‘Heaven Sent’, written by Steven Moffat, finds the Doctor teleported to a mysterious castle. Still haunted by the death of Clara the Doctor quickly learns that the castle is designed to be his personal hell where he is stalked by a horror from his past that will never ever stop. Not unless he gives up his secrets.
This is a powerful, dark piece of drama showcasing Peter Capaldi’s talents and giving Moffat an opportunity to explore the Doctor’s thought processes and what he does when there is no hope.
Spoilers From Here On In!
This is a wonderfully constructed episode, proving once again that Steven Moffat excels at puzzles. The nature and purpose of the environment the Doctor finds himself serves as the main focus of the plot, as the Doctor investigates and slowly learns the truth.
It also serves as a metaphor for how the Doctor deals with morality. Within the castle he is hunted down by the Veil, a phantom surrounded by flies that is drawn from a memory of an old woman who died when he was young and left out in the sun too long. She represents the death that you can delay or run from but eventually catches up with everyone.
The Doctor does this by running up and down corridors solving puzzles. Confronted with a dead end the Doctor actually says that this sums up his life.
It gives the Doctor time to dwell on Clara’s death. Her presence is felt throughout, whether it be the fading painting in the bedroom or the image of her he holds in his mind.
Alone the Doctor keeps up his dialogue, intercutting with his TARDIS mindscape. It is here that he works out how he is going to escape certain death, putting a new spin on the TARDIS scenes in ‘Listen.’ It is also here that Clara (sometimes invisibly) chalks her questions on to the blackboards, prodding the Doctor in the right direction.
This insight both reveals how the Doctor seems to achieve the impossible and why he needs a companion asking the right questions (even if they are only in his mind).
In the real world though the Doctor is still on his own. We later learn just how long that time period is returning to the idea that no matter what, due to his nature and his extended lifespan, his time with a companion is always brief.
There are two clear influences to this episode. The Veil is a clearly a nod towards ‘It Follows’ which the music references in its electro synth styling. In both the monster slowly walks towards you, where ever you are. In both the main character has to work out the rules that governs the threat.
The neat twist here is that televisions positioned throughout the castle serve as a constant reminder of its approach. The Doctor always knows how close it is to him and how long he has.
Indeed, if the Doctor so desired, he could keep running from it forever once he learns the layout of the castle. Delaying the inevitable is not really for the Doctor, especially if it means being alone.
The second influence is ‘Triangle’. In both the location serves as a source of mystery and both are shaped by multiple iterations of the same events, played out over and over again. A particularly gruesome sign of that is the lake filled with skulls, which we later learn all belong to previous 12th Doctors.
If there is one flaw it is that the rules that govern the reset of the rooms is not always clear. For example the Doctor finds a dry set of clothes waiting for him by a fireplace, which he changes into leaving his own wet clothes to dry. We can assume that the dry clothes was left by the previous Doctor but why didn’t that reset (the removal of the Doctor’s bloody trial would indicate that individual items are removed during the reset).
For that matter were the scrawled messages around the castle left by the Doctor and if so why were they not removed?
Regardless, the revelation that the Doctor has been trapped in a loop for thousands of years is breath taking. Confronted with a diamond barrier between him and escape the Doctor refuses to lose (spurred on by the Clara in his mind) and chips away at it, even knowing that he will die in agony and is doomed to do so for a long time to come.
The montage of the Doctor’s repeating their journey through the castle is chilling, depressing but a glimpse of hope (and makes moments like the Doctor ‘unexpectedly’ leaping out of a window ironic in retrospect) .
Each time his observation of how long he has been there increases, from thousands to millions to billions of years in the castle. The human mind can not comprehend just how long the torture of the Doctor has spanned.
This can be seen not only as the Doctor’s refusal to ever give up when there is a chance but that fact he is willing to sacrifice to save others (in this case another version of himself).
In the past the Doctor has sacrificed himself to save the universe, planets or single people. He has sacrificed his life adventuring in the stars to stay in one small town until old age claims him.
This ties back into Clara’s self sacrifice which we glimpse again at the start of the episode, which the Doctor comments to himself was her trying to be him.
The conclusion seems to be that while death is inevitable it can still be turned into a ‘win’.
For the Doctor his reward is that he is returned to Gallifrey, the castle itself apparently held within the mysterious confession dial. In retrospect the Veil’s desire for the Doctor to confess and the rotating design of the castle make the connection obvious.
The return home is not a triumph for the Doctor, especially as they appear to be behind the events that cost him a friend and put him through hell. As the episode ends it reveals the prophesied hybrid will shortly bring doom to Gallifrey (whether in the form of the half human Doctor or mire infused Ashildr remains to be seen).
Peter Capaldi is the star of the show here, and not just because he is one of the few people in it. He has to carry the story and his performance is the best it has ever been. From the Doctor’s fury to the depths of his depression, fear and the torment of his death Capaldi makes his portrayal of the Time Lord unforgettable.
After the lacklustre two part conclusion of last season this is a return to greatness for Moffat. The ideas and themes are both creepy and thought provoking. Few other stories get to the heart of what makes the Doctor tick.
This is definitely the best episode of the current season and maybe one his best the whole show.