Oh, Brilliant! (Dark Water/Death in Heaven)

(52 comments)

Missy shows off her new Photographic Vanity Eliminator

It’s November 1st, 2014. Meghan Trainor remains at number one before Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” unseats her. One Direction, Parra, Sam Smith, and Fuse ODG also chart. In news, Blaise Compaoré resigns as president of Burkina Faso, the IPCC repeats the fact that climate change is really bad, and Matthew Williams demonstrates his passionate Torchwood fandom by killing and eating a woman before being killed by a police taser. Also the US midterm elections happen, flipping the Senate back to Republican control and seeing a wealth of Republican governor elected. 

While on television, Series Eight of Doctor Who takes its bow, finding itself ending in a strikingly different place to where it began. What started with a tentative classicism has steadily acquired a swagger and confidence unseen in years. There are a handful of periods in the series like this, where every trick works and every gamble pays off so that even a flawed experiment like In the Forest of the Night or The Chase comes off as sympathetic instead of as a faceplant. What is key about this is not merely quality—there are loads of good runs of stories—but rather a particular sort of bravery. This isn’t a run like the old Season Five, which spat out six rock solid but frustratingly interchangeable bases under siege on either side of its one actual masterpiece. Rather this is like the very tail end of the Hinchcliffe era, where the show dances giddily from the avant garde dreamscape of The Deadly Assassin to the mature SF Face of Evil to an Agatha Christie pastiche with robots before settling down for The Talons of Weng-Chiang.

Even on those terms, however, Dark Water/Death in Heaven stands out. Its first fifteen minutes are unprecedented in Doctor Who, and can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best material of any other show in the history of the medium. It starts at an eleven with Danny’s sudden death and then simply doesn’t let up until it finally offers the release of cutting to him in the afterlife. The volcano confrontation is a majestic payoff to the development that Clara has been given; it’s a scene that would be unimaginable with any other character, or even with Clara just six episodes earlier. The intensity and way in which both Clara and the Doctor escalate the situation is edge-of-the-seat stuff, not because there’s any real sense that Clara might forever seal the Doctor outside of the TARDIS but because the idea of the Doctor and the companion doing things like this to one another is constantly remaining unthinkable right up until the moment the words come out of their mouths. And the subsequent TARDIS scene, with its emotional denouement of “do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference,” is simply perfect. It’s probably the most intense fifteen minutes of television in Moffat’s career, and there’s not actually a single monster or indeed antagonist in the whole thing. 

This last point gets at something else here. Sure, eventually we get to Cybermen, Missy, and UNIT in a suitably bombastic way, but this remains a story that simply isn’t interested in pandering to a casual viewer, and in ways that go well beyond the fanwank of that list. The bulk of the climax is centered on thematically paying off the Doctor/Danny rivalry and attendant ideas about aristocratic commanders and commoner soldiers, in ways that are simply baffling if you haven’t invested attention in the Clara/Danny relationship enough to appreciate the callbacks to The Caretaker and Into the Dalek. The moral points, particularly around the Doctor’s abandonment of his efforts to save Danny when he realizes that he needs something from him, are nuanced things of genuine complexity.  Moffat has ostentatiously dared the audience to keep up before, but generally in a way that makes this the point of the exercise, patting the audience on the back and telling them how clever they are for managing the task. He does this well enough that it’s generally charming instead of condescending, but it’s still a fundamentally egocentric approach. But here he’s simply trusting that the audience is paying enough attention to follow and outright not giving a fuck if they don’t. For all the fuss at the time over whether the concept of dead bodies feeling it when they’re cremated was a bit much for ten year olds, this is only a part of what’s going on. The whole story puts adult viewers first in a way Moffat never has in a finale and Davies never would.

It’s gobsmackingly arrogant—the sort of thing that typically demands to be slapped down. It feels at times like Moffat is shooting for Attack of the Cybermen done right; all of this is transparently a terrible idea. And yet in practice, they’re making it look easy. They don’t just get away with it, they don’t even let you realize there’s an it to get away with. Sure, each half of each episode is slightly less good than the last, but quality-wise this still runs from “even better than Kill the Moon” all the way down to “about as good as Flatline.” It’s a landmark achievement in a season that’s already had several.

At the center of all of this are two women. Well, four because Jenna Coleman and Ingrid Oliver also don’t put a foot wrong in the whole hour-and-forty-five minutes, but I want to talk about Michelle Gomez and Rachel Talalay. Talalay, of course, is going to become the definitive director of the Capaldi era, helming all three of his finales along with his regeneration. And with all seven of these episodes written by Moffat, she is something more or less unique: an era-defining director who’s clearly associated with a single writer. (The only other two vaguely comparable instances are Graeme Harper, with seven of his twelve new series  episodes being written by Davies and another two being Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel, and Toby Haynes, who worked on five consecutive Moffat episodes but nowhere else on the series; nothing like this exists in the classic series.) 

For all her importance, however, Talalay is an extremely hard director to get a drop on. Her directorial style is, by her own admission, a complete lack of style. She’s as chameleonic as the show itself, shifting into whatever set of stylistic conventions a sequence needs and then pivoting straight back out again. She has one or two recognizable tics—she’s markedly stronger in the studio than she is on location, for instance—but for the most part she disappears into her episodes. This is, of course, an act of extreme artistry. It is not, after all, that she’s not making supremely important creative decisions that dictate how these episodes work and feel. It’s just that she makes every decision look like an inevitable consequence of the script. She doesn’t always go with the most obvious idea; she just makes the idea look obvious once she does it.

This is quietly revelatory for Moffat. Up to this point, his directors have tended to emphasize his cleverness. This isn’t a bad thing—Nick Hurran was consistently brilliant at it. But it gave the impression that the cleverness was the point. Talalay, on the other hand, offers a straightforwardness that avoids the self-congratulatory. The chain of reveals at the end of Dark Water has as many links as anything he’s done, but the focus remains inexorably on the degree to which everything is going to hell instead of on how efficiently the writer has packed the handbasket. This in turn frees up room for the story to actually be about things because there’s no longer the overwhelming sense of telos crowding out anything implicit. 

Helping with this is the choice of the Cybermen, who Moffat quietly figures out how to effectively use. There are two basic parts to the trick. First, he has a very good revamp of them. The focus on Cybermen as corpses both effectively puts the attention on the physical bodies inside the clanking robot suits and harkens back to their original qlipothic horror. Second, he recognizes that their status as “the ones that aren’t the Daleks” means that they should be used in places where the Daleks would be too mythically noisy. They have the ability to add heft to a story without becoming the point, which fits with the rest of what this story is doing. Their newly gothic conception is evocative, but it’s allowed to be simply that. And the large quantity of things that are evocative instead of declarative sets a general tone so that even something like Missy’s quest to show the Doctor that he’s just like her become more than a cheap Killing Joke ripoff, instead serving as the setup to a more ambiguous point about the Doctor rejecting mythic narratives.

This brings us nicely to Michelle Gomez, who immediately becomes the best version of the Master ever. But obviously the elephant in the room here is that she’s not playing the Master, she’s playing Missy. Which has a lot of facets. I’ll save “Could Time Lords Always Change Gender” for the book, but we’re still going to have to talk about the process of establishing that they can at all. This conversation has to start in 2013, when the around Matt Smith’s potential successors was unexpectedly dominated by calls for the show to cast a woman. As an idea this had been around since Tom Baker suggested it as a way to goose the papers, but this time it wasn’t being bandied around as a joke; it was a completely serious and widespread suggestion, to the point that Moffat was baited into responding to Helen Mirren’s lobbying for the part. (His response, that in his opinion they should get a man to play the Queen, is a subtler joke than it first appears.) 

Eventually Moffat offered the more serious answer that he didn’t think he could get away with it yet in 2013. And this is probably fair. Certainly he immediately set about making it easier for Chibnall to do it, with Missy being the most obvious move. And for all that I’m inclined to furiously want a woman in the role, I can’t with a straight face say that Moffat’s concerns were invalid. Whittaker is getting a rough enough ride even after Moffat actively courted audience desire for a female Doctor. Maybe it was overcautious, but it wasn’t unreasonably so, especially given how appealing an alternative Peter Capaldi was. 

But the introduction of cross-gender regeneration has other implications, in that it turns regeneration into a metaphor for transition. This is basically a good thing, but is far from straightforward. Done carelessly, for instance, it would suggest that if the Whittaker or Gomez’s successors are male they would become metaphors for detransitioning. More broadly, transgender identities are a historically constructed thing. Countless historical antecedents exist, but the concept of “being trans” as it exists in 2018 is both recent and still rapidly evolving. What John Simm and Peter Capaldi’s characters do is not the same thing. For one thing, their characters are actually men. Reading them as women, even self-closeted women, is like reading Roger Delgado’s character as suffering from incessant mental drumming or William Hartnell’s character as a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. This is actively different from the experience of most trans women in ways that matter tremendously.

All the same, there’s no way around it. Missy and the Thirteenth Doctor are obviously both characters who are going to matter to trans fans. They’re going to be identified with and projected upon. They’re going to be parts of people’s narratives—central figures in the profoundly difficult task of figuring it out. They already are. I guarantee you there are people in the world who would describe themselves as transitioning because of Missy. That she’s a metaphor for transition instead of a depiction of it does not detract from that in the slightest.

It’s also the case, however, that she works well as a metaphor. No, the actors playing earlier incarnations of the character are not playing closeted trans women. And yet the reading works. The camp excess of the character that made Davies’s slash reading of their relationship to the Doctor work also works as the desperate straining against the edges of gender norms of someone not quite realizing that what they really want to do is be on the other side of the border. More to the point, Michelle Gomez’s character works. Indeed, the argument that she’s the first version of the character to ever work is a reasonable one in a way it’s clearly not going to be with Jodie Whittaker. But something about making this particular character a woman proves immediately and viscerally compelling. Character traits that had been pitiable in their camp suddenly become markers of a libidinal murderousness. She no longer seems faintly desperate and trying too hard; she’s comfortable in her own skin in a way she simply never has before. Big mood, y’know?

As mentioned, Michelle Gomez is perfect for this. She’s a deft comedic actress who’s used to playing this sort of crazed lustiness, but she has the depth and range to ensure that there’s always more to the character than how extra she is. She’s got a knack for stealing scenes in ways that elevate her co-stars, giving them room to respond and make interesting choices even as she gets to be the preposterously charming one. She’s both physical and expressive, and capable of using each of these skills in slightly different ways so as to communicate multiple and even contradictory things at a time. And she takes the part seriously in a way no previous occupant has. Even when she’s having an absolute ball, which is always, she doesn’t view it as an opportunity to simply ham it up in the same way that, say, John Simm or Anthony Ainley did. 

Twelve episodes ago we talked about how Moffat seemed increasingly hemmed in by the popular culture, at risk of becoming a dinosaur who stayed on the show too long. To make that suggestion after Death in Heaven, however, would be absurd. Twelve episodes and he’s crafted one of the definitive Doctor/companion pairings, pushed it to where it can repeatedly do things that no other pairing could do, found a new favorite director, acquired a stable of reliable writers, and gotten both Mark Gatiss and the Master to work for the first time, all while wasting two of the twelve stories on Stephen Thompson and Gareth Roberts. This would be a tour de force in a showrunner’s first season, little yet their fourth. Nearly four years on, it’s still difficult to quite believe it happened. Now the only question is whether it can possibly continue.

Comments

William Shaw 5 months ago

"She’s got a knack for stealing scenes in ways that elevate her co-stars, giving them room to respond and make interesting choices even as she gets to be the preposterously charming one."

- That's a really interesting (and imo accurate) way of describing Gomez's performance, as it suggests that Gomez's take on her recurring role is equivalent to Troughton's take on his.

I wonder if we'll see all future incarnations of Missy as being variations on Gomez in the same way we see the subsequent Doctors as variations on Troughton?

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David Anderson 5 months ago

It makes one respect Nightmare in Silver more. Not because it makes Nightmare in Silver look any good but in the sense that Gaiman is taking one for the team: Nightmare in Silver turns out to be the failed experiment from which Moffat learns how to get the cybermen right. Gaiman gets the answers wrong, but he gets the questions right.

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SPACE WHALE 5 months ago

Proponents of casting a woman as the Doctor definitely gave Moffat a harder time than he deserved. People, understandably, thought it would be a very cool thing to have happen. But, for one, it didn't have super-strong textual support. For two, the cultural moment wasn't right. I think CERTAIN EVENTS THAT HAVE TRANSPIRED have made it more welcome. I have been getting the sense since as far back as The Doctor's Wife that Moffat was laying groundwork so whoever took over for him could cast a woman if they wanted to. I'm just not certain Moffat anticipated Chibnall would immediately take him up on it.
I could be annoyed at Moffat, but OTOH, Peter Capaldi as the Doctor was wonderful and perfect.

also, thinking about the whole thing, there's no real life parallel to what happened with the Master/Missy and then the Doctor. And it's by no means certain, too, that the Doctor will handle things remotely similar to Missy. Indeed, I doubt it. There's a pretty clear suggestion that the Master was always a bit of a chauvinist, and it translated to how Missy handled being female. Whereas, I think initially the Doctor's going to be female, but not really a woman. Missy bit into the performative aspects of gender. For all the Doctor knows, I don't think he knew much about presenting as a woman, and the regeneration doesn't change that (and the costume is pretty good evidence, isn't it?). This situation would be an amazing opportunity to spark a wider discussion about sex, gender, and the performance of gender roles.
and...the Doctor just being the Doctor will be radical at times. Picture the 13th Doctor striding into a room of men in Victorian England, and saying "right, I'm in charge now". And then pulling it off.

more germane to the story, Missy is terrific. Kinda wild that this is her only story where she's actively the primary villain.

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phuzz 5 months ago

"it didn't have super-strong textual support"
As with all scifi, there's no textual support, right up until someone writes it. (There was no textual (video?) support for regeneration until they needed a new actor, then there was only 11 regenerations until they needed more)
This is especially true of something with many writers. Someone new comes on and doesn't want to be held to the existing constraints, or just doesn't know they exist. The only consideration is: did they make it plausible enough?

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Elizabeth Sandifer 5 months ago

I mean, doing it in 2014 would have meant doing it the year Gamergate broke out. (Actually, I should really have included "Zoe Quinn's vindictive ex made a tell-all blog post about her" in the news for Deep Breath.) So yeah, I think that would have been timely too.

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SeeingI 5 months ago

"For all the Doctor knows, I don't think he knew much about presenting as a woman, and the regeneration doesn't change that (and the costume is pretty good evidence, isn't it?)."

Thank you! When I saw the costume one of my first thoughts, other than the refreshingly child-like whimsy of it, was of the Doctor rummaging through the wardrobe saying "I'm a girl now! What do girls wear? Um...braces, yeah?" I think it's delightful.

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Przemek 5 months ago

A brilliant essay with a brilliant title. And, if I may say so, one more proof that the Capaldi run of the TARDIS Eruditorum is one of the finest runs this blog has ever had. Bravo.

This finale was simply amazing and even in 2018 it still packs one hell of a punch. Escpecially in the Doctor-Clara scenes; the way their relationship almost breaks apart at the end, partly due to how much they care about each other, is just jaw-droppingly good. And the Doctor is properly scary when he hits the TARDIS console in anger after he finds out Missy lied to him about Gallifrey. And Missy... oh, Missy is just wonderful. Fantastic stuff all around.

As for Moffat, there was one more (and for some fans, as it turned out, one too many) display of giddy arrogance in this finale: Clara's eyes in the opening sequence after she claims to be the Doctor. That he did that - making the viewers think there might have been some truth to the whole Impossible Girl arc after all and diverting our attention away from the real gender-swapped character in the story - essentialy, for a joke, should just break the fanbase. And yet he mostly got away with it. That's trolling elevated to an art form.

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Alex Gurney 5 months ago

"no longer the overwhelming sense of telos"

Congrats on the stealth reference. It made me think how notably little this episode has to do with a past Tomb containing Cybermen. Yes, they're dormant, menacing, and excise emotion; but they're also off-center here. The story isn't really about them other than as a vehicle for evoking particular emotional and SFnal imagery in a concise way. This contrasts with a typical way of using them, where we're expected to care when they show up because they are a returning monster whose fictional biography is interesting in itself.

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David Anderson 5 months ago

"It's the cybermen!" works here as a way to establish the nature and scale of the stakes without having to squeeze in exposition scenes with the monsters in. In fact, it's what Saward did in Earthshock. The difference is that Saward used the time saved to fossick around in caves with black robots, and Moffat used the time saved to have the Doctor face off with Clara.

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Przemek 5 months ago

I think it's fair to say that Moffat figured out something even bigger than how to use Cybermen properly: he realized that most DW monsters and villains aren't really that interesting to begin with. You need to give them a twist, to put them in an interesting scenario, maybe combine them to get some new, exciting results. Nostalgia for nostalgia's sake barely works anymore. Series 8 finale (and, I'd say, Series 9 opening and Series 10 finale as well) proves how well this approach works.

As for the Cybermen, I think RTD was perhaps closer to figuring them out than he thought. I've rewatched "The Next Doctor" recently and I've noticed that it goes for the same trick as Series 8 finale: it uses the Cybermen as the villains in a story that is really about something else (namely, the titular Next Doctor). It fails because there's not actually that much thematical connection between the Cybermen themselves and the actual story (and the episode ends with a giant Cyberman stomping all over London, thus making the boring robots the main point again) but it's still an interesting attempt at making those villains work.

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Luvad 5 months ago

"Got the the Master to work for the first time."
So The Deadly Assassin and Survival don't really count anymore? I think it would be far better to say that Moffat got the character to work on a consistent basis that builds on each subsequent appearance.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 5 months ago

Look if you've got a razor that can split hairs this finely just bring it to market.

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Luvad 5 months ago

Touche. I concede the point.

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David Anderson 5 months ago

I think The Deadly Assassin would have worked just as well had they called the villain Omega. Survival depends precisely on the fact that the Master doesn't quite work: the rhetoric of survival of the fittest is actually pretty shabby under the hood. It would take Paterson far too much at his own valuation to pit him against a functional villain.

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CJM123 5 months ago

Claiming the Master works in Deadly Assassin isn't really correct. It's not the Master, certainly not the Roger Delgado version that existed or a spin on that concept. What matters is it's a dying figure connected to the Time Lords, and the Master fits the bill.

Survival is more complicated. And I do love John Simm's first and last appearance, whilst I think The End of Time shows Crispy Master hasn't really worked as part of the Master's cannon.

But it's telling that after Roger Delgado but before Missy, the Master only works as a desperate man on the edge, or just straight-up totally insane. He only worked at the total limit, and not as an alternative Doctor.

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Prandeamus 5 months ago

This isn't a deep comment, but I wanted to mention that I found myself in London on business a few weeks back, and on taking a walk towards St Pauls cathedral, I saw that the approach road that was used in filming the scene where Missy reveals her true identity is called Peters Hill. Just saying, but it made me smile.

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Rodolfo Piskorski 5 months ago

The scene from which the still image above comes was filmed in The Friary in Cardiff. I find it rather fitting, too.
Famous DW street by now. I frequently forget its name and just call it "the Doctor Who street".
They filmed both Abaladon and Martha's hospital in that street. Toshiko listening to people's minds.

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Simon Simmons 5 months ago

I agree with all the praise, but...

... the Brigadier becoming a flying, saluting Cyberman was tasteless and at the very least undermined the scene where Matt Smith learned of his death.

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Przemek 5 months ago

Was it? I didn't think it was.

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Ozyman.Jones 4 months, 4 weeks ago

I felt the same, Simon. It solved a potential plot hole of how to have Kate survive, but rubbed me the wrong way as somewhat crass and unnecessary.

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SeeingI 5 months ago

"Attack of the Cybermen" done right? No, that would have Daleks and Thals in it. This is "Revelation of the Daleks" done right, which is to say, it's got Cybermen harvesting a posh mortuary instead.

It's also a massive and glorious rip-off of 1985's "Return of the Living Dead," from the concept of corpses feeling pain to the poisoned rain bringing a cemetery back to life.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 5 months ago

While I appreciate the artistry of saying that Attack of the Cybermen done right would have Daleks and Revelation of the Daleks done right would have Cybermen, in this case it's probably overthinking the analogy a titch.

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Fantastic Alice Fox 5 months ago

I feel like I should wait since I am about to hit the Matt Smith years and would love to read these right after I see the episodes...

But I love your writing. It's wonderful to read such in depth reviews from a woman's perspective. There are not a whole lot out there and I need to look harder for them. I really like how you describe Missy here. I also noticed that you mentioned Delgado a few times and the more Delgado I see, rewatch, relisten to(Geoffrey Beevers on Harvest of Time and Doomsday weapon are brilliant) I am more convinced that Missy is the closest we have come to another Delgado. She is sooo like him I would have supported a "retcon" of her being between Delgado and Pratt/Beevers regenerations.

But she doesn't need to be to work. I also liked your unique perspective on the Trans aspects of this. I fully agree. Even if the Doctor is happy being Peter Capaldi and Missy was happy being Simm there is something wonderful and beautiful about seeing a Missy and a 13th Doctor delightfully pleased and happy with female incarnations.

For those of us that are in any way fluid, be we intersex, trans, or genderqueer/fluid Missy and 13 are soo soo amazing and positive!

I identify as genderqueer and after Jodie came out for the first time I wanted to be the Doctor! I had never thought I'd wanted to be the Doctor before. And Jodie comes out... and gives me the empowerment to know I want to be Paul McGann! I love the Doctor. Only witht the Doctor could a female Doctor empower me to realise I can be one of her male incarnations!

Thank you for your lovely blog Ms. Sandifer. It's a delight to read.

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Elizabeth Edwards 5 months ago

Oh Hell no I am not letting spam be the most recent comment on a post this good.

I have incredibly fond memories of Dark Water/Death in Heaven. Series 8 was the first one I watched on transmission, and relatively unique in the fact that I waited to watch the recordings with my mother. Which meant that I waited something like three weeks to watch Death in Heaven after Dark Water (she couldn't find a free hour) — which I think might be the ideal way to watch it! In particular, three weeks of mulling over the "Clara Oswald never existed" line in the Next Time trailer (still being new to the Whovian thing, I totally thought she was going to be one of Missy's henchwomen) made the final resolution an absolute gut buster. (This did not stop me from chastising my best friend for not urging me to watch it sooner, though).

Before this episode, I'd never even thought about directors in Doctor Who before — and Matt Smith was my introduction to the show! But I remember distinctly reading in the Radio Times that Talalay was returning for Heaven Sent & Hell Bent and thinking "Yes!" She knocks out possibly the best action set piece this show ever got with the Presidential Aircraft, makes absolute magic with the volcano scene, and makes the final couple of scenes so beautifully understated. In "The Writer's Tale", Davies frets about how the American system takes control of the finished episode away from the director, and we can only be thankful that the BBC never nicked that trick (although, to be fair, it's never benefitted from imitating Americans anyhow).

Being in the camp of "John Simm's Master is the best thing to ever be on television" camp (just imagine my surprise when I watched State of Play and realized he was an actual actor instead of a Tom Baker-esque performer!), I was shocked how quickly Missy made herself my favorite incarnation of the Master. Her scene with Osgood is a thing of sublime beauty, and quickly made me ask "John who?"

I haven't even gotten to talking about Oh, Brilliant! (Dark Water/Death in Heaven) yet, but it's fantastic. I'm glad you dedicated about half of Beautiful Fragile Human Skin Like Parchment (Flatline) to talking about Clara, because it would have been a tragedy to lose any of the bits about Talalay and Missy in this essay. I'm still holding out hope that __________ (The Magician's Apprentice/The Witch's Familiar) spends some time on Capaldi's characterization — seeing as most of the Series 8 essays seem to be putting off the issue as "incomplete" — but taken as a whole, these last 12 (ha) entries have been exactly as brilliant(!) as I'd hoped they'd be, considering this is my all-time favorite season of television (I have a bit more time for the first half than you do).

My only concern is that Who critics, in the justifiable urge to praise the Capaldi era to the skies, seem to relegate the Smith era as an interesting but flawed footnote in the buildup to Moffat's *real* triumphs, which is a damn shame to me. It was never quite as consistently solid as the Capaldi era, but I always thought it was just as brave (well, Seasons 5 and 6, anyway, but even then 10 wasn't the most innovative season either). At the very least, Talalay's direction "free[ing] up room for the story to actually be about things because there’s no longer the overwhelming sense of telos crowding out anything implicit" seems overly harsh.

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David Anderson 5 months ago

I too find Missy the only incarnation of the character I actually like (that said once you've got Missy in play, Mr Saxon and Missy on screen together was clearly a good idea).
The build-up helps. I came across fan speculation that Missy was the Master before Dark Water aired. It was obviously the satisfactory answer to who is this Missy character, so that when Missy reveals who she is in the episode it wasn't a surprise so much as a statement that Moffat's making sure the fans keep up with him this time.
There's also the fact that Missy plays off Capaldi's Doctor in a way that doesn't quite happen with even Simm/Tennant and Delgado/Pertwee. Capaldi is good at reacting to what Missy does while grabbing the screen without being pressed into a straight man role.

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Ciaran M 5 months ago

As much as I love the Capaldi era and your thoughts on it, honestly most of this season has felt less like Eruditorum and more like reviews. The Caretaker and In The Forest Of The Night are the exceptions to what feels like a season redemption arc of Moffat. Which is in theory like a psychochronography, but in practice reads like a series of superlatives about why everything Moffat, Capaldi and Coleman was actually the greatest thing ever.

There's a clear and obvious teleology in play that I think reached its depressing nadir with '...he didn’t think he could get away with it yet in 2013. And this is probably fair.'.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 5 months ago

Hm. Interesting. I mean, I did review these stories and I've been pretty actively going in different directions from the reviews. I think you'd be hard pressed to call my handling of Flatline a review. Certainly the bulk of Kill the Moon wasn't.

That said, you're right that this is a season redemption arc of Moffat. As in, that's literally been the narrative arc of my posts. I've got three seasons of Capaldi to cover, and this first one is about getting from "hm, Moffat's Doctor Who has been feeling increasingly tired" to "holy shit this is amazing." There's more story than that, but that's the part I've told so far.

Not sure what the teleology you have in mind is. Are you just disappointed I didn't muster up a bunch of anger about not getting a female Doctor four years earlier? Fair enough if so, but I remain not all that disappointed by it I'm afraid.

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John Toon 5 months ago

"(His response, that in his opinion they should get a man to play the Queen, is a subtler joke than it first appears.)"

Well, look, I missed this memo. To me it still looks like a hot take that Moffat subsequently walked back (notwithstanding he was already laying the groundwork for a future female Doctor). Are you suggesting there's something subtler and funnier there than just a reference to Helen Mirren having played the Queen?

Sidenote: Christopher Bidmead claims in his Myth Makers interview that he tried to persuade JNT to replace Tom Baker with a woman, hence all the press-baiting. I'm not sure how seriously to take him.

I think there's an above average amount of fan-baiting going on in Death in Heaven - not just having the Brigadier cameo as a rocket-propelled Cyberman, but having Missy kill Osgood and Squeeing Seb, both characters with fannish overtones. Justified high spirits, perhaps, given the confidence and quality of the story, but interesting.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 5 months ago

Consider who's been cast to replace Elizabeth II herself.

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John Toon 5 months ago

Hmmmm... not an entirely convincing argument, IMO.

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Prole Hole 5 months ago

The killing of Osgood is simply brilliant, and arguably my favourite Missy moment in these two episodes. It manages to square the circle of her being absolutely unpredictable to the point of open lunacy and also presenting her as a genuine threat - by taking out a fan-favourite like Osgood Missy gets to genuinely intrude on the "cosy" narrative that most Doctor-Master/Missy stories set up (it's not like Benton was ever seriously threatened by Delgado) and shows just what a difference this version of the character can make. No longer is she a tick-the-box villain appearance, but instead someone who can inflict real damage. The subsequent walking back of this is, despite how great the Zygon two-parter is, desperately unfortunate because it undermines the fact that Missy was able to really impact the ongoing story in favour of something rather more ordinary (bringing back someone the fans like).

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Rodolfo Piskorski 5 months ago

These episodes were so thought-provoking and this article is so good, I just wish it were much longer.
There were such interesting thematic strands in this series about transcendence and how we can compare going to heaven to a robot upgrade and the question of what a robot heaven might look like. The finale concludes themes that started all the way in The Girl in the Fireplace, through Deep Breath, Robot of Sherwood, etc.
Also, there is a constant obsession with being "uploaded" and merged into a some sort of system or database. Especially with Clara. She was absorbed by the Daleks as Oswin, and then uploaded to the computer in Bells of Saint John, and merged with the Doctor's timeline, etc etc. And then we get this episode about everyone being uploaded to the Nethersphere. Of course, this goes back to River's being uploaded into the Library. Which then comes back in Twice Upon a Time with those Testimony people (and, of course, everybody had been trapped in a simulation in a previous story).
As much as this is a Moffat trope, it is also strongly a Clara one.

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Rodolfo Piskorski 5 months ago

But OH I was SO mad that "Clara Oswald never existed" never went anywhere because that made me jump out of the sofa with WTFness!

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Leslie L 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Yeah, that was so a 'trailer' line.

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Charles Spencer 5 months ago

Elizabeth... will you be mentioning the War Doctor audios in your 2015-based posts? They do kind of tie in with the Gallifrey theme of Series 9 and back in the Day of the Doctor entry you called the Time War "a truly lost era"... except, now, in a very small way, it isn't. And while the Hurt audios might not necessarily depict the War in a way that most fans wanted, they still exist... and, I don't know, he's a great Doctor. They didn't really affect Doctor Who as a whole though, barely made ripples, but as far as they go in actually introducing a Doctor that 'regenerated' two years prior and constructing a likeable and identifiable character for this ghost-incarnation...

Sorry. Off-topic.

Great post, love the blog!

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BenJ 4 months, 4 weeks ago

Belated, but I just wanted to say that this essay came at exactly the right time for me, and was a real pick-me-up this past Monday.

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Leslie L 4 months, 3 weeks ago

I will always be fond of this two parter, even if I felt, at the time, Clara was being unlikeable. But she grew. Moffat really stepped up for this season, in a way that hadn't been seen.

Even with the ending, which was revised by Last Christmas, it wouldn't have been the worse thing in the world for that ending to happen.

As a result of both of them thinking the other have a happy ending at hand, they both part miserable. That would have been delightful.

Then again, we wouldn't have series nine.

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Daru 4 months, 3 weeks ago

This story (both parts) on airing and since really blew me away - and I still love, love it. I had not seen (since recent times!) a tale including the Cyberman done so well, and what a perfect fit to have a story based around mortality and death wrapped around them. Perfect - and that scene in the Tardis between Clara, the Doctor and the key stands up as one of the best in who as far as I am concerned.

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Nathan T Sandler 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Missy still comes off as more of the same "Joker wanna be" and all the demonetization of mental illness that comes with that. Add to that a story that feels like things just... happen and it put me off Who until I heard Moffat was finally leaving. Maybe we can get some actual writing again soon....

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Champiness 4 months, 3 weeks ago

I’m excited to learn that mental illness can be monetized.

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mx_mond 4 months, 3 weeks ago

“But the introduction of cross-gender regeneration has other implications, in that it turns regeneration into a metaphor for transition. This is basically a good thing, but is far from straightforward.”

I’ll probably have more to say about this under the Zygon Inv entry, when the conversation moves a bit more into my lane and I can talk about the role Osgood played in my realisation I was non-binary. But for now I just want to say that the distinction between representation of something and a metaphor for something is a very good and needed one, and that much as I understand (more and more these days as I take some tentative steps towards experimenting with my gender presentation) the necessity of explicit representation (give us trans characters in DW!), I think there is also a lot to be said for including metaphor for things, because metaphors lend themselves very well to personal readings, and have the potential to present new or marginalised narratives of certain experiences.

As for other matters in the episode...

I mentioned under the Deep Breath entry and probably under a few others that the Doctor at the start of series 8 felt like a tired, obsolete figure, more or less explicitly tied to the “asshole detective/genius who’s also really angsty” type. The more radical change is (hopefully) still to come with Jodie Whittaker, but Dark Water/Death in Heaven holds the promise of a smaller change that will come in series 9. Because here the Doctor resolves his “Am I a good man?” dilemma. Or at least decides that the question is a wrong one. Because a good man, like a good Dalek, can still be ruled by hate, can still commit atrocities. And this is not who the Doctor wants to be or even has to be under Moffat (unlike Davies). So the Doctor rejects all that and, in search of a new ethos, resorts to embodying The Fool archetype. He’s an idiot who knows nothing, who’s here to learn. And he will learn quite soon what he should value most instead of goodness.

I also want to repeat something I stumbled upon under the entry for The Game (because I think it’s too good an insight to be wasted under the entry for The Game): in series 8 everything in the show becomes radical and new. Clara decides to become the Doctor. Missy decides to become a woman. The Moon decides to become an egg. I can’t help but think that the Doctor with his angst looked around himself at some point and decided: “Okay, you know what? I’ve got to keep up, so I’m gonna become someone interesting and fresh as well.”

And so he will.

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Przemek 4 months, 3 weeks ago

I love that reading!

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