Doctor Who: Heaven Sent (S9E11) Review

Heaven Sent*SPOILERS*

I wonder if there was a thematic echo of last week’s ‘Let me be brave’ motif as, a mere two weeks after the failed experiment of “Sleep No More”, Steven Moffat brings us another bold twist on the usual “Doctor Who” format?

Materialising in a mysterious fortress, the Doctor finds himself stalked by an eldritch half remembered creature from his childhood nightmares. But why has he been brought here? What do his captors want? And who are they?

In any other series, “Heaven Sent” would be a filler episode, a cheap ‘bottle show’ designed to eke out the season’s budget but this is a filler episode so full of good things, it’s bursting at the seams. Firstly, it’s a veritable melting pot of references, homages and brazen replication (if you’ll excuse the pun). Moffat’s setting owes much to the “Harry Potter” films while the resolution of the mystery of the Doctor’s circumstances is nine parts “Moon” and one part the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode “Relics”. But what the episode lacks in originality, it makes up for as a showcase for Capaldi’s performance as the Doctor and the directorial flair of Rachel Talalay.

There are echoes of “The Deadly Assassin” as the Doctor pieces together the clues and follows them to the mysterious room 12, questioning the reality around him. It turns out that’s an apposite reference too, as we eventually learn the Doctor’s true location, inside the confession dial, on Gallifrey itself. But if that’s the episode’s intended ‘holy shit!’ revelatory moment, it’s overshadowed by the sheer magnitude of the horror of what the Doctor has been through. From the relentless pursuit of the Doctor’s own personal dementor, The Veil, to the gruesome seabed of skulls to the burned and injured Doctor’s last moments alive, the episode skirts the very edge of the kind of darkness the show can get away with without betraying and terrifying its core audience. The realisation that the Doctor has been continually reincarnating himself and chipping away at the Azbantium (more like Azkabantium, amirite?) wall for over two billion years is a very adult concept of Hell, an almost Sisyphean purgatory for the Doctor. It’s a bleakness which will pass over the heads of the younger viewers (or at least those who were still up at transmission time) but might haunt the dreams of the grownups watching. Remember way back before the series began when Moffat was saying it’s time for the Doctor to lighten up and have a bit of fun? Remember that? Moffat lies.

Clara’s inevitable posthumous appearance has actually reassured me she is indeed dead, or at least it did until she was referenced obliquely in the ‘Next Time’ segment, making me worry again that the series is going to bring her back to life somehow. It’s also a little irksome that in the Doctor’s self-constructed penitentiary, Clara is the only companion directly referenced or acknowledged. She’s not the only one to die, or leave, or end in less than happy circumstances, she’s merely the most recent although I guess the presence of a statue of Adric might have tipped the episode’s hand too early.

On a personal note, it was weird to watch a Doctor Who episode filmed extensively in a location I’ve been to recently (although I guess if you live in Cardiff you’ve long become inured to it). I went to a wedding at Caerphilly Castle last year and although it’s been used quite a lot by NuWho as a location, some of the undressed rooms – especially the banquet hall where the Doctor eats his soup – were distractingly familiar.

Spooky, dark and unrelentingly grim, “Heaven Sent” was another strong episode from a confident, bullish series of “Doctor Who”. You can feel the determination not to stagnate or atrophy despite reaching the impressive age of ten years (an eternity for a modern day TV series) and we should be grateful the show is willing to take risks like this. They may not always pay off, but without trying the likes of “Sleep No More”, we wouldn’t get things like “Heaven Sent”. Like all two parters (or is this actually the middle chapter of an epic three part finale? Ashildr’s presence in next week’s episode certainly suggests it might be), we can’t be sure how satisfying the story will be once it has played out until we see the final part but things are certainly set up for a big finale. We’re about to have our first story set on Gallifrey since “The Five Doctors” and, for a long time Whovian like me, that’s an exciting prospect in itself.

8/10 TARDIS 8

4 thoughts on “Doctor Who: Heaven Sent (S9E11) Review

  1. LOL @ Azkabantium. Good catch.

    I’ve been vasciallting between hating and enjoying this season; it opened with one of the best moments in Who *ever*, and I’m a long-term fan, so that’s something, but has steadily offered either dumb inanity or credibility-stretching idiocy. And yeah, whereas last season I was right into Clara, this season I just couldn’t wait for her to die. Her death last week was a welcome surprise in a season which promised more but has – until now – failed to deliver.

    Really enjoyed this episode, because I’ve been waiting for one in which Capaldi’s true “actoring” could come to the fore. He absolutely nailed it – that pre-credits monologue stirred something in my tired, haggard soul – and I felt his gradual realization of what was happening filled me with horror at the sheer length of time he’s been at it. I close my eyes and I swear Capaldi has tinges of Tom Baker’s voice in him, that gravelly, aged delivery and expansive enunciation, and it’s wonderful.

    That said…

    F’ing Gallifrey. Man, I was kinda expecting this moment to come, but when it did, I felt… nothing. TBH, the Gallifrey stuff in the classic series never did anything for me, and largely hasn’t in NuWho either (except for the bits when Timothy Dalton was involved…. because BOND is now a TimeLord) and the frisson of thrills I think the ep hoped to spark in me never eventuated. Will we see the reemergence of Gallifrey into the universe proper? Frankly, I don’t give a crap, but as long as they can cap off this episode with something that changes my mind, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

    And can I put my vote in for Ashilda as the Doctor Who character I’d most like the Doctor to punch in the f@cking face. There’d better be a payoff for her story that involves her incredibly violent demise.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m with you on the Ashildr face punching. I know she’s in Game Of Thrones but Maisie Williams’ acting has been patchy at best in Who. I loved the Gallifrey of the classic series as the stuffy old librarians of time but I’m less fond of the Doctor being the one good man from a race of temporal warriors. I wonder which way they’ll go next week?

      Like

  2. Absolutely loved this episode! I loved how dark it got and had me emotionally destroyed by the end. Also, best montage since Rocky… or maybe Scarface. For very different reasons though, obviously haha!

    Liked by 1 person

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