There are mysteries to be solved. There are seemingly insurmountable challenges, set by a seemingly undefeatable foe, to be thwarted with no weapons but wits. There is a lot of running through corridors. And, when the corridors finally run out, our hero has but one option: to set his old life on fire and use its energies to fuel a new incarnation of himself. The hero dies, and is reborn to die again, and it will never stop because he can never give up, never will give up. It's an endless cycle of birth and resurrection, for which there is only one purpose, and of which there can be only one outcome: to conquer death. "How long can I keep doing this?" our hero asks, but that is a question without an answer: there will always be a Doctor, and he will always do what he must.
It is true that there has never been an episode of Doctor Who like Steven Moffat's "Heaven Sent." It is also true, however, that "Heaven Sent" may be the prototypical episode of Doctor Who, containing the entire DNA of the show itself within its structure. This is Doctor Who stripped of everything but the essence of the Doctor: his indefatigable spirit and inexhaustible will in the face of overwhelming odds. There is a mountain at the far end of the universe, composed of death and despair and the inevitable ravages of time, and this mountain can neither be scaled nor circumvented. But the Doctor is the tiny bird who will never stop sharpening his beak against that mountain's cliffs: he chips away an infinitesimal bit of the darkness that awaits us all, and then he flies off—from one end of the universe to the other—just to fly back and do it all over again.
Personally, I think that's a hell of a bird.
I have been hard on Steven Moffat lately, and I have been hard on Doctor Who, but the truth is that I've never expected that every episode would be be perfect. Doctor Who is an unwieldy, preposterous nightmare of a show to produce, one that every week gleefully courts—and often finds—total disaster. I watch this show for the one or two episodes a season in which it unequivocally succeeds, living up to its potential by brilliantly telling a story—and discovering truths—that would not be possible on any other show.
I think most of us will agree that "Heaven Sent" is that episode for Season Nine. It's one of the best episodes Moffat has produced in his entire run, and it's a strange and beautiful thing that could exist only here. It is an exquisite piece of writing that works on several levels: as an adventure in its own right; as a metaphor for life itself; as a self-contained encapsulation of the spirit of the show and its hero; and even as a meta commentary on the making of Doctor Who. (In this last, we can see the castle as the show: a series of scares and traps that must reset itself, every week, in order to run the Doctor through his neverending paces. Surely, the spirits of exhaustion and repetition that imbue this episode are partially Moffat's own: he is the unseen gamemaker, to whom the Doctor rails, and—like the Doctor himself—he must wonder how long he can keep doing this.)
And of course, "Heaven Sent" is a tour de force for Peter Capaldi, who—like Tom Baker in "The Deadly Assassin"—seems determined here to prove that the Doctor doesn't need a companion, or even a conversant adversary. "Heaven Sent" is simply the Doctor vs. Death, and Death—embodied here as a creature called "The Veil"—doesn't even have any lines. Capaldi is tasked with putting on a one-man show on a largely empty stage—this thing is basically like a Beckett play—and he pulls it off with an always-watchable aplomb that few of his predecessors could match. (Smith, I would argue, could have done this, although his youth would have given it an entirely different tone and subtext. But one hesitates to imagine the indulgent insufferability of Tennant talking to himself for an hour.)
We have only rarely seen the Doctor truly alone, and whenever it happens we realize what a performative thing being the Doctor truly is. This, as much as anything, is why he always has a companion. As has been said several times this season, he chose the name "Doctor" as something to which he could aspire: in other words, "The Doctor" is a role that the Doctor himself is playing, and it helps to play to someone. ("I'm nothing without an audience," the Doctor says here.)
So—without providing him with a companion to impress, or an enemy to confuse, or even hapless innocents to save—"Heaven Sent" explores who this man truly is when he's alone. He is certainly less goofy: the Doctor we get here is one far less random, giddy, and willfully eccentric than we're used to. (A lot of the quirkiness is simply part of the act: "You're talking nonsense to distract me from being really scared," Osgood perceptively observed in "The Zygon Inversion.") And a solitary Doctor—as we've seen before—is also a more human, vulnerable Doctor: not since the days of William Hartnell has he seemed as old a man as he does here. It is not a question of physical energy—Capaldi spends nearly the entire episode running around—but of spiritual weariness, and fundamental sadness.
I've been on the fence about certain aspects of the 12th Doctor since he debuted, but this episode made me realize that Moffat's slow deconstruction of Russell T Davies' version of the Doctor has paid some interesting and rewarding dividends. Doctors Nine through Eleven were sad and tormented because they carried the specific guilt of the Time War. I worried that Moffat's undoing of the Time War's end in "The Day of the Doctor" would remove some of the complexities and textures from the Doctor's character, but in fact the opposite has been true: without that simplistic burden, Moffat and Capaldi have been able to flesh out deeper and more subtle emotional layers of the Doctor. This episode, for example—as last year's high-water mark "Listen" did—acknowledges that fear is at the center of the Doctor's character. As I wrote last year:
Whenever you're afraid of the thing under the bed, the best thing to do is look at it. This, then, is one explanation for why the Doctor does what he does: there are so many things in the universe to be afraid of, and he can't stop running from one to the other, dragging them into the light of day and turning them into things that no longer need to be feared…
The Doctor […] has always been scared—just like the rest of us. But he has turned his fear into a super-power, a constant companion. Strip away everything else, and that fear will always be there: it has to be there, and he'd be lost and lonely without it. There always has to be the thing unknown, the thing unseen, the mystery unanswered. There must be something to be afraid of, because that's what drives him, that's why empowers him, that's what makes life worth living. Even as he travels the universe shining light into shadowy places, the Doctor knows that we need the darkness. "The deep and lovely dark," he says here. "We'd never see the stars without it."
Here, the Doctor admits several times that he is afraid, and has always been afraid. "I just realized I'm actually scared of dying," he says, in first confession to the Veil. "I didn't leave Gallifrey because I was bored," he also confesses. "I ran because I was scared." In the Tower, in his final confession to the monster, he brings in the "Hybrid" prophecy that has been the running tease of the entire season: "I confess, I know the Hybrid is real. I know where it is, and what it is. I confess, I am afraid."
But, as I said in my discussion of "Listen," fear is not really a problem. Here, the Doctor quickly figures out that this entire castle is a theater built on his deepest fears, and he's rather delighted. "It's a killer puzzle box designed to scare me to death, and I'm trapped inside it," he says. "Must be Christmas." This is the Doctor's Hell, but he doesn't even fear Hell, which is, after all, "just Heaven for bad people."
But what makes this the Doctor's Hell is not simply being chased and being trapped. What makes this his Hell is being alone, and what makes this showdown with a personification of Death so poignant is that death claimed his friend last episode. As much as "Heaven Sent" is about fear, it is also about grief.
"I just watched my best friend die in agony: my day can't get any worse," the Doctor taunts his unseen abductors, near the beginning of the episode. But he's wrong, of course, as he realizes later. "The day you lose someone isn't the worst," he says, as he sits dining alone. "It's all the days that they stay dead." Anyone who has experienced grief—which, as an image of Clara says towards the end of the episode, is eventually everyone—knows this to be true: the death of a loved one is a sudden loss followed by a never-ending absence. You don't get over it, you carry it, and you can never put it down.
So how much worse for the Doctor, who is—depending how you do the math—now somewhere between 2,000 and 2 billion years old? Everyone he has ever known and cared about is dead, one way or the other: this is a curse of both immortality and time travel, and the Doctor is both. Clara herself realized this in Season Seven's "Hide." "To you, I haven't been born yet," she told the Doctor. "And to you, I've been dead for a hundred billion years. Is my body out there somewhere, in the ground?…Yet here we are, talking. So I am a ghost: to you, I'm a ghost. We're all ghosts to you. We must be nothing."
But she wasn't nothing to him. None of them were nothing to him; he cared about them, and he lost them all. "Wherever you go, whatever path you take, it will follow," he says of Death, in the opening monologue. "You will run, it will walk. You will rest, it will not." The Doctor can keep running for all the endless seconds of eternity—just one step ahead of the shadow, just one step ahead of the Veil—but he has to do it alone, because no one else can keep up with him. Is it any wonder he looks so old, so sad? Is it any wonder part of him wants to give up? "Can't I just lose?" he asks, at his darkest moment. "I can't always do this. It's not fair." He is talking about the prison, but the prison is just the truth of his life in a box. "But I can remember, Clara. You don't understand. I can remember it all. Every time. And you'll still be gone. Whatever I do, you still won't be there."
And in the end it's the truth of all of our lives, Time Lords and humans alike. "It's the story of everybody." This is Clara's last lesson to him: that all you can do is keep running, keep fighting, keep punching the wall, no matter how futile it seems. That's really all there is: it's not profound, it's not revelatory, it's not even particularly helpful, but it's the truth. We will lose people, and one day each of us—even the Doctor, presumably—will lose ourselves.
But—until that day comes—all you can do is get off your arse and try to win.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- I'm sure it escaped no one's notice that the prison, with its ever shifting gears, evokes the current credit sequence of Doctor Who itself. It's a lovely nod to the metaphor, while also serving as clever foreshadowing of the confession dial and the return of Gallifrey.
- Can Rachel Talalay direct all the episodes? Gorgeous.
- I chose not to think too much about all the logistics of this episode, but I think they are fairly clever and even (mostly) make sense. (Wrapping my head around the fact that there is no time-loop is the part I find trickiest.) And there are a few bits I still can't puzzle out. (I'm not sure how—or when—the missing octagonal stone from the floor got to the bottom of the grave. And the thing with the drying clothes is fiendishly clever, but it only makes sense if we assume that the Doctor finished his first run through the prison naked.)
- I've been entirely disinterested in the "prophecy of the Hybrid" throughout this season, and I confess I still don't care. (I hate prophecies.) And the Doctor's final confession that "the Hybrid is me" seems a likely red herring, since I can't think of any other reason for Moffat to have made Ashildr change her name to "Me."
- After enduring this long purgatory of the soul—and after ten years of new Who—the Doctor's reward is to stand on his home world once again. Gallifrey is back. I suppose it could be a one-time fake-out like the wretched two-part story "The End of Time," but I'm more inclined to believe this is the final stroke of the Moffat Masterplan. "I came the long way round," the Doctor says to the boy—a shephard's boy?—on the sands of Gallifrey. Yes, and Moffat took us the long way round as well, taking five full seasons to restore the Doctor Who of his youth. I expect I'll have more to say about this next week: hope to see you here.