Tuesday, 1 December 2015


Surreal, brave, terrifying... 'Heaven Sent' is Doctor Who in its mould-breaking element.

"The last square on the board." (Image copyright: BBC)

It’s a shame one of my friends decided to stop watching Doctor Who after ‘Face the Raven’ until, he says, a new show runner is appointed, because, as ever with Doctor Who, you never know what’s around the corner. If he’d kept watching, he’d have seen in ‘Heaven Sent’ something really special. It’s the most metaphorical and existential Doctor Who’s ever been. Coming to terms with loss, having the strength to carry on, despair, birth and death, loneliness, purgatory and your greatest fear made flesh: all life’s serious themes were there. This is Doctor Who doing Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (via The Avengers’ ‘The House That Jack Built’). No one watching ‘The Twin Dilemma’ in 1984 would ever have believed the series could come up with something like Steven Moffat’s gothic tour de force.

Bergman’s 1957 film revolves around a medieval knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) playing chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot). In ‘Heaven Sent,’ for the chess game read the ‘puzzle box’ castle the Doctor finds himself trapped in – and, at one point, significantly he talks about ‘the last square on the board’ – while the symbolic identity of ‘the Veil’ (Jami Reid-Quarrell) is obvious. So, the ‘family-friendly’ gloves are off as the Doctor has to deal with his inner demons. What we have here is not just great Doctor Who, but great drama.

Of course, there really isn’t a lot here for the under tens to get their teeth into, beyond a creepy shrouded figure stalking the Doctor. But television has changed so much since Doctor Who was resurrected; you can re-watch programmes now as often as you like. It’s worth trying something as brave as ‘Heaven Sent’, as the children baffled by it today will grow to appreciate its intricacies and symbolism, a progression that curiously enough reflects the Doctor’s own journey in the story. Intentional? I wouldn’t be surprised.
Purgatory. (Image copyright: BBC)
The programme usually steers clear of an insight into the Doctor’s psyche, but ‘Heaven Sent’ was specifically constructed to be one – the one, in fact. This approach has something in common with the Doctor Who: The New Adventures novels of the 1990s, in which some of the authors keenly examined the Doctor’s psychology. The book I was reminded most of by this episode was Paul Cornell’s Timewyrm: Revelation, which was likewise chockfull of surreal imagery as the Doctor goes on a quest inside his own mind. In ‘Heaven Sent’, it was no surprise to find that in life-threatening moments, in his inner self the Doctor takes comfort from the TARDIS, and is largely motivated by the life-affirming relationships with his companions. At the other extreme, ‘Heaven Sent’’s horrific reveal that the Doctor was trapped in a lonely cycle of life and death – symbolised by all the skulls in the moat being his own – is the bleakest Doctor Who’s ever been.

As well as the most positive. If ‘Heaven Sent’ has one overriding message, it’s that however bad things are, you should never give up. ‘Clara’ bluntly tells the Doctor to ‘get up off your arse and win’ (which, it must be said, is the only time the ‘a’ word has ever featured in Doctor Who) so that cycle of life and death has a positive, cumulative effect as the Time Lord – literally and metaphorically – punches a way out of his prison. The wonderful, unobtrusive classical music-style score was at its most affecting here as, in a bravura piece of editing, director Rachel Talalay cycled faster and faster through the Doctor’s many (not wasted) lives.

Peter Capaldi. What can you say about his performance here that won’t be an over-enthusiastic froth of superlatives? When it was announced he’d been cast I was overjoyed, as he had the look and vocal timbre of the classic Doctors I grew up with – Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. As with those three, Capaldi’s so good that his mere presence can liven up a dull story. Crucially, he’s also over 30. (I don’t care what anyone says, but the Doctor shouldn’t look like he’s a member of One Direction). ‘Heaven Sent’, however, is the script he’s been waiting for. I can think of only three of the previous lead actors who could have carried a whole story like this, with such a convincing, compulsive range of anger, mesmerising defiance, hopelessness, dour humour and heart-breaking vulnerability. Lest we forget, in ‘Heaven Sent’ Capaldi has been the only actor in the title role allowed to play the Doctor’s real death scene, and was accorded the privilege of doing it twice in different ways.

You might want to read into the moment where the Doctor emerges on to the landscape of Gallifrey – and who saw that coming? – a biblical metaphor, as he’s survived his own personal wilderness and returned to the fold (with the Veil revealed as nothing more frightening than a pile of clockwork). If it does turn out to be the Time Lords behind the Doctor’s perpetual imprisonment, it’s gonna be one hell of a homecoming.

Can't wait.
Bit to rewind: Where do you start?

1 comment:

  1. "who saw that coming?"
    It helped to accidentally buy the TV guide for the week after.