Doctor Who S09E11 “Heaven Sent” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on BBC One, Saturdays
Writer: Steven Moffat
Director: Rachel Talalay
Essential Plot Points:
- The Doctor is teleported to a castle in the middle of the sea that’s designed to get a confession out of him as regards the nature of the Hybrid, a creature that prophecy says will conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins.
- He is chased by a figure from his nightmares – the Veil – which stops its pursuit when the Doctor reveals something he has never revealed before, at which point the castle resets.
- The Doctor is eventually lead to a wall – made of a super-hard material and metres thick – that will disappear when he reveals the truth about the hybrid.
- He refuses to do so. Instead he dies repeatedly at the hands of the Veil, but each time the teleportation device – which resets with the castle – teleports in a new copy of the Doctor. He leaves himself clues so that he knows what to do: punch a hole in the wall over billions of years.
- Nine billion years later he punches his way through to Gallifrey, and he’s pissed.
One thing you can’t accuse this series of Doctor Who of is complacency. Steven Moffat often displays a near pathological need to find new ways to tell new kinds of stories within the framework of the show; not just in his own stories but in those he commissions from others.
Okay, so this year’s best-received stories may have been the trad Who ones (an alien invasion of Earth and a base under siege) but Moffat more than any other showrunner the series has had seems acutely aware of a whacking great irony inherent in the series: one of the main reasons cited for the its long-running success is its “unlimited, infinitely variable” format, yet for over half a century it has, in fact, rarely broken format. It likes sticking to a small pool of story blueprints. Sure, there have been isolated experiments throughout the show’s history, but those instances are surprisingly few considering there have now been over 800 episodes.
Ever since he’s taken over as head writer Moffat has been playing with the format. Series nine of New Who has seen that tinkering turn into something more significant. Sometimes all this breaking new ground has worked; sometimes it hasn’t. And some people will wonder why he’s trying to fix something that isn’t broken.
Episodes like “Heaven Sent” are the reason why.
This was simply magnificent. An acting tour de force for Peter Capaldi, inside an ingenious Rubik’s Cube of a plot, directed with immense power and pace, featuring strikingly unusual images and an epic climax that leaves you emotionally exhausted. It’s one of those episodes you end up feeling more like you’ve lived through rather than just watched. From its slow-burn start with its random clues about the true nature of this elaborate torture chamber to the epic three-minute montage that’s edited with a rhythm that borders on visual poetry this is one hell of an episode. The fact that it features just one actor for 90% of the time, in one location, just make its impact even more formidable.
At times it’s almost surreal and wilfully incoherent; it may take a second viewing to realise that apparently random moments in fact all link together. But an atmosphere of disorientation and paranoia, plus those bizarre moments when the Doctor mentally returns to the TARDIS for imaginary conversations with Clara all help make “Heaven Sent” one of the most wonderfully weird pieces of British telefantasy since the final episode of The Prisoner*. And it may cause just as much controversy because some people are bound to hate it for being so “out there”. And for leaving so many details vague.
(Actually, there was a one-off drama in 1981 called Artemis 81 starring Sting as an angel which was weirder but it was pretentious pish and only about seven people watched it on the planet remember it so it doesn’t count)
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The episode’s not perfect, for sure. The fact that the Doctor blurts out how he’s scared of dying so soon in the episode, when he’s facing a situation that looks considerably less scary than many he’s been in doesn’t ring at all true. If the Veil is a product of his nightmares, maybe the scene would have benefitted from a bit of foreshadowing earlier in the season. It seems odd that Moffat, the master of sprinkling clues to upcoming events didn’t prepare viewers for the Veil in some way.
There are other minor irritants (see the “Bad” section below) but they pale into insignificance against the bigger picture, like the plot holes in Blade Runner. “Heaven Sent” isn’t great because it’s bold, experimental and different. “Sleep No More” was bold, experimental and different, but still a massive misfire. No, “Heaven Sent” takes those qualities and weaves them into a story along with passion, emotion and a damed fine mystery. It’s a gamble that pays off.
And it leaves us with yet another cracking cliffhanger. It’s been a great season for cliffhangers, hasn’t it? Wonder if there’ll be one leading into the Christmas episode next week?
- A strong central concept, with a hugely satisfying twist/revelation/denouement.
- Stunningly well directed. It look fabulous in every shot but, more importantly, it makes an episode set in one location with practically only one character for 90% of the time feel pacy and epic. There are also some amazing transition shots (such as the rotating dissolve from the Doctor in the TARDIS to the Doctor under the sea) and a brilliantly effective use of that old chestnut the dolly zoom (made famous in Vertigo and Jaws) where the subject of the shot (in this case the Doctor) appears to move forward in the frame while his surroundings sink further into the background. It’s often used for mere shock value but here it highlights a wonderful moment of realisation.
- Peter Capaldi: a magnificent, masterpiece performance.
- The final montage – over three minutes long – is incredibly powerful.
- “I’ve finally run out of corridor. There’s a life summed up.”
- The moment the Doctor flicks the fly frozen in time.
- The effects for the Castle resetting itself.
- The effect of the Doctor plunging into the sea (often “falling” effects on TV that utilise CG are woefully poor but this one is near flawless).
- The Sherlock moment – the Doctor explaining how he survived the plunge with the aid of TV editing techniques.
- “The first rule of being interrogated is that you are the only irreplaceable person in the torture chamber. The room is yours. So work it.”
- The TARDIS moments when the TARDIS “wakes up” – the lights flickering back to life give a wonderfully impressionistic vibe.
- “What do you think, Clara? Someone trying to give me a hint? What would you do?” “Same as you.” “Yes, yes, of course you would. Which, let’s be honest, is what killed you.”
- “Just between ourselves, you got the prophecy wrong. The hybrid is not half Dalek. Nothing is half Dalek. The Daleks would never allow that. The hybrid, destined to conquer Gallifrey, and stand in its ruins, is me.”
- Some amazing music from Murray Gold; it moves from a Hans Zimmer/Dark Knight style white noise to a melancholic refrain reminiscent of the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh. There’s even a bit of a classic series Paddy Kingsland influence when the Doctor’s studying Clara’s portrait. During the climactic montage the music simply soars.
- Personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird.”
- Telepathic communication with a door? Really? Is there something in the writers’ guide for series nine that says, “Each episode must have at least one idea guaranteed to make viewers snort with derision”? It’s not even necessary in this episode, just gratuitous silliness.
- The Doctor being scared, so soon in the episode, in a situation that seems a lot less scary than a zillion scarier situations he’s faced in the past falls utterly flat.
- The digging scene goes on just a little too long. It’s the one point at which the episode sags noticeably.
- Why doesn’t the super-diamond wall reset along with the rest of the castle?
- It’s a shame Moffat inserts that handy line, “Too ill to regenerate” (which doesn’t make much sense anyway). It would have been fun to see him change bodies a few times on his climb back up the tower. This needn’t tie the show in to having to regenerate him into those actors in the future; different circumstances can generate different results.
And The Random:
- This is the first episode of New Who to feature only one actor’s name in the opening credits – Peter Capaldi.
- The flowers in the room that contains Clara’s portrait are lilies. Often associated with funerals, lilies symbolise that the soul of the departed has received restored innocence after death.
- As episodes that don’t feature the Doctor very much have traditionally been called “Doctor-lite” should we call “Heaven Sent” a “Doctor-heavy” episode?
- The Doctor reckons the Daleks would never allow anything that was half-Dalek. He seems to be forgetting the human-Dalek in “Daleks In Manhattan”/“Evolution Of The Daleks”.
- So the Doctor’s the hybrid, eh? Does that mean the new series is finally acknowledging all that half-human gubbins from the 1996 Paul McGann TV movie?
- The Doctor said that he was going to get home “the long way around” to the Curator at the end of “The Day Of The Doctor”.
Review by Dave Golder