Doctor Who: Death in Heaven ~ Three Hearts, Two Souls, One TARDIS

12/24/2014

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It has been more than six weeks since the finale of the eighth season of new era Doctor Who, and all that time I struggled to finish these words. Because it was just so beautiful. Because it was just so brutal. Because it was just so brilliant. And because life's obligations and problems took priority. I wish they hadn't for just a moment. The best episodes of television stick with me forever, and Doctor Who has done it again. There were so many precious gems of episodes, moments, words, actions, and expressions. None were more stellar than "Dark Water" and "Death in Heaven" (and the earlier "Listen"). The unforgettable two-part finale tied everything together and put the characters through the wringer, so I felt I had to talk about some things that really stuck with me. This is not spoiler-free.

PETER CAPALDI IS BETTER THAN I COULD HAVE IMAGINED

There is so much to say, and much I'll likely leave out, but at least I know where to start: with Peter Capaldi, another genius choice for the title role. Before this season, everything I knew about him didn't add up to much. I'd seen the Doctor Who episode "Fires of Pompeii," a teensy bit of the hilariously insult-driven The Thick of It --which is on Hulu Plus (yay!) and now I've almost finished -- its spin-off movie In the Loop, and World War Z where he coincidentally played a World Health Organization doctor. That's about it. Now that I think about it, I guess he had an advantage over other Doctors, because I had at least seen him before. I enjoyed the rare occasion he popped up in my life, but I didn't think about him often. I didn't even realize he was in a season of Torchwood until more recently. I had been waiting a long time for my family to watch that series with me. Then they started and finished it this past summer while I was too busy with work. *insert large amounts of protesting in the form of grumbling here*

Only with this season of Doctor Who was I finally properly introduced to Capaldi and any slight apprehension about him was quickly dispelled. You think that the series cannot continue to be so lucky with the talent of their performers, and we get so attached to them that it's hard to anticipate that the next can be on equal footing. But when empathizing with a dinosaur in the first episode, he became someone for me to keep an eye on. While telling a young boy that fear is a superpower, he became one of my favorite people. In a graveyard in the finale, he made me cry and awe at how he can deliver lines with such honesty. Being a good person helps tremendously with that. In all the interviews I've read and seen since it seems Capaldi is a sweetheart, especially when he interacts with children. Heart is something that's hard to convincingly fake, vital to a performance, and Capaldi seamlessly transplants his into the Doctor without skipping a beat. There's nothing false about him.

Though Capaldi is older than the recent Doctors, all of whom were fantastic, he has infused new blood into the series that is just as energetic and gung-ho as anyone. Yet this Doctor is also aloof and afraid of his vulnerability. He can be harsh and short tempered with our entire race of primitive humans, unlikeable at times, and that makes those precious warm moments all the sweeter. He definitely has an identity and personality all his own. He's dark and off the wall, hilarious and strange, and he still deeply cares about the people he tries to help and the pain he inflicts, which was obvious before he put it into words at the end of the season. Simply put, Capaldi has been astonishing. He's the Doctor through and through, and if you don't see that then give him more time. Give the season a rewatch, this time paying attention to the the feeling behind the words, the subtle expressions in the hauntingly broken moments, and it should be clear that he is doing a service to this series. If this were his only season, he wouldn't soon be forgotten, especially not after that two-part finale.

A HUGE HELPING OF HEARTBREAK

After so long without a new season and so few chances in the last few years to rewatch old episodes, it kind of got pushed to the back of my mind that I could be in for a roller coaster ride. I knew there would be emotion piled on moving words, and meaningful actions in between the heaps of pure fun and silliness, but I didn't expect a main character would be hit so hard so soon after the new Doctor checked in. The show completely misled me and I love that. The best shows have a tendency to go in unexpected directions. It looked as though Clara's connection to Danny, a connection that brought her to the last days of the universe, and the Doctor's new, pricklier personality would be what numbered her days on the TARDIS. And that felt right; it seemed time for a companion to get out before things turned tragic. Of course, life with the Doctor is too enticing, too adrenaline-fueled to just give up. Clara chose to continue, thinking she could squeeze a normal life in there somewhere. But it wasn't just the excitement she couldn't quit easily. There was also the matter of their friendship, which they both acknowledged to others in the finale.
Kate: Clara Oswald, your assistant?
The Doctor: My friend.
Clara: I'm not his associate. I'm his best friend. Right now, his best friend, anywhere in the universe. I would never, ever give up the Doctor, because he is my best friend, too.

Clara unwittingly admitting to Danny that the Doctor was her best friend and the one person she would never lie to was the icing on the most depressing cake. When Clara decided to stay earlier in the season, I became nervous for her, knowing she wasn't going to go willingly, and it was more likely that her end would be tragic. What I didn't imagine was the writers would make Danny the trigger, giving him a sudden, ordinary end before the first scene of "Dark Water" was over. At the start I was happy Clara was telling Danny that she loved him...over the phone because she couldn't wait. But it was silence on the other end. Speechless, I assumed. One of my family jokingly said that he must have been hit by a car. I laughed because I was about to say the same. Then I stopped laughing.

Even though it popped into my head, I never saw the end coming for that character. Doctor Who is one of these precious television gems of unpredictability that takes an emotional toll with talented actors who find the familiar in unfamiliar situations. It was no surprise then that the acting in "Death in Heaven," specifically in the graveyard, was exceptional. The Doctor and Clara, often exchanging witty banter in the worst of times, were stopped in their tracks, unable to do anything. The Doctor without a trace of disdain when he called Danny "P.E." for one of the last times. His voice shaking when he found out he had to turn off Danny's emotions. Clara devastated and saying goodbye.

LOVE UNTIL THE END OF TIME

I have seen comments about their relationship being unrealistically rushed and, therefore, emotionally ineffective. I don't know how long they were together, but the nature of storytelling allows for months and years to go by in a blink. We were even given glimpses of that span of time in a montage earlier in the season that showed Clara was being run ragged by her double life. However long they were together, Danny and Clara were obviously good for each other. They were connected through eons. How can that not choke you up even if they didn't have as much screen time as some might have wanted? It wasn't poorly written. It was a romance narratively abbreviated by the array of events needed to set up for the big payoff/showdown/lesson/loss in the end. And boy what a massive payoff it was, another distinctly Doctor Who tragic moment. The way loss was handled in the last two episodes was terribly true to life.

Danny's death was something Clara and the Doctor won't just get over. Clara is likely pregnant with his child, as she was drawn to the end of the universe by a familial bond. This death will be with the Doctor and his following incarnations, because it was a huge turning point in the life of a close friend, and it was a moment where he felt completely powerless, and it was a moment that a promise saved the world. If you didn't like Danny, think about him like you would someone you love. I got to know him well enough to care when he was gone. I've lost people and I put myself in Clara's place so easily that I felt emotionally drained. It's not just about the man who lost his life and then sacrificed his second chance. It's about the woman who loved him, who lied to him about travelling with the Doctor. It's about the Doctor, who never respected him until he was gone. It's about the graves of the world giving birth. It's about the most devastating, harrowing episode of the season, as effecting an hour of television as it gets.

And so I have to say something when I see people attempt to tear apart and dismiss deeply affecting and perfectly acted episodes such as these. I prefer not to soil their memory by getting bogged down in negativity, but once in a while people say things that burrow too far under my skin, like criticism of Capaldi. I loved every minute with the new Doctor this season and seeing how his relationship with Clara would develop. He was certainly challenging, but it was terrific fun seeing once again how the new guy interpreted the role. I find Capaldi brilliant, born to play the role, but some didn't warm to his characterization. Maybe they just aren't willing to let go of Matt Smith, are still wishing David Tennant never left, are lamenting the early departure of Christopher Eccleston. I loved them, too, but it's healthier to move on. And if they're still pining for the 80's and earlier then they may need help. At its very core, one of the life lessons of this show is about change.

"I'VE NEVER MET ANYONE WHO WASN'T IMPORTANT."

The finale couldn't have brought a bigger change. But there are those who were unimpressed, thinking Danny was not a good enough reason for Clara to hurt the Doctor and not important enough for the Doctor to even attempt to go to the afterlife, something he hadn't done before for anyone he loved, let alone someone he loved to belittle. That's just ridiculous. Do people have such short memories? Do they really not know by now the measure of the Doctor? Remember back to Matt Smith's time and his never having met anyone who wasn't important. Clara loved Danny. That was reason enough. The Doctor does the impossible all the time for people he just met and he even offers second chances to those who have done or are about to do a terrible wrong. These were two people in love, one a truest friend. The Doctor couldn't watch Clara in agony and do nothing. She is important to him. She's his impossible girl.

Also, Clara's connection with Danny was key, a connection that was necessary for the story to have as big of an impact as it did. The TARDIS needed a waypoint in the afterlife, an uncharted place from which no one has returned, so he could never have gone there for anyone else. It's a simple and reasonable explanation the writers came up with for the Doctor never attempting anything like it in the past. You can't change old episodes, but does that mean the Doctor should not go to more extraordinary lengths than he has before just because of the person he's doing it for? No. That's silly. The Doctor learns, grows, changes, and every situation is a different set of circumstances, possibilites, and outcomes. The outcome would have been far different. The moment the Doctor decided to go to Hell for Clara provided the most important line of this season...

Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?

That beautiful line shows how much he cares. If he didn't try to help a distraught friend, even though she hurt him, then it would be a big glaring fault in the series. It would show that this new Doctor will quit on people and it would prove to Clara that her first instincts were right. The whole season was about her struggling to trust this new man who took the place of her best friend. Until that moment, because the Doctor was so different, Clara had no real idea how much of him was still in there, no idea that, like the TARDIS, his hearts are bigger on the inside. He has an enormous capacity for love, loyalty, and forgiveness.

THE DOCTOR'S COMPASSION

And he must have felt somewhat guilty that he made her feel she couldn't trust him. Clara, after all, wasn't the one who changed from head to toe, but she was the one who was expected to just deal with this strange situation. There were times throughout the season where doubt about the Doctor crept in for a minute, and then he would save the day again and put those fears to rest. She had to come to grips with it all, but finally accepted the Doctor's new face and new personality. Not long after that, the man she loved was suddenly gone and all her uncertainty came rushing back. Clara thought she had no choice other than to force the Doctor to help her, the one man in the universe who she knew could. Yes, it was selfish. She was broken. She's only human. Betrayal is hard to come back from, but the wound Clara inflicted was not nearly as painful to the Doctor as the wound she was carrying. He saw a friend desperate for help. This Doctor is often impatient and superior, and he's certainly not warm most of the time--all reasons Danny didn't trust him. But that moment in "Dark Water" bared the Doctor's soul and should have wiped away any viewer's lingering doubts about him or the direction of the series this year.

It would have done good for Danny to have witnessed that moment. Danny may have come around if he had more time, but he only knew the woman he loved was in love with following a madman into danger. He didn't get to see the toll it takes on the Doctor, to see that he can't stand by while tragedies happen. It's a tragedy that the Doctor showed to Danny the part of himself that cares so much only at the end. It hurt when the Doctor called Danny "P.E." finally not as mockery but with sadness in his voice, and so did his speech...

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Pain is a gift. Without the capacity for pain, we can’t feel the hurt we inflict.

 

Followed by Danny's response...

If you want to know what’s coming, you have to switch it on. And didn’t all of those beautiful speeches just disappear in the face of a tactical advantage, sir?

Danny thought he had the Doctor there, that this would confirm how he felt about him. The Doctor was trying to keep Clara alive, trying to get Danny to see that his pain was important and he couldn't just shut it off. Then an advantage was presented that may have been the only way to save billions. That was not something that could be dismissed so easily. The Doctor did use it, but it was overwhelming for him. Danny was partially right about the Doctor in action, but people follow him because he's a whirlwind of life, adventure, enthusiasm, and compassion. He's not always right. He does lose. And he feels every loss. That's what Danny didn't know. He thought it was a simple choice for the Doctor. But it wasn't and we know that.

A DEEPLY AFFECTING SERIES

Another thing it wasn't is melodrama, which was another insult hurled at "Death in Heaven" in particular. I have a gigantic bone to pick with that. It was in no way unbelievably or laughably over the top. The graveyard scene was far from that. Losing someone you love should hurt so deeply that you lose yourself and abandon hope. The pain was spot on. Someone Clara loved was ripped way from her. I know how it feels. I have been wracked with sobs, screaming, barely able to catch my breath. It was a release of agony that I had no control over. There wasn't one thing that was off about anyone's performance in the graveyard, and those who think otherwise do not have the experience yet. These three spectacular performers poured undoubtedly real heartache into a defining moment, one of the best I've seen in any series, that hits close to home for just about anyone who has dealt with loss.

A conversation with the dead is a chance no one gets yet everyone yearns for. That's why it's so effective at making you reach for the tissue box. Someone brought up the tired time travel concern that such a device has less impact and emotion because the dead don't have to stay dead. Where is this rule written? Even if someone returns, there will be a consequence and you'll always fear for them. That can be just as powerful, especially when you lose them again. Rose watching her father die comes to mind. Why anyone is disputing emotional impact with a show well-established in having some of the most powerful episodes on TV makes little sense. Sounds like someone who doesn't have much respect for science fiction, which has a unique position exploring the extraordinary while cutting right to the core of humanity. With exceptional writers and actors you get stories that can be as gut-wrenching as anything even in the face of dinosaurs in London or on a spaceship. I can't imagine anything worse than losing a loved one permanently in a world where once in a while it's possible for the impossible to happen. Speaking of exceptional writers...

PRAISING ACTORS WHILE BERATING WRITERS

I came across a couple reviews that I vehemently disagree with while looking for quotes, because I didn't have time to rewatch the episodes yet. One of them had a redeeming quality in that it praised Capaldi...but at the expense of Moffat, as if they can be competely independent rather than parts of the whole. I wasn't really clear on the dissatisfaction, but life is too short to read it again. So many heap their frustrations on this one man, too often before they even have an inking of how the season will play out, their only purpose being to complain. They just want it to go how they pictured it and be comfortably predictable rather than enjoy the story being created for them. Moffat may be steering the ship, but it's a collaborative effort, and everyone's there to put on the best show they can. A well thought out and polite response by someone received a ranting reply from the reviewer that was basically the equivalent of putting her fingers in her ears. While the acting is essential, so is the writing. The actors aren't delivering spectacular performances in spite of the writing, but they are each enhanced by the other. So, yes, Moffat and his colleagues are doing a fine job.

THREE HEARTS, TWO SOULS, ONE TARDIS

And what a fine job they did, bringing everything together nicely. The nature of the Nethersphere was satsifyingly devastating. I dreaded that Danny would be turned into a Cyberman in "Death in Heaven." I didn't think they would go quite that dark, though they have before. Donna in the library and the deaths of Amy and Rory immediately spring to mind, so a companion's boyfriend would certainly not be off limits. The story was deeply affecting and Capaldi was superb. There was no better choice. He is one of my favorite human beings after that. As are Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson. "Death in Heaven" is one of those rare episodes of television that leave you with a heaviness that stays with you, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer's "The Body," or a finale of The Walking Dead, like the recent "Coda." It's beautiful because there is a lot of substance and it will be another standard by which I'll compare all dramas.

After all is said and done, Clara and Danny had a lovely if short story of missteps, sweetness, and a tragic yet heroic end. So now were back to two characters, both lonely and broken, unwilling to admit that they are. Clara having the hope Danny would return and the Doctor having the promise of home pulled out from under them. It was such a depressing ending that I agree with Saint Nick Frost that they can't leave it this way. The Doctor and Clara deserve happiness. Not that I'm complaining, because it makes for incredible television and exquisite acting. If a show can genuinely make the tears well then I fall more for it. That means it has something to say and I feel for the characters like real people. I can't wait to see what the Christmas episode brings...is what I wrote in November. I don't have to wait very long now since Christmas is tomorrow. Tune in to BBC America at 9 PM EST.

 


FAVORITE MOMENTS FROM "DARK WATER" AND "DEATH IN HEAVEN"

"I need my friend back." Or any moment with Missy. She's batshit crazy and needy. She may even be more fun than Simm's delightfully unhinged Master.

"My heart is maintained by the Doctor." What a wonderfully strange and intimate moment. I'm jealous of Gomez. ;)

Clara was fast on her feet when the Cybermen were questioning her and she was insisting she was the Doctor. She's became a great little liar.

When Danny begged Clara to take away his emotions. When the Doctor begged Clara not to. When the Doctor reminded Danny that we need pain and put his hand over Danny's heart, both symbolic emotional center and cyber suit chest module that would obliterate emotions. A perfect touch for that scene.

"Never trust a hug. It's just a way to hide your face." When Clara and the Doctor finally hugged mutually (and awkwardly), both teary-eyed. I was hoping for this from the first episode.

"I am not a good man! And I'm not a bad man. I am not a hero. I'm definitely not a president. And no, I'm not an officer. You know what I am? I... am... an idiot. With a box and a screwdriver, passing through, helping out, learning. I don't need an army, I never have. Because I've got them. Always them. Because love, it's not an emotion. Love is a promise. And he will never hurt her." Always with the speeches in this show that bring tears to my eyes.

When the Doctor acknowledged and saluted the Brigadier cyberman. He never gave that respect to his friend in life just because he was a soldier, as the Doctor abhors violence and has a terrible time distinguishing between war and those who fight to protect and defend. After learning that's what the Brigadier always hoped for, witnessing Danny keep his humanity and sacrificing himself, and realizing that as a cyberman the Brigadier saved his daughter, saluting was the most fitting, uplfting thing the Doctor could do. It was nice to see that prejudice fall away for a change. His aversion to soldiers is a form of self-hatred for everything he's had to do, every time he's had to get blood on his hands, and Danny always reminded him of that. It's a great thing about the Doctor because flaws are relatable.

So sad that Missy was lying about Gallifrey. And so sad that the Doctor jumped to conclusions that Danny was alive, ignoring Clara's obvious sorrow. This made it easier to lie about finding his home so he could let Clara live a normal life again. I also think it might be a bit out of embarrassment, him being that vulnerable in front of her, tricked by Missy into believing that she might have been telling the truth. The Doctor hopefully entering the coordinates and then peering out into a vast ocean of empty space and then pounding his fists into the console was a stunning moment. That looked painful. I hope Capaldi didn't hurt himself. I hurt my hands just by typing and trying to unscrew caps that are too tight.

Then for both Clara and the Doctor to lie to each other that they were okay, that was even worse, because they were both completely alone at their weakest.

 


When I couldn't remember quite how a line went (nearly every time), I checked ThreeIfBySpace.net, which has a wonderful series listing Doctor Who quotes.

The beautiful images up there at the top and somewhere in the middle are courtesy of Screencapped.net and belong to the BBC. I would have taken them myself, but I didn't download the episodes since I asked for this season for Christmas on Blu-ray, and taking pictures of the TV screen just looks terrible.

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