Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Rachel Talalay
Starring Peter Capaldi
Transmitted 28th November, BBC One
This review contains plot spoilers.
Confession: Although I enjoy traditional Who as much as the next fan, there’s something even more satisfying about the show taking risks, trying radical things, and breaking new creative ground. So I was looking forward to this week’s episode, and it delivered… in spades.
Back in 1976, so the story goes, The Deadly Assassin was designed to prove to Tom Baker that he needed a companion, and that Doctor Who’s typical story structure couldn’t work without one. This week, Steven Moffat sets out in a fit of experimental zeal to prove the opposite; that the show’s infamously flexible format really is flexible enough to house a highly unusual solo adventure. Yes, there are a small number of other actors involved in Heaven Sent, but they have barely any dialogue. This truly belongs to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, and let's be clear: he is magnificent throughout.
Back in 1976, however, The Deadly Assassin annoyed a few people with its revisionist Time Lords. The then-President of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society was so agitated that he forgot the name of the society he presided over: “WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO?” demanded his subsequent review (in capitals). And I can well imagine a few puzzled reactions to this gloriously demented and profoundly dark puzzle-box of a story which offers more than a hint of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige mixed with subtle flavourings of Vincenzo Natali’s Cube, and an extremely bleak view of the Time Lords, who seem to have developed a taste for extreme rendition and psychological torture.
If this was a movie script without the Doctor Who name attached to it, it would instantly become hot Hollywood property. Luckily for us, though, this is filtered through the Whoniverse’s more outré possibilities: the magic of Doctor Who is alive and well, and it’s coursing through this story. Heaven Sent feels designed to be watched again and again, appropriately enough. A brief moment right at the story’s beginning proves highly significant, and as might be expected, this is extremely Moffat-esque in all its twists, turns and misdirections. The Doctor’s “store room” even feels reminiscent of Sherlock’s “mind palace”, though if you’re predominantly writing for one character then you’re going to need some way of representing their interior monologues and mental states. And the matter of who or what might be “heaven sent” also resonates in a story only featuring one main character: who can save the Doctor?
Some of the events that we’re shown are near the knuckle: the Doctor’s sacrifice doesn’t quite feel like family viewing to me, and the atmosphere of fear and dread seeping though the episode could perhaps be unsettling for some younger viewers. This is probably as dark as Doctor Who can get; forget The Two Doctors or The Three Doctors, here we pretty much get 'The Eternity Doctors'. Because even the concept of a ‘single-hander’ is subverted by Steven Moffat’s elegant storylining, as we realize that one actor, and even one character, might not mean that we're watching one person. The Doctor’s seemingly impossible triumph – and you know he’s always going to win – is as potent a distillation of the series' mission statement as you’ll ever find. Despite insurmountable odds, despite vast forces arrayed against him, the Doctor has a brilliant plan. But it’s going to take a while, unlike his typical moments of inspiration or bodged together lash-ups. Sheer determination underpins the Doctor’s demonstration that he’s a Lord of Time, and his escape is a real ‘punch the air’ moment, although after the amount of punching we’ve been shown, perhaps this isn’t quite the right phrase.
Rachel Talalay’s return as director after last season’s finale doesn’t disappoint, and much of this looks beautiful on-screen. The Veil is shot effectively to preserve its mysterious nature, and effects shots are typically well handled. For some viewers, the episode’s big cliffhanger might constitute the real meat of the story, but after the journey the Doctor’s been on – and given that Gallifrey’s involvement had been revealed pre-broadcast – it fell just a little flat, in my view. And having the Doctor address his Big Reveal to implied listeners was also slightly clunky, but an unavoidable outcome of this episode’s unusual structure. I can’t help but wonder why exactly there was a ‘Home’ option inside the Doctor’s personalised chamber of horrors: if you want your prisoner to stay imprisoned then don’t advertise a way out. On the other hand, if you want them to escape then perhaps you could make it a bit easier. The presence of such a thing felt as if it was there simply because episode 11 needed a bridge into Hell Bent's big finish, rather than entirely making sense in terms of internal story logic. And I do wonder a little about the physics of the Doctor’s plan – would such a thickness of material harder than diamond ever, ever yield in that way? But, as is so often the case with this era of Doctor Who, it’s not really about the physics and more about the fantastical poetics. Because the story’s resolution undoubtedly feels earnt, and fitting, and a testament to the Doctor’s endless desire to win. As for whether the reveal of the Hybrid will stand next week... like Clara’s apparent fate, I suspect it’ll be rewritten and revised. Isn’t the Doctor simply taunting his captors, and trying to scare them, rather than confessing the truth? (Either that, or he knows it’s time for a big cliffhanger, because this feels slightly shoehorned in too).
Steven Moffat might have rejected the label of “showrunner” at the UK Doctor Who Festival, so much so that Matthew Sweet apparently dropped the term from subsequent ‘Meet the Writers’ events, but this still feels like an episode of Doctor Who that couldn’t have arisen from anyone else’s vision; this still feels like a showrunner toiling at the diamond-hard coalface of storytelling. It has the feel of a timey wimey plot, and yet its loop isn’t about time, at least not in that sense. It’s much more ‘blimey wimey’, as the years roll inexorably onward. Riffing on some familiar tropes, even while it stretches at the boundaries of traditional Doctor Who, this is just as memorable, and just as emotional, as last week's events. It's not so much about the monster; it’s about the Doctor’s terrifying experience. The second half of series nine has, for me, really ignited into greatness: I hope that Hell Bent lives up to that promise.
Yes, there’ll probably be some naysayers responding unhappily to the aberrant nature of this adventure mixed with its same-but-different Moffat-isms. But for anyone who appreciates ‘rad’ as much as ‘trad’ Doctor Who, this is pretty much heavenly stuff. I don’t think anyone in their right mind would want the programme to be like this every week – or even to be like this again any time soon, let’s face it – but as a one-off, and as a genuinely brave creative mission, this is one of Steven Moffat’s finest hours (OK, 55 minutes). Added to which, the showreel of Peter Capaldi’s acting excellence surely gained further additions heret. He carried this with seemingly effortless ease. Doctor Who is lucky to have the writer-fans and actor-fans that it does, making the programme with such heartfelt reverence that they can strive to be iconoclastic and innovative.
Confession: I never imagined the Confession Dial would be quite as important as this. Although as a piece of Gallifreyan technology, perhaps I should have thought about its potential more carefully. Like all of Steven Moffat’s best magic tricks, it’s repeatedly been hidden in plain sight. And as a pay-off of sorts, Heaven Sent is a masterclass in TV scripting. Future screenwriting manuals will refer to this as a bravura example of how to break most of your own rules in a long-running series and yet remain recognisably on-brand and very recognisably part of a writer’s unique voice. In any sane world, this deserves to be award-winning TV.
“WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO?” Well, it’s there. And there. And right there.