One Hell of a Story: Heaven Sent

To call “Heaven Sent” an unusual episode of Doctor Who is a bit of an understatement. It is not only completely unique in the 52 year history of the show, but it is also unusual for any major television show.  It is an episode with, essentially, a cast of one; it truly is the Doctor on his own. We’ve seen the Doctor without a companion before, but we’ve never spent an entire episode with just the Doctor. It was a risky episode, but one that succeeded exceptionally well.

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I wouldn’t want to make him angry…

“Heaven Sent” is essentially the third part of a loose season ending trilogy, much like the “Utopia/Sound of Drums/The Last of the Time Lords” trilogy that ended season three. Therefore, some of the ultimate success of the episode will depend on its conclusion. No matter what happens in the next episode, however, this was one of the most compelling episodes of Doctor Who in a long time.

When Steven Moffat is at his best, he creates intricately plotted scripts with an emotional core. I’m thinking in particular of “Blink,” which is a complex “timey-wimey” puzzle of a story, yet it manages to hit strong emotional beats as well, running the gamut from funny to moving, all without a false step.

“Heaven Sent” is another one of those scripts.  It is a puzzle box of a story, an intriguing mystery for the Doctor to solve. I can’t say that I completely understand everything at this point, but when you write stories as complex as Steven Moffat does, there tend to be a few things that you just have to accept without explanation. For instance, at this point, I can’t say that I understand exactly why the Doctor had to dig to find the “I am in room 12” message, and I may never know. But I’m willing to accept that as just part of the overall eccentricity of the clockwork castle (Moffat does love his clockwork, doesn’t he?).  I’ve heard several people asking why the “diamond” wall didn’t reset, which is a valid question that is never directly answered in the story. I just assumed that breaking through the wall was the whole point of the experience, so that is why it didn’t reset.  Overall, all the pieces are there to figure out what is going on, it just takes the audience (and the Doctor) a while to put it all together.

It’s also an interesting idea to have the Doctor tormented by his own nightmares. The only familiar object in the castle seems to be the portrait of Clara, which keeps her loss fresh in his mind. It’s a small detail, but one that would ensure that he doesn’t forget his grief. And would serve to keep him a bit on edge.

More important is the relentless creature, The Veil, which pursues him around the castle, ensuring that he can never rest. The flies that always announced its presence were a nice touch. It made The Veil even more synonymous with death in both the Doctor and the audience’s minds. The monitors showing you the creature’s point of view were a clever idea as well; constantly seeing it coming adds to the feeling of dread.

The Veil reminded me of the somewhat similar creature in the recent movie It Follows. Both involve “monsters” that you can easily outrun, but who never give up their pursuit. Both show that a creature doesn’t have to be fast to be deadly. In fact, both creatures exemplify the idea that slow and steady wins the race; thus, the relentlessness of the creature is a frightening concept. As the Doctor states in the opening of the episode, if you are being pursued by an entity that never stops, even if you can outrun it, it will eventually catch you. It forces an exhausting state of hyperawareness, and at some point your guard will drop and it will be there ready for you.

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The Doctor sits with Clara…I love the shot composition here.

Rather than hell, which, the Doctor tells us, is just “heaven for bad people,” this episode made me think of Dante’s purgatory. The repetitiveness of events, the punishments, the very gradual progress, and the reference to the mountain in the fairy tale all made me feel like the Doctor was on Mount Purgatory, earning his way into heaven. Although “heaven” in this case would be Gallifrey, which might be a bit higher praise than it deserves…

However, this being a Steven Moffat script, the puzzle isn’t the only thing going on and the journey through purgatory is an emotional one as well. The episode begins as an emotionally grueling experience for the Doctor. He is trapped in a seemingly endless loop in which, even though millions of years have passed, the loss of Clara is still fresh. The reset of the loop also resets his grief each time. His recent loss has made him so weary that we see the Doctor flirt with the idea of just giving up and losing.  Once he decides to fight, however, he begins his captivity somewhat delighted by the challenge (much like Clara, the Doctor wants to keep busy in his grief), but as the time passes (we never know exactly how much time comprises the loop) he begins to wear down and lose hope. To escape, he must not only put the pieces together, but he also has to suffer tremendous physical pain as well.

This is the point where it becomes an emotionally grueling experience for the audience as well. That montage of scenes towards the conclusion of the episode makes the viewer feel the weight of the Doctor’s seemingly endless suffering. The audience watches him die over and over again (another part of the resurrection theme this season) as he very slowly punches his way through the wall. The main sign of progress that we get is his ability to gradually get through more of the fairy tale as he breaks through the wall and is slightly further away from the creature (which I thought was a brilliant choice). That’s why, when the Doctor finally breaks through the wall and finds that he is on Gallifrey, it feels like an earned payoff. Both the Doctor and the audience have gone through a lot to finally return to Gallifrey.

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The Doctor has a close call.

However, Steven Moffat does not deserve all the credit for the success of this episode. Rachel Talalay is an excellent director who sets the perfect tone for the episode (with help from all the behind the camera staff, of course). The colors are very dark and subdued and there is a general air of menace throughout. Visually, the castle is quite fascinating and the creature is always shrouded in enough shadow and filmed from angles that keep it mysterious and creepy. The idea that the TARDIS also exists in the Doctor’s head, as his storm room, is also well realized visually. The lighting in TARDIS, for instance, gives us information about the Doctor’s mental state that he himself cannot. I’d have to say the most striking image, however, were all of the skulls piling up on the ocean floor. Once the meaning of them became clear, each skull drives home just how many times the Doctor has died.

The primary reason, however, that this episode succeeds is Peter Capaldi’s amazing performance. I could probably write an entire post solely about that, but since this is already a long post, I’ll try to condense my enthusiasm into paragraph form. I don’t think any other Doctor could have pulled off this episode. Capaldi is utterly compelling at every turn, whether he is speaking out loud to himself, in voiceover, or to the Clara in his head. It would have been easy to play it safe and have him actually interact with the Clara in his head, allowing for some dialogue. Instead, the Clara in his head remains silent, with her back to him, except for that key moment at the end. This reminds the audience that he is using his memories of Clara to provide himself with an audience and that she is not actually speaking with him. It’s also a good way to see the Doctor dealing with his grief as he “talks” to Clara. I’m not sure any other Doctor could have pulled off the line “that’s what got you killed,” referring to Clara’s answer that she would do the same thing as the Doctor in this situation. Capaldi delivers it with a bit of humor, but yet he doesn’t play it for a laugh.

One of my favorite moments might be the way that Capaldi delivers his lines when he steps out of the transporter. Most actors would probably have more of a tendency to shout them or play them up, but Capaldi delivers them quietly, but with such resolve that you know at that point he would be incapable of holding back his rage against the person or persons responsible for the loss of Clara.

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How many family shows would have the main character carry around his own skull?

Last week, I thought that “Face the Raven” was the best episode of the season. Well, it looks like I was wrong, because “Heaven Sent” is an utterly unique story that has quickly climbed to the top of my list. It’s a story that perfectly combines the talents of both Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi. The script was unique and incredible, but it needed the right actor to pull it off. I do find myself wondering if Tom Baker is at all envious that not only does Peter Capaldi have no companion for this episode, he has no real supporting cast. He doesn’t even have a cabbage to talk to…

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