In an interview given before this season began, Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat described “Heaven Sent” as the most difficult script of his entire career to write. In the light of that statement, perhaps the greatest achievement of this amazing episode is how effortless the unfolding of its narrative seems. Right from the opening, it feels completely natural that we’re watching only the Doctor (Peter Capaldi)—completely isolated, stuck in a place designed to be his own personal hell, and working his painful way out entirely by himself. All aspects of the production—writing, direction, design, music—come together in a tour de force of storytelling.
Having suffered the death of his companion, Clara (Jenna Coleman), at the end of the last episode and been teleported away from Earth on the orders of persons unknown, the Doctor arrives in a weird, deserted castle standing in the middle of an endless ocean. Its only other occupant is a silent, hooded being whose touch is deadly and who constantly pursues him at a slow but inexorable pace. Named in the credits as “the Veil” (Jami Reid-Quarrell), it’s a figure from the Doctor’s childhood nightmares. Our hero discovers that the only way to temporarily halt the creature is to speak a confession—a truth that he’s never admitted before. As he confesses his fear of dying and his knowledge of the mysterious “Hybrid” that’s been hinted at several times this season, the castle itself transforms, rooms and passages moving into a new configuration so he can make progress toward understanding what’s going on.
Apart from a couple of lines from an imaginary Clara, literally every word in the episode is spoken by Capaldi. In place of dialogue and interaction with other characters, he’s given a rich mixture of voiceover and soliloquy as the Doctor proceeds through the castle behaving as if Clara is still at his side. The non-naturalistic style is heightened by a number of deliberately jarring sequences when, faced with imminent doom, he suddenly finds himself back in the TARDIS. This is an imaginary TARDIS, of course (the real one having been left back on Earth), which the Doctor uses in the same way as Sherlock Holmes employs his “mind palace” in Moffat’s Sherlock. It’s a mental construct which lets him work through a problem at super speed, talking aloud to find a solution: As he says to the silent image of Clara he also keeps here, “I’m nothing without an audience.”
Director Rachel Talalay surpasses her work on last season’s finale, providing whole sequences of breathtaking visuals—the austere rooms and corridors of the castle, the moving walls, the macabre field of skulls the Doctor finds on the ocean floor, and the Veil itself, with its ever-present buzzing flies that warn of its coming. There are a couple of “jump” moments that are all the more effective by contrast with the deliberate pace of the rest of the episode. A nod to the ending sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey as the Doctor’s lonely existence in the castle stretches on is very neatly done. And a slow dissolve from the Doctor’s face to one of the skulls might seem like just a directorial flourish, but is actually our first hint at the crucial revelation of the story.
As with all of Moffat’s best work, the ending provides a whole new context to what has come before. Trapped in an environment that constantly resets itself after him, the Doctor’s initial bluster to his captors takes on a terrible irony: “I’m coming to find you. And I will never, ever stop.” The way out is blocked by a 20-foot-thick adamantine wall, and it becomes clear that the Doctor has been punching at it over and over again, always being caught by the Veil and dragging his dying body back to the teleporter room to immolate it and create another copy of himself at the beginning of these events, to start the cycle again, through literally billions of repetitions, until the barrier is finally broken. Capaldi’s acting makes us feel every aspect of the Doctor’s torment, from his yells of pain as he bashes his fist against the wall to his anguished “Why can’t I just lose?” when he finally understands what is happening to him.
Contributing to every episode as he does, composer Murray Gold is often in danger of being taken for granted, but his outstanding music here should be noted. Apart from the horror-movie atmospherics and discordant screeches for the Veil, he provides a beautiful, dignified melody that runs through the whole episode in various guises, and takes over at the climax. With a montage of visuals changing faster and faster as thousands, then millions, then billions of years pass, the wonderfully measured tempo of the music creates a truly transcendent moment.
At long last, the Doctor finally breaks through the barrier, the Veil collapses, and he emerges onto his homeworld of Gallifrey—fulfilling the promise he made at the end of “The Day of the Doctor,” to go home “the long way around.” In a last dizzying shift of perspective, the castle miniaturises and turns into his confession dial—the strange artifact he’s been carrying since the beginning of the season. With the cliffhanger revelation that the Hybrid is none other than the Doctor himself, all the threads of the season are coming together in what could turn out to be the best season finale yet in the show’s run.
Next Week: The season concludes, with “Hell Bent.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: The only classic series story where the Doctor is on his own without a companion is 1976’s “The Deadly Assassin,” starring Tom Baker. The episode, at the time, was just as envelope-pushing as this one. The first story to be set entirely on Gallifrey, it also features a long sequence of the Doctor tracking his adversary through a nightmarish dream world, and revelations about the Doctor and the Time Lords that ensured they would never be the same again.
For more Doctor Who recaps, click here.