Heaven Sent – Doctor Who (S09E11)
A somewhat different episode to the one that I was expecting, Heaven Sent worked – although it wasn’t without its flaws. One thing I’ve come to expect from Capaldi at this point is the ability to pontificate at great length. He’s demonstrated it quite ably in some of more recent episodes of the show (The Zygon Inversion had an excellent example of this as did the amazing conversation between the Doctor and Davros in The Magicians Apprentice), however in each of those cases he had someone else to speak to and play off. In Heaven Sent, it’s somewhat new territory as Capaldi has basically done a Tom Hanks and is all by his lonesome on the desert island. When you have an episode that is, more than any other in the show’s history, a one-man performance, what you don’t want to do is spend the entire review just talking about how amazing an actor Peter Capaldi is, even if it’s true.
I loved the insights into the Doctor’s character and his thought processes. It was interesting to see how his so-called miraculous escapes are really the result of him retreating into a mental space in his head (represented by the TARDIS console room) and working though all of the variables and possibilities. Before I dive into this, let’s just get this out of the way. There are some fans out there bemoaning the use of the TARDIS as the Doctor’s Mind Palace and calling it Moffat ripping himself off with Sherlock. However, while the idea might be somewhat similar the representation of it is extremely different and since these are out of sequence you can see the way Sherlock’s mind palace works – in the Abominable Bride – and it’s extremely different to the Doctors. The Doctors’ if anything seems to be more like the villain from Season 3 of Sherlock – Charles Augustus Magnussen – as the Doctor’s is more of a physical room (albeit one that is extradimensional and infinitely large) simply shaped to look like the TARDIS console room.
What’s it all about?
The Doctor is trapped in a place he cannot escape, wracked with anger and guilt, with only himself for company, and hunted by a creature he cannot outrun, fight or reason with. Constantly searching for answers he seems to always end up in the same place and his death (over and over and over) is painful to watch and experience. Sure, he’s “talking” to Clara, but he’s not, is he? He’s talking to himself and the heart-breaking self-awareness of that takes us somewhere we’ve never actually been: Inside the mind of the Doctor.
However, the one thing this episode really does show us more than anything else is that the Doctor is a survivor first and foremost. While he might constantly be dying, his deaths are not without a purpose. See the Doctor always looks at the long game and while we’ve not necessarily seen it to this extent previously, it’s really clear in this episode as his seemingly inconsequential deaths eventually lead to his escape.
Showing how he deals with grief? We’ve seen some of that before, too, in the 11th atop his cloud or the 10th’s casual cruelty towards Martha, but we’ve never been inside the man as he wrestles with it. And he loses here, because he can’t save Clara, because she dies and there’s nothing he can do about it, and she made the choices that led to her death. He knows that, and he acknowledges that she kinda got herself killed, but he also clearer than ever before admits that she did that by trying to be like him. It gives the Doctor another reason to hate himself, and it wounds him in a way that few things have, so much so, that when he realizes what is actually happening to him, it makes him seriously ask himself if he can’t just give up and lose for a change.
There was that moment towards the end of “Heaven Sent” when it’s finally revealed that the Doctor had been repeating the same sequence of actions over and over and over again, hundreds of thousands of times, as he attempted to break through that twenty foot thick wall, wearing it down ever so slightly, before dying each and every time. There’s that awful instant when you realize that every single one of those skulls at the bottom of the lake belongs to the Doctor, each one of them the result of another cycle, another death. It’s a genuinely chilling moment. Dying and knowing the only way to break through the Wall in Room 12 is to repeat the process of arrival, fear and death, again and again, the Doctor drags his bloody, broken body from the bottom of the castle to the top. He thinks he has enough time to make it to the teleport room before he dies, and he thinks he’s figured out the way to beat the trap, but he knows that he’s too broken to even escape through regeneration, and that if he doesn’t try… well.
How many times did the Doctor have to die and be reborn within the Confession Dial before he finally broke through that wall? It seems that it couldn’t have been more than a week for each sequence. There are 52 weeks in a year. The Doctor was imprisoned for approximately 4.5 billion years. Very roughly speaking, that comes to 234 billion times. And now my head hurts.
While inside the Confession Dial, the Doctor refused to divulge what he knew of the Hybrid, the entity that “will unravel the web of time, and destroy a billion billion hearts to heal its own.” And that begs the question, of course. This Hybrid that we’ve been told of all season — this thing that is not a fusion of Time Lord/Dalek — is “me”, or is it “Me”? Is the Doctor saying that he is the Hybrid, or that he created the Hybrid by making Ashildr an immortal? And another question: if the Doctor is the one who saved Gallifrey — and has, in fact, saved it over and over again — then why have the Time Lords treated him in this way, by setting up the circumstances that brought the Doctor and Clara to the Trap Street, and ultimately leading to the events that claimed the life of his friend? Are the Time Lords so afraid that they have forgotten who the Doctor is, and how that he can be both savior and destroyer?