‘Doctor Who’ Season Finale Recap: Dead Man’s Switch

dr who
‘Death in Heaven.’ (BBC One)

Talk about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. After last week’s episode, which I found to be a silly letdown, the second half of this season’s finale was a beautiful and wholly satisfying hour of television, with enough surprising and touching moments to fill four episodes of Doctor Who, but somehow without feeling overstuffed or poorly paced. It was one of the best episodes this show has ever aired, the best of its finales by a wide margin, and a fitting capper to a truly remarkable season of television.

Alongside all of the heady, somewhat overly theoretical themes kicking around this season, two major narratives of character development wove themselves through the fabric of every episode. One was the shifting relationship between the Doctor and Clara, who found themselves on rather surprising equal footing after the Doctor’s regeneration, with Clara, once a rather unfocused supporting character, becoming stronger and more assertive as she learned from and adopted aspects of the Doctor’s personality as her own.

The other story was the Doctor’s questioning of his own nature, wondering whether he is good enough of a person to be trusted with the lives of others—and the story of his aversion to armies and soldiers, which seem to reflect back at him the darker parts of his personality, the bloodthirsty, vengeful parts.

Saturday’s season-finale-finale, “Death in Heaven,” brought both of these to a head, finally letting the Doctor see more clearly who he is, and who Clara is in relation to him. And the answer, of course, is that he is not a general, not a leader, not a vengeful spirit. He is a student, and Clara is his teacher.

With everything that has happened this season, it is easy to forget where it started: the Doctor was brand new, disoriented, asleep in a bed in his nightshirt. And halfway through the season, we saw him, very briefly, as a child. Both times, Clara was there to save him, to comfort him, to tell him the truths that he needed to hear.

But somewhere along the line the Doctor got distracted from what he really was: someone still learning, an explorer, trying to figure out this crazy universe. And instead he started trying to figure out a riddle that didn’t really need solving. That’s why this whole season was about chasing myths, ghost stories, things he didn’t believe in in the first place. Because the Doctor was stuck asking the wrong questions.

For all of his/her horrible intentions, it took a birthday gift from his old childhood friend the Master—now Missy—to set him straight again.

Missy’s plan, as it left off last week, was to resurrect all of the Earth’s dead into Cybermen, by raining down the “upgrading” technology on every cemetery in the world. Then she would download the minds of all of the dead people, which she has been storing in a Time Lord hard drive for all of human history (thus becoming the entire basis of our human idea of an afterlife) into the upgraded bodies, creating a cyber-vampire army that could conquer whole planets. This, incidentally, sets into motion a whole series of planetary protocols that end up with the Doctor on an airplane with the temporary title of President of Earth. A title and a responsibility that he clearly never wanted, and which throws him further into the quandary of whether he should be trusted with power over others.

Missy then brings this riddle to a head: she threatens to kill everyone on Earth, unless the Doctor agrees to take control of the army himself and use it to fulfill his own, supposedly bloodthirsty, aims. In Missy’s twisted, Doctor-obsessed view of the world, this will finally make them the same, will make the Doctor her equal in his own desire to conquer worlds.

But Missy—who was the one who put Clara and the Doctor together in the first place, conspiring behind the scenes to thrust them together as a way of keeping the Doctor on a leash—hadn’t counted on the power of the Danny and Clara B-plot.

See, the recently deceased Danny was one of the corpses resurrected into a Cyberman, only his “emotional inhibitor” isn’t working, so he is still pretty much Danny, with all of his feelings for Clara. While she stalls for time against the cyber-army, pretending, for the third time this season, to be the Doctor, Danny swoops in and saves her. But then he asks her to shut off his emotional inhibitor so he can stop being in pain, and she calls in the Doctor to help.

Just when the Doctor is about to take control of the Cyberman army, he looks over at Clara and a now-emotionless Danny, hugging. And he realizes that a) he still has a lot to learn about love, and about everything, and b) he is looking at the perfect person to have the responsibility over an army of men: the eternally reluctant soldier. He gives Danny the bracelet that controls the army, and Danny gives a gorgeous St. Crispin’s Day speech and then saves the world.

Then they kill Missy, but not before she tells the Doctor that Gallifrey is back, and gives him the coordinates to find it. The Doctor goes there, but of course she was lying, and the Doctor, hanging in the void of space where no planet exists, has a tantrum that makes the Tardis blow sparks.

Meanwhile, twice-deceased Danny discovers that the bracelet that Missy used to control the Cyber army also allowed her to travel between the world and the “afterlife,” i.e. the hard drive on which the dead’s minds were stored. So he can use it to come back to life. But he doesn’t: He uses it to save the kid who he killed in war. Because Danny Pink is a hero through and through.

Then the episode, full of so much truth, ends with Clara and the Doctor lying to each other. The Doctor, thinking Danny has used the bracelet to return to life, wants to give Clara her life back, so he lies and says Gallifrey was indeed there, and now he has to go back and help them. And Clara, thinking that the Doctor finally has a purpose without her, lets him believe that Danny is indeed alive. They have a bittersweet parting….

…and then Santa Claus (played by Nick Frost) comes by to tell the Doctor it just can’t end this way. But to see what the hell that’s all about, we’ll have to wait until Christmas Day.

Overall, quite a ride. I teared up at least four times, and the storylines were brought to a very nice stopping point. Special points go to Peter Capaldi, who turned in yet another performance that topped his previous best, and Michelle Gomez, who gave a twist on menacing psychosis that few could have pulled off. I would honestly just watch a show of these two Scottish heavyweights sparring verbally about nothing at all for an hour every week.

‘Doctor Who’ Season Finale Recap: Dead Man’s Switch