“But you know: you know that if I could have stayed, if I could have gone on, that I would have clutched every second: whatever it was, this death, you know that it came and took me, like a child carried away by goblins.” – The Time Traveller’s Wife
Obverse Books, earlier this year, published a whole text on Dark Water/Death in Heaven which, before I begin this two-part essay, I would like to strongly recommend. It’s a great read, much tighter on the continuity than my analyses are, and I may well end up referring to it at some point during this essay.
I think Dark Water and Death in Heaven are two fantastic episodes, and I’d like to start off with a bit of context. Both of these were very strange experiences for me the first time, and it took me a long time to come around to them. Dark Water aired on a rainy day in London; specifically, as I always recall, the day before the yearly veteran car rally, which starts in Hyde Park, and which I never miss. (The Zygon Invasion aired on the equivalent same day, the first Sunday in November, unless I’m mistaken.) Death in Heaven aired a week later, on a marginally nicer Saturday. There’s another relevant thing that happened in the week between the two, but I’m going to put that off until later in the essay.
2014 was mostly a death-free year, though 2013 had been full of them, and they still lingered like a smelly underground passenger’s armpits, their effect still very recent in November 2014. So a lot of the death stuff didn’t sit well with me – and took a very long time to sit well with me after that. Even now, whenever I lose someone, I find myself feeling bitter towards the Three Words, even if they are, as I’ll come to explore, absolutely integral to the story being told. I let them off, because I love this story, but I’ve come to love it with time and understanding, as I hope all of you will too.
I say this, and stretch out my introduction, because context is very important to Dark Water/Death in Heaven. It had to air in 2014, it had to go on just past the watershed, and being as it is an episode about intimate and personal experiences of life and death, it would be remiss not to mention that each viewer’s individual context is utterly invaluable to understanding the episode, and understanding why that viewer thinks what they do about it.
With that out of the way, let’s get started. Grab a coffee, sign this form, try not to look out of the window. Do you want to breathe into a bag first?
Starting, as I always do, with how different characters are “twinned” with, or reflect, each other, both in terms of how they are directly similar and how they are diametric opposites.
The obvious one is, of course, Clara. Clara his been mirrored with the Doctor all series. To take a few examples, Clara gets to say “Geronimo” in Deep Breath, has dialogue that mirrors the Doctor’s in Listen, and explicitly imitates him in Flatline; the opening shot of The Caretaker is almost completely symmetrical except for the fact that Clara is on one side and the Doctor the other; and in In the Forest of the Night, the Doctor bounces Clara’s line from Kill the Moon back at her: “I walk your Earth, I breathe your air”.
Here, Clara does not just mirror the Doctor, but becomes the Doctor. Specifically, she becomes the character of the Doctor. She is aware that she is not the Doctor, and is an actor, performing the role. She tries to stick to canon, and is given the main spot in the title sequence, her eyes also replacing Capaldi’s, meaning that she has become the Doctor within the context of a television episode.
But whilst Clara tries to be the Doctor, she very clearly isn’t, as we learn from this little monologue.
CLARA: Well, gentlemen. Where to start? I was born on the planet Gallifrey, in the constellation of Kasterborous. I’m a Time Lord, but my Prydonian privileges were revoked when I stole a time capsule and ran away. Currently pilot a Type 40 Tardis. I’ve been married four times, all deceased. My children and grandchildren are missing, and I assume, dead. I have a non-Gallifreyan daughter created via genetic transfer. How much more do you need?
Parts of this are obvious. Parts of this are frequently stated. The Doctor likes to make infrequent dramatic speeches about where he was born and how he stole a time capsule. But as the speech progresses, we notice something is wrong. Clara states that the Doctor has been “married four times, all deceased”, a statement which cannot be synthetically proven through canon because of the large absent swathes of the Doctor’s life. Likewise, assuming that his children and grandchildren are dead would be a terribly cynical statement on the Doctor’s half, and also far more conclusive than the show is ever willing to be.
Ultimately, it’s the level of self-disclosure that allows the Cybermen (and the viewer) to tell Clara apart from the Doctor, which tells us quite a bit about both characters, I think. The Doctor is reluctant to settle matters which are unresolved to him (and the audience), whereas Clara likes to have the final, definitive say on any and all matters. Clara is a bit of a narcissist, and can’t stop talking; the Doctor meanwhile has something of an enigma complex, and can reveal absolutely nothing whilst reciting a three-page speech.
But despite this, we see the Doctor and Clara mirrored more directly in Death in Heaven’s final scene. They both lie to each other, and as a result cannot travel together any more. This is the result of a shared negative trait – they’re both liars, and they both think they know what’s best for the other one. Had one told the truth, or had they both told the truth (as they do in Last Christmas), they would have been able to carry on travelling. They part ways, both thanking each other for the same thing (an increased sense of self-worth).
Unsurprisingly, the Doctor is mirrored with Missy: the Master being, to all intents and purposes, the Doctor’s own diametric opposite.
AHMED [OC]: Mister President, sir, we’re ready for you up here.
DOCTOR [to Missy]: Remember all those years when all you wanted to do was to rule the world? On my way.
It’s startling how the Doctor gloats about having reached the position the Master always dreamed of, where he’d usually reject anything and everything the Master embodies. It’s especially important here, where the Master’s last incarnation was the Prime Minister, a similar figure of authority, and one the Doctor here surpasses. The Doctor, like the Simm Master, spends a lot of the episode poncing about on a big object in the sky.
Later in the episode, Danny wakes Clara up while he is sleeping. We see Clara in bed, and hear Danny’s voice. This scene is lifted straight out of Doomsday, with Clara in the place of Rose and Danny in the place of the Doctor, meaning that not for the first time this series, Danny is unwittingly mirroring the Doctor.
He doesn’t just stop there: rather than returning through the breach, he allows the little boy he killed to take his place. Like the Doctor, he is given a moment of Grace, and is able to undo his murder of an innocent child, just as the Time Lord had in The Day of the Doctor. As such, both of their journeys are complete, and Danny is able to move on, now at peace. (Danny justifies his actions because he has “promises to keep”, which is the same reason the Doctor chose to save the children of Gallifrey [“Never cruel or cowardly”].)
I love the fact that movement between worlds can only happen through use of a bracelet, or, if you like, a circle, a symbol for rebirth and infinity, suggesting that the young boy has not returned, but been reborn. The circle also represents completion and perfection, suggesting that Danny’s long stay in purgatory has successfully finished, as well as unity, hence the fact that a wedding is symbolised with a ring. Which is really sad, considering that Clara and Danny never get married, but at least she gets to keep the bracelet.
Even the title “Dark Water” uses Water, a reflective surface, but turns it dark and murky, rather invoking the notion of a “dark mirror”. That might be the perfect way to read these episodes, which feature the Master, a dark mirror of the Doctor, and the Cybermen, a dark mirror of humanity.
Doctor Chang begins by telling Clara that “If you’ve had a recent loss, this might be disturbing”, implicitly warning the audience that the material they are about to see will be sensitive (like that would ever encourage anyone to turn off). He reveals that apparently, the dead feel everything that happens to them after they die, and that they really don’t want to be cremated.
The Three Words are at the very heart of the institute, yet they are only spoken once, because they are so terrible that they are largely unspeakable.
In contemporary society, of course, we have an entirely different understanding of the Three Words, where “three little words” are “I love you”. That brings us smoothly onto what might just be the single most fascinating thing about DarkWater/Death in Heaven – the fact that “I love you” is spoken, by my count, more frequently than it ever has been in any Doctor Who story to date.
Let’s have an experiment, then. Let’s assume that this two-parter actively encourages closer reading, and that the Three Words are not “Don’t cremate me”, but “I love you”.
The first thing to notice is that Chang’s warnings still work. “I love you” is a killer line that can catch you off-guard and even terrify you. The unnamed woman who finds Danny’s phone says that the car “just came out of nowhere” – but she could just as well be referring to Clara’s declaration, and after all, that was the catalyst of Danny’s death.
Clara tells Danny that she’ll “never say those words again”. She doesn’t know this as a certainty – there are plenty of reasons why she would be led to. She is not, then, stating a fact, but making a promise. The Doctor, in Death in Heaven, affirms that “love is a promise”. The Three Words are not a declaration, but a tool (like 3W’s Three Words, which are used to manipulate the rich). Clara uses them to make a promise; Danny later uses them to keep Clara safe (the first scene signposts this – Clara states that saying the Three Words can be “automatic”, which is what she thinks Danny is doing when he tells her he loves her). I particularly love that last one, which has a double-meaning – Danny is at once following up on Clara’s promise that she will hang up on him if he says it again, and declaring/promising, absolutely and wholly, that he loves her.
Dark Water shows us an unconventional but romantic view of relationships. The Doctor describes that Clara and Danny’s timestreams are “intertwined”, a science-fiction explanation for the unity of two individuals, which plays into ideas of both rationality and fate.
Before Clara threatens the Doctor by the volcano, she goes on a hunt for his keys, and finds one hidden in one of his secret places: the book The Time Traveler’s Wife. The Time Traveler’s Wife was written by Audrey Niffenegger, an American author, in 2003, and tells the story of a woman who falls in love with a man who spontaneously travels in time. This isn’t unlike Clara and Danny’s relationship in Dark Water – Claire, the protagonist, often describes feeling like the one “left behind” when Henry (her husband) goes travelling, just as Clara (whose name bears phonetic similarities, as well as the same etymological roots – both “Clara” and “Claire” derive from the Latin clarus meaning “clear”, “bright”, or “distinct”) feels left behind when Danny heads off to the Nethersphere, and is left behind by the Doctor at the end.
The Time Traveler’s Wife is very relevant for Dark Water/Death in Heaven: it explores themes of love, life, death, mortality and language, particularly the significance of language, and how repetition can drain a phrase of its meaning. Though it could be that it’s just a reference to River Song, who within Doctor Who is the literal time traveler’s wife, and whose back-to-front relationship with the Doctor is very similar to Claire’s with Henry. (River’s “he won’t know who I am speech” is lifted straight out of The Time Traveler’s Wife, so perhaps the mirror has been there all along.) Moffat could even be referring to the TARDIS, who is implied to be the Doctor’s wife in the title to the Series Six episode, and who Clara, here, is about to use to blackmail the Doctor.
I thought this part was worth a mention because of later events. Danny’s death is mentioned a few times after the event, but most memorably in Face the Raven, where Clara expresses her desire, like Danny, to “die properly”, a rather beguiling turn of phrase. What does it mean to die properly? First, one needs to understand the nature of Clara Oswald as a character.
GRAN: It’s a terrible thing. Just a terrible, terrible thing.
CLARA: It wasn’t terrible.
CLARA: It was boring.
CLARA: It was ordinary. People just kept walking with their iPods and their shopping bags. He was alive, and then he was dead and it was nothing. Like stepping off a bus.
GRAN: He deserved better. And so did you.
CLARA: I don’t deserve anything. Nobody deserves anything. But I am owed better. I am owed.
This is a beautifully-constructed scene, just like the last to feature Clara’s gran. Gran is shocked and devastated for Clara: someone so young being hit by a car is a terrible thing to anyone, and losing a loved one so young is almost inconceivably dreadful.
Yet Clara’s concerns are over something else. Clara, you see, is a storyteller – that is, she’s an experienced reader with enough of an awareness of genre tropes to be able to comment on them, which is what we’ve seen on a number of occasions like when she berated the Doctor for not following “Rule 1 of Basic Storytelling”, or when she recognised the necessity for the Doctor’s rebirth in The Time of the Doctor.
So Clara understands Danny’s death as if it is a story, aware of what rules govern the world of storytelling. As such, being hit by a car, a ridiculously common and convenient trope, is not “terrible” but “ordinary”. Clara overlooks the trauma and instead sees how shallow, even “boring”, Danny’s death is within the narrative.
(And this is exactly what Clara does in Face the Raven, too. She recognises not that she is about to die and that her friend will be grieving, but that she is about to be written out of a narrative and that there is a danger of fridging.)
Clara instructs the Doctor to “fix” Danny’s ending, just like an enraged fan would if their favourite character got hit by a car. The TARDIS, which just so happens to be filled with books, is a vehicle for Clara’s storytelling crusade, through which she can effectively alter her own narrative.
So Clara tries to tell an epic – she gives Danny a proper exit. A new narrative is layered over the one we already know, and Clara is given a story of an evil witch, her convoluted plans; of Cybermen roaming the Earth; of UNIT, of a worldwide invasion. But this is quickly overwritten in favour of another narrative. UNIT is nuked by Cybermen only half-way in, and the Cybermen refuse to provide an entertaining invasion: instead, they amble around graveyards, while Clara is confronted with grotesque body-horror, and her boyfriend’s request for euthanasia.
In the end, Clara’s attempt to tell a new story leads her to where we started: two friends facing the inevitability of death, this time wandering aimlessly through a graveyard. But Danny does get to “die properly” – he is allowed a self-sacrifice, a moment which rounds off his character, which then gives his death the meaning that Clara had tried to bestow before.
All of which is particularly stimulating in light of what a total liar Clara Oswald is, and in fact everyone else. This is a story brimming with liars: the Doctor lies to Clara at the volcano to see how far she will go, and again about Gallifrey, to get Clara to pursue her life with Danny. Clara lies to the Doctor to get him to the volcano, to the Cybermen for the sake of her own survival (at which point Danny outright accuses her of being a liar), and again to the Doctor, to get him to return to Gallifrey. Danny uses the Three Words to make out that he is not Danny, and thus stop Clara from entering the afterlife to save him, though is largely bound by the cold logic of truth. And Missy lies to everyone, from all the rich people who sold their bodies to 3W, to Doctor Skarosa (potentially), to the Doctor and Clara about her identity, and then to the Doctor one last time about Gallifrey.
These lies start to seep into the narrative – the credits are interrupted by Father Christmas, the fattest lie we tell every year, wandering into the TARDIS, since its world is no longer governed by the rules of truth.
There is only one truth in Dark Water/Death in Heaven, and that is love. Everything else, from the afterlife to the Doctor’s morality, is left uncertain. What is not uncertain is outright lied about. But love is a promise, and what is a promise but an absolute truth for the future? The Three Words cannot be spoken because they are one universal absolute that cannot ever be denied.
There is one person who never says the Three Words – one person who appears to travel on his own timestream, interlinked with no one. The Doctor. Instead, the Doctor says to Clara, in his long-winded way: “Do you really think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?” The Doctor, you see, in all his fifty-two years, has never delivered the Three Words to anyone. They are utterly unspeakable, and to him, utterly terrifying. But that, perhaps, is the closest he has ever got.
So now for the bit where I start talking about all the religious imagery in this incredible two-parter.
Clara does not plan for the Doctor to find an afterlife. She asks him to ‘fix’ Danny’s ending – to alter his narrative at an earlier point. The Doctor proposes an alternative: the narrative does not end. Stories never come full circle. There is a sequel.
And he calls it “Hell”. Whether that’s just a joke about where the Doctor thinks PE teachers go after death is up for interpretation – as is whether or not it was just a pun – but really, he could have called it Heaven and it would have the same effect, either way conjuring up strong conventional, specifically Christian depictions of the afterlife. An afterlife which exists in a permanent duality – Heaven/Hell, Light/Dark, Good/Evil – like a sort of dark mirror.
With the Christian afterlife comes a sense of divine justice, what with Justice being one of the Seven Heavenly Virtues, and God being fair and everything. It’s a bizarrely meticulous belief, really, at quite a distance from the kind of spirituality where Ascension is all about “letting go” and “moving on”. But of course, this is only a reiteration of the worldview we’ve already seen from Clara, who believes that she is “owed”, keeping tally of the debts she can claim. It’s only the Doctor who sticks out here, showing Mercy where it isn’t “deserved” or “owed”.
There is reconciliation between Danny and the boy he has killed, too; but at first that is uncertain, appearing to be linked to a sort of divine punishment (and unsurprisingly being used for emotional manipulation). Eventually, by “moving on” himself – and again, offering Mercy – the boy is able to help Danny preserve his emotions. We also learn, around this point in the episode, that the Nethersphere is all inside a disco ball – specifically, a disco ball inside St Paul’s Cathedral. St Paul’s, of all places! So not only do we have a finale with powerful Christian resonances, it’s also set inside an Anglican cathedral.
The Nethersphere is additionally referred to as the Promised Land – indeed, that’s the first name given to it, right back in Deep Breath. The Promised Land was, of course, promised to Abraham and his descendants as “the Land of Milk and Honey”, so Jewish people can have very sweet tea and chill for the rest of time.
All of this is the epic conflict Clara so desired when she set out to “fix” Danny’s death. She rather brings it upon herself, and an integral part of Missy’s plan was that she simply expected Clara to lead the Doctor here.
But it’s not just Judaeo-Christianity that gets a look-in. During his first proper exposition sequence, Seb refers to the Nethersphere as “the Underworld”. The Underworld, at least in the Ancient Greek sense (predating Christianity, thus giving the Nethersphere a more mythic presence), is more in line with what we see of the Nethersphere. The Light/Dark dichotomy is still at play, but rather than a division of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, it’s a contrast between Olympus, land of the Gods, and the Underworld, land of the dead – where all the dead go.
The Greeks weren’t as big on eternal suffering, other than the Fields of Punishment for people who upset the gods. Instead, the Underworld is mostly neutral and generally pretty boring – save for Elysium, a place free of labours, for demigods, heroes, or distinguished individuals, which by its description bears a rather striking resemblance to Missy’s garden as seen in Deep Breath and Into the Dalek, both for characters who potentially sacrificed themselves – so that’s a small detail worth recalling.
What really enthrals me about Dark Water/Death in Heaven, however, is the focus on eschatology. I mentioned in the introduction that the week between the two episodes was noteworthy. That’s because, out of sheer coincidence, I attended a lecture on artistic and literary interpretations of eschatology. With everything I’d studied fresh in my mind, and the notes on it still pinned to the wall above my desk, the likeness between eschatological artwork and Death in Heaven’s aesthetic jumped out at me more than it might have done had I not attended the lecture that same week.
The whole thing is eschatological, obviously, based on a mass resurrection of the human race, but it’s reinforced by a plethora of striking images. Seb describes the resurrection as a raining “cloud”, where our bodies have had “an upgrade”. They’re still our bodies, and our altered minds are being downloaded into them, meaning that yes, it’s full resurrection, body and soul.
The Doctor describes the resurrected dead as “new-borns”, and Missy describes the graves as “giving birth”. This suggests that the resurrection has a strong element of birth or rebirth, perhaps even cyclical, and stays faithful to Seb’s embryo analogy.
Though the most puzzling thing about the Cybermen is what they do when they’re reborn. According to Ahmed (Man Scout), they’re just “wandering about”. We get to see this – Cybermen climbing out of the graves, struggling at first to acclimatise to the world around them. This has often been compared, for obvious reasons, to a zombie film, though I maintain that the focus remains on eschatology. In fact – and here’s where the lecture comes in – on a conventional artistic depiction of the End of Time (that’s the Biblical event, not the Doctor Who episode).
Sir Stanley Spencer’s The Resurrection – Cookham (pictured right) was painted at some point during the mid-1920s. Spencer liked his hometown of Cookham a lot, and had a bit of a thing for painting Biblical scenes as if they had taken place there. The Resurrection details the events of Revelation, and you can see people climbing out of their graves, in their lovely, shiny new bodies, Spencer himself included, along with his wife.
Resurrection does not have to be negative, and in many ways isn’t. The Cybermen are antagonists here, yes. But do I think the imagery can be viewed positively, or at least as a negative twist on Biblical events? Absolutely.
Not only that, but there’s continual emphasis on salvation. Just look at this delicious piece of mirrored dialogue:
DOCTOR: Why are you still alive?
MISSY: You saved me.
DOCTOR: I saved Gallifrey.
MISSY: Yes, Gallifrey too, I suppose. There’s always collateral damage with you and me. It’s our Paris.
“Saving” means a number of different things. The Doctor believes that he “saved” Gallifrey by freezing it; Missy believes that he “saved” her indirectly. Missy also believes that she is “saving” the Doctor by giving him an army – the very fact that she views it as a birthday present tells us that she thinks this invasion is in his best interests. It is, in many ways, the best Master story ever – like Davies’ work, a tale of two mirrored characters where one tries to get the other to come around to their worldview (Moffat adapts Davies’s structure, but reverses it: Davies had the Doctor loving the Master while the Master continually rejected him; Moffat has the Master loving the Doctor, while the Doctor refuses to love the Master unless she changes).
The Nethersphere might appeal best to a fan of Douglas Adams: it’s a sci-fi setting in the Adamsian tradition whereby complex cosmic processes become mundane, like a day at the office. One of the most startling things about the afterlife from the start is how ordinary death is for the people there – the emphasis on the first scene is clearly the casual, procedure-following nature of Danny and Seb’s encounter. I mean, the first line is “Has anyone offered you a coffee?”, and there’s a joke about form-filling.
It’s a reliable way to turn the epic even more menacing – have only one character react to what’s going on around him while everyone else predicts it, sighs, and goes on with their lives. So we’ve got “Are you being cremated?”, later revealed to be a precaution in case Danny begins to feel the pain of turning to ash, as a box on a form. This is all deception, yes, but Missy’s plan is still in line with the Adamsian afterlife – all dead people go through the same process, dull and automatic. The banality of evil – how very bureaucratic, and how very Time Lord.
This cold and logical afterlife is the show’s first solution to death. All we know about our lives is that we live, we love, and we feel pain. We expect death to free us of that, but why should it? Death is just an extension of life – a continuation, not an ascension – so it all just gets carried over. Death is dull and painful; it is unfair. Clara is wrong, no one is “owed”; and the Doctor is wrong, there is no divine punishment. Life isn’t fair, death isn’t fair, and we only come to accept that as we feel ourselves rotting.
But this isn’t strictly true. We know that Don’t Cremate Me is just fearmongering – so this presentation of death is wrong. Yet there isn’t a definitive one, either – the only certain thing about the afterlife by the end of Death in Heaven is its ambiguity. This is hinted at since the start: for starters, the Nethersphere is visually different from almost any understanding of the afterlife, as well as from the Promised Land we’ve seen earlier in the series. Danny even says it: “But I don’t understand where I am”. Considering “I don’t know where I am” is a recurring phrase in the Moffat era, this little adjustment tells us a lot – it’s understanding that’s missing from the afterlife. So much for enlightenment and clarification.
And it’s all a matter of perspective. When Clara calls Danny, Seb is surprised, and exclaims that Danny has a call “from the other side”, a term we usually use to refer to the afterlife. So, again, mirroring – the dead are to the living what the living are to the dead.
In the end, death returns to a mystery. We don’t even get to see Danny for his final scene, only hear his voice. We have no idea what is happening in the Nethersphere – the only description we get is that it is “dying”, which rather suggests that it was previously alive. Which means, then, that no one really did die – the Nethersphere was “a bit more life than you were expecting”, and death was postponed. Beyond the Nethersphere we hear nothing, just as it always was. Christianity is all too prevalent here – death becomes a sacred mystery.
Even so, there are some more conventional esoteric symbols within the show’s afterlife, albeit cleverly-hidden. First is the association of death and memory – Seb warns Danny that “Memory flashes can be very impactful in the early stages”. If the Nethersphere is merely a continuation of life, it looks like Danny’s having a near-death experience. Then there’s the use of the chair for the dead, which, as we know, is a symbol for ascension – and here it’s used literally for people who have “ascended” into the Nethersphere (which is located in a disco ball above the institute). All very neat.
I want to leave you with one last thing.
DOCTOR [OC]: Never mind about beeping. Who cares about beeping? The dead are dead. ‘They’re not talking to you out of your television sets. They’re just gone.
I love this little line, clearly and consciously linking death with the rules of television. After all, this is an episode about narrative rules and avoiding death, as is the next finale (and in all likelihood, the one after). The Doctor here rejects not just the afterlife, but the idea that death is not a fixed narrative principle. Of course, we already know this to be wrong: we’ve seen Danny by this point, and he has talked to us out of our television set. Which means this is when the afterlife becomes very real – we know the Doctor is wrong about something. The line is followed, quite appropriately, by a scene of the dead rising from their thrones.
The Death Experience
Of course, this is as much an episode about dying as it is about death, and we see that approach take a number of different forms as the episode progresses.
In Death in Heaven, Danny is reborn in agony. He’s still alive, in a sense – as we learn that the Nethersphere was simply a buffer between life and death, Danny has not yet died, but is in the process of dying. This is deeply unpleasant, and evokes the dead who cried out “Don’t cremate me” in the last episode. Though while they were urging their relatives not to go ahead with a violent process, Danny encourages Clara to, asking to die properly so that he does not have to feel his pain anymore.
We see the near-death experience in other lights, too. In Dark Water, it’s closely affiliated with memory; as Danny stands in the Nethersphere, the place between life and death, he has what are explicitly called flashbacks to his life before. Flashbacks are particularly interesting when they’re diegetic, because if you read them literally they’re also visions. Danny’s worst experiences flash before his eyes – it’s almost conventional.
But the thing I’m most fascinated by is Danny’s morbid post-resurrection experience, because it’s effectively just euthanasia. The Doctor, for the benefit of the audience, puts that a bit more bluntly: “I’m not going to help you commit suicide”, he tells Danny.
But does Death in Heaven quite tackle the issue of euthanasia? It seems not really. The Doctor gives a big monologue about the importance of pain, but Danny shoots it down when the Doctor realises that Danny’s assisted suicide would give him the strategic advantage. Clara goes ahead with the process, but as she does Danny makes comments about the blood on the Doctor’s hands. So it’s unresolved, almost uncomfortably so, but still very much present as a subject the episode openly and brazenly toys with.
Of course, interaction with the issues of the real-world would come in an episode about death: there’s nothing quite like the death drive of society, or the death drive of human beings. There’s an allusion to terrorism, too: “Cybermen don’t just blow themselves up for no good reason, dear. They’re not human”. This is followed by what’s more or less a terrorist attack on Boat One.
(Today when we think “terrorist attack”, we think of the streets of busy cities, where people are gunned down indiscriminately. But Death in Heaven aired on November 8th 2014, and in the March of that year was the world-famous MH370 disappearance. A plane blowing up on television in 2014 is what a street full of tourists being gunned down on television would be in 2015.)
Along with this, the episode features iPads and references the death of Steve Jobs, riffs off of recent technological developments, and jokes about both selfies and current affairs. But that’s the most it ever is – a joke. The euthanasia debate is unresolved, terrorism is invoked but not actually commented on, and even the Apple critique is too held back to be meaningful. Death in Heaven is not quite materially invested in the world.
But hey, it’s in the world. This is in essence Doctor Who’s slow and tumultuous return to the world we live in, and in a period where the future of the country was uncertain enough already. This might be turbulent, but it’s the first step on a journey which will lead to a young woman’s death in a refugee camp at the heart of London in 2015 (Face the Raven).
Upgrade in Progress
I love episodes like Dark Water/Death in Heaven, which either directly or indirectly reference other content. I mean, it just hands you thematic material on a plate.
In the first quarter of the essay, I looked briefly at The Time Traveller’s Wife, a copy of which features in Dark Water. Whilst we’re not so fortunate in Death in Heaven, there are still places where the presence of other content is at least implicit – for instance, the plane scenes, which bear a lot of semblance to Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is actually a pretty famous episode of television, but for those who aren’t familiar with it, it’s an episode (the second most popular in fact, according to IMDb) of the 1950s American series The Twilight Zone, created by Rob Sterling. The Twilight Zone is a beguiling beast of a series – each episode is standalone, and the show regularly dips its feet into different genres of speculative fiction from psychological horror to fantasy, and from science-fiction to psychological thriller. A show, then, whose multi-genre approach to storytelling is very, very much like Doctor Who’s.
Based on a short story by Richard Matheson, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is about a man called Bob Wilson, recent sufferer of a nervous breakdown, who sees a gremlin on the wing of an airliner whilst up in the clouds. He tries to tell virtually everyone on the plane, but every time they look, it leaps out of sight. After seeing the gremlin tinkering with the aircraft, Bob steals a revolver, opens the auxiliary exit and shoots it. Everyone think he’s mad and he’s committed to a mental asylum – but we learn that the damaged wing has been recovered, and that as such Bob will soon get off his conviction.
All through the episode, it’s clear that Bob’s gremlin is real. The Twilight Zone isn’t quite subversive enough to make it anything else, and the ending pretty much confirms it. Even so, it’s rife with paranoia: not in the sense of a psychotic break, but as part of the more relevant issue of what the hell this gremlin wants with an airliner.
Dark Water/Death in Heaven plays similarly off of paranoia. Bob fears that a gremlin will hijack his plane and kill him, whereas the rich at 3W fear that if their afterlife is not hijacked, they will spend the rest of eternity cold (or indeed, burning) and alone. Both are inevitable: Bob knows that the gremlin will crash his plane if he does not take action, and 3W think they know that they will spend an eternity in pain if they do not. Lastly, both instances of paranoia are over incomplete or doom-laden journeys: Bob fears that his flight will be cut dramatically short, whilst 3W believe that their journeys will end in the darkness alone.
It’s also worth discussing the relevance of the gremlin, which might seem like a bit of a strange thing to be wandering through the clouds. Gremlins actually date as far back as the Second World War, and were always blamed for mechanical malfunctions. Over time, they came to embody a broader type of chaos. Gremlins are destructive and devious, and wrapped up in blame culture, a sort of ‘beast of the gaps’. And they’re almost always involved in some kind of sabotage, usually enemy sabotage at war.
A bit like the Cybermen, who are very good at sabotage, and use mechanical malfunctions as a strategic advantage. We see them sabotage human culture in Army of Ghosts – here, instead, they literally sabotage our afterlife. Which I think carries some clout.
All of which is wrapped up in a web of modern technology: the Cybermen alter human minds in a cloud. The cloud can alter emotions, but also memories, just like Apple’s clouds can. Apple’s clouds are full of our memories; all our photographs, our videos, the things that matter to us. Souls are uploaded to the Nethesphere automatically, just like most things are these days, and we see the concept of the cloud play out on an epic and biblical scale.
But for all this is about moving with the times, I think this is the episode that definitely brings the Cybermen back to their roots. Their first big scene sees them breaking out of their tombs, a reinterpretation of Tomb of the Cybermen; this is followed by a more faithful recreation of the ending of The Invasion, where they step out of Saint Paul’s. Both of these are undercut as Moffat chooses instead to end Dark Water on a cliff-hanger of Danny, holding his finger over a ‘Delete’ button – but rather than the Cybermen’s mandate to ‘Delete’ rogue elements (first seen, and sadly never forgotten in 2006’s Rise of the Cybermen), the button is temptation for Danny to surrender his identity to the Cybermen. This time the Cybermen are not stompy killy robot monsters, but intelligent and powerful beings able to exploit human paranoia and free will (and the iPad acts as a mirror! Oh, the beauty). And all of this plays out over an unabashedly sentimental tribute to their past stories, with the odd twist here and there.
Let’s just go back to eschatology before we wrap up the penultimate entry. Because the afterlife is our endpoint as a species, and after all, Kit Pedler’s original conception of the Cybermen way back in The Tenth Planet didn’t include any of the above. They were people from Mondas, a dark mirror of Planet Earth (a ‘twin’ planet, in fact), who became reliant on machinery and disregarded emotions. They were the suggested endpoint of the human race – a gesture to the rot at the heart of society; the creatures we will inevitably become. We’re reminded of this in Tomb of the Cybermen, where the Cybermen, who believe they are the destined rulers of the universe, promise that “You will be like us” – as if there was ever any doubt. We all will, one day.
All throughout the show’s history, it’s used metaphor and mirrored dialogue to tell us that the Cybermen are our own teleological endpoints. This of course is a societal thing – as we continue to advance technologically, our society is doomed to fall in the way that The Tenth Planet and Spare Parts‘ Mondasian society did. But Dark Water makes that promise both literal and personal. Now it’s not just our society that is doomed to fall to the Cybermen, but each and every one of us. One day, we will all be Cybermen. It is where we were always going, and there was never any other way. If there’s one thing that we’re sure of, it’s that one day, we’ll die.
An Old-Fashioned Girl
DOCTOR: I had a friend once. We ran together when I was little. And I thought we were the same. But when we grew up, we weren’t. Now, she’s trying to tear the world apart, and I can’t run fast enough to hold it together.
After the momentous change in the character, the best thing about Missy is how she’s more like the Master than any other. Moffat reinforces this with that little scene looking back on the character’s past, with the Doctor still using her current pronouns. It’s worth just briefly mentioning what a wise move the pronouns were – in a situation that’s clearly analogous to gender reassignment, I really admire Moffat for keeping a close eye on those key ideas. However awful a person Missy is, she still deserves the right to be a she.
The “difference” the Doctor describes, between Missy and himself, is that she can’t feel the pain she inflicts. This makes sense, for the Master, a character so far above human experience that even her history doesn’t quite make sense. And, indeed, it makes sense that this is the sort of person who’d manipulate the afterlife – someone to whom death is a faraway, abstract idea, who sees human beings as toys to play with, and whole civilisations as collateral damage.
As I said before, this is without a doubt my favourite Master story ever. It reverses the Doctor/Master dynamic of one attempting to save the other, and in doing so subverts the typical invasion story. The resolution to that might not be perfect, but it does some clever stuff, and I’ll get on to that in a minute. Another bit worth mentioning is “You win”, a really nice call-back to The Last of the Time Lords. There, the Doctor refuses to say it. Here, there’s nothing else he could say.
At the end of the day, choosing Michelle Gomez as the Master in Series Eight just made sense. With Capaldi you’ve got an actor who is, in all the best ways, theatrical, and he’s paired with someone who’s even more theatrical. The result is a combination that’s a) better-chosen than the Coleman/Anderson pairing and that’s b) going to inevitably bring out the best in both characters. It’s much the same as the effect putting Tennant and Tate together had, which was a whole season of both actors trying to outdo each other, lifting the overall quality. You get that here, with particular emphasis on the gestures.
This comes at the end of a series where we’ve already had a (female) companion playing the role of the Doctor, even more successfully than the Doctor does. The show is blatantly pushing a female Doctor agenda, and I love it.
Already this series, we’ve seen the Doctor playing different roles. He’s been a teacher, a pupil, a good Dalek, a hero (or not?), a scared little boy, a scientist with an experimental bias, a bank robber, a caretaker, a mystery shopper (yup, really), and “the man who stops the monsters”. That continues here. In Death in Heaven, the Doctor plays the most impressive role he’s pulled off yet – the President of the World. Danny accuses him of being a “blood-soaked general” and a “typical officer”. Missy tries to force him into the role of a general. But when the Doctor finally decides, he rejects all of these roles, and in fact rejects the idea of having to fit one in the first place.
Philip Purser-Hallard, in Obverse Books’ analysis of the same scene, points out the similarity to the Series One finale, and he’s absolutely right. Where in Series One the Doctor rejects any illusions of grandeur or heroism in favour of becoming a “coward”, reclaiming the insult as part of his philosophy, the Doctor does the same here with “idiot”, a word he’s used countless times across the series on other people.
And this gets to a deeper message in Series Eight, one that goes right back to Into the Dalek where, if you read the episode right, you can even guess this is coming. Clara tells the Doctor that she doesn’t know if he’s a good man – but as long as he tries, that’s what matters. No wonder the episode referenced Aristotle. The Doctor, here, is every inch the Aristotelian hero, a character who becomes virtuous by learning from those around him, by trying to help others, and by being acutely aware of the pain of others in a way that his enemies just aren’t.
The last thing the story touches on is war. Dark Water gave us a harrowing tale of civilian casualties, and Death in Heaven gives us healing. Everyone makes compromises: the soldiers hand control over to the Doctor, and the Doctor begins to see the military in a new light, symbolically acknowledging the good they’ve done in the world by saluting his old friend.
(It’s particularly interesting how the Brigadier, a soldier, is the one to absolve the Doctor of moral responsibility. Make of that what you will.)
The Doctor, the officer, doesn’t give the order Missy wants him to. Instead, he lets his soldiers have some agency, recognising Danny’s character assassination from The Caretaker and going some of the way to make up for it. Danny and the other dead soldiers blow themselves up, in one last cathartic release so that the living can sleep safe.
Death in Heaven, by the way, coincided with the weekend of Remembrance Sunday.