is interesting. The episode’s biggest twist is its cold open. Its most interesting structural trick is steadily pulling its own premise out of its hat. But this is cleverly managed by just having a lot of really clever concepts here. The revamp of Cybermen tombs is wonderfully cheeky in its slight over-elaborateness, as is the afterlife as bureaucracy, then, hell, that being an easy transition anyway.
- So, female Master. That’s a female Doctor made basically inevitable, then. There are of course people complaining that it’s heteronormative to have the Master change genders before finally admitting their love of the Doctor. It’s not an unfair point. Although after Davies wrote the most slashable Master ever, simply going one further and having a male Master actually snog the Doctor would probably feel like diminishing returns. If I’m thinking with my writer brain, and being honest, going even gayer after John Simm would have been a bad call. More to the point, though, I can’t imagine that Davies was doing anything other than giggling like a seven-year-old schoolboy at that revelation. This is perhaps where I should point back to my observation with regards to The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe: heteronormative is not the same as homophobic. In any case, the “boyfriend” bits are pretty much the bits of the Mistress I’m least enthused about. The mad and homicidal Victorian matron is absolutely wonderful.
- There’s not been enough talk about Murray Gold this season. He’s really been learning to hold himself back. One feels as though he was inspired by doing the big 50th Anniversary bit for the proms, and grew a newfound respect for Dudley Simpson - he’s been much more willing, all season, to offer incidental music instead of big themes. Capladi’s Doctor has a theme, but it’s quite quiet and understated. But the use of the Cybermen music here is a hoot, and a wellt-imed return to crashing form. Everyone’s in on the joke this cliffhanger. And it’s a good joke.
- And, of course, perfect cliffhanger, ending on Danny and not the big reveal.
- No ranking this week - it seems impossible to compare this to completed stories. But if this is indicative of Death in Heaven, it’ll be very high in the list.