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.