Well, that episode just happened. For those of us who have been singing the praises of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor this year, Heaven Sent was the experience we’ve been waiting for. The Doctor, alone, and monologuing for an entire 45 minutes.
Breaking the format and changing exactly what Doctor Who even is has been a staple of Steven Moffat’s head-writership of the show, and this episode seemed to encapsulate this more than most. It is almost an inversion of his most famous episode, Blink (2007) – which was a Doctor-lite episode, whereas this is a Doctor-full one. Perhaps this was a brave move, a risk and a challenge to both creators and audience alike. Did it fully pay off?
Well, yes and no, in my opinion. I feel like I will be repeating a lot of my points from last week as this episode seems to expose the same weaknesses. When taken on its own, Heaven Sent is truly a glorious episode, a triumph for Peter Capaldi and perhaps even more so for director Rachel Talalay. It is beautifully shot, haunting and atmospheric at every moment – the use of shadow and colour makes the clockwork prison castle seem at once otherworldly and familiar. I found myself reminded of scenes from Logopolis (1981), Warriors’ Gate (1981), and Castrovalva (1982) – and I’m apparently not the only one to have spotted these aesthetic similarities.
Indeed, the episode does an awful lot of subtle hark backs to the classic series – Murray Gold gives a stellar performance as well, bringing synthesisers into the mix once again (something he has been doing bit by bit since the 50th Anniversary I think). The Doctor references his flight from Gallifrey, oh so many years ago, something long established as an act of boredom – and reinforced by how utterly tedious and dull the Time Lords have tended to be whenever shown. But now we hear a twist on that line. Or, rather, the reveal that it was just a lie and that the Doctor had been scared, rather than bored.
Now, I always liked the idea that he left Gallifrey out of boredom. I think it said a lot about the Doctor as a character, that he could live in a society of super advanced technology that had reached the absolute heights of power and influence, and yet have been dissatisfied. That he had lived on that world and seen the way it had worked but ultimately decided that it wasn’t for him. He couldn’t just sit around and watch the universe, he just had to go and be a part of it, he had to live in the universe. He couldn’t abide the endless ceremonies, the ridiculous robes, the politics and the drama of the Capitol.
That’s not to say that this can’t still be true of him, and given that we are heading into a finale that will no doubt be dealing heavily with Gallifrey, I suspect we will get more details. More on this later.
The story is very much a classic Moffat story. From the very beginning, eagle-eyed viewers who’d know those hands anywhere will have realised that there was some sort of loop going on. I know a few people who immediately said ‘time loop’ in the first minute or so. If there was a twist, it was that it wasn’t ultimately a time loop, per se. So, in that sense, it was a nice variation on the idea, that the Doctor was trapped doing this puzzle over and over again, billions upon billions of times, always inching closer to knocking down the great wall that blocked his escape (though I couldn’t help wondering why he didn’t bring the shovel to help with the battering – it may have shortened his task by a good hundred years or so).
There’s a touch of Greek tragedy about this, and it also harkens back to another one of Moffat’s standard themes – fairy stories. The Doctor references the Brothers Grimm tale ‘The Shepherd Boy’ wherein a bird slowly weathers away a mountain with its beak.
When the Doctor finally breaks through the wall he discovers that the puzzle castle was contained within his Confession Dial – which we first saw in episode one this year. This gave me a memory niggle that I couldn’t put my finger on, but thanks to Matthew Kilburn for reminding me of Carnival of Monsters (1973).
Having escaped he finds himself back home – on Gallifrey. It is then that he sees a young boy who he instructs to go and tell the Time Lords that he has returned after taking ‘the long way around’. Finally, the Doctor reveals that the ‘Hybrid’ that Davros mentioned way back in episode two, is not in fact half Time Lord and half Dalek, but is, in fact, the Doctor himself.
And this is where I felt the episode failed for me. The hybrid reveal here doesn’t really have any punch to it, partly because the Doctor reveals that it was more or less a lie (that it was someone who was half Dalek), but also because as a series arc it really hasn’t been developed.
Hybrids, you could argue, have been something of a theme this season, what with the Osgoods acting as a hybrid of human and zygon, while Clara has been becoming more a hybrid of herself and the Doctor. Moreover, Maisie Williams’ Ashildr is something of a hybrid, crossing the line between human and immortal. It’s an interesting theme and a good topic to delve into and has made for some intriguing episodes and scenes.
However, the final scene here feels like it is meant to be a big, shocking reveal – the answer to a great mystery and a jaw-dropping moment. But it falls flat because the mystery hasn’t been discussed. There hasn’t really been any attempt to make the audience care about the legendary Hybrid. From a storytelling point of view, it fails because there isn’t much of a reason for us to be invested in this reveal.
Whatsmore, who else could it have been, really? The half-Dalek line was apparently a red herring, which presumably the Doctor himself threw in to keep people from looking for him (as well as, on a meta level, Steven Moffat presumably threw in to keep people off the scent). But ever since Davros mentioned it in episode two I’ve seen countless blog posts, fan speculations and even casual discussions that came down to ‘yeah, it’s probably the Doctor himself’.
Perhaps, what was said in Paul McGann’s TV Movie (1996) will turn out true. The Doctor is half human… On his mother’s side.
Again, the mystery doesn’t feel like a mystery because there have been no clues, there hasn’t really been a thread that you could follow and piece together. Much like Clara’s demise, it was left behind and, it seems to me, hastily thrown in at the end here. They bring up the Hybrid in this episode, yes, and since the Doctor is pretty much the only one on screen, again it begs the question ‘who else could it have ever been?’ All of the tension and curiosity the audience might have had about the question is thrown away in this scenario. There’s no real reason for us to care, so the big reveal falls flat.
Had the cliffhanger been the reveal of Gallifrey, that might have been enough for me. But, at the same time, the return of Gallifrey hasn’t been built up nearly enough. Someone has been looking for the Doctor, but we only found out about this in Face the Raven last week. Had there been more said about this, had it been hinted at then, that would have been something. As it is, we had very little to go on, and it’s hard to build a dramatic moment with very few foundations.
And it’s a tremendous shame because this was one of the best episodes in what has been one of the best seasons for a long time. Peter Capaldi shone in this episode as he has done all year. The intrigue and atmosphere of this episode was tremendous, but the feeling of being let down at the end really sullied the experience for me and, like I said, this is a shame.
Next week, the Doctor is Hell Bent!