“How many seconds in eternity?”
Well, that was a thing of dark beauty. It was a bold move to have an episode that was, to all intents and purposes, a one man show; but with Steven Moffat’s writing, Rachel Talalay’s direction and, above all, Peter Capaldi’s acting, Heaven Sent turned out to be one of the strongest episodes this year.
If you’re not a fan of the usual Moffat style, his trademark timey-wimeyness as used here might have annoyed you. But never has it been put to such dark and satisfying effect since Blink. The paradoxes added up (for the most part), and stripped of the usual hyper-witty ‘banter’ we were left with an episode that used the very idea of Time to explore the darkest corners of the Doctor’s soul.
While some of Moffat’s scripts chuck idea after ideas into the pot while never properly developing them, this one kept a tight rein on his imagination. All the concepts used paid off handsomely, with some deep philosophical questions posed. For example – the question of free will vs determinism. The entire ep revolves around the hypothesis that every time the Doctor materialises in the teleporter, his subsequent actions – and even speech – never vary. In two billion years. How’s that for predestination?
Then there’s the issue of the teleporter itself. The ‘reset’ that happened at the death of every iteration of the Doctor presumably reset time rather than the ‘pattern buffer’ in the teleporter (very Star Trek). But the Doctor’s comparison with a fax machine still left me pondering, as I often have with Star Trek – if the teleport process is actually creating a copy, what happens to the original? Logically, it’s disintegrated. Killed. So after those two billion years, with the cycle happening roughly every two days, is the Doctor we see at the end the ‘real’ Doctor, or a zillionth generation copy?
Questions, questions. But they didn’t come across as loose ends, rather as genuinely posed puzzlers to which not even the Doctor knows the answers. And if you weren’t pondering those, you could lose yourself in the look and feel of the episode, an atmosphere that was at once sombre and terrifying (I watched it with a 26 year old friend of mine who doesn’t usually watch the show, and at one point he turned to me and said, “this is really scary!”).
Following on from last week’s tribute to Diagon Alley, the ever-shifting configuration of the “fully operational haunted house” may have reminded you of those mutable staircases in Hogwarts. But this cold, intimidating place was no friendly school setting. For me, far more appropriately, it was reminiscent of the nightmarish, ever-changing prison in the Cell movies.
I’ve no idea if that was a deliberate lift on Moffat’s part, but it did strike me that the Doctor’s ‘retreat into his mind’ at moments of extreme peril was, basically, the Mind Palace from Sherlock. That’s OK, I suppose, there’s no harm in stealing ideas from… yourself (just don’t tell Arthur Conan Doyle). Besides, even those sequences were revealing of the Doctor’s feelings, with the shade of Clara standing facing away from him, writing the questions he had to answer on the ever-present blackboard (“always the teacher”). I may not have felt particularly moved by her death last week, but Capaldi sold every drop of grief to me throughout.
“It’s time, Doctor. Get off your arse, and win.”
Aside from Clara (Jenna Coleman’s brief cameo making perfect sense dramatically), the only other ‘character’ present was the terrifying, hooded figure referred to in the credits (but never onscreen) as the Veil. We never saw what was underneath that hood. We didn’t need to. The Doctor’s reaction told us everything we needed to know. This was Death personified, and it was coming for him. The attendant flies, reminders of a recurring nightmare about death from his childhood, were a massively spooky touch.
Rachel Talalay, who also helmed last year’s more bombastic Dark Water/Death in Heaven two-parter, showed herself capable of more restraint with this one, giving it an appropriately funereal mood in both pacing and look. Even Murray Gold seemed to up his game, his often intrusively loud music kept at a low key throughout. The cue played when the Doctor first examined the painting of Clara sounded almost like it could have been Paddy Kingsland from the old Radiophonic Workshop; but the recurring string motif was reminiscent of nothing so much as the melancholy grandeur of Handel’s Sarabande, as used in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Check it out below:
There was a mounting sense of unease throughout, as the clues to the puzzle stacked up. Again as with Blink, a second viewing makes them more obvious; but as with the best Sherlock Holmes stories (that man Doyle again) everything you needed to work it out was right there in front of you. The burned hand pulling the lever; the stars in the wrong place; the already dried set of clothes and boots waiting for the Doctor after his impromptu swim.
And of course the skulls. As with classic 60s mindfuck The Prisoner, the Doctor gradually realised that there couldn’t have been any previous prisoners – this whole place had been designed specifically for him. When the skull he’d picked up in ‘Room 12’ tumbled from the battlements, it became suddenly, horrifyingly clear. The skulls were the Doctor himself. And there were thousands of them.
The concept of the Doctor being psychologically and physically tortured for two billion years is nightmarish stuff indeed; I don’t know whether the show could have got away with it in its previous, earlier time slot. Indeed, if I have a criticism, it’s that this felt like truly adult drama, and perhaps rather too dark for children. Mind you, I remember Mary Whitehouse saying that about the Philip Hinchcliffe episodes.
The clues weren’t always obvious. I know from talking to some of my friends afterwards that not everyone got the sand-scrawled “BIRD” reference. But it felt obvious to me, as a reference to the Grimm’s fairy tale of the shepherd boy related by the Doctor as he repeatedly punched a 20 foot thick wall harder than diamond for two billion years, each iteration getting slightly further into both wall and story.
And of course that final montage, which was heartbreaking, showcased the final twist in Moffat’s tale. That illuminated sign behind the wall saying “HOME” didn’t mean the TARDIS at all. It meant Gallifrey.
“Of course. The last square on the board. What else would it be?”
At this point (and several others to be honest) a whole bunch of fanboy questions reared their heads. The Doctor’s experience within the castle prison obviously formed his Confession Dial, that was then sent back to Missy. But what did all the confessions really mean? If he fled Gallifrey because he was scared, not bored as he’d always maintained, what was he scared of? The Time Lords’ reaction to the truth that he was “the hybrid” of legend? Or what he might do, given the opportunity to “conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins”?
And if he is “the hybrid”, is this, finally, going to deal with that seemingly throwaway line in Eighth Doctor Paul McGann’s one appearance – “I’m half human, on my mother’s side”? Pushed to his very limits, the Doctor’s despairing refrain “Can’t I just sleep… Can’t I lose just this once?” was inescapably reminiscent of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, pleading with God to “take this cup away from me”. It’s not the first time the Doctor’s been portrayed as messianic, but it worked far better here than it did Last of the Time Lords. There were so many references to the past throughout, along with “tell them I took the long way round”. But surely the Gallifrey he was taking the long way round to wouldn’t imprison him and torture him for a near eternity?
This was a truly outstanding episode, in terms of writing, acting and direction, and I would hope that even the Moffat-haters could find something to like in it. The only hole I can pick in the timey-wimey plot is this – when the very first iteration of the Doctor arrived at the castle, how could there have been skulls, or a previous set of clothes? Perhaps Moffat will address that next week (though I’m sceptical). That aside though, I loved this episode, and in a year so consistently good (Sleep No More aside), I have a feeling that next week’s finale is going to have to work pretty hard to equal this one.