Doctor Who Heaven Sent

BBC One, Saturday 28th November 2015 / Starring: Peter Capaldi / Written by Steven Moffat / Directed by Rachel Talalay/ Reviewed by Sean Alexander
 “Because you won’t see this coming…”
Confession, they say, is good for the soul. Whether we have now heard the Doctor’s last confession, one thing is certain. I have to confess that I doubted – again - that Steven Moffat had something this good still up his sleeve after five whole series of orchestrating Doctor Who’s post-renaissance renaissance. Maybe I was just too scared to hope. Either way, this is television of the very highest standard. And what a time to choose to pull the metaphorical rabbit out of series nine’s hat, with just one week to go. ‘Heaven Sent’ is so good you don’t really need that coda, as the deserts of Fuerteventura pan upwards to the gleaming city of the Capitol. Gallifrey Falls No More.

Because for the best part of an hour I was entranced, consumed and mesmerised by what has to be Moffat’s best work on the show, bar none. Yes, ‘Blink’ remains arguably the quintessence of his now much-abused ‘timey-wimey’ trope of clever-clever narrative trapdoors and exit strategies, but even that doesn’t spend 55 minutes contemplating the nature of existence, the deliciousness of grief or the yawning chasm of eternity. At least we now have a definitive answer for the longest temporal journey ever taken by a story – 5 billion years before the bird’s beak symbolically breaks through the wall bringing the Doctor home. The TARDIS, he assumes; Gallifrey, we have all been waiting for. The fact it succeeds with such undiminished triumph rests on four people.
As well as Moffat, this is a tour-de-force for Peter Capaldi, Rachel Talalay and Murray Gold, whose morose and elegiac score provides one of the most achingly beautiful backdrops to a Doctor Who yet. Capaldi is of course a given – freed from some of the attempted retrofitting of his Doctor into a more user-friendly Matt Smith model of earlier episodes (presumably as some kind of reaction to the austere and hostile 12 of last year) he is at last inhabiting the role in a way very few have achieved. This is a masterclass in acting, as impressive as any Hamlet soliloquising stage performance or Alan Bennett monologue. The companionless episode has long been a thorn in the show’s narrative arsenal, but here it is used with both skill and depth, acknowledging the elephant in the room that is Clara’s absence by allowing the Doctor to speak as though she is still by his side. It’s a device that legendary 80s nuclear thriller Edge of Darkness used so well, and as a meditation on the grieving process and an acknowledgment of the watching audience it works equally effectively.
He is of course helped by some bravura direction from Rachel Talalay, herself here for a sophomore outing after last season’s far more bombastic and ultimately hollow ‘Dark Water/Death in Heaven’. Her background as a nuts and bolts horror director serves her well, but it’s in the quiet moments here where Talalay’s subtle nuance and feel for character shines through. The episode’s already gorgeous locale is embellished with moody lighting, shadows and a mix of studio and location that is often hard to discern. Basically, if Doctor Who was ever blessed with a feature film sized budget, Talalay would probably be the first number on its speed-dial list. But where ‘Heaven Sent’ really sings is in its ingenious, if simple, premise. A puzzle box mechanical maze in which the Doctor discovers that time really is on his side. Thematically, the episode has obvious debts to the kind of modern mind-bending movie devices of narrative polarity and couched evidence, which only come crystal clear at the moment of denouement - or to extend the magician-like metaphor, the prestige.
In an episode whose gifts just keep on giving there are enough clues, foreshadowing and red herrings to populate even the most ambitious and unfulfilling of M Night Shyamalan projects. It’s also an insight into the Doctor’s psyche, not just with the fly-ridden animated corpse that recalls one of his formative nightmares, but in the lightning-quick thought processes that have kept him alive all these centuries. At last the Doctor has a mind palace to rival that of Sherlock Holmes’, and its inevitable positioning at the heart of the TARDIS’ controls lies consistent with everything we’ve learned about both ship and pilot these past 52 years. In an episode in which the Doctor is slowly, but surely, hunted down by a figment of one of his own nightmares, where else would he go to in order to take a pregnant pause before doing something clever? And if we do now have a definitive answer to why the Doctor first fled Gallifrey (were one be needed) it would seem that the answer has been staring us in the face all these years. Why else does anyone run but to escape what they are most afraid of? But in a season that has been about nothing but truth and consequences (right from the moment Davros name-checked himself on the Skaro minefield) the reveal that the Doctor has been running from himself all these years is as fitting as it is inevitable.
Whatever ‘Hell Bent’ has left to disclose, it seems now we have a new impetus for the Doctor’s wanderings, one laced throughout the series’ history going back to the moment he absconded with two schoolteachers in 1963: the man who runs so fast because he dare not look at what he leaves behind. And as bespoke traps/prisons/torture chambers go, none have been more apt. Of course the Doctor’s concept of Hell would be being stuck for all eternity in the very same place (rendering all those years as UNIT’s scientific advisor to the status of a handful of heartbeats). How many seconds there are in eternity may be a mythical question asked by a shepherd’s boy, but the answer provides the intellectual leap that short-circuits the eternity loop.
And am I alone in suggesting there’s something of a throwback to the Letts/Sloman subtext of those Pertwee season finales mixed up in all this? The Doctor symbolically burning his old self - in this case for perpetuity - so he can be reborn from the ashes of his former life. As well as acknowledging the similarly Buddhistic message of Bill Murray starrer Groundhog Day, by threading the seeds of the central character’s redemption through the mistakes he makes along the way. And in the absence of Jenna Coleman (bar a Gravity aping cameo to encourage the Doctor to start winning again) ‘Heaven Sent’ is also a touching and philosophical examination of grief, not just in the Doctor’s constant need to soundboard with her/the audience but in the occasionally poetic turns of phrase that Moffat drops into the quiet moments. ‘The day you lose someone isn’t the worst, at least you have something to do. It’s all the days they stay dead.’ For an episode as much about the inescapable eternity trap of time, these kinds of acknowledgments to the Doctor’s near infinite lifespan and the mayfly relationships he shares along the way provide some sobering reflection. But if you’re still not feeling the love, I give you this: the increasingly truncated set of images from throughout the episode that rapidly builds towards a climax, as the Doctor realises that not only has he been here before, but multiplied by five billion. All those delicious clues dropped along the way – the spade covered in dirt, the fresh set of dry clothes waiting by the fireside, the enigmatic word ‘bird’ written in the sand of a hundred million prior deaths – fall into place in the puzzle box with the satisfying click of realisation. Just as the final reveal of ‘SS Madame de Pompadour’ did all those years ago in ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’. Imagine if the prologue to ‘Listen’ has instead been the whole of that episode and you have some idea how simple yet devastating ‘Heaven Sent’ is. And as the season finale looms large (where Gallifrey awaits) we have our first Perfect Ten of the year. Without being disingenuous to ‘Hell Bent’, we can only move downwards in quality from here. 
Next Time: Me, Myself and I

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