Doctor Who: Heaven Sent (1)

Doctor: 'I've just watched my best friend die in agony. My day can't get any worse. Let's see what we can do about yours!'

It's always something of a crap shoot when Doctor Who tries something different. If history has taught us anything, it's that experimental episodes either knock it out of the park ('Blink', 'Turn Left'), or make us wish that someone had knocked us out in a park ('Sleep No More', 'Love and Monsters'). What good could possibly come from an episode filmed in a single location, and with only one speaking character? Plenty, as it happens. With an extended running time of 55 minutes, this was a gripping tale of mystery, personal loss, and what happens when you punch an azbantium wall for over two billion years with your bare fists.

Following Clara's shock departure last week, 'Heaven Sent' began with the Doctor trapped in an isolated castle and being stalked by a fly-infested monster from his past. I know I'm always saying that the monsters should remain in the shadows, but when they look as good as The Veil, they really don't need to. Rachel Talalay did an incredible job of directing tonight's episode. She was so restricted in what she could do—with there being no characters to cut between, and just one location—yet the finished product looked magnificent. The castle generated a genuine feeling of foreboding, and her framing shots of The Veil single-handedly elevated it from a bloke-in-a-sheet-with-wobbly-hands joke, to a memorable Who monster.

Ten minutes before the episode ended I remember thinking: if this doesn't  have a strong finish, then it's sunk. Not that all that went before the denouement wasn't fascinating, but if they had hit the reset button, it would have upended its awesomeness completely. Thankfully, it was an ending befitting the build up. Everything was explained: from the skulls at the bottom of the sea, to why the Doctor had dry clothes waiting for him (although his first run through must surely have been naked?), to the meaning of 'bird', to the origin of the dust around the teleporter. Everything had an explanation, and nothing felt far fetched or rushed.

Removing Jenna Coleman's name from the intro was also a genius move. Nobody was expecting to see Clara tonight—even the Radio Times managed to keep her name out of the cast list—and the way she kept appearing without us ever seeing her face seemed to suggest that either (a) it wasn't Clara, or (b) they were using an wig-wearing stand-in. So when the camera pulled back to reveal her smiling face ('Get up off your arse, and win'), it was an unexpected bonus. I love the depths this show's willing to plumb to maintain the element of surprise. With the omniscient internet spoiling just about everything these days, it's encouraging to know that they can still fool us—even if it means occasionally lying to our faces.

The whole episode was basically an exploration of the Doctor's grief over Clara's death, and his guilt over his part in it. Initially, the castle seemed to be the Doctor's own personalised hell, with The Veil a tailor-made punishment extracted from his memory. The fact that the whole story actually took place inside the Doctor's Confession Dial, was a terrific pay-off of what's been a season long mystery. We still don't know who put the Doctor through his ordeal, but the reason was presumably to discover the identity of the hybrid. The Doctor's last words were marvellously cryptic—but how are we supposed to understand them? Was he saying that 'the hybrid is me' or 'the hybrid is Me'. Since Maisie Williams is in the finale, I'm putting my money on the latter.

All hats must surely be doffed in Capaldi's honour tonight. Carrying the whole episode single-handedly must have been a daunting prospect, but Capaldi pulled it off with consummate ease. The sheer expansiveness of the narrative demanded all manner of emotional responses—from grief, to anger, to horror, to exhaustion, to humour—yet he never put a foot wrong. His grief at Clara's passing was pitch perfect. Whether you like her or not, Clara's unarguably been the Doctor's most influential companion. She's been around the longest, she's interacted with all of his incarnations (and saved them all), she prevented the destruction of Gallifrey—in short, she's been a marvel. It made absolute sense that, despite her death, the Doctor would still talk to her. Their thinking had become so aligned towards the end, that she was the perfect sounding board for his madcap schemes. He's going to miss that lady.

Hopefully next week's episode will be more of a 'Big Bang' than a 'Death in Heaven'. The teaser looks spectacular!

Bits and Pieces:

—The Doctor's Stormroom was new. It reminded me a lot of Sherlock's Mind Palace—an interesting parallel what with Steven Moffat being the showrunner of both shows.

—I reckon he could have got through that azbantium wall in half the time had he used the shovel.

—'Nothing is half Dalek, the Daleks wouldn't allow it.' Nothing apart from the hybrid, Dalek Sec, anyway.

—Loved the Doctor breaking the 4th wall at the beginning. ('I'm nothing without an audience.')

—Will there be any future significance to them retconning the reason why the Doctor left Gallifrey, or was it simply a contrived confession to sate The Veil?

—Nice try with TARDIS=Home... but we all know where the Doctor's home is.


Doctor: 'Clara said that I shouldn't take revenge. You should know—I don't always listen.'

Doctor: 'I've finally run out of corridor. There's a life summed up.'

Doctor: 'It's funny, the day you lose someone isn't the worst. At least you've got something to do. It's all the days they stay dead.'

Doctor: 'Or maybe I'm in hell. That's okay. I'm not scared of hell, it's just heaven for bad people.'

Doctor: 'Whatever I do, you still won't be there.'

Clara: 'Doctor, it's time. Get up off your arse, and win!'

Paul Kelly was a member of Department C19 until the Shoreditch Incident of 1963, where he was shot in the foot, losing two toes and a moderately troublesome verruca. He also invented the game of Twister—or as it was originally called: The Stick Your Arse In A Stranger's Face Game.

For mor peaces eye rote, sea hear.


TDS-Matt said...

"Will there be any future significance to them retconning the reason why the Doctor left Gallifrey, or was it simply a contrived confession to sate The Veil?"

The Doctor is the hybrid. Putting aside the fact that he's never actually referred to "Me" by that name before, the preview for next week says the Hybrid will burn a billion souls to heal his own. The Doctor left Gallifrey because he didn't want to destroy it, and he'll (nearly) destroy it again trying to resurrect Clara.

Paul Kelly said...

Matt: I'm not sure the Doctor never referring to Ashildr as 'Me' is all that relevant. Since he was talking to whoever took him captive, he would refer to Ashildr by a name familiar to them, not a name familiar to him—otherwise, how would they know who he was talking about? I like your other speculations, however :)

migmit said...

Now THAT is what I call "mind-blowing".

The whole castle, with it's machinery, felt a lot like iPad game "The Room" (all three parts). There is nothing wrong with it: "The Room" is a great game. I'm pretty certain it was intentional; they even gave the Doctor an eyepiece at some point.

And yes, Capaldi was absolutely perfect. Although he wasn't the only talking character: Clara also said a few words.

Jenna said...

I haven't been impressed with Moffat's writing pretty much since he became showrunner, but here he outdid himself. These low-key but high-impact stories are what he does best, and he just blew me out of the water here. Well done.
Also, on an unrelated note, the castle with the moving and resetting pieces instantly reminded me of the classic B-horror movie Cube. Moving and resetting rooms were a key part of the plot there, too.

FlopHairedWuss said...

This was an astonishing episode of television. I love the way it dealt with The Doctor's grief over losing Clara. I've seen some people saying that this episode is technically filler as it apparently only exists to get The Doctor to Gallifrey. I couldn't disagree more. The journey is the most important part. It's about The Doctor's struggle to endure in the face of adversity, to suffer unimaginable torture and die over and over again rather than go against everything he represents and believes in.

Doesn't sound pointless to me.

The writing, direction, cinematography and acting were all superb. BAFTA for Peter Capaldi, pleaseandthankyou.

I haven't been completely happy with some of this season, but if Moffat manages to pull it together for the finale, all is forgiven.

TheShadowKnows said...

Didn't the Eighth Doctor claim to be "half human on his mother's side" or some nonsense like that? That would make him a hybrid, I guess.

On the other hand, "Me" is a pretty silly name, and seems like the setup for exactly the kind of punchline that Paul proposes. I guess we'll see...