The Doctor has always been something of a Prometheus figure, stealing (the TARDIS) from the gods (Time Lords), and giving help to humanity against their wishes (non-interference). It has taken over 50 years, but finally we follow through with the consequences of that story, with the Doctor facing his punishment. Like Prometheus, he has to suffer his torture over and over again. And he has to suffer it alone.
So the question here is how does the Doctor cope when he is on his own? More than that, he is suffering from the grief of losing Clara, so he is called upon to be at his best and most resilient when at his most fragile and despairing. Heaven Sent is therefore an illustration of how brilliant he is, and a restatement of the Doctor as a kind of indomitable force of nature. He survives by using his intelligence, gradually working out the kind of game he is having to play by making clever Holmesian deductions, but more importantly he has to face his fears and deal with the situation on an emotional level. How does the Doctor cope with being on his own? By pretending he isn’t. This spells out clearly what we have always known: the Doctor needs a friend. This is the source of his strength, and if he doesn’t have a companion with him then he has to make one up. Heaven Sent is about the importance of friendship.
It also challenges the viewer to consider the nature of life itself. Strictly speaking, the Doctor we have been watching since 1963 is dead and gone long before this episode even gets going, and we are seeing copies of him generated by a teleporter. So what makes a person a person? This is something I have discussed in the past with Mike – every cell in the human body gets replaced over a period of time, so what are we? Nothing physical, that’s for sure. So are we then the sum of our memories? But that makes us different people every day of our lives. I think if most of us met ourselves from our past, we would struggle to recognise ourselves as truly the same individual, with the same motivations, values, hopes and fears. We are constantly changing. So ultimately you have to go with something like a “soul”, or accept the “sum of our memories” as the best we have. The issue is not fully explored here, but the question is raised. I have always had a problem with teleporters, particularly in Star Trek, which call upon the viewer to simply accept that a device can basically execute a person and recreate him or her from a computer programme somewhere else, and that’s supposed to be fine because it’s still the same person. It diminishes us to the physical, and the brain as a computer system. So if sci-fi is going to use teleporters in a Trek way, as something that recreates a person from a “pattern” of some kind, then I would much prefer to see it done with some attempt to look at the troubling aspect of that. Here it is specifically a resurrection following death, and that’s a much more mature and interesting use of the idea of a teleportation device.
Obviously, the episode is all about Capaldi’s performance, and he is superb. These are the kinds of occasions that actors really love: a chance to show what they are made of. He is called upon basically to be the only survivor in a horror movie, with the episode borrowing visually from the horror genre, in particular The Ring. But here is where we get to the aspect of the story which was one rewrite away from perfection.
And the shepherd’s boy says, there’s this mountain of pure diamond. It takes an hour to climb it, and an hour to go around it… Every hundred years, a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on the diamond mountain… And when the entire mountain is chiselled away, the first second of eternity will have passed!
Marvellous stuff, but it’s not a beak is it. The Doctor uses his fists. The same fists we have seen him use before, on the TARDIS console, when he was in a violent rage. Yes, this is very different, but yet again Steven Moffat rejects the family audience, playing only the adult or teenage viewers. Two changes needed: tone down the physical damage shown on-screen to the Doctor’s face and hands, and have the Doctor use something other than his fists to hit the wall. Dramatically that would be slightly less satisfying (but only by a very narrow margin), but as a showrunner you exclude younger children from Doctor Who at your peril. They are the dedicated fans of the future. This happened in the 80s (really kicking off in a big way with the woeful mis-step that was The Caves of Androzani) and the series never recovered. It remains to be seen if Doctor Who can recover from the Capaldi era, and welcome back the family demographic it needs. Based on what it’s trying to achieve, Heaven Sent is one of Doctor Who’s big moments, and it’s undeniably an incredible piece of work. It’s just that what it is trying to achieve is playing to a narrowing demographic. RP
The view from across the pond:
River once said of the Doctor that “he’ll rise higher than ever before and then fall so much further…” At the time of Matt Smith, A Good Man Goes to War may have been the pinnacle of his heights but Peter Capaldi wasn’t in the cards yet. Peter Capaldi is an incredible Doctor. He develops over time and goes from good to amazing despite the weak stories of his second season. Maybe it’s because he’s such a fine ambassador for the show, or maybe because he’s Scottish, or maybe he’s simply a damned good actor… whatever the reason, “clerical error” or not, he’s an amazing Doctor. Series 9 culminates with the two-part Heaven Sent and Hell Bent following on from the onscreen death of Clara. The long and the short of it is: the Doctor has been trapped by a woman who Rassilon hired to trick him which caused the death of Clara. He has been transported to some unknown location for the Time Lords to find out what “the hybrid” is. Heaven Sent will explore this through a series of “confessions”. You might ask, why didn’t Rassilon just ask the Doctor if he knew what “hybrid” was. It clearly wasn’t much of a thing until Davros mentioned it, but where would the logic be in that? Where’s the fun in asking when a good, long torture could be involved? The Doctor has been alive for some 2000 years, rather than just get to the point, let’s have him confess to everything first. We can start with: “I planned on bashing in the caveman’s skull” and work our way out from there. So let’s just dial back the logic and explore the episode…
To prove his acting talents, Capaldi takes on this story single-handedly. There’s the Veil and the imaginary Clara (neither of whom speak) but the entire story is carried by Capaldi. And he pulls it off with such skill and class, that you can’t help but love it. The music deserves special attention too, because it is astounding. The piece released on the latest soundtrack, The Shepherd’s Boy, is glorious and adds so much to the episode. The Veil is a terrifying creature too, all silent and skulking. The faceless Clara, while meant to be helpful, also adds to the fear factor because we never see her face.
The episode itself is similar to an Escape Room but on a larger scale. Call this an Escape Castle. The Doctor gets to relive a day over and over while trying to escape that castle and figure out exactly what is going on. Contextually, this creates a really good mystery in a really stunning setting, with a really eerie creature hunting him. Coupled with really great acting and a really great score, this is the jewel in the crown of series 9. But series 9 was weak so while this stands out, deservedly so, it’s far from perfect.
The problem is that Moffat created an awesome escape room story, but the premise was so flawed that it has a trickle-down effect. What this means is that if you are a casual viewer who watches for a good adventure, you’ll be happy. But if you watch with the hope of understanding the why of it, it breaks down like a Veil in Gallifrey’s light! Here we go:
Remember: Rassilon and the Time Lords have trapped the Doctor in his own Confession Dial so that he could confess to knowing what the Hybrid is…
Background problem 1: The Hybrid is clearly not a threat since the Doctor spends 4.5 billion years in the trap and no Hybrid ever does anything to anyone in that time.
Background problem 2: the Doctor never carried a Confession Dial (that we are aware of) so, like the hybrid, what makes it matter now?
With the background questions out of the way…
Logic Problem 1: if the Time Lords want the Doctor to confess, why even give him clues, like the camera that allows the Doctor to know where the Veil is at any time? Why give him food, or tools? Why number a room 12, like Smith’s Doctor finds with 11 in The God Complex?
Logic Problem 2: if the place factory-resets every time the Doctor dies (even if we exclude the diamond wall for now), why are his skulls accumulating?
Logic Problem 3: if the clothes don’t reset, that means there’s one version of the Doctor that walked around naked so his clothes could be left to dry. That way, when the second iteration would undress, he would have a spare set which would then always be there. But why didn’t the clothing go away? (Perhaps this can be explained that everything the Doctor himself added remains? But that means we hope the Doctor found a bathroom somewhere…)
Epic Problem 1: if the Doctor is so smart, which the series has spent over 50 years proving, why does he punch his way through the diamond wall rather than use the shovel? Hell, even the spoon would have been smarter.
Epic Problem 2: Would there be any chance of punching through a diamond wall, let alone a material that is supposedly 400 times stronger than diamond? If so, why does the Doctor feel the need to punch out a full walkway rather than just a space big enough to get through?
Reading this makes it feel like a lot is wrong with this story. In some ways, that’s true, but only if you think about it, which it seems writer Stephen Moffat failed to do. As a story, it’s otherwise very good. Even the parable of eternity is amazing and speaks volumes about the Doctor’s determination. But would he commit to being in one place for so long knowing he’d be needed elsewhere? Well, maybe. And that’s because each day of those 4.5 billion years is still just a repeat and he doesn’t really age during that time. He’s really only living one day over and over again like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. By the time he realizes how much time has gone by with each iteration, he’s half way through the adventure, so he pushes on, as he must. But even the Time Lords must recognize there’s no threat from the Hybrid in that time. Right? So it all falls back on the logic behind putting him there to begin with! Why bother?
The Doctor finally gets out of the Confession Dial to find himself on Gallifrey and threatens to destroy everything to get answers. As a prelude to such a big event, this is one heck of an opener, but the return of Gallifrey has to be epic. It’s got to be bigger than big. It’s got to be, to quote a certain someone, “yuge!”, but can the second half keep up the momentum? ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Hell Bent