Published on November 30th, 2015 | by Brad0
Doctor Who – Heaven Sent
Heaven Sent is quite unlike any other episode of Doctor Who you’re likely to watch. Hell, it’s quite unlike any other episode of anything on television you’re likely to watch. We spend almost the entirety of its 55-minute running time exclusively in the company of The Doctor, as he navigates the prison he finds himself in, searching for his captors. That it works at all is a testament to the fine work of Peter Capaldi, writer Steven Moffatt and director Rachel Talalay; that it’s utterly magnificent is a minor miracle. This review contains spoilers, so consider this your SPOILER ALERT that everything below this image is unsafe if you’ve not yet seen the episode. And I’d really hate to spoil this one.
The episode opens with a voiceover from The Doctor describing how when you’re born, something else is created, and it is always approaching you; never speeding up, never slowing down, and no matter how far and fast you run you ultimately won’t escape it. On first viewing this sounds like nothing more than a florid metaphor for the inevitability of death (and a plot synopsis for David Robert Mitchell’s superb It Follows, the best horror film of 2015 and almost certainly an influence on Heaven Sent); the second time you watch, it’s just as likely that this is The Doctor describing his scenario.
Because, as becomes abundantly clear, as we follow The Doctor throughout Heaven Sent, this isn’t the first time he’s done this. Every time he finds Room 12 and chips away at the diamond wall within, he dies horribly, and burns himself to create a new Doctor (you thought Clara’s death was a twisted reflection of regeneration?) The full loop takes about three days. When we follow The Doctor, he’s been there for 7,000 years – he’s died and been reborn over 850,000 times at this point. And at that moment when he sees the word “bird” written in the dust of Room 12, he remembers all of his previous attempts. The first time we hear him say he remembers them all when he’s raging against the dying of the light, we assume it means all the companions he’s lost, all the lives he’s lived in other bodies before this one, but he’s not – he remembers being mortally wounded and burning himself to live anew over 850,000 times. That’s not heaven for bad people, as he flippantly describes it; that’s a real, specific, horrifying kind of hell.
He doesn’t have to do this, of course. All he has to do is confess as to the nature of the Hybrid, something that’s been cropping up over and again this series, and it’ll stop. Certainly, when you’ve been hammering away at that wall for over 7,000 years, and reliving the immediate pain of Clara’s death over and over again, the temptation must be there. But The Doctor endures, as he must. Some things are too important. So our little bird chips away at his diamond mountain for well over two billion years, burning, dying and being reborn in a flash of light, all compressed into the space of a couple of days. That’s one hell of a bird.
In the hands of a lesser actor, Heaven Sent might never have stood a chance. The Doctor isn’t played by a lesser actor, though; he’s played by Peter Capaldi. To date, this is his finest hour in The Doctor’s shoes. His ferocity and vulnerability are heart-stopping. It’s the performance of a lifetime. He’s very ably steered in the role by director Rachel Talalay, returning having directed last year’s two-part finale Dark Water/Death in Heaven. Taking one actor in one location and making it the most compelling 55 minutes of television all year isn’t an easy task, but Talalay delivers with aplomb.
If Hell Bent manages to stick the landing, I think series 9 has to go down as the strongest series of Doctor Who since its return, doesn’t it? With the exception of Sleep No More, it hasn’t yet put a foot wrong. And even if they do muck up the finale, the brilliance of how these last couple of episodes have been structured is such that, even though it’s clearly a three-part finale, each of the episodes is going to stand alone, totally distinct from the other two parts and thus not dependent on them in order to succeed. It’s been a sensational series; bring on the finale.