After I’d watched this for the second time, my father (who hasn’t seen it and was just making conversation) asked me, “Did the Doctor win?” I answered, “sort of.”
Points in favor: Kate Stewart lives, along with pretty much everyone in the human race who wasn’t on board “Boat One” and wasn’t already dead. The boy Danny killed lives, in a thematically sound but logically inexplicable fashion. Neither the Doctor nor Clara become cold-blooded murderers.
Points against: Osgood (and I should have known that as soon as the Doctor tapped her as companion material she was doomed, but it was still so cruel). Two vaporized guards, Man Scout, probably everyone else aboard Boat One. The Doctor’s best friend’s boyfriend is dead. The Doctor’s best friend lies to him and leaves him. The Doctor’s best childhood friend is apparently dead. The Doctor’s best childhood friend has lied to him about their childhood home and he still doesn’t know where it is.
So on balance — oh, hang on, there are a couple more.
Additional point in favor: The Doctor is meeting Nick Frost at Christmas.
Additional point against: Nick Frost’s character evidently believes he’s Santa Claus.
So on balance, “sort of” just about covers it. It’s a decidedly and deservedly melancholy ending. It’s the kind of ending I wanted to see — real tragedy, and a companion who doesn’t have to die to decide to leave the Doctor — but that doesn’t mean it feels good. That’s fine. It just doesn’t feel good.
The soldier theme’s payoff: we learn that a soldier is just a person who’s made a promise to sacrifice themselves to save someone else, which I’m not sure we needed a season of Doctor Who to teach us. The implied analogy between the Doctor’s companions and an officer’s soldiers is a bit muddled as he decides that he’s just an idiot with a box (upgraded or downgraded from a madman? you decide) and that he doesn’t need an army, he just needs friends whose lives are destroyed while trying to help him. It’s nice that he’s realized all the angsty questions of the season (is he good or bad, is he an officer or a gentleman, is he a good Dalek or a bad Time Lord, etc.) are overwrought and silly, but very strange that Missy’s plan amounted to handing him the keys to a personal army. What, really, were the odds that he couldn’t turn that situation in his favor, and what did he have to lose, in practice or principle, by doing so? It’s frustrating that Missy’s genuinely unsettling homicidal outbursts culminated only in a far-fetched attempt to develop the Doctor’s character, but Missy herself is so watchable that it doesn’t matter as much as it might.
We can get Missy back, most likely; that blue vaporizing effect isn’t quite like the teleport she uses earlier in the episode, but it does look a bit suspicious. Assuming the Missy who descends like a demonic Mary Poppins (i.e., like Mary Poppins) from the clouds is in fact Missy’s physical body and not some duplicate, it would be smart of her to ensure that Cyberweapons don’t affect her, and even if they do, Time Heist was all about characters teleporting away rather than dying. Osgood and Danny are the real losses here. I would gladly have traded Kate Stewart for either of them; she continues to have lots of great lines and absolutely no screen presence, and the nods to her father function as rather tasteless proof of this.
Are the Cybermen scary in this? Well, they look and sound great. But if you notice, they spend the entire episode either following orders rigidly or toddling around a graveyard. The scariest they get is when they’re ripping apart a plane and pulling people through windows; why they don’t just shoot the engines out with their overpowered hand cannons is a mystery.
Is this episode great? It totally is. Despite any misgivings I might have had about specific points, I found the whole thing riveting once again, not quite as magnificent as “Dark Water” but quite as entertaining. It’s a fine finale. It doesn’t feel good. But it’s fine. I’ll be fine. Really.