This season of Doctor Who will probably go down as one of the most audacious in its history, divisive even. It has tackled darker themes, not pulling back from heavier issues, actions, and their consequences. With Heaven Sent the show goes deeper still, this time into the Doctor’s own psyche, showing us aspects of his character and past like we have never seen before.
Heaven Sent picks up immediately after the last episode. The Doctor, steps from a teleporter and knowing he is being watched, issues a warning to his abductors concerning Clara’s death, their involvement, and his intention to make them pay. He finds himself inside a castle, alone in the middle of an ocean, and home to mysterious rooms, each numbered, some containing clues or objects which he cannot fathom the meaning of. Scattered around the castle are screens that show the point of view of a creature, the Veil, that stalks the halls of this building, relentlessly in pursuit of the Doctor: a continual reminder to the Time Lord of this threat. He is eventually cornered, and something he says freezes the creature in its tracks and causes the building to reorder itself. An admission of fearing death is seemingly enough to buy him time to understand that this is no normal building. Instead it is a prison built to force him to confess to his deepest, darkest secrets for the chance of life and escape.
“Heaven sent” is a term used to imply good fortune entering your life. The hell the Doctor finds himself in could be considered anything but fortuitous. As ever, he is able to think his way out of a situation, but we get something a little more novel in this outing as that unfolds. Small clues are littered around, deductions and observations helping him build an idea of what is going on and what needs to be done. Typically this happens in a second and the pace of the show continues unabated, but here the episode shows the inner workings of the Doctor’s mind – a frenzy of activity as he talks himself through the problem in the TARDIS control room, representing his mind as he works through each problem he faces. Its a very clever addition to the story that breaks up the relentless solitude and fear he is placed under. It also offers a few small moments for him to show off his vunerability after the death of Clara. In his mind he is still confiding in and taking support from her. His lost companion provides a sounding board for him and ultimately a rousing pep talk ensuring he does not give up.
His investigations lead him to an escape, a path blocked by a 20-foot-thick wall made from a substance hundreds of times harder than diamond. Cornered by the Veil, he pounds on it; and when left for dead he realizes the clues left behind were from himself, and through using the teleporter he can reset his arrival and begin the cycle all over again. The reality of this is a horrifying one; he figures out that he has been doing this for thousands of years already, the skulls he found lining the ocean floor belonging to his own previous versions of himself. He has time on his side, and rather than give up any more of his secrets, continues the cycle. What follows is a deftly edited montage showing a horrifying Doctor Who spin on Groundhog Day, as each incarnation of himself relives the same experience, comes to the same conclusions, and erodes away what blocks his path over 2 billion years. It’s an agonizing experience that makes the two thousand years he fought on Trenzalore seem like a holiday.
Once broken we get the reveal that he was inside his own “Confession dial” all along, that MacGuffin introduced back in the season opener. The Doctor emerges on Gallifrey, giving a young boy a message to tell the Time Lords of the Citadel he is approaching before making one final confession to himself. He never left his home planet from boredom or fear, but because he knew the warrior hybrid that would bring such devastation was in fact himself. It’s something a bit out of left field, and we’ll see how this actually plays out next week. The only hint at such a “hybrid” status in his past was during the 1996 movie where it is mentioned he is half-human. While cannon, it is widely accepted that it was something added to appeases the US networks and make this alien a little more accessible.
The whole concept of the episode serves as an incredibly clever device to explore both the Doctor’s mind as well as his past. It’s a bold move to move away from the usual spectacle the show offers, and to the younger or casual viewer is probably rather difficult to digest. I’ve mentioned in multiple recaps how outstanding Capaldi is, not just in this role but as an actor in general. Heaven Sent offers him his biggest stage yet, the fact he seems to be increasingly channeling Tom Baker’s dulcet tones is an even bigger bonus.
Heaven Sent is a dark and heavy episode that will likely go unappreciated by the casual viewer. But it is one of those unique episodes that no other show on TV could ever do. Audacious, complex, and a tremendous showcase for Capaldi’s talents. It ends on a intriguing reveal, meaning a lot is riding on its followup Hell Bent to deliver a satisfying conclusion. But as a standalone piece of storytelling however it is indisputably a memorable one.
The trailer for next week’s finale, oh Lordy!