Doctor Who 'Death in Heaven' recap: The end of the afterlife

Missy stops to take a selfie with the Doctor and some old friends in "Death in Heaven."
The term "comic book death" is typically a pejorative, a reference to a character death in a story — any story — that has every chance of being reversed. And while it can be pleasing to see certain characters again, resurrecting them often robs the original death of its drama.
Doctor Who has had its share of comic book deaths (arguably its lead character is a regularly recurring one), several of them in "Death in Heaven," the final episode of season 8. But the episode gets away with them by having a few things to say about death: what it might be, what we leave behind when we're gone, and, if you've managed to cheat death forever — as the Doctor and the Master have done — what's the point of continuing on?
"Death in Heaven" also features at least one real-deal, that-must-have-hurt, not-coming-back-from-this-one death death of a beloved character, giving it extra credit in the drama department.


We begin immediately after we left off, with the Doctor and Missy, who we've just learned is really the Master, outside St. Paul's Cathedral, where the Cybermenhave just kicked off a planet-wide invasion. The silver figures stand imposingly on the streets, ready to… pose for a selfie?
The crowd around the Cybermen appear to assume they're just here for entertainment, so the people nearby whip our their phones and start snapping away, some putting their arms around the metal giants.

Doctor Who Death in Heaven

Um, run?

Missy delights in the people's ignorance, ready to give the order to strike, but before she can do so, all the so-called tourists drop their phones and instead pull out guns, training them on the Cybermen. They're quickly joined by Kate Stewart, the intrepid leader of the Unified Intelligence Taskforce, also known as UNIT, whom we last saw in the 50th anniversary special.
Kate encourages the Cybermen to surrender, and hammers home the point with a destroyed Cyber helmet from a previous invasion attempt (which longtime viewers will recognize from 1968's "The Invasion"). The Cybermen ignore her and reveal a new ability: flight. 
All of the metal soldiers take to the skies, taken aloft by jet engines in their boots — a Tony Stark design, no doubt.

Cybermen all over the Earth do the same, each one positioning itself over a major city and town, then self-destructing. The Cyber invasion seems over before it begun, except every explosion produces a large, rapidly expanding storm cloud. That can't be good.
Clara, who we last saw locked in the lab with a Cyberman, is hiding, rather pathetically, in said lab. The Cyber soldier easily finds her, ready to kill. She bargains for her life by telling the Cyberman she's too valuable to destroy because she's… the Doctor!
Outside, UNIT is quickly circling the wagons, which apparently means drugging the Master and the Doctor(!), and taking them to their secret base, though not before we learn they were tipped off by the Master herself. Before the Doctor loses consciousness, he whispers to Osgood, the asthma-stricken UNIT scientist from "Day of the Doctor," to guard the graveyards.

The metallic dead rise

Yes, Steven Moffat is thinking what you're thinking. Lifting the exact plot from The Return of the Living Dead, the rain — which is really a kind of "cyber pollen" — starts to pour, but only on gravesites, funeral homes and morgues. The water is so thick it gets everywhere, and soon corpses are rising again… as Cybermen!
One former corpse in a mortuary stands up from the metal table awkwardly and walks over to grasp the paper next to it. For a moment, we see the name: Danny Pink.
The Doctor wakes to find he's not a prisoner but has actually just been appointed president of the entire world! Apparently he's solved enough planet-wide emergencies that the world governments have basically decided — rightly — to just cut to the chase in these situations. The drug-and-kidnapping bit was just to make sure he didn't run away.

Doctor Who Death in Heaven

The Doctor becomes president of the world in "Death in Heaven."

The Master is a prisoner, of course, although she acts like she's not. UNIT gets everyone on board a plane to keep their position changing. Bound with handcuffs, Missy teases the Doctor about their mutual home, Gallifrey, boasting that she's found the planet, but also that she'll take great pleasure in never telling him where it is.
The Doctor is concerned about Clara, who's still negotiating with a trio Cybermen. They're skeptical of her claim. She rattles off the Doctor's biography as well as the nerdiest fanboy at a Who convention, and they're still not convinced. A fourth Cyberman arrives to explain that the person isn't the Doctor — that she's definitely Clara Oswald. She tries desperately to argue, but not before the new arrival shocks her unconscious and destroys the other Cybermen. Clearly, this is Cyber-Danny.
On board the plane, the Doctor and UNIT assess the situation: 
Cybermen are emerging from graveyards all over the planet. They're disoriented, but the Doctor says that won't last. Also, the clouds aren't disappearing, leading them to suspect this isn't the endgame.

The Master, handcuffed in the cargo hold, taunts poor Osgood, whispering in her ear that she only has one minute to live. Unsettled, Osgood backs away from the Master, only to discover her handcuffs in her pocket. Moving incredibly fast, the Master grabs Osgood and vaporizes the two guards. Osgood pleas for her life, suggesting she's more valuable alive, and the Master agrees… right before vaporizing her, too. This ain't no comic book.
Clara wakes up in a graveyard. It's quiet, but not for long. Metal hands reach out from the graves, pulling themselves up. Soon, a legion of Cyber-zombies pulls itself out of the ground — a masterful combination of zombie and sci-fi imagery.


The sci-fi and zombie genres come together in "Death in Heaven."

As she moves to escape, she sees the Cyberman who brought her here, and sure enough it's Danny. Removing his face plate to confirm who he is, his Cyber-converted face asks her to activate his emotional inhibitor to remove the extreme pain he's in.


The Doctor and Kate discuss what the Cybermen's ultimate plan might be, although they appear to forget this new model can fly. A small group of Cybermen attack the plane, smashing through the windows and killing everyone onboard except the Doctor and Kate, who arrive in the hold. The Master is waiting there, where the TARDIS phone is ringing.
She allows the Doctor to take the call, revealing it was she who gave the person on the other end the number. The Doctor realizes it's Clara — and that it was the Master who connected the two of them back in "The Bells of St. John." Clara begs the Doctor to come to help her activate Danny's emotional inhibitor. He tells her to stop, right before the Master opens the cargo bay doors, expunging Kate, the Doctor and herself from the plane, which explodes immediately afterward.
The Master easily saves herself by transporting to the "promised land" program in the Gallifreyan hard drive. The Doctor looks done for, until he pulls out a TARDIS homing beacon, doing his best James Bond as he inches closer and closer to his time machine as he falls. He grabs the door, gets inside and dematerializes.
Arriving at the graveyard, the Doctor tells Clara to stop. Clara implores him that Danny's in pain, and they need to end it. 
The Doctor makes an emotional plea: he says that pain is essential to who we are, going so far to say that the essential difference between the Master and him is that he feels pain (speaking somewhat figuratively, of course, referring to the pain in his heart… er, hearts).

The Doctor asks Danny to give him the full Cyber-plan; as a Cyberman, he can connect to the hive mind. Danny tells him it's too hazy, that to fully connect to it, he'll need to switch on the inhibitor.
The tone does a full 180. The Doctor, exasperated, says he needs to know, and Danny angrily resents getting what he wanted this way. Clara steps in to switch on the inhibitor, which just needs a wave of the sonic screwdriver, apparently.
Danny, now fully cyberized but still willing to help the Doctor, it seems, tells him the clouds will soon bathe the living in Cyber-pollen, too. They'll all die and return as Cybermen, completing the army. Missy arrives, smiling satisfactorily at her plan. She trains her vaporizer on Clara and Danny, but the Doctor knocks it out of her hand.
No matter; she believes she's won. The other Cybermen in the graveyard are now fully awake, and fully under her control, which she demonstrates by verbally commanding them to… do the hokey pokey.


Missy has a gift for the Doctor.

Now it's time for her gift. She tells the Doctor she assembled this army for him and gives him her command bracelet. The Doctor is confused. The Master explains that she's been lousy at conquest, but the Doctor is much more suited. She wants him to use the army to save lives, to go to war with evil… or rather, what he sees as evil. To become what she imagines him to be: the same as her.
The Doctor ponders his decision for a moment, thinking about the question he asked Clara at the beginning of the season: "Am I a good man?" and answers "No." But he's not an evil man either — he's just an idiot with a box, and he doesn't need an army. But he knows who does.

Love, the conqueror

He throws the command bracelet to Danny. Danny, who is seemingly immune from Missy's control since the inhibitor couldn't fully stamp out his love for Clara (since love is a "promise," not an emotion, the Doctor says), leads the flying Cyber-army back to the skies — this time to destroy the clouds.
As the clouds disperse, the Master asks the Doctor to return with her to Gallifrey, and tells him the planet's exact coordinates. Clara raises the vaporizer that she picked up earlier. The Master must die, Clara insists — there have been too many deaths, deaths the Doctor is partly responsible for since he had the chance to kill him/her before.
The Doctor asks her to give her the vaporizer; not to stop her, but because he should be the one to do it. Clara agrees, and the Doctor raises the weapon. Missy is surprised. "Seriously?" she wonders. The Doctor is about to fire… when someone else does, and the Master is disintegrated.
The Doctor turns to see another Cyberman. Is it Danny? No… their sudden discovery of Kate, unconscious but alive in the graveyard, suggests this is another resurrected corpose, a very specific one that once belonged to Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. It bows its head and leaves, and the Doctor throws it a long-awaited salute.
The Doctor and Clara part ways. Clara wakes one night to hear Danny's voice, and hopes for his return since the Doctor said it would be possible for a single person to come back via the command bracelet. But it's not Danny who comes back… it's the little boy he killed. Danny, who's just a disembodied voice at this point, says goodbye to Clara, forever.
The Doctor goes in search of Gallifrey and finds… nothing. The Master lied.
The two meet up in a coffee shop to compare notes. The Doctor assumes Danny returned, and when Clara doesn't correct him, he tells her he found Gallifrey. They both feel it's best to split up, each assuming the other is living a happy ending and not the tragedy that's befallen them. The credits roll…
Except it can't end like that! Certainly not if Santa Claus has any say. Kris Kringle somehow manages to interrupt the closing credits and enter the TARDIS. He asks what the Doctor would like for Christmas. I guess we'll find out at this year's Christmas special.

Final thoughts

The Master's twist, to give the Doctor the Cybermen army, is quite good. After all, the Doctor wins pretty much every encounter between the two of them, so why not give him all the power? Presumably, no matter his good intentions, he'd find himself becoming something evil. Of course, the Doctor doesn't take the bait, but it actually makes sense in a twisted sort of way.
Speaking of twisted, can we say enough about Michelle Gomez as the Master? She chews mouthfuls of scenery for appetizers, and has truly added a performance of the character for the ages. Certainly, that "vaporization" was really her transporting to safety, so I think it's safe to assume we'll be seeing Missy again.

The show's attempt to take on death itself doesn't really hold up. There's a point where the Doctor suggests the Master may have every person who ever lived uploaded to the Gallifreyan hard drive, accounting for the whole concept of an afterlife. Huh. With enough drugs, I might buy that, but sorry, I just can't believe there's enough useful organic matter in a corpse from the eighteenth century that you could build a working Cyberman out of.
Such nitpicky stuff doesn't really matter, though, since the episode manages to pull off superb character interactions, and convincingly gets the Doctor, Clara and Danny together for one of the season's best dramatic moments. Sure it looks like Danny's death may yet turn out to be one of the comic-book variety, but at this point it doesn't matter. Like the Doctor's realization at the end, it's irrelevant (to us, anyway) whether the he comes back or doesn't — only that the show ever got us to care about him in the first place.
I suspect it's going to be a Happy Christmas.

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