[This is a review of Doctor Who season 9, episode 11. There will be SPOILERS.]
Last week, Doctor Who wisely put the focus of the hour on Clara Oswald, as she was forced to face down imminent death and come to terms with the fact that her life and journey with the Doctor had reached its conclusion. Doing so meant that while ‘Face the Raven‘ was tempted to shift its focus to Peter Capaldi’s fiery performance and the Doctor’s rage toward Ashildr and those ultimately responsible for setting the events that led to Clara’s death in motion, it instead steered away from such things.
Perhaps what made the episode so effective was the way in which Clara asked the Doctor to honor her memory and their time together by not seeking revenge. The act of her addressing such concerns directly put the necessary emphasis on the matter at hand; it made everyone present in the moment, so the pain of Clara’s departure could be felt more completely. It also made sure that another’s grief didn’t become the focal point of an hour otherwise devoted to who was actually doing the dying.
Doctor Who‘s restraint in ‘Face the Raven,’ then, its ability to stay in the present rather look away or look ahead, helps make ‘Heaven Sent’ one of the most captivating episodes of the series in years. In the wake of Clara’s death, the Doctor finds himself locked in a mysterious clockwork castle, being stalked by a slow-moving figure, whose aura of death is magnified by the flies buzzing around its cloaked shape. It’s a mystery, trapped in a puzzle designed specifically to terrify the Doctor and force him to make confessions in order to stop “death” in its tracks – at least temporarily.
That is a thrilling set up for any episode of Doctor Who, but ‘Heaven Sent’ takes it a step further by turning it into an exploration of grief, and making the Doctor’s predicament a powerful metaphor for the anguish that follows a devastating loss. “The day you lose someone isn’t the worst; at least you have something to do. It’s all the days they stay dead,” the Doctor says after having some time to contemplate and examine the unique pickle he’s in. And that’s where the hour becomes one of the best things to bear Steven Moffat’s name in quite some time: It takes the time to consider the situation with nuance and subtlety, while also taking devastatingly huge swings at the hour’s larger meaning and generally knocking it out of the park.
Most of the time, when you put a single character in situation and tell it entirely from his or her perspective, there is a tendency for the story to unfold inside a vacuum. In other words, there is no sense of a larger world. The individual at the center of the narrative is all that’s driving and that often leaves the story feeling flat and empty, devoid of the textures that make a story come to life and resonate beyond the functional meticulousness of putting together a compelling mystery and having the pieces fit together precisely, like the gears and levers of a watch, a clockwork castle – or the Doctor’s confession dial.
But therein lies the challenge when the goal of an hour like ‘Heaven Sent’ is to reach into the grief of the Doctor and to examine it from his unique perspective. The alternative would be to give him someone to talk to. The risk in that would be similar to what nearly transpired in ‘Face the Raven.’ And yet, Moffat finds a clever workaround by taking Doctor’s perspective a step further, reaching into his brain to show him answering questions written in chalk by a mute Clara who only faces the camera (and the Doctor) once. Through that, Moffat effectively delivers the necessary texture to the story without upsetting the fragile balance of the hour basically being a one-man show, driven by an outstanding performance from Peter Capaldi.
The Doctor working to discover how he wound up in this confounding place and what it all means largely fuels the hour. There’s a strong central mystery that, when it is discovered to be a near infinite loop, a Groundhog Day-like scenario in which the Doctor is fated to run from death and deliver punishing blows on a wall made of a substance harder than diamond for two billion years, until he is finally freed from his own confession dial, is far more fulfilling than you might expect. And that’s due in part to the hour’s desire to be, despite its mystery and metaphoric bona fides, as straightforward as possible. There is remarkably little that isn’t dedicated solely to the story at hand, making the hour one of the high marks of the season and series (and, certainly, of Capaldi’s time as the Doctor). There is the admission that the Doctor is the hybrid and will “stand in the ruins of Gallifrey,” but even that feels like an extraordinarily candid admission from a series that likes to set such things up in one hour and then hurriedly try to knock them down the next.
The way Doctor Who normally unfolds is usually presented as a two-course meal. But really it’s just an hour spent watching the chef prepare a dish, followed by an hour of wolfing the food down without taking the time to savor it. That is not the case in ‘Heaven Sent,’ which registers as a complete meal the viewer is asked to appreciate rather than simply consume. This is an astonishing feat considering, in addition to addressing Clara’s death in a poignantly oblique manner, it has the often-difficult task of setting up the season finale. The season’s penultimate hour, then, is a near-perfect hour of Doctor Who that has all the attributes of a superb standalone episode, but instead works to make the previous hour more meaningful while also establishing the stakes upon which the season will end.
And yet, through it all, through the Doctor’s discoveries and confessions, ‘Heaven Sent’ primarily manages to be a powerful exploration of grief and loss, one that cleverly uses concepts like eternity (relatively speaking) and indestructibility to underline the anguish of its character. The hour successfully reverses the typical irrelevance of time in Doctor Who for just long enough that a single stellar hour can deliver a concentrated dose of sentiment that aptly captures the Doctor’s state of mind, while also paying fitting tribute to his lost companion.
Doctor Who will conclude season 9 next Saturday with ‘Hell Bent’ @9pm on BBC America. Check out a preview below:
Photos: BBC Worldwide Limited