Doctor Who XXXV/9.11: Heaven Sent
Doctor Who just undertook one of its sudden, jarring lurches into resolving a series arc that many won’t have realised was there, and undertook it as an almost one-hander single play placed between two episodes that perhaps didn’t strictly need it, an interior dialogue which shows off Peter Capaldi as a humane, incisive performer as no previous Doctor Who story has done. It takes diamond to cut diamond. This Doctor, seemingly so callous and indifferent for most of his first year, is of course by no means immune to despair and while it’s an invidious and even meaningless comparison, I can’t imagine Matt Smith handling the moment where the Doctor realises that he’s just one in a series of reconstituted Doctors who will make his imperceptible mark on the wall in room 12 in quite as affecting a way as Capaldi.
The evidence that this was a prison tailored for the Doctor was evident almost from the start, though it took me as long as the Doctor to realise what the skulls actually were and why the stars weren’t where the Doctor thought they should be. The postponement of the solution to the puzzle was often frustrating, perhaps because even with the CGI castle it was difficult to get a sense of scale… and I did wonder why the Doctor didn’t try attacking the Veil with the spade, though perhaps that would have opened up too many avenues of horror even for a Doctor Who which hovers on the watershed. The threat from the Veil was left undefined and it was right to leave it uncertain until the Doctor was at the diamond wall that its touch was lethal – after so much emphasis on theatre, on making the Doctor feel afraid, it was horrific that it did deal out death after all, just allowing the Doctor enough time to return in agonised defeat to the first square of the game with no conscious advantage.
Murray Gold is unfairly maligned as a composer; his score was suitably eclectic for this story, reminding me of the use of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony in John Boorman’s film Zardoz and its intimations of mortality. I see from other reviews the episode made nods to the subject matter of recent films and games. The idea of a cycle of life repeating itself until it can be broken out from is an old one, though, the matter of religious truth before it was the stuff of fiction. Doctor Who commentator J.R. Southall has observed that where Russell T Davies used the trappings of religious faith, Steven Moffat draws on the substance. Here at least Moffat draws on Dantean notions of hell with the Doctor needing to move from circle to circle to receive his prize; in contrast to Sartre, Hell isn’t the presence of other people but of missing one in particular.
There were a few visual references to earlier episodes. At one point the Veil loomed over the Doctor much as the Fisher King had in Before the Flood. The watery setting was also a reminder of that story. The castle gallery recalled something of the interiors seen in The Woman Who Lived. The Veil turns out to have clockwork elements, looking back to Deep Breath and Steven Moffat’s first journey upon the Slow Road, The Girl in the Fireplace. The clockwork castle itself expanded upon the motif seen in Ashildr’s house in Face the Raven and through the current title sequence to The Invasion of Time. Where other older Doctor Who stories are concerned, the Doctor Who SFX account on Twitter has noticed the visual parallels with Warrior’s Gate and its monochrome stills of Powis Castle; but the revelation that the Doctor’s prison is within his own confession dial, a miniaturised self-renewing environment, reminded me of Carnival of Monsters – a more avowedly grim realisation of Vorg’s already obscene miniscope. This is a story to which the Doctor Who industry has returned to in the arena show Doctor Who: The Monsters Are Coming! in 2010, so Steven Moffat has form.
This episode was also definitely part of the Moffat oeuvre: journeys billions of years in the making, management of one’s own thoughts so intense that one can be cut off from time, the classroom and its attributes as both revealing of the self and as the home of narrative; intangible childhood traumas brought into the material world; and deaths which though deaths shall have no dominion. Finally, a reappropriation of dialogue from his own earlier episodes and a suggestion that nineteen years on the TV Movie will be vindicated – is the Doctor half-human on his mother’s side after all, or is Ashildr the promised hybrid? Or both of them?
Heaven Sent achieved its ends. The languidity was part of the experience – the boredom and frustration of what seems like eternity, but which is just a very, very long time. Even the terror of the Veil becomes a tedium to manage; it’s what makes its final purpose so horrific. It’s an exercise in watching the Doctor’s self-discipline and his resourcefulness with almost no tools and no allies to hand except his own knowledge and intellect. The control which Capaldi gives the Doctor as he steps out onto the soil of Gallifrey is memorable for many reasons; it’s a powerful counterpoint to the audience’s own relief. Escape, the Doctor knows, is not possible without changing fabric and structure, and he sets off it seems to do just that.