A couple of weeks ago, Doctor Who did a very experimental episode: “Sleep No More”. It wasn't particularly well-received by the general audience. While I enjoyed it overall, I also acknowledged where it was flawed. In “Heaven Sent”, we get another highly experimental episode, but this one knocks the ball out of the park with what is one of the best Doctor Who episodes in some time. There's very little to criticise about it, which is rare for me and a script penned by Stephen Moffat. Quite simply, “Heaven Sent” is wonderful Doctor Who. It is captivating, atmospheric, thoughtful, and moving—quite the delight!
As it happens, “Heaven Sent” hasn't been very well received by the general viewing audience, getting an AI score of only 80. While not as low as the 78 received by “Sleep No More”, it's still low for Doctor Who. In all likelihood, this is because of its experimental nature. Fifty-five minutes of the Doctor talking to himself are not what the average viewer is looking for. Nevertheless, there is so much that is brilliant that happens in those fifty-five minutes.
For a start, Peter Capaldi is captivating. Few actors could successfully hold an entire episode on their own, but Capaldi is one of those few. He completely sells every moment, believably talking to himself while simultaneously making the audience want to listen to every word he says. The particularly phenomenal thing is that so much of what he says is actually pure exposition, something that, unless kept to a minimum, usually becomes quite annoying very fast. Yet it's most certainly not kept to a minimum here, but it still holds our attention and seems completely natural.
At its core, “Heaven Sent” is an examination of grief and death, which we experience through the Doctor's journey. He begins angry and confident, threatening that he will find those responsible for Clara's death—that he will never, ever stop—but his confidence quickly begins to erode away and we start to see the Doctor in a place that we rarely see him: scared, unsure, and ready to give up. And we get this from more than just the Doctor talking to himself. We see it also in his stance and expressions. Peter Capaldi can deliver so much from just a look, and the change he delivers after the Doctor first sees the Veil creature is absolutely terrifying. It eventually becomes completely heart-breaking as the Doctor pleads with mind-Clara to lose just this once. Yet despite his eroding confidence, he still finds the strength to carry on, even when he finally realises just how long he has been doing this and just how much longer he will likely have to keep doing it. He never, ever stops.
There's an interesting question to be asked about just how much of the Doctor's inner thought processes the audience should be privy to. Should his solutions seem miraculous, or should the process of how he reaches them be clear to all? Should we see his uncertainties, his fears, his insecurities? “Am I spoiling the magic?” the Doctor asks mind-Clara. “I work really hard at this.” In general, the answer should probably be somewhere between the two extremes. We shouldn't see everything that goes on in his head, but he also shouldn't appear godlike either. “Heaven Sent” certainly shows a whole lot more than usual, but in an episode that has almost no one else in it other than the Doctor, it might as well go ahead and show us as much of the Doctor as it can.
And so we get introduced to the Doctor's mind palace...sorry, “storeroom”. “Mind Palace” is from Sherlock, but the concept is the same. It's a place where the Doctor (or Holmes) retreats to in his head to work things out. When we see the Doctor make a miraculous escape or come up with an ingenious solution, it's because he's been thinking at super-fast speed, playing out possibilities in his head—in this particular case, talking them out with an imaginary version of Clara. This is certainly something we shouldn't see all the time. It would quickly get stale and absolutely would spoil the magic (this arguably happens in Sherlock). However, for a single episode—one that focuses so heavily on the Doctor's mental journey—it's absolutely essential and rather than spoil the magic, it actually helps to enhance it. Sometimes, the Doctor's solutions can seem a little too easy or even convenient. The revelations in this episode can be applied to other episodes without actually needing to see his storeroom in those episodes.
I like, too, the touch of mind-Clara's communication being mostly through the chalkboards. It not only plays on Clara as a teacher, but it also shows us a little more of the Doctor's response to Clara's death. He keeps her at a distance, her back turned to him, so that he doesn't have to face his grief. He doesn't want to face her as he likely holds a degree of guilt over her death—over not preventing her from becoming to much like him. It's not until the weight of his grief and fear become too much that he lets down his defences and actually allows himself to see her—and hear her. I'm reminded of the Master in “Last of the Time Lords”, who refuses to hear what the Doctor has to say, even though he already knows what it is. Here, the Doctor refuses to hear Clara, even though he knows what she has to say. She's written it down several times, but it's not until he hears it that it finally sinks in.
Of course, Clara in this story is really just the Doctor himself. She is his memory of her, his version of her. So, it's actually himself that he tries not to listen to. He is arguing with himself to come to a conclusion—which is a very Doctor-like thing to do. Ultimately, he resolves to carry on, like the Doctor always does. If this whole situation only happened the one time, it might not seem like that momentous a decision to make. Of course he carries on! He's the Doctor! The Doctor always carries on. In “Heaven Sent”, Steven Moffat has the monumental task of convincing the viewers that the Doctor would even consider giving up. Grief over Clara's death is a first step towards that, but something more is still needed. And so we get the ultimate situation: a problem which will take the Doctor a couple billion years to solve, spending most of that time afraid, torn with grief and despair, or in agony.
On the surface, the scale of it all is rather ridiculous, which is in keeping with Moffat's general patterns for series finales (of which, “Heaven Sent” is part of one). But at the same time, it is rather ingenious. I love the use of the Brothers Grimm tale, “The Shepherd Boy”. The gradual wearing down of the mountain of diamond (or rather a substance 400 times harder than diamond) with nothing more than the Doctor punching it may, initially, be beyond some viewers' grasp. It's not until we see the gradual lengthening of the Doctor's tunnel over literally millions of years that the full implications of it all become clear.
After each reset through the process, the Doctor begins fresh, with no memory of his other copies' experiences. He begins determined to escape and punish those responsible for Clara's death. When he finally realises the truth of what is happening—of what has been happening and what will continue to happen—there is little time left. He can do nothing other than punch at the wall. And it's that weight of millions upon millions of years that break him down, that make him want to give up. What use is a few hits on the wall that will have no visible effect on this one occasion? What is the point to going on? Why shouldn't he just lose and let it all end? It's a situation where even the Doctor would want to give up, and the fact that he doesn't illustrates just how amazing the Doctor really is.
And so he carries on, and he dies over and over and over again, coming back to life each time to continue on...
Okay, I have heavily criticised Moffat's handling of death in the past. I am not alone in this regard. Many other people have as well. There are just too many examples of death being without consequence, of people coming back to life and carrying on as if nothing had happened. Series 8 and 9 have been far better in this regard, but the stains of the past have been hard to ignore. In this episode, we get what could be seen as the ultimate expression of this problem. The Doctor literally dies and comes back to life billions of times. In a way, it's like Moffat, aware of the criticisms about him, is taking a knowing little wink at those doing the criticising. I can't say I approve, but it is very clever.
And on this occasion, those deaths are not without consequence. Indeed, this whole episode is one big examination of the consequences of death—both Clara's and the Doctor's deaths. We see the Doctor having to deal with a situation that is partly of his own making.
I also like the use of the teleporter/transporter/transmat issue. These are machines that literally tear people apart down to their microscopic components, send the information elsewhere, then reassemble them. But a question that has often been asked is, are they really the same people or just perfect copies? Do they have the same souls? It's a question that many science fiction stories have pondered. Star Trek has played around with the concept a few times, most notably with the existence of two Rikers in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. In one of Virgin Book's Doctor Who: The New Adventures novels (I can't remember which one, sorry), Bernice, after using a transmat, dreams of waking up in heaven and meeting the souls of all the other Bernices who were “killed” by transmats and replaced by copies. “Heaven Sent” uses the same idea, allowing the teleporter to recreate the Doctor every time he dies. I like it when Doctor Who examines these kinds of concepts, even if only in passing.
I do find it interesting that the Doctor does almost exactly the same things each time. His actions only change slightly based on the slight changes in the situation, such as stating how many years have passed or gradually getting through more of “The Shepherd Boy” before getting caught by the Veil. I wonder if this is a comment on predestination and a lack of free will—in other words, given the exact same set of circumstances, a person will respond in exactly the same way. The Doctor doing the same thing every time seems to support this idea (an idea I'm not personally fond of, although I accept that I have no evidence either way). I suspect this reading of the episode is unintentional, but it's interesting nonetheless.
Heaven Sent” uses more than just eternity to wear the Doctor down. It also uses his own fears against him by creating a world based entirely on his fears. Chief among these is the Veil creature. Unfortunately, from a viewer's perspective, the Veil is the least effective of these fears. This is because it is reliant on the Doctor telling us that it's frightening because it looks like a childhood fear—the body of an old woman covered in a veil and surrounded by flies. This is a fear we've not encountered with the Doctor before. As a result, we just have to accept that it has extra resonance with him. Essentially, the episode is telling us the Doctor's fear, rather than showing it. This is not a major issue, as Peter Capaldi plays the fear so well, and so much else in the episode works.
One of the things that helps the Veil and everything else to work is the general atmosphere of the episode. Director Rachel Talalay does a brilliant job of creating an atmosphere that is oppressive and foreboding. Indeed, I'd consider this one of the best directed episodes this series—quite possibly the best. Murray Gold's music is also particularly effective this week.
Alas, even the greatest episodes have flaws, and while there aren't many in “Heaven Sent”, there are a few. “Heaven Sent” has a run-time of almost fifty-five minutes, ten minutes longer than a standard episode of Doctor Who, but I don't actually think it needs the extra time. There are a couple moments when it starts to feel long. This is particularly true of the initial TARDIS scene and the repetitions at the end. Now, the ending repetition is an area where it's hard to judge the appropriate length. In order to create the sensation of the “first second of eternity”—to make the viewers understand just how long this is really taking the Doctor—it does need to feel long. So the question of when it just feels too long and when it really is too long becomes a hard one to answer. However, from my perspective, it's already feeling long at the two- to two-and-a-half minute mark, yet the entire sequence is over four minutes in length. I think at least a minute could be trimmed off and the sequence would still work just fine. Similarly, some cuts in other places (like that first mind-TARDIS scene) could bring the episode down to forty-five minutes without it losing anything substantial and actually working better as a result.
Another issue I have is not so much a problem with this specific episode as it is with the series arc. I have felt that the arc has been poorly handled so far this series. It feels very much like an afterthought, something thrown in because there needs to be an arc. In “The Magician's Apprentice”, we are introduced to the concept of Time Lord confession dials, their equivalent of a last will and testament that also contains their most secret confessions—something that has never been part of Time Lord lore before. The Doctor has created his own confession dial because he expects to die when he goes to see Davros—yet the Doctor has expected to die many times in the past and has never put together a confession dial on those occasions. Davros comments on the confession dial somewhat randomly, and then it's mostly ignored for the remainder of the series. It seems to exist for no other reason than the plot requires it, not because it's something the Doctor would make or anyone else would comment on. It has no relevance until “Face the Raven” and even there it's not much. Now in this episode, we learn that the confession dial apparently doesn't actually contain the Doctor's confession, but is set up to force him to reveal it. Or have the Time Lords somehow tampered with it? Perhaps this will make sense after next episode, but it doesn't change the fact that earlier in the season the confession dial hasn't really served a purpose.
Then there's the Hybrid, also conveniently mentioned by Davros in “The Witch's Familiar” and then referenced occasionally throughout the rest of the series. There have been lots of examples of hybrids over the years on Doctor Who, but never once did they cause the Doctor to think of this ancient Gallifreyan legend. Of course, Doctor Who creates new concepts and rewrites its own history a lot and this isn't really that different. However, tying it all together as a series arc has felt flimsy and rather contrived.
That said, I suspect there's a nice little twist to the Doctor's final cliffhanger statement. He doesn't say, “The Hybrid destined to conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins is me.” Rather, he says, “The Hybrid...is Me.” As in the young woman he turned into an immortal, blending two warrior races: the Vikings and the Mire. His statement is a clever ploy to make those listening to him think he's referring to himself while still being literally true.
Either that or Steven Moffat is bringing back the half-human thing from the 1996 TV Movie. But I doubt it.
Some final thoughts:
- I love the clockwork castle. It works great as something to gain the Doctor's attention while trapping him.
- Why does the Doctor writing “BIRD” not reset like everything else? Even his blood in the hallways disappears, yet this remains.
- You could similarly ask the same question about the diamond wall, but that has a more obvious answer in that, since it's the way out, it may have been specifically designed to be an exception to the reset.
- Each time through the sequence, the Doctor gets wet and changes his clothes to ones left behind by his previous self, leaving his wet clothes to dry for his next self. However, the very first time the Doctor went through this, there couldn't have been any dry clothes there yet for him to change into. This suggests that, on that occasion, the Doctor spent the rest of the time naked.
- I'm confused by the room with sand in the centre and arrows pointing to the sand. What does this mean? Why are the arrows pointing there? After several viewings, I haven't been able to figure it out. If anyone has an answer, please let me know in the comments.
- The young boy wandering by himself in the wilderness of Gallifrey just as the Doctor arrives is the height of convenience.
- How exactly does the Doctor talk a door into opening for him?
- At one point, when the Doctor comments that he is “nothing without an audience”, he takes a knowing look directly at the camera. I love Peter Capaldi, but I really dislike this kind of fourth wall breaking.
- There are some great lines in this episode, but this is one of the best: “Finally run out of corridor. There's a life summed up.”
- There's a wall in the castle with writing on it. That writing is the Doctor's opening monologue. See the picture below.
Overall, “Heaven Sent” is an incredible episode—atmospheric, frightening, and heart-breaking. It's hard to believe that something could work so well with only one character in it (well, virtually just one—there's mind-Clara and the young boy at the end), but it does. And it owes that to a great script, an amazing performance from Peter Capaldi, and incredible direction from Rachel Talalay. I have my concerns about how well the series arc will resolve in “Hell Bent”, but as an episode by itself, “Heaven Sent” is one of the best.