There are spoilers contained within this review, so be warned.
First off, let it never be said that Steven Moffat is a man who is unafraid to take chances with Doctor Who. Love him, hate him, or just be thoroughly confused by him, he is not afraid of the change that is so very vital to the legacy of the show. He's given The Doctor a wife. He's created a whole new incarnation to help tell the greatest untold story in the mythos. He canonized the Big Finish audio dramas (At least regarding the Eighth Doctor). It would be impossible and ungrateful to not respect that.
However, a big problem with the Moffat era of the show is not what he does but how he does it. Nothing really sums that up better than "Death in Heaven", the season finale to one of the most divisive seasons in the revived show. Was it good? Yes, I'd say it was good. I was moved, but it was also a mess, and a mess that left far too much of the magic behind the curtain on display.
Apparently it's true, and The Master is now The Mistress. Michelle Gomez simply eats every single inch of scenery she dances through. Even Peter Capaldi, no lightweight in the thespian arts, seemed to have difficulty keeping up with mad rhetoric and unabashed evil. There hasn't been a villain so sincerely hammy and happily dastardly since Raul Julia played M. Bison. She is clearly having an obscenely good time, and they even brought back the ridiculous but hilarious tissue compression eliminator. A good bad guy needs a stupid laser just like a good hero needs a magic wand or an enchanted sword.
The decision to introduce a switched gender to a main Time Lord character like The Master is daring, but it comes with hang-ups that I never saw considered when the discussion about a possible female Doctor were swirling last year. Eager as I am to see that one day, Missy made me grateful that it didn't occur under the current regime.
There's always been something of a crazed, jilted stalker in The Master's relationship with The Doctor. You can go all the way back to the way they converse in "Claws of Axos" and read a subtext there, and it got even more glaring in modern years with Eric Roberts and John Simm. It's very much like the relationship Joker thinks he has with Batman, and slip that comparison into your pocket for a minute because we're going to come back to it.
However, it is extremely bothersome that this masterful Mistress embodied in Gomez has her motivations completely reduced to a twisted form of affection for The Doctor. Her entire plot, from the murder of his friend in a kind of petty jealousy to the army of Cybermen she creates, has absolutely nothing to do with herself at all and everything to do with how she is perceived by The Doctor. For as loud and wonderful as she is there is never a single second that gives her a character motivation all her own. She has literally traveled through earth's entire history working on a plot where the end game is an appeal to The Doctor that they are more alike than he thought and maybe they should run away together.
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"Death in Heaven" aims above that, but misses. It wanted very much to be the showdown between Joker and Batman in Nolan's The Dark Knight, but it's failed in that because from the very beginning Missy hasn't actually done anything for herself. Joker wanted to turn the people of Gotham into himself to justify what he was. Batman was just a part of that, not the whole thing. I understand that Missy is bananas, but there is a difference between crazy and utterly illogical.
That's where the mess in the episode comes from. It's the embodiment of Moffat's own attempts to reach out to a fandom that often criticizes him on his portrayal of women. "I made gender switch on regeneration fully canon! I mentioned the possibility of a female Doctor at the end! I put Jenna's name before Peter's in the credits and used her eyes instead of his. ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED!?"
He's trying. He really, really is. I read an article not long ago that stated Moffat had made concerted efforts to bring in women writers only to be constantly thwarted by scheduling issues, and he's certainly brought some fantastic women in to direct episodes. Rachel Talalay is someone I dearly hope sticks around in the director's chair for next season.
He's trying, but he just. Doesn't. Get it. Missy's romantic overtures, the will of the entire world to turn itself over to The Doctor in times of crisis directed through Kate Stewart, and Clara's speech to Cyber-Danny about OMG you guys The Doctor is so wonderful are the latest in a long line of great, strong women characters who nonetheless simply cannot display a reason to do anything that doesn't involve impressing or winning the hearts of The Doctor. That's the problem. That's always been the problem, and even when Moffat clearly recognizes that the problem exists he can't seem to write his way out of it.
That makes me really sad because otherwise "Death in Heaven" was magic. Oh there were some weaknesses. The idea that you can grow a metal Cybermen from dead bodies is sort of silly. It kind of makes me wish that they'd used something like the Axos instead that was organic. Also, were we really supposed to believe that a country like India was going to put its nuclear arsenal and other military assets at the unquestioned hands of a man who for all intents and purposes appears to be an agent of the British government? Maybe I'm underestimating the impact Martha Jones made when she walked the Earth spreading the message of The Doctor, but that whole President of Earth bit kind of smelled like the cinematic ending of Watchmen.
Those aside, it was a story about death. It was a tale about what it means to die and what it means to let go; Missy with her fixation and Clara with her heart and The Doctor with his regrets and questions about his own morality. It was wonderful to watch The Doctor let that go, to stop hating himself for what he's done in the name of peace and sanity. The Mary Poppins joke, the Cybermen flying through the air and bringing down an airplane, and Danny Pink's last, terrible sacrifice were classic moments that are definitive of what makes Doctor Who great.
I do hope next season that there's a bit less of hopping from those moments across less wonderful pools of stale ideas and worldviews, though.
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