Because I Have Opinions, I’m going to write about this past week’s Doctor Who episode, “Heaven Sent”.
In isolation, the episode instantly became the best of the Peter Capaldi episodes to date. Not that that’s saying a lot, since his run has been extraordinarily weak so far, with only “Under the Lake”/ “Before the Flood” being above average. (Most of last season was completely forgettable.)
What sets this episode apart is that it seems Steven Moffat remember what made his four stories during the Russell T. Davies period among the best of that era: While his stories didn’t always hold up to close scrutiny, they always had a successful emotional resonance and felt true to the characters and situations. But as show runner, Moffat’s stories have lost that emotional resonance and often feel downright manipulative. And his plots have gotten increasingly contrived, and just needlessly complex. While there is some of that here, fundamentally “Heaven Sent” is a simple story which works on an emotional level, relying heavily on Capaldi to pull it off, which he does, in perhaps his best performance in the role to date.
Much more spoilery discussion after the break. No plot summary, though; read the Wikipedia article if you need a refresher.
Still considering the episode in isolation, there’s a lot of neat stuff here. But also some problems I turn over in my head, though ultimately I don’t think they sink the episode:
- Maybe the coolest thing about the trap is that – despite the Doctor saying near the end that it was his own bespoke torture chamber – it’s actually a very impersonal trap. A lot of the situations the Doctor gets into – such as what Davros had set up in “The Witch’s Familiar” – have a strong psychological component customized to his foibles, and this did not: It was a creepy haunted house which would work on just about anyone, and was only more effective to the Doctor (assuming the goal was the terrify and not quickly kill him) because he was a Time Lord. But it would have had the same effect on any Time Lord. There was no one here for him to outwit, or to counter with mind games of his own.
- The construction of the individual scenes leading to the big revelation that the Doctor is (effectively) stuck in a time loop are very well done. I chuckled out loud in the second iteration we see when the Doctor shouts “I bet you didn’t see THIS coming!” (“Yeah, unlike the last million times you did it,” thought the Veil.)
- On the other hand, what was the point of the rooms resetting themselves after a while once he left them? I guess it was important for him to have to re-dig the grave each iteration, but it made other parts make less sense: Why would his skull and the word “BIRD” have stuck around between each iteration, since neither was there before his original arrival? Why wouldn’t the transporter still have his pattern in it even if the room hadn’t reset? Why was the picture of Clara so old – wouldn’t that room, too, have re-set? Wouldn’t the dry clothes have still been there for him when he climbed out of the water without the reset? I guess it keeps everything (except the picture of Clara) from aging, but it felt like an unnecessary complication.
- I wondered how the first iteration of the Doctor managed to get through the routine, since he didn’t have the skull, or the word “BIRD”, to clue him in, nor had he yet travelled significantly into the future relative to his starting point. I eventually decided that he figured it all out, it just took him longer, and once he (or one of his successors after a few iterations) worked it out, then the pattern repeated thereafter.
- Other details are handled very well, especially the fact that as the Doctor pounds through the abzantium over two billion years, the Veil takes slightly longer to reach him to kill him, so he can tell slightly more of the story of “The Shepherd Boy” each time.
- Similarly the implication that confessions halt the Veil because he’s trapped in his own confession dial is nifty.
- One wonders why he couldn’t find one more confession to stop the Veil to gain himself several more hours of pounding through the abzantium each iteration, though. He could have broken through in maybe only a few million years (albeit with considerably more damaged hands). Though perhaps he didn’t want to risk getting locked out of the room again when the castle changed after another confession.
- Overall it’s a pretty nifty way to trap a time traveller for a long period of time.
- Though, if the Doctor was trapped in the confession dial, why could he see the stars, and why did they keep moving forward as they would outside the dial?
- The title of the episode doesn’t make any sense, to me, other than rhyming with that of the next episode, “Hell Bent”.
But “Heaven Sent” can’t be considered just in isolation; it’s the second act of the 3-part story. In part 1, “Face the Raven”, we find that the Doctor was tricked into being transported into this trap, the immortal Ashildr having sent him there, and along the way Clara was killed. (It was not a very good episode, being a fairly contrived set of events designed basically to kill of Clara.) At the end of “Heaven Sent” we find the Doctor back on Gallifrey, which means that the final chapter, “Hell Bent”, has a lot to accomplish to make this a satisfying story arc. For example:
- Why was the Doctor trapped in the confession dial? Just to get him to Gallifrey in the far future? If so, why put him through such torture? If the goal was to torture or kill him, then what’s the motivation, and why leave an exit of the form we saw in room 12 in the castle?
- Who constructed the castle and the Veil? One theory is that “Heaven Sent” happened inside the Doctor’s mind, but that’s a cop-out of an answer, essentially nullifying the emotional impact of “Heaven Sent” as a story that didn’t really happen. Someone went to a great deal of effort to create an emotionally draining torture chamber to keep the Doctor off the stage for two billion years, and it’s important to find out who did it, why they did it, and see them properly punished for their heinous actions. That’s going to have to be a major point of “Hell Bent” in order to make the story work.
Per “Face the Raven”, Ashildr “made a deal” to protect her street, so clearly someone is behind all this? It can’t be the Time Lords – or if it is, there had better be an excellent reason why they put the Doctor through such hell as the last act we saw from them was to grant him a new regeneration cycle. Whoever it was had to be someone with access to his confession dial, which seems to narrow the field to just the Time Lords or Missy, neither of which is a satisfying or believable answer unless things have changed considerably since last we saw either of them.
(An especially weak revelation would be that this was all a plan concocted by the Doctor himself. They tried this last season in “Time Heist”, and it was lame then, and would be practically a throw-something-at-the-television offense here. Especially since it would also mean that he was ultimately responsible for Clara’s death. I’m going to assume Moffat is smarter than that.)
- Where has the confession dial been in the real world in the interim? Presumably it’s been ferried around for two billion years, by Ashildr and then others, until it ended up on Gallifrey in the far future. This doesn’t need a very deep answer, but some exploration of the nuts and bolts of how it was carried off is needed. Also: It’s a pretty tough piece of equipment to survive two billion years (as the castle inside it did), which seems remarkable.
- What have the Time Lords been up to? We don’t know how long they’ve been back in the universe, and with time travel it’s hard to say whether it would matter. But presumably they’ve been back for some period of time – doing what, exactly?
I really don’t expect “Hell Bent” to answer all – or possibly even any – of these questions. I expect it to actually be a pretty messy episode grappling mainly with the return of the Time Lords and what that means for the Doctor and the greater universe. Which, to be sure, it also needs to deal with. But it’s going to feel pretty slipshod if some of these questions are not met head-on, which is really an indication of the messy way the story was set up in the first place. (Did I mention that “Face the Raven” was not very good?)
But I have some hope. After the disaster of last season, this season has taken a few steps forward, and the show seems to be struggling to right itself, to find its identity in the wake of Matt Smith’s departure from the title role. It might get there, but as with the Doctor escaping from room 12, it’s taking a very, very long time.