Heaven Sent

Story No. 286 Confessional prison
Production Code Series 9, episode 11
Dates November 28, 2015

With Peter Capaldi
Written by Steven Moffat Directed by Rachel Talalay
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: The Doctor is trapped in a castle.


Into Darkness by Matthew Kresal 26/5/16

Doctor Who has never shied away from being experimental, even within its own format. Stories like Kinda or Ghost Light or more recently Blink or Sleep No More show that this is a series willing to explore different territory and surprise its viewers. Heaven Sent, first broadcast last fall, is another example of this. More than that, Heaven Sent is a journey into the heart and soul of the Doctor himself.

For much of its history, the series has used companions as a the viewer's way "in" to the series and the impossible worlds and events its portrays. This time, the Doctor is in that role in the aftermath of Face The Raven, and he is not a happy man. With the Doctor trapped in what appears to be a castle, pursued by a faceless enemy, we see what it's like for the Doctor to face seemingly impossible situations as he races around the castle and tries to keep his morale up against a foe that never tires and never stops. We see what it's like to be the man that Terrance Dicks described decades ago as the man who "never gives up and never gives in," and the price he ultimately pays for being that way.

While Tom Baker was the one who first pitched the idea nearly forty years ago of the Doctor going off on his own with no companion (which led in someways to 1976's The Deadly Assassin), it was Capaldi who finally got the chance to do it, and he rises to the occasion. If the speech in The Zygon Inversion was Peter Capaldi giving a ten-minute masterclass on how to play the Doctor, then Heaven Sent would be the equivalent of watching a master create a work before your very eyes. We see a man bent on vengeance, excited by the puzzle he's facing while also terrified of it. We watch him come slowly to realizations about his fate and what is going on around him and facing it not as a man raging against the proverbial "dying of the light" but with persistence and quiet dignity. It's a fascinating performance and one that seems likely to go down as one of the best given by any actor in the role of the Doctor.

As a result of that, perhaps, there is an atmosphere of gloom that pervades throughout all of Heaven Sent from Capaldi's Doctor onwards. Capaldi's Doctor is at his darkest here as we watch him going through the episode's events only to realize that he's in an almost demented twist of Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day by writer Steven Moffat. The direction of Rachel Talalay, the cinematography of Stuart Biddlecombe and even the music of Murray Gold all play up the gloom and take the audience into the Doctor's mindset throughout the episode. The darkness though has flashes of humor thrown into it, which keeps both episode and Doctor alike from going too far into the darkness.

All the gloom though ultimately though turns out to be well worth it. The Doctor's actions, apparently futile, are in fact the ultimate act of persistence that pays off a potentially obscure reference made early on in the episode, a hallmark of Moffat's best writing. The episode's closing scene is a powerful moment, one that pays off events two years in the making and one that will leave long-term fans of the series cheering in delight. It's a moment that also promises things for the episode that follows that it doesn't quite perhaps deliver on - but which can still be relished despite that - for the journey we've taken alongside the Doctor for some fifty-odd minutes. It's a moment of triumph not just for the Doctor but for the series as a whole.

Looking back on it even with a few months of hindsight, it's easy to see that Heaven Sent is a journey in many ways. It is a journey for the Doctor as he faces his own personal hell, unsure of whether or not he'll come out the other side. It's a journey for viewers into the heart, mind and even soul of a character we've been watching for years at least if not decades, which reveals what it's like to be the man who refuses to give up or give in. For all of that and more, Heaven Sent is not only the best episode of the season, but it may also be both one of the strongest and most experimental episodes the show has ever produced.

Personally, I think that's a hell of a triumph.

And You'll Still be Gone by Hugh Sturgess 1/1/17

Well, this seems to have zoomed to insta-classic status, and I have no desire to rock that boat. The only detailed argument I've heard against the boundless praise it has received is that the general level of quality of the series is so high and the show so bold that it isn't as stand-out remarkable as it would be in, say, Series 6 (let alone Series 7). Fair enough, but that's a (mild) criticism of the response the episode got rather than the episode itself.

It's true that the show has ascended to such heights with Capaldi that Heaven Sent does not seem as fantastic or experimental (by Doctor Who standards) as it would have had it come in (say) Listen's slot. By the same token, Under the Lake/Before the Flood might be considered pretty good if it replaced (say) The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky. The entire Capaldi era is animated by a desire to do things the show hasn't done before; even disregarding the obviously "experimental" episodes like Listen and Sleep No More, there have been interesting new examples of genre transvestism like Time Heist and In the Forest of the Night and socially aware morality plays like Kill the Moon and The Zygon Inversion. Series 9 has a vaguely experimental feel to the whole thing, given its not-very-safe decision to make it a series of two-parters, each striving to give the second episode a radically different perspective to the first.

But isn't that praise in itself? What a time to be a viewer, when the show can produce this episode and part of you thinks, "oh, it's just a one-hander in which the main character dies again and again for billions of years breaking through a wall of diamond"É

There's not much I have to say about this story that others haven't. There's no element that I love that others don't. My views are utterly in line with the consensus on this one.

Those people who raced to say "I guessed it all straight away!" - good luck to you. I didn't. It's all laid out there for us to work out: the Doctor's second set of clothes, "everything resets" and "closed energy loop" starts you thinking about repeated iterations of Doctors, the fade between the Doctor's face and the skull is laying it on pretty thick, and having the skull drop from the tower into the sea with the others is winking heavily. I still didn't work it out until the last moment.

The plot, when thought about for too long, has a lot of holes, though nothing that some relatively straightforward handwaving can't solve. Why create an escape route, however difficult, if you want information out of the Doctor? Why do the stars move as they would in the real universe when it's all inside the confession dial? How does the confession dial work anyway? Who buried the message "I am in 12" - an earlier Doctor, the Time Lords? That said, I think plot holes you don't notice while you're watching are fine. It's the ones that drag you out of the story that are a problem.

The most obvious thing to say about this episode is how well-made it is. Rachel Talalay is a fantastically skilled director but also an incredibly modest one. She isn't attention-grabbing and showy like Nick Hurran or (going back a ways) Geoffrey Sax in the TV movie. She knows exactly what the script is striving for and nails it, hewing so closely to the production's central vision that you scarcely notice the art on first viewing. Parts of the episode are almost reminiscent of Expressionist cinema: long distorted shadows and the amazing shots of the Doctor silhouetted in front of the azbantium wall. Capaldi's gaunt form, wild eyes and frock coat make him look like the protagonist of a 1920s horror film. Much of Heaven Sent indulges in the pure joy of making a beautiful image, yet Talalay makes it invisible.

In the past I have sledged Murray Gold to hell and back for his work on Doctor Who. His access to the National Orchestra of Wales has given his music a certain bombastic sameness, and furthermore it is consistently put too high in the mix. It's very heavy-handed and laid on so thick it practically flattens the drama. In Heaven Sent, however, Gold is gold. Furthermore, it feels very different to his work on the rest of the season, befitting an unusual episode. The melody that accompanies the Doctor's opening narration and later the shot of the two skulls bobbing up to the surface of the sea is haunting.

Peter Capaldi carries this episode, of course. There is less to immediately comment on in his performance than for (say) Matt Smith, who gave, above all else, a very mannered, showy performance. You could see the choices he was making as an actor, which made it easier to appreciate them. Capaldi makes his choices invisible. His face and voice are constantly alive with acting decisions that shape scenes without the viewer being aware of it. To say that his performance is mesmerising would not be quite right, since he knows the actor's job is to hide the performance. It's so deep and nuanced you forget it's an act. Would it be at all controversial to say that Capaldi's is the best Doctor ever?

The episode plays a very elegant game with time. The scenes in the TARDIS, the Doctor's mental "storeroom", show how quickly the Doctor thinks. They are a clear crib from the mind palace scenes in Sherlock's His Last Vow but not as show-offy or pointless. The Sherlock version was an overlong digression in a series rapidly becoming so bloated and baroque in its structure it was in danger of disappearing up its own arse. Employing the same conceit here avoids those problems, because it works better in the format (the Doctor talking to himself all episode) and it serves to undermine the ongoing fetishisation of the Doctor. See, the Doctor does work it all out for himself. It's an incredible sequence, despite being mostly unoriginal for Moffat. Whereas His Last Vow's mind palace just served to stretch out its run time in an overly showy way, Heaven Sent's storeroom makes a genuine first-act climax.

The Doctor escapes from the Veil because of his literally quick wits. His schemes, running from one extreme of the castle to the other to buy himself eighty-seven minutes, all emphasise his ability to run rings around his enemies. "I'm good at traps," he boasts. All this looks very bleak when we realise the truth. The rest of the episode confronts him with the ultimate answer to his quick wits: eternity. If you don't know the Brothers Grimm story, and so don't know what the Doctor is getting at, it initially looks like the Doctor is beaten. Mortally wounded, he burns himself up to create a new Doctor, whom he can but hope won't make the same mistakes he did. He's restarting the cycle over and over, dying each time, hoping that a future iteration finds a way to break it, yet never does. The repetition of the Doctor's gloat to the Veil - "you won't see this coming!" - makes for a black joke. The Doctor's quick wits and witticisms do nothing in the face of death. The Doctor's words about staring into the eyes of skulls, while cradling a skull, makes a comparison with Hamlet and Yorick inevitable. One can equally ask the Doctor what Hamlet asked of Yorick:

"Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment?"
To see mountains of skulls belonging to the hero of the series is to think, as Hamlet did, "Dost thou think Alexander o' this fashion i' the earth?". Yet as the truth slowly dawns, what first looks like the Doctor outsmarted and defeated turns into one of his most remarkable triumphs. What initially appeared to be his downfall - the sheer implacable obstacle of eternity - is really the secret of his victory. Had he not had four and half billion years to wear down that azbantium, he wouldn't have escaped.

This swings the sense of time to the other extreme. While the mental storeroom showed the Doctor thinking his way through a problem in a split second, the conclusion shows him operating on the completely opposite scale. Four and a half billion years. That's not geologic time, Earth has barely existed for that long. That's astronomical time, cosmological time.

Moffat has very often been accused of fetishising the Doctor. Heaven Sent feels like a rebuke to that charge. Moffat shows how the Doctor instantly solves problems in his head, and then shows him planning and operating over billions of years. The Doctor is a man who can work on a scale of seconds and a scale of stellar lifespans. It is perfectly graspable as a concept for the viewer, but it also literally isn't for a human being. Repeating himself endlessly, only remembering his previous iterations when it is too late to change the game, living and dying over and over for billions of years - it's pure, raw, existential horror that turns into triumph. Heaven Sent gives us the reason why the Doctor is a fitting subject for another fifty years of television.

A reasonable criticism of this episode is for what it is not. By almost explicitly setting out to be the most out-there episode of Doctor Who ever, its similarity to the rest of Moffat's output is almost disappointing. Beneath the surface, this is another Moffat puzzle-box story (the Doctor even uses the words "puzzle box") like Blink. By writing Heaven Sent, Moffat shows how experimental he will ever be. That's to be expected of a single author, though it means we're unlikely to be surprised in the future. That said, that is a very low-order issue for me. I absolutely adored Heaven Sent, and my adoration for it has done nothing but grow since. One online commentator got a lot of flack for suggesting that Heaven Sent would make a fitting item in an art gallery. I can see why people felt that lacked perspective, but when you consider amount of crap that ends up in art galleries, Heaven Sent holds up pretty well.

My final thought is to ponder the fact that this is the only Doctor Who TV story to include the word "arse".

Masterpiece Theatre by Donna Bratley 22/1/19

Modern Who can appear obsessed by its companions. Heaven Sent works by getting rid of them. It's entirely focussed on the Doctor, and, thanks to that, he's never been more captivating.

Steven Moffat has his critics - at times I'm among them - but this is his masterpiece. It's so intricate it demands multiple watches, and that's fine by me. It gets richer with them.

Nothing is spoon-fed. We're invited to pay attention and put the clues together. It's hardly populist, but populism is a bad thing, right?

Who painted Clara's portrait? Why didn't the azbantium wall reset? Did an early version of the Doctor walk around the castle - shock, horror! - naked?

Maybe he did. Maybe he found a dressing gown in a cupboard. As we didn't see, who cares?

Perhaps he painted the portrait or the Time Lords left it to haunt him; the wall is clearly the confession dial's lid, so not within that "closed energy loop" at all. I enjoy being left to answer a few questions myself, which may be why Heaven Sent is just my kind of experimental Doctor Who.

Everything fits. Rachel Talalay's job in directing must have been every bit as tricky as Moffat's in pulling the plot together, yet she succeeds in making this the most visually arresting piece in years, complete with nightmarish shadows, glorious lighting (especially in the night scenes; that amber-bronze glow is sublime) and an air of creeping terror as awful as the Veil itself.

The final montage could easily have become boring. It has to be repetitive, and yet with superb editing and Murray Gold's sweeping score (by far my favourite of all his compositions for the show: never intrusive, always supporting the story without trying to force itself to the forefront), it still holds my attention.

I'm invariably shocked she was allowed to depict the Doctor's last desperate action so graphically. It's a grim watch for a grown-up. I hate to imagine how I'd have reacted as a child.

Much as I would have to a nightmare like the Veil, I suspect. Possibly one of the creepiest creatures ever; its slow, unrelenting pursuit provides an air of sustained, implacable menace the big-name monsters all too often lack. No wonder the Doctor's never forgotten it.

Given that the BBC managed to spoil their own much-hyped cliffhanger (it pains me to imagine how much more of an impact that first glimpse of an orange sky might have had, but for some crack-brained decision-making), I'm amazed they kept Jenna Coleman's name out of pre-publicity. Thank goodness they got something right, because her brief kick up the backside is perfect: completely in character; and it's always his human friends who motivate the Doctor to do what he does best, and win.

It's easily believable that in his isolation he'd hold onto her in his mind as both imaginary friend and sounding board, especially with her demise so recent. Similarly, his retreat into a mental TARDIS feels completely natural. "Am I spoiling the magic? I work at this stuff, you know," he informs us via his ghost companion and no - he isn't. It's a touch of genius to delve into how all those miraculous escapes have been pulled off. On another level, it's a vivid pointer to the inevitability of Clara's fate.

Clever, capable and confident as she was, Clara worked within in the confines of the human brain. It's an amazing piece of kit, but it can't come close to the processing power of the Time Lord equivalent. Like the audience over the years, Clara understood the outcome of the Doctor's thought processes without ever getting close to grasping their complexity.

Those scenes within the Doctor's "store room" are spectacularly good. When Peter Capaldi was cast, I thought it was a magical decision. He's proven me right in every episode since, but this is the Doctor pushed as he's never been before, and he's spellbinding. Moffat's imagination, Talalay's brilliance, the editing and the music would count for nothing if the man on screen didn't deliver and he does, by the bucketload.

There's not an instant that feels forced or unconvincing. Every 180-degree switchback of emotion flows; he's in the moment, every moment. Changes from speaking aloud to voiceover don't jar; wry humour flits naturally through moments of sheer terror ("I've finally run out of corridor; there's a life summed up" may be my favourite line of the decade) and the rawness of quiet grief stops a furious burst of debilitating self-pity dead in its tracks. It's a majestic performance, all the better because it doesn't feel like a performance at all.

Watching the mortally damaged Doctor dragging himself to the top of the tower with the quiet, resigned explanation going on inside his dying mind might well be the most harrowing thing Doctor Who has ever done. Murray Gold's reined-back, haunting melody supplements the dialogue to perfection, and watching the Doctor burn - hearing him consciously enduring the agony - goes light years beyond mere horror.

Like so much else, it could easily have been over-played. Capaldi's greatest strength in the role is his ability to pull back - knowing (unlike both of his immediate predecessors, in hindsight) that less in performance is generally more. It pays off spectacularly as we watch the Time Lord die - again.

And again. And again, for billions of years. This incarnation frequently downplays his heroic streak, but actions speak louder than words, and trapped, alone, being stalked by his grief as much as by the Veil, he's absolutely magnificent.

No wonder he's bloody angry by the time he breaks out. The growled Hybrid "reveal" gave me a few moments of dread during the week after broadcast (if Moffat's going for that damnable half-human line...), but it's a thriller all the same. You know the Time Lords haven't got a clue what's about to hit them.

It's hard to say they don't deserve it, as much as all involved deserve a standing ovation for Heaven Sent. My favourite episode of the modern era.

Death in Paradise by Noe Geric 23/4/23

Heaven Sent, the best episode in the whole of Doctor Who history! Heaven Sent, the work of genius! Heaven Sent in which you've got the proof that Capaldi is the best actor ever! Heaven Sent! Heaven Sent! But isn't it a bit overrated? If you're reading this hoping I'll slap the episode with all it's flaws, then you are wrong. Not only do I agree on it being one of the best (no, not the best, but one of them) but it's also a unique experience in my whole life as a Doctor Who fan. And today I'll tell how the episode managed to makes me one of the happiest fan ever...

Once upon a time, there was young me. I didn't spoke a word of English at all. I waited for Doctor Who episodes to be dubbed in French before watching them. (The dub was of mediocre quality. As an example, Eccleston and Tennant had the same voice.) I waited six months before watching Series 8 and I had time to be spoiled a bit. But this year, I was going to watch Series 9 as soon as I could. I needed to wait only two days before the new episode were subtitled in French by some fans out there. I just needed not to be spoiled during these two days. And at this time, it was easy. I was on only one fan group online and barely followed Doctor Who news. I didn't even know Davros was to come back. Nor the return of Gallifrey.

I waited theses two days before Heaven Sent was available with French subtitles. But I nearly got at the end of these two days that one idiot on internet spoiled the cliffhanger of Gallifrey's return just by saying ''look my new phone wallpaper!'' You little bastard. I was spoiled, the biggest reveal of the series just one day before I could watch it. And then it was time. After school, I jumped in front of my computer and watched Heaven Sent. Except for Gallifrey's return, I didn't know what it was about... And great God, it was fantastic. The episode managed to surprise me even after having been spoiled. This twist, this story. It was beautiful.

I don't know if I'll ever get that feeling again, watching a Doctor Who episode and not even knowing I'll be surprised. And it was so good that I hesitated watching Hell Bent the next week, knowing it couldn't be as good as this (and of course it wasn't). This is the story Doctor Who needed to tell. I can't describe it, but everyone watching Doctor Who, don't stop until you see this one. Perhaps it doesn't have the same effect if you watch it twice, but it was worth it. I can't remember how many times I listened to ''Breaking the Wall'' and I don't know if I'll ever stop.

A must-see for every fan. Stupid me, of course every fan will see it! That's not as if everyone loses their mind when you're talking about it! 11/10