Sunday 29 November 2015

You Ain't Nothing But a Groundhog

After a cracking episode last week, and following on from the demise of Clara, an “one handed” episode, featuring only the Doctor was always going to be a tantalising prospect.
Whilst we have had episodes without companions in the past, the most defining, to date, had always been the 1977 story, The Deadly Assassin. The David Tennant “specials” explored the idea to a degree, but usually paired the Doctor with a substitute for a companion for the duration of the episode. A story formed, almost exclusively, around one cast member is a concept which has never been explored before. This isn't the first experimental episode of the season; Sleep No More attempted to break from traditional storytelling, and it fell thoroughly flat. Heaven Sent, however, proves that with the right script, conceptual storytelling can work exceptionally well.
Trapped in a castle, the Doctor is pursued by the deadly Veil, of which he appears to possess some knowledge. The screens, littered around the castle walls, show us where The Veil is, in relation to the Doctor, although it is interesting to note that when he uses the loupe to analyse the painting, the screen reflects his own perspective. Is it conceivable that the Veil is, in fact, the Doctor himself, or a representation of the death he clearly fears?
Similarly, despite being some distance away, when the Doctor finishes digging the grave-like hole, the revelation that “I am in 12” coincides with the emergence of the Veil.
The scenes of the Doctor in the Tardis, which he describes as his “storm room” mirror the “mind palace” from Sherlock Holmes, and yet despite the obvious similarity, the concept doesn't feel borrowed or misappropriated. Instead, it gives us an insight into the extraordinary way in which the Doctor’s mind operates, and unlike Holmes, presents the unique manner in which the Doctor effectively converses with himself, and an imagined Clara, in brief, fleeting interludes.

Whilst the plot is, perhaps, somewhat confusing and open to interpretation, the scripting is utterly flawless, and Capaldi delivers every line with extraordinary competence. His impassioned speech in The Zygon Inversion gave us an insight into what he is capable of, given the right material, and this episode treats us to almost an hour of that brilliance. The man is, quite simply spellbinding. If there was any doubt about his ability, this episode must surely have vanquished it, even from the minds of the most ardent critics. His performance is bold, powerful. yet nuanced and cleverly punctuated with subtle humour; the line about “running out of corridors is a life summed up” is positively delightful.

The plot poses numerous questions. The most glaring is, of course, how much time has truly elapsed. Has the Doctor really been confined to the confession dial for billions of years; did the events within it even take place, or are they illusory?


If we are to assume the events did, in fact, take place, this is perhaps where the episode falls down, just a little. The scientific and mathematical issues raised are mildly troubling, even for a science fiction series. Working on the theory that each iteration of the Doctor survives approximately three day (a day of self exploration, followed by a day and a half of climbing), that equates to around 250 billion skulls, each representing a life lost. Then there are the logistics behind punching a substance 400 times harder than a diamond, which, even given two billion years, is a stretch of the imagination. The next episode may well explore this further, but for now, it is, I think, open to interpretation.


The age of the Doctor is a topic of much debate at the best of times, and this episode will certainly muddy the waters even further. It seems highly unlikely that the Doctor is now two billion years old; it wasn’t the Doctor who ultimately broke through the walls, emerging onto the burnt orange landscape of Gallifrey, but millions of Doctors, each having lived the same brief moment in time, over and over.

The final revelation of Gallifrey is superb, and would have been considerably more effective had the BBC not insisted on spoiling it four weeks prior to the story airing. Similarly the revelation that the Hybrid is The Doctor is tantalising. Taken at face value, it certainly seems plausible, and some time ago, I pondered whether Moffat would explore the “half human” side of the Doctor, which all fans tend to neatly avoid, raised in the 1996 TV movie. Of course, the wording of the Doctor’s statement is deliciously ambiguous; he does not simply state “I am the Hybrid”, electing to use “the Hybrid is me”, which could be self referential, or could, perhaps,refer to Ashildr, who has adopted the title.


Credit goes to Moffat for such a powerful, emotive script, and, of course, to Rachel Talalay, who directed the episode with such exquisite attention to detail. The “dolly zoom” technique, used to great effect in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, is put to good use, and the wide shots of an almost entirely empty Tardis, save for the presence of the Doctor, serve to capture the emptiness felt by his bereavement.

The construction of the episode is meticulous, complex, and haunting; beautifully scripted, and elegantly shot. Attention to detail is sublime; even the skulls are modelled on Peter Capaldi’s own cranium! Set design is stunning, and, with the obvious exception of Capaldi’s performance, one of the highlights must surely be the extraordinary score by Murray Gold, who has positively excelled himself throughout this season.

Ultimately, however, the episode belongs to Capaldi, and rightly so. He is absolutely bloody magnificent. He can convey more, with a single facial expression than many actors can manage with an entire script. His eyes, despite being topped with “attack eyebrows” show every heartbreak, every anger felt, every thought lost and every fear felt.

Heaven Sent is a true tour de force, and a Magnum Opus for Capaldi, who steals every second of the episode. Of all the reviews I’ve written, this has, perhaps, been the most challenging to write. It is difficult to provide a synopsis of the plot, as essentially, there isn’t one, yet, for once, this isn’t detrimental to the story; quite the contrary. This is very much a character piece, exploring the impact of Clara’s death on the Doctor, his rage, anger, fears and secrets. How does one surmise such complexity in a review? For all it’s flaws (and the episode certainly has some), I think it can be summed up in three words;  Absolutely bloody magnificent..!


By far, my favourite episode of the season, Heaven Sent is powerful, affecting, and utterly absorbing. It presents a vulnerable Doctor, and is both visceral and chilling. An instant classic, it is worthy of a well earned 9.5/10, a score which may well rise to a perfect 10/10 if some of the complexities and flaws are ironed out in the finale.

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