My favourite Doctor has always been the Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee.
Partly this is because he was the Doctor I grew up watching, on Saturday morning re-runs of old serials. Partly it’s because I have a soft spot for the slightly cantankerous old git in the role (See also: Patrick Troughton -Ed).
The reason that I bring this up is that Peter Capaldi is giving dear old Jon a serious run for his money.
I was delighted when he was chosen for the role — even if he was not my first choice — because he makes such a contrast with the recent run. And with series 9 it feels like the writers have actually used him to his potential.
But anyway, this is meant to be a review, not a hagiography…
Still reeling from the death of Clara, the Doctor faces being trapped in a torturous maze, with no idea who has trapped him, where he is, or how he gets out. Without friends or allies, and with a mysterious creature relentlessly following him, he needs to survive, and find out what is going on.
Remember my review of “Sleep No More”? Basically, I was pleased at the will to innovate and experiment, but a touch disappointed that it didn’t work. Well, if you want to take that will to try something new, but to make it work, do you know what you get? You get “Heaven Sent”.
You get quite possibly the best episode of Doctor Who yet.
So, with Clara having accepted her death at the end of the last episode, the Doctor arrives at his destination alone, and still filled with anger and mourning. Even stepping out of the teleporter, he swears his revenge on whoever is behind this.
Except there’s nobody there. It’s just him in an empty castle. Well, almost empty. The only other thing there is the Veil, a slowly walking mass of robes with two scaly hands, shambling after the Doctor at the same methodical pace wherever he goes. It never hurries, but it doesn’t stop.
The Doctor quickly figures out that it’s a torture chamber, and in a few scrapes he stops the Veil in its tracks by confessing truths that he’s never told before — which tend towards the legendary Hybrid who we heard mentioned by Davros in opening two-parter.
Now, there are few oddities about the castle. Firstly, the Doctor is not the first prisoner. Aside from the fact that we see a previous inhabitant burning away to dust just before the Doctor arrives, in the waters around the castle are hundreds and hundreds of skulls. Added to that, although the Doctor is adamant that he hasn’t time travelled, the stars tell him that he’s moved 7,000 into the future.
Running around the castle trying to figure out what is going on, he talks to himself, and to Clara in an imaginary TARDIS in his head. Here we see what was touched upon in the opening two-parter, where the Doctor always assumes he’s going to survive. Here we see why. At every tight scrape he disappears into an imaginary TARDIS (A “mind palace” if you will -Ed), where he thinks through the problem by explaining it to an imaginary Clara. Which is quite cool, actually, and we get to see how the Doctor’s thinking process works when he comes up with all of his mad schemes.
It’s in many ways an introspective episode, as the Doctor ponders how long he’ll be trapped in this place, and whether he can’t just lose for once. But more than that is the development of the conceit of the story. The questions, which need answers. Why is the Doctor there? What do his captors want from him? And how can he get out?
The castle pushes him towards Room 12, so whatever the point of this particular exercise is, it’s there. And the lumbering Veil is seemingly only satiated by information about the Hybrid, the part-Dalek, part-Time Lord figure prophesied and referenced by Davros in “The Witch’s Familiar“, which the Doctor is reticent to divulge anything at all.
The interesting part, though, is when the Doctor reaches Room 12, where he is confronted with the TARDIS behind a wall of Azbantium — 40 times harder than diamond. And he’s cornered by the Veil.
So the Doctor, being the Doctor, and having figured out what is going on (Honestly, probably having figured it out much before -Ed) tells a story, as he starts punching the Azbantium. He doesn’t get very far before the Veil gets, him leaving him burnt and dying. Except, as he says, Time Lords take a long time to die. Giving him a day and a half to painstakingly crawl up to the highest tower, to the teleporter that brought him there. Because each room, left long enough, reverts to its original state. Including the teleporter. Which has a version of him in the hard drive. The dying Doctor dials up the machine, before burning himself to power it, writing the word “BIRD” in the dust of previous versions of himself.
And the cycle repeats again. And again. And again. Bit by bit, version after version, as time runs out ahead of him, the Doctor works away at the Azbantium wall, getting a little further each time with the wall and the story. And the story?
“There’s this emperor, and he asks the shepherd’s boy how many seconds in eternity. And the shepherd’s boy says, ‘There’s this mountain of pure diamond. It takes an hour to climb it and an hour to go around it, and every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on the diamond mountain. And when the entire mountain is chiseled away, the first second of eternity will have passed.’ You may think that’s a hell of a long time. Personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird.“
By the time the Doctor has broken through, two billion years have passed. Two billion years of punching a wall, dying and being reborn, all to avoid telling the Veil what he knows about the Hybrid. And when he breaches the wall, he steps through a portal which collapses down into his confession dial — in which he had been trapped all along.
Standing in a desert, the Doctor tells a young boy to go to the city and tell them that he has arrived, having come “the long way round”. And the city is the Citadel of the Time Lords, on Gallifrey.
To the confession dial the Doctor announces that the prophecy was wrong, that the Hybrid isn’t half Dalek — the Hybrid is him.
This was spectacular. It was spectacular Doctor Who, it was spectacular science fiction, and it was spectacular television.
It’s a particularly daring as a premise, to have an episode which is pretty much entirely the Doctor, on his own. And it’s a massive testament to Peter Capaldi’s acting skills that it works magnificently. The emotional journey which he takes the Doctor on, despairing of what he has to do even as he knows he has to do it, feels like a revisiting of his titanic speech in “The Zygon Inversion“.
There was a weird bit where the soundtrack went a little wild west, but overall the set design and the atmosphere created worked incredibly well, coupled with the surprisingly scary idea of being constantly pursued and the tragic darkness of the eventually revealed reality, this episode stands out amidst a series brimming with the highest calibre of writing, this might well be the best episode that Doctor Who has yet, by some considerable distance.
- Do you reckon Steven Moffat has seen It Follows?
- This episode is a little bit like Doctor Who meets Silent Hill. This is a very good thing.
- I’m sure it’s a very lovely place (It’s probably not -Ed), but Gallifrey looks like a bit of a desert sh*thole.
- I rather liked the sad, sombre opening narration, but I’m not exactly clear on when the Doctor was supposed to have made it.
- There’s a nice metaphor for regeneration in the teleporter, when the Doctor, despairing, asks “How long can I keep doing this, Clara? Burning the old me to make a new one.” Which is basically a description of the regeneration process.