I’m nothing without an audience.—The Doctor
How does one begin to approach a character that has become so emblematic, that they effectively become bigger than any writer, director or actor that dares tackle them? The Daniel Craig-era James Bond films took the character back to his origins. Christopher Nolan stripped the Batman films of their stylized funny business and embraced a gritty, grounded aesthetic. Most recently, Creed brilliantly progressed the Rocky franchise by having Sylvester Stallone’s Italian Stallion play mentor to a young upstart.
Ultimately, what’s fascinating about these examples is that they end up saying more about the creatives behind-the-scenes than they do about the actual central characters. Since taking the reins of the show back in 2010, Steven Moffat—a self-professed classic Doctor Who fanatic—has spent his tenure exploring the ins and outs of his beloved childhood icon. Such an introspective approach primarily centers on the moral implications of what it means to be The Doctor, a being that has lived for thousands of years and spends his days playing God to the universe. In this way, “Heaven Sent” stands as the quintessential Steven Moffat story in that it removes the familiar, formula trappings (i.e. fighting a monster) resulting in a barebones meditation on The Doctor and his fears. In the process, it posits several questions: what is The Doctor like when he has no audience for which to perform? Once dubbed by Davros as someone who keeps running and never looks back, “because he dare not out of shame,” what does he do when there’s nowhere left to run (or, in his own words, “I’ve finally run out of corridor—there’s a life summed up”)?
The episode is presented as, essentially, a one-man show, with the only other major characters being a mute, mysterious monster and the (mostly) unseen ghost of Clara Oswald. Right off the bat, Moffat deserves credit for executing a Who story that—after more than 30 seasons and close to 1,000 episodes—has never been executed before.
So how do things shake out? Short answer: “Heaven Sent” is a masterpiece of the highest order. Long answer? Well, read along…
Taking off directly from the events of “Face the Raven” (or so we think), we find The Doctor quickly deducing that he has been transported to some kind of prison—and he’s not alone. TV monitors across the area reveal the POV of something moving slowly towards him. His pursuer turns out to be a tall, frightening creature shrouded in a veil. Recognizing this as a nightmarish image from his youth made tangible, The Doctor determines that this environment is designed to frighten him for some strategic purpose.
As The Doctor explores the area and evades the veiled monster, he discovers several peculiar clues—a single skull near the transporter, the word “BIRD” spelled out in sand, a seemingly fresh collection of his clothes drying near a fireplace, a sky full of stars in the wrong spot, etc. Most notable, after jumping out of a window to avoid the creature’s deathly grasp, he falls into the water below and discovers mountains of human skulls littering the seabed. Obviously, The Doctor is not the first person to be trapped here. Taking cues from both Hammer horror films and the layout of Hogwarts, the “prison” resembles an abandoned Game of Thrones set and goes about reconfiguring itself several times throughout the episode after The Doctor makes a “confession” to the monster, who also mysteriously freezes whenever he does so (The Doctor’s first confessions—despite always laughing in the face of death, he is, indeed, afraid to die). Eventually, he unearths a clue that points him to a possible escape route in “Room 12.”
Now, the innate challenge of structuring an episode featuring a single character should be fairly obvious—how do you make it not boring? Do you write little-to-no dialogue and pray the visuals can illustrate the character’s unspoken experiences? Do you risk contrivance by having the character frequently talking to himself? Luckily, the Who creative team have an effective out—The Doctor always talks to himself. After all, between companions, he can spend centuries traveling alone. As evidenced by last season’s “Listen,” this means a lot of monologuing. Fortunately, the Who crew also do not overindulge this technique, as they are sensible enough to realize that Peter Capaldi can convey pages worth of dialogue with a few choice looks.
When he’s not babbling out loud to himself, The Doctor problem solves by imagining himself back in the TARDIS, bouncing questions off a mute Clara—her back perpetually turned to the camera—who communicates via chalkboard writing (again, a nice callback to “Listen”). These scenes become particularly noteworthy in moments of high-danger, where we see The Doctor’s frantic thought process articulated via an “exchange” with his deceased companion. This juxtaposition between reality and the machinations occurring inside the main character’s head is probably the closest Who has ever come to replicating Moffat’s other beloved show, Sherlock.
Following hours of wandering through the castle, The Doctor locates Room 12 only to find a brick wall in his path. Realizing he needs a confession so that the castle will revolve and make way, The Doctor hints at the big “truth” that he suspects the creature is seeking—namely, that the prophesized “hybrid” does exist and he knows its identity. The confession opens Room 12 and The Doctor enters to discover an exit way marked “Home” covered by a 20-foot-thick wall of Azbantium, a crystalline substance 400 times stronger than diamond. With nowhere to go and the veiled creature hobbling up behind him, The Doctor realizes he must either reveal the secret of “the hybrid,” or face death. He slumps down, defeated. It’s at this moment that his fragmented vision of Clara finally comes face-to-face with him. In a few choice words, she orders him to “get up off [his] ass and win.” Suddenly, he has what appears to be an epiphany, and begins punching the thick wall, all the while discussing the Brothers Grimm story, “The Shepherd Boy,” as the creature scorches his face.
And here’s where the real kicker of the episode comes into play. Near death, The Doctor crawls back to the transporter. He now realizes that all the remnants of previous victims were, in fact, all signs of his previous attempts. In other words, the entire episode has basically showed us one cycle in a Groundhog Day/Edge of Tomorrow-esque die-and-repeat saga. A saga that ends, like clockwork, with The Doctor attaching himself to the transporter and using the software to make, in layman’s terms, a copy of himself. Meanwhile, his previous body dissolves into sand, leaving only a skull behind. Taking into account both the amount of skulls in the water and the stars’ positioning, The Doctor deduces that he’s been in the midst of this cycle for close to 7,000 years. What’s more, the “BIRD” message scrawled in the sand was a reference to the aforementioned Brothers Grimm story, wherein a wise young boy is brought before a king to answer several questions. Upon being asked, “How many seconds are there in eternity?” the boy answers as such:
“In Lower Pomerania is the Diamond Mountain, which is two miles and a half high, two miles and a half wide, and two miles and a half in depth; every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on it, and when the whole mountain is worn away by this, then the first second of eternity will be over.”
Taking a cue from that bird, The Doctor locks into chipping away at his own mountain—the Azbantium wall. A montage shows him performing the process of wandering through the prison, punching the wall, being killed by the creature and copying himself over and over and over again. Finally, when several billion years have passed, The Doctor finally demolishes the last of the Azbantium. He is then transported to the only place he could technically call “home”—Gallifrey. We then see that the “prison” was actually his confession dial. The episode ends with The Doctor making his way towards the city after proclaiming that he is the hybrid (or he could be referencing Ashildr since he does say “me”).
It’s worth noting that Moffat has been teasing this episode for the better half of a year, promising audiences a “whopper” of a penultimate cliffhanger way back in Season Eight. And while Moffat is not above overhyping his own work, this time it feels quite justified. To quote baseball legend Dizzy Dean, it ain’t bragging if you can do it. Granted, the actual last-minute reveal is not necessarily shocking—the rediscovery of Gallifrey has been hinted at for some time—rather, this more obvious, overarching twist exists as a way of letting a smaller, more potent mystery slide by undetected. A few weeks back, I faintly recommended “Sleep No More” on the basis that its final twist did a good deal to re-contextualize what came before it. Whereas “Sleep No More” presented a clever twist at the tail end of a weak installment, “Heaven Sent” is a prime example of an exceptional twist serving as coda to a brilliant story. Indeed, observant viewers could, in theory, recognize The Doctor’s plight much sooner than he does. The clues are all there. It’s this kind of layered, meticulous attention to detail that will make subsequently viewings of this entry all the more rewarding.
If nothing else, “Heaven Sent” is the episode sure to have fans scrabbling to reconsider their list of favorite Doctors. To say Capaldi is extraordinary would be a massive understatement. Here, he shows that the impassioned anti-war speech in “The Zygon Inversion” was not so much a highlight, but a warm-up. Over the course of the hour, Capaldi expertly moves through a vast emotional spectrum. Where he is at his most impactful, however, is in the quieter moments. The way his face falls when he addresses Clara, only to realize she’s not beside him. The utter heartbreak in his voice when he proclaims to his companion’s ghost, “Whatever I do, you still won’t be there.” the look of determination as he punches the wall. Capaldi has had his share of fantastic Doctor Who stories, but this one marks the first that feels uniquely his. As phenomenal as Eccleston, Tennant and Smith were, I simply can’t imagine them having the same impact as Capaldi does here.
Likewise, I would be remiss if I did not mention director Rachel Talalay. Returning to Who after directing last year’s finale, Talalay again proves she’s one bona fide filmmaker, constructing some of the absolute creepiest set pieces of the revived series. Moreover, “Heaven Sent” may very well end up going down as one of the show’s most visually striking entries. While, on the whole, budgetary restrictions forces the creative team to cut corners in terms of production value, some of Talalay’s compositions, complete with moody, atmospheric lightening, feels cinematic in a way the series, despite its epic scope, rarely does.
In the end, however, the episode is the brainchild of Steven Moffat and the results are one for the Who history books. Whereas most penultimate episodes (including last year’s) spend much of their time teeing up the final episode, Moffat wisely chooses to break the mold and tell an intimate, semi-standalone character study about a man moving past grief. The “man” in question just happens to be one of sci-fi’s most iconic figures.
And really, that’s the episode in a nutshell—in the course of 50-or-so-minutes, it thoroughly shatters The Doctor’s armor of iconography—much in the same way he shatters the Azbantium— and reveals the vulnerable, yet resilient figure beyond the funny outfits and quirky quips. And though The Doctor may or may not be “half human on his mother’s side,” “Heaven Sent” puts forth a character that, despite his immense power, is just as human as the rest of us.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.