Death in Heaven review: Doctor Who honours its fallen soldiers in a macabre, exhilarating finale

Plus, 1970s Who star Katy Manning gives her verdict

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★★★★★  I knew – I just knew – that this season’s anti-soldier strand had to be leading somewhere. And where it has led to is Doctor Who’s two finest, most lovable ex-soldiers, Danny Pink and Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart, returning from the dead as Cybermen and saving the world.

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In its own weird, warped and spectacular way, Doctor Who pays tribute to its fallen soldiers, in what has to be judicious timing during this weekend of remembrance, especially in the centenary of the Great War. “We are the fallen but today we shall rise,” says CyberDanny. “The army of the dead will save the land of the living. This is the promise of a soldier. You will sleep safe tonight.”

That will bring a lump to the throat for many viewers. Not just recent admirers who’ve grown to love Samuel Anderson’s warmth and easy charm as Danny and will miss him greatly (he must have been horribly uncomfortable in all that Cyber gear and make-up). But fan farts like me, who go way back with the Brigadier and will surely blub. Finally, after 46 years, the military-averse Doctor is moved to salute his oldest and most faithful friend. “Of course. The Earth’s darkest hour and mine. Where else would you be?”

The Brig’s 1968 debut The Web of Fear is the first story I recall watching, and in subsequent decades he became part of the fabric of Doctor Who. It’s a crying shame that the actor Nicholas Courtney wasn’t invited back after Who’s reboot in 2005, while he was able and very willing. Although that wasn’t Steven Moffat’s doing, he’s more than atoned for the oversight since Courtney’s death in 2011.

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Sharp in my mind this weekend is the memory of the hearty old gent I took to lunch six years ago near his home in Crouch End, north London. Over a few pints of ale, he told me that he pictured the Brigadier “in limbo, ha-ha… waiting for the call to arms from the Doctor”. How right you were, Nick! In Death in Heaven, the Brig’s portrait looms large, he is resurrected as a Cyberman, saves his own daughter, shoots the Master (at last) and lives to fight another day. Bravo! It’s disturbing (if you dwell on the idea of the Brig’s old bones inside a Cybersuit) yet incredibly touching. Courtney understood the Doctor Who universe and I’m sure he’d be beaming with pride.

The spirit of 1968 looms over this finale – and not just in the Cybermen’s return to St Paul’s. The Brig’s daughter Kate drops a 68 Cyberman head at the feet of the 2014 shower. Unit have an HQ on an airplane again, just as they did in their founding story, The Invasion, 46 years ago. Today’s Unit are on the ball, intercepting the invasion immediately, and there’s an emphasis on the word “Intelligence” in their acronym. The only military man, Sanjeev Bhaskar’s General Ahmed, is sidelined and soon sucked out of the plane window.

The female scientists are far more interesting: chief scientific officer Kate Lethbridge-Stewart now employing the full double-barrel (another measured, classy performance from Jemma Redgrave) and Osgood, who first appeared in the 50th anniversary special. The poor woman doesn’t warrant a first name, but fans will realise her surname is a nod to the bungling Unit Sgt Osgood who exasperated Jon Pertwee’s Doctor in the 1971 classic, The Daemons.

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Ingrid Oliver is winning in the role of the fogey boffin; indeed, Osgood so impresses the Doctor with her deductions that he recognises her companion potential (“All of time and space – something for your bucket list”). So it’s particularly horrible when Osgood is taunted then vaporised by Missy.

#SaySomethingNice: I adore Michelle Gomez as Missy, Mistress, the Master – whatever she or we want to call her. Since Roger Delgado’s death, we’ve seen the Master as a shambling cadaver, panto villain (for the entire 1980s), silvery slug, San Franciscan ambulance driver, genteel prof (Derek Jacobi) and head-spinning loon (John Simm). I’m relieved he’s settled down as a she, still brilliant, still deadly, still needy, but the image of a malevolent Mary Poppins, even in one cheeky moment descending from the sky with her umbrella.

Gomez’s Missy can get away with murder, literally, so Gomez can certainly get away with lapsing into a crisp Glaswegian accent after weeks of southern plumminess. She is fabulous casting. I’m delighted that CyberBrig gets to blast her out of existence – saving the Doctor and Clara that task – but really hope the Missy/Master is re-engaged pronto. Even with the flimsiest get-out clause.

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Jenna Coleman is sensational as Clara, as she has been all season – even here, somewhat muted by grief and horror at Danny’s fate. In recognition of her contribution (also to hoodwink viewers after the reprise, where Clara claims she’s the Doctor), she gets top billing and her eyes replace Peter Capaldi’s in the title sequence. This is a first for a companion co-star and justly deserved. Surely, Clara Oswald has life beyond the Christmas Special.
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Peter Capaldi is the Doctor. That should say it all, really. What is most effective is how he holds emotion in check. He makes you aware that more is happening beneath the surface, just a flicker of warmth, acid humour and ire working wonders. That’s why it’s so powerful when at last he rages after Missy has hoodwinked him over Gallifrey’s return – but he reins it back in for his final meeting with Clara.  Where they are both hiding the truth.

Death in Heaven exudes gloom. Almost half is set in a graveyard. All the dead of planet Earth rise up as tottering Cybermen in a majestic danse macabre. Yet nothing in this episode strikes me as in dubious taste, unlike its set-up episode Dark Water. Director Rachel Talalay renders each moment, each mood with precision – protracted talky scenes are riveting and action sequences (notably the Bond-like plane destruction and the Doctor’s skyfall) are exhilarating.

Many expert hands have put this outstanding piece of television on screen. It caps off a season that has taken risks, recharged the franchise and given us the finest Doctor and companion partnership. Death in Heaven is a deeply satisfying season finale, certainly one of Moffat’s most audacious and most peculiarly moving scripts.

Time to salute Steven. 

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With Unit and the Master looming large in Death in Heaven, I had to call in Katy Manning. As Unit’s Jo Grant, she helped Jon Pertwee’s Doctor see off Roger Delgado’s Master eight times in the 1970s.

So what’s her take on Michelle Gomez as Missy? “The Mistress – that’s divine thinking. I like her!” she coos. “She’s a great-looking woman, a good actress and she’s got the Delgado control. Roger always did it with a sly smile and was never aggressive as the Master.”

The modern version of Unit hits home too: “Unit was always a very important part of Doctor Who in my time, but quite often got pushed to the side. It was paid off here and was honoured, particularly at this weekend of remembrance. I only had to see Nick’s portrait up there and I was gone. It made me cry. And then to go up in the sky like that as a Cyberman! I can just see and hear Nick… He’d have adored it. Oh, of course he would.”

She was “totally consumed” by the finale. “I watched it in the same way I used to see the very first Doctor Whos – about six inches away from the screen.” For all its cinematic production values, Katy prefers her Doctor Who on the small screen. “I assume the position, and it’s on the sofa. On the edge or behind it. To me, that’s where it belongs, in the sitting room, box of tissues on stand by for the sniffles.

“That was absolutely bloody brilliant, mesmerising television. The best I’ve seen in a long time. Beautifully written, acted and directed – there wasn’t a weak moment. I loved it when St Paul’s opened up like a friggin’ lotus flower. And such a clever performance from Peter Capaldi. We’re seeing so many layers from him, and having a slightly older Doctor gives you lots more places to go. This has been the best season without a shadow of a doubt. It was genius, Steven Moffat!”

Katy would like to award the finale 20 out of 10. But RT only marks out of 5 stars. “OK then, 10 out of 5!”

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RT’s 2008 Nicholas Courtney interview