When you’ve been plotting and writing Doctor Who for as long as Steven Moffat has, you inevitably must stumble across an idea that’s so mad you have no choice but to see it through to its finish. What will the people who so often chant for Moffat’s dismissal from the series — those who claim he has run out of ideas — make of this intimately epic hour that delves deep into the psyche of the show’s central figure? Perhaps they will say that it is nothing more than a rip-off of Groundhog Day or Edge of Tomorrow or any of the myriad films or TV shows that have exploited the time-loop gimmick in this manner. When it is done poorly, we may have cause to tear into it, but when it’s done to such aching perfection as this, we must stand back, catch our breath, and applaud. One of the most experimental episodes of Doctor Who ever, “Heaven Sent,” is surely also one of the best, and certainly one of the most revealing.
The Doctor: As you come into this world, something else is also born. You begin your life, and it begins a journey towards you. It moves slowly, but it never stops. Wherever you go, whatever path you take, it will follow — never faster, never slower, always coming. You will run, it will walk. You will rest, it will not. One day, you will linger in the same place too long — you will sit too still, or sleep too deep. And when, too late, you rise to go, you will notice a second shadow next to yours. Your life will then be over.
Seemingly beginning mere moments after the Doctor was teleported away from London in “Face the Raven.” His very first thought upon exiting the teleport capsule is of Clara — specifically, the moment of her death. Then he issues a dire threat to unseen captors, to whomever might have played a role in her passing. Many of us felt a little let down by Clara’s uneventful passing. “Heaven Sent” goes a long way toward repairing those final moments, or rather making sense of them. It’s an hour-long back and forth between the Doctor and a coping mechanism version of Clara that exists in his mind, mostly represented by the blackboard in an equally imaginary TARDIS console room, a construct which becomes his lifeline for the duration of the story.
The Doctor: It’s funny. The day you lose someone isn’t the worst. At least you’ve got something to do. It’s all the days they stay dead.
In “Face the Raven,” the Doctor doesn’t really get to have his say to his best friend before she departs. She didn’t allow for it, and it’s one of the reasons last week felt like a cheat. Here he gets to say so many of things he wanted to, as well as a bunch of other stuff that could never have worked in a single scene; random thoughts and little ideas, coming out one at a time. It’s a brilliant and heartfelt dynamic that, particularly if you’ve lost someone deeply close, is also very truthful. These conversations with the dead do happen. More than perhaps was ever shown while she was alive, “Heaven Sent” showcases how much the Doctor had come to rely on Clara, how she in so many ways was absolutely his equal, and how that curse ultimately cost her her life. Rarely is death spectacular, and given how frequently Clara faced it, it is in hindsight entirely appropriate that her passing wasn’t an earth-shattering event. Maybe the most remarkable thing about her death is that it didn’t happen sooner.
The Doctor: Another spade? Someone wants me to dig. What do you think, Clara? Someone trying to give me a hint. What would you do?
The Blackboard: Same as you.
The Doctor: Yes, yes of course you would. Which, let’s be honest, is what killed you.
It’s easy to forget how badly Doctor Who botched Adric’s death — not in “Earthshock,” which most certainly was a dramatic and spectacular exit for the young boy, but rather in “Time Flight,” the story that followed it. The Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa have exactly one scene where the possibility of going back in time to save him is proposed and then promptly shot down by the Time Lord. Then they all get over it pretty quickly and move on to their next adventure. “Heaven Sent” is the opposite of that in terms of proper drama. It is an entire episode of the Doctor mourning the loss of his companion, and for a show that routinely celebrates the wonder of life, that is fitting. As in life, the moment of death is less dramatic than the living’s reaction to it.
The Doctor: The truth, yes, but not any old truth, Clara. This whole place is designed to terrify me. I’m being interrogated. It’s not just truth it wants. That’s not enough. It’s confession. I have to tell truths I’ve never told before. That’s the only thing that stops it. You see the problem is, Clara, there are truths that I can never tell. Not for anything. But I’m scared and I’m alone. Alone, and very, very scared.
Soon the Doctor encounters the Veil (Jami Reid-Quarrell, who played Colony Sarff earlier this season) — a hideous, shrouded beast, eternally accompanied by a mass of evil buzzing flies. Clearly a version of Death, the creature’s sole purpose seems to be to stalk the Time Lord, scare the crap out of him, and draw confessions, all of which it does repeatedly. Rarely have we seen the Doctor this disturbed and frightened. There’s that first moment, as the Veil closes in on him, and he admits, “I’m actually scared of dying!” … and the creature freezes. The key to survival becomes those carefully considered confessions.
The Doctor: Finally run out of corridor — there’s a life summed up.
The majestic castle is an elaborate, ever shifting Escher-like marvel, loaded with signs and portents, mysteries and puzzles. Flat-screen televisions broadcast the Doctor’s every move. It becomes a dizzyingly hallucinatory proposition as it moves from one set piece to the next: the ancient painting of Clara, the freshly dug grave with “I AM IN 12” at the bottom of it, “BIRD” traced into the dust on the floor, the misplaced stars in the sky, the ocean of skulls of previous players, the room with a dry set of clothes, and the Veil, always the Veil, stalking, stalking, stalking. When the Doctor deduces that he can have a maximum of 82 minutes to himself, its feels like a major victory, and when he admits that the Veil is an image ripped from his own nightmares, it feels as though he is battling himself as much as an enemy.
The Doctor: I think this whole place is inside a closed energy loop, constantly recycling. Or maybe I’m in hell. That’s OK. I’m not scared of hell. It’s just heaven for bad people. But how long will I have to be here? Forever?
After what feels like an eternity (little does he yet know), the Doctor realizes that the confession the Veil is seeking concerns the hybrid, after which he finally finds out what’s in Room #12: a 20-foot-thick wall made of a substance 400 times harder than diamond. He thinks the TARDIS is on the other side. He wails, “Can’t I just lose? Just this once?” He tells his Clara, “Whatever I do, you still won’t be there.” He beats against the wall until his hands bleed. The Veil appears and embraces his head, so that death may finally come. But the Doctor doesn’t die, and soon everything begins to make sense, as, mortally injured he crawls his way back to the teleport (a disturbingly striking series of images to be sure). He is but one version of himself playing this game, and there have been countless versions before him, and many, many more yet to come. Due to a combination of ingenuity and teleport technology, for two billion years versions of the Doctor will play these games, always with the endgame of eroding the wall of diamond to that he can eventually break through. And every new version begins the game by unwittingly sifting through the remains of the previous Doctor.
Clara: Doctor, you are not the only person who ever lost someone. It’s the story of everybody. Get over it. Beat it. Break free. Doctor, it’s time. Get up, off your ass, and win.
And win he does. After finally breaking through, he finds not the TARDIS, but rather the sands of Gallifrey, and the domed Gallifreyan Capitol. The doorway behind him collapses into the confession dial — a subtly stunning revelation, bested shortly thereafter by his final confession: He is the hybrid and he will stand in the ruins of Gallifrey. I was reminded of Terence Stamp in The Limey: “Tell him I’m coming!” It is a dark bridge to next week, when he’ll no doubt face the very people he worked so hard to save in “The Day of the Doctor.”
What’s most amazing about “Heaven Sent” is how little interest it has in bullshitting the viewer. Though the episode leaves a number of dangling questions (as the penultimate episode of the season should), the bulk of it once deciphered is pretty straightforward, and that’s no mean feat for an episode drenched in such an abundance of poetry.
Capaldi, as always, is marvelous, and due credit goes to director Rachel Talalay for making such streamlined visual sense out of all of this. But if I had to give an award here, it’d go to Moffat. It takes courage to follow through on a series of ideas like this, and even if the writer side of him said “Go for it,” it’s entirely possible the showrunner side could take issue with the concept. This was brave and beautiful Doctor Who, illustrating so many new and different sides of the Doctor, and in the process making him more human than ever before.
The Doctor: There are two events in everybody’s life that nobody remembers. Two moments experienced by every living thing, and yet nobody remembers anything about them. Nobody remembers being born, and nobody remembers dying.