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Well here we are, for one last round before, you know, the next round. Twitter is a somewhat mixed reaction. GallifreyBase has 71.65% on 8-10, with 34.62% of those tens. Me? I loved it.
It’s ostentatious as hell. It builds on Moffat’s previous tricks in so many interesting ways. You can accurately describe it as “the Doctor Who version of His Last Vow” or as “Eric Saward done right,” it’s got the first companion departure to top Doomsday (Donna is disqualified for the horrific consent violation involved), and it manages an entirely different take on the phrase “tomb of the Cybermen” than the one we had last week. It frames that perfectly, with Clara and the Doctor having the exact inverse of the conversation Clara was trying to have with Danny at the beginning. It’s the Master as an evil River Song, while Clara plays out Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead with Danny in River’s role. It’s as perfectly timed for Remembrance Sunday as Deep Breath was for the sunset. Clara applies the moral legitimacy she earned in Kill the Moon to the question of granting her boyfriend’s request for assisted suicide. The opening credits recycle the trick from the sixth episode of Jekyll. Clara’s an adult Linda. The fucking Brigadier. Moffat, a writer whose work is defined by narrative substitutions, plays it completely straight while doing weird inversions of everything else around him while telling a more or less straightforward point A to point B story over ninety minutes.
It works. There are plot holes. I identified several in the immediate aftermath. On a second pass, all of them have, at the very least, a line of dialogue. Yes, Missy’s entire reason for bringing the Doctor and Clara together and intervening in their timestreams to keep them together was that Clara would eventually lead the Doctor to try to rescue a loved one out of heaven. It’s a scheme by the Master, what did you expect, sanity? The Doctor probably could have commanded the army to self-destruct, but he recognized that Danny was the right person to do it. They’re not always satisfying payoffs, though for the most part, they’re as satisfying as they need to be for the amount the show built them up - if fans inflated the minor mysteries further, that’s their problem.
And when anything falters, it’s willing to get through on sheer bravado. Moffat returned to the two-parter on the back of Sherlock, and built one with a corker of a cliffhanger. He actually rejects his own usual advice of having to pick up the cliffhanger in a different place, instead just weighting the two halves, so Clara drops out earliest in Dark Water and then gets the cold open in Death in Heaven. Then he uses UNIT to change the pace a second time, and he’s off to the races with something that feels very different without any gimmicks, or, at least, without any of the gimmicks his detractors accuse him of relying on. It keeps moving at a thrilling speed. There’s no flab to this story - just a solid knowledge of what the major scenes actually are and a willingness to linger on them and trim the connective tissue.
It’s phenomenally good, and a worthy capstone to a season that has been a genuinely incredible piece of television. And it’s been a barnstorming success in practice. There are detractors, but most reviews have been positive, ratings have been high. AIs have been a smidgen weak, perhaps, but that’s maybe OK for a show that’s taking this many risks. Maybe the best television doesn’t get a 91 point AI.
Indeed, there would be something slightly disturbing if everybody liked this. It’s so willing and at times eager to be a difficult show. It acknowledges the costs and horrors of war in a very blunt, unflinching way. So many scenes are willing to be genuinely unsettling. Danny as a Cyberman is absolutely awful, in all the best ways. The parting between the Doctor and Clara is real and honest and comes out of both of their characters. Capaldi silently smashing the console is chillingly good. But all of this makes it an episode that’s trying to needle. Just like last week you’d have been disappointed if the BBC didn’t get some complaints, you kind of hope it does this week too. It seems like all our fallen soldiers as Cybermen on Remembrance Sunday ought to raise a few hackles and piss a few people off.
It’s difficult, in other words, for me not to be slightly ecstatic about this story.
I don’t like it as much as… Listen or Kill the Moon, certainly. That seems almost petty to say. I have nothing but 100% respect and love for everything it does, mostly, with one very big exception where I can even be persuaded that Moffat made the right choice, but it’s still a choice I don’t like, which is the death of Osgood. (I think it’s a waste. I get what it does for the episode, and I get that there has to be a real, brutal, awful death in a war, and I think the transition into Missy being an evil Mary Poppins is deliciously sick. I think Osgood was, as a character and as a set of things you could still do with her, worth more than her death gave to this story.) In the end, probably not as much as In the Forest of the Night, which I wanted to have a slightly bleaker ending than it did, and which, in hindsight, given these two episodes, it now does have a rather bleaker ending than it did, so that’ll teach me to make wishes.
But look, I absolutely adore it. Four top class, all-time classics in one season. Another… ooh, even if I want to be a harsh grader, I’ve got to say Mummy on the Orient Express, Deep Breath, The Caretaker, and, yeah, all right, Flatline were top class. Your weak three are Time Heist, Into the Dalek, and Robot of Sherwood. Holy crap that’s a good bottom three. I’m glad I opted for a ranked list system instead of scoring, because that would have ended up with as much grade inflation as a PhD program.
Wow. What an incredible season of television just happened. What an absolute event and thrill to have experienced.
- Osgood could have been her Zygon duplicate. Or, and this might be the better idea, you could have Osgood’s character continue via her Zygon duplicate. Yes, Osgood died, yes, everyone feels awful about it, but look, here’s a good Zygon who defaults to Osgood’s form and shares her basic personality. It’s the next Strax, and Moffat should totally do it.
- Speaking of Osgood, in a season with two ostentatious passes of the Bechdel test already, the fact that Dark Water/Death in Heaven only passes because of Osgood’s death scene, which again lampshades the test, is somewhat gloriously twisted.
- The horror of what happens to Danny in this story really casts an odd pall on the Brigadier. Moffat has made it so that the character can appear indefinitely. You can always have a good Cyberman who’s the Brigadier. You could do a last Brigadier story set centuries in the future where the Brigadier, Handles-style, is finally dying, and Three stops by to say goodbye, because he always knew this was how it was going to end for his best friend. Or, you know, any number of stories that aren’t just the most depressing things ever. (Three is on his way back from Metebelis Three and is dying of radiation poisoning! It’s a great idea!) Or any number of other stories with the character. But equally, holy shit, how awful this must be for poor Alistair.
- God, Moffat gets the Cybermen right. What’s impressive in both episodes is how much time he manages to spend not doing big, crashing armies of Cybermen. Instead he keeps them lurking horrors, as they were when they were at their best in the Troughton era.
- And Missy, frankly, is brilliant. This is a contender for best-ever Cybermen story and is, I think, flat out the best-ever Master story. The use of Missy as a force of chaos and plot complication who blows in, makes things worse, and blows out again. Or, put another way, Moffat’s cracked that a Master story isn’t about “an evil version of the Doctor” it’s about the Doctor’s version of the Joker. She had one bad day, looked into the untempered schism, and now does things like try to give the Doctor an army to prove he’s just like her. (Also, I love that “the villain is a twisted mirror of the hero” is no longer a clever observation on narrative, but instead the villain’s aspiration. Post-Moore storytelling for the win.)
- Implicit in this, and fascinating, is a critique, not so much of the Doctor, but of heroes. The Doctor is still absolutely the hero we need - an idiot with a box and a screwdriver who wanders by and tries to help. But the inherent unpleasantness of heroism is really highlighted here. Danny’s critique of the Doctor is given tremendous weight, especially when we see that, yes, all of the Doctor’s grand speeches really do wither away the moment he decides he needs to sacrifice someone. Heroes are necessary and terrifying all at once, but in the end, their problems don’t make them any less heroic.
- Which brings us to the wonderful final scene, in which two good people who care deeply about each other lie to each other to avoid hurting each other, and end up parting ways as a result. A sort of “Gift of the Magi” ending, in which each of them hides their damage in the mistaken belief that they’re going to make the other happy. I said last week that the Doctor’s line about how betraying him doesn’t make any difference carried more depth of emotion than the entire Rose arc. Here I think we get this taken even further - a companion departure with so much more emotion to it than the increasingly played out Doomsday approach.
- Right. Santa. OK. See you all in six weeks then.
- Final Rankings Until I Decide To Rank Things Again:
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- Kill the Moon
- In the Forest of the Night
- Dark Water/Death in Heaven
- Mummy on the Orient Express
- Deep Breath
- The Caretaker
- Time Heist
- Into the Dalek
- Robot of Sherwood