Heaven Sent Review
As I’ve said many a time, what I want out of Doctor Who is something I’ve never seen before. And so I’m not going to argue with anybody who puts this among their masterpieces. If you want to claim it as the equal of Listen or Blink then be my guest. For me, it’s a solid 9/10, and won’t be ahead of The Zygon Inversion in my rankings, so the result is that we’re going to start defensive and then move to the positive.
I suspect the crux of my disagreement with those who will put it higher is simply how much one values the basic idea of the “experimental” in Doctor Who. Which in some ways brings us back to Sleep No More, and in others back to In the Forest of the Night, two episodes that were distinctly experimental and also distinctly flawed. In both cases I value them considerably more than the consensus, and specifically for the odd things they did. And moreover, yes, obviously anyone who’s read any of my work on Doctor Who recognizes that I love its weird tradition, which has always been a huge part of the show, from The Edge of Destruction on. I’m definitely in the general camp of fandom that thinks The Mind Robber, The Deadly Assassin, Warrior’s Gate, and Vengeance on Varos are all cool just for being what they are.
But equally, the “experimental” field is crowded these days. At even the stingiest definition you’ve got to tag Listen, Last Christmas, Sleep No More, and Heaven Sent as experimental episodes in the last two years, and I’d be inclined to widen the net, and count bits of relatively non-experimental episodes like the Beethoven’s Fifth bits of Before the Flood and the two-hander first half of The Woman Who Lived, as well as much of In the Forest of the Night and the direct to camera bits of Kill the Moon. By and large this is why I’m loving the show so much right now. But it causes a small but distinct problem for something like Heaven Sent, which is that the fundamental limitations of how experimental Doctor Who can be really become visible when they’re run up against as often as they are these days. Doctor Who can do brilliantly experimental takes on all sorts of genres: western, Vikings, Restoration comedy, political thriller. But it can’t do an experimental take on experimentalism. That’s just not what it’s for.
This isn’t helped by the fact that the fundamental limitations of how experimental Moffat can be have long since become visible, and for the admirable reason that he keeps punching away at them with glorious stubbornness. This is, somewhat flagrantly, the basic concept of Time of the Doctor done as the show-off sequence in the middle of His Last Vow, with a middle finger emphatically raised at the entire “Moffat fetishizes the Doctor and this is a problem” crowd.
All of which is a very long way of saying that, slightly depressingly, this manages to be a hugely experimental one-hander that doesn’t actually do anything new aside from be a hugely experimental one-hander. And that is in some real senses less interesting to me, the sort of person for whom a rotating puzzle castle is a cliche, especially compared to the novelty of a political thriller about Zygon ISIS resolved as a monologue about war as a game show or robot Vikings defeated by eels set to Yakkety Sax. I know my experimental theater, room escapes, and teleporter philosophy discussions well enough to see all of the strings here. The resulting effect is like seeing your twentieth Dave McKean comic book cover or hearing your tenth FKA Twigs song: this is cool just like all the others.
So it’s not exactly surprising to hear that Moffat wrote the Christmas special, two scripts after this, not knowing if it was his last ever Doctor Who script. This feels like someone who’s realizing that they know all their own obsessions. Indeed, you can frankly read it as a metaphor for Moffat writing the same script over and over again. But all of that also means that it feels like someone who is well aware that they’re at a creative peak, and are determined to use it.
The highest compliment to pay to it is, ironically, the one that’s why we just did the six hundred words of hesitation, which is that Moffat makes it look easy. The real gems of this are in the first half, where everybody is figuring out how to make it work. Once the Doctor has his skull everything actually is easy, and going to go fine. The “and the shepherd’s boy said” montage is by no means idiot proof, but Talalay and Gold were always going to nail it, and it’s obviously where Moffat started from, so once he gets there you can all but hear the sigh of relief.
But those first few scenes are astonishing. Everything from the credits to the first TARDIS scene is spine-chilling, less because of the details of what’s happening (although what works for It Follows unsurprisingly works for Doctor Who) than because you can tell that Talalay, Moffat, and Capaldi are all scared shitless. Capaldi, in particular, has never seemed so method.
But also phenomenal, and to my mind much easier to miss, is the digging scene, where Moffat uses a change in who the Doctor is talking to as a character beat, switching from Clara to his unseen captors as he loses focus and gets angry. That’s the point to really take a step back and appreciate how effective a method everyone has built for storytelling, because it’s something that happens entirely instinctively, not as an obvious solution to “and now what do we do.”
So yes, obviously I loved this. The ultimate regeneration story, with the Twelfth Doctor not quite regenerating into himself, over and over again, dying billions of times in an aeons-long escape from one dinky little miniature prison in the gap between Clara dying and a Time Lord Western. The sheer weirdness of seeing just one iteration of the Doctor’s folly at first, so that it just looks like the Doctor trying to break his hand, with all the kind of broad comedy excess that implies. The accordion version of the Twelfth Doctor theme when the door opens onto the solid wall. It’s all great stuff. But I think I’m more interested in the moments when Doctor Who is less ostentatious right now and more mixing weirdness in with other things.
- For all that my taste has swung more towards stories whose experimentalism is part of a larger tapestry of inspirations, and for all that it’s probably going to be a cliche of reviews of this episode, both positive and negative, kudos to everyone for trying it. Some day Doctor Who will be a show you can’t imagine being brave enough to chance something with this much potential to fail horribly, as it has been at many times in its past, and it’s going to be tragic.
- Other phenomenal moments of Capaldi include his calm and taunting tone of his third confession and the bewildered surprise on his face when the wall actually breaks.
- I note one prominent blog that proclaimed that this episode is “a true work of art, fitting for any visual arts museum anywhere.” For god’s sake, fandom, get some fucking perspective.
- I really hope this follows the opener and Face the Raven in having its script uploaded to the BBC Writer’s Room section, for the simple reason that I suspect that, more than any other episode this season, it’s one that watching alongside the script would be profoundly revealing and educational. (I similarly hope that Moffat will, after two seasons of not doing so, make a return to the DVD commentaries here, because seriously.)
- There’s something slightly perverse about the fact that they can show the Doctor’s smoldering, burnt, and dying body but not him bloodying his hand punching a wall.
- I admit to being somewhat puzzled by the “the castle was the confession dial” revelation. Had the Doctor not actually made his confession yet? Is this a different dial than the one he handed Ashildir? Are confession dials usually made through strange existential tortures? How exactly did the teleport aspect of it work? I fully expect absolutely none of these questions to be answered next week.
- I like what looks for all the world to be a Time Lord Western, though. With Jenna Coleman as a waitress. I’m certainly fascinated.
- That said, we don’t really believe the Doctor’s the hybrid, right? Or maybe he’s only the hybrid when he’s wearing the sonic sunglasses. That would make aesthetic sense at least.
- So what’s the over/under on Jenna Coleman playing Clara in the finale, as opposed to playing an echo? Personally, I kind of like the idea of Coleman leaving as she arrived, playing a role other than Clara. Although I certainly wouldn’t be unduly floored by Clara’s death not sticking, and I can imagine numerous scenarios in which that could work well, I kind of hope she’s just dead.
- The Zygon Inversion
- Face the Raven
- The Zygon Invasion
- The Girl Who Died
- Heaven Sent
- The Magician’s Apprentice
- Sleep No More
- The Woman Who Lived
- The Witch’s Familiar
- Under the Lake
- Before the Flood
November 28, 2015 @ 8:53 pm
I am betting that the last line is in reference to Maisie Williams’ character. Which is both cheap and playing completely fair.
November 29, 2015 @ 6:18 am
I think a lot of things point to this explanation. Not least that she is a human with a dash of Mire in her.
November 29, 2015 @ 6:57 am
Playing fair, perhaps, but I’ll still be a bit cheesed off if Moffat commissioned the lengthy existential angst of The Woman Who Lived mostly to set up a lame dialogue tease.
(Conversely, if it’s a huge double bluff and the Doctor really is the Hybrid, I’ll be quite impressed.)
November 29, 2015 @ 8:57 am
If the Doctor is actually the Hybrid, one thing I hope gets addressed is when he actually figured that out.
Because it has to be at some point after he was freaking out whenever he encountered anyone who could be described as a hybrid, surely?
November 29, 2015 @ 9:10 am
I mean, it would flat-out make more sense for the Doctor to have fled Gallifrey due to a prophecy about himself than one about an immortal human girl he met many, many years later.
I’m anticipating a double-double-bluff wherein both the Doctor and the Time Lords turn out to have been completely wrong about the prophecy, but at the end Lady Me arrives through some contrivance and thus technically “a Hybrid will stand in the ruins of Gallifrey”. Or something like that.
November 28, 2015 @ 9:03 pm
Yeah, put me in with the people who’ll be listing this amongst their masterpieces. My thoughts might settle down with time, but right now I think this is the best episode of Doctor Who I’ve ever seen. I was absolutely blown away by it and haven’t been able to think about anything else or have a coherent conversation since watching it. Capaldi, Moffat, Talalay, Gold, the editor, the design team and everyone else involved in this deserve all the awards. Sorry I’ve got nothing more insightful to add!
My rankings (although there’s very little separating the first eight):
November 28, 2015 @ 9:20 pm
I’m with you — I think this is the single most enjoyable experience I’ve ever had watching Doctor Who. And, FWIW, my rankings line up a lot closer to yours than Dr. Sandifer’s this year.
Hats off to Rachel Talalay and editor William Oswald, who outdid both of themselves this week.
And that Peter Capaldi is one hell of a bird, innit?
November 28, 2015 @ 9:24 pm
I think at the point you have to put an episode like Woman at #8, you’ve just gotta admit we’re in a golden age! (And personally, I’d put it much higher.)
The only episodes that haven’t worked for me are Magician’s Apprentice, Before the Flood, and Sleep No More. But even Magician works FAR better when watched as an omnibus with The Witch’s Familiar, which I seem to have enjoyed a lot more than Phil did.
November 28, 2015 @ 9:39 pm
I do have to wonder about the Whithouse story just in terms of its imagery. The imagery itself — a reflection of the production team — is actually very interesting: the Ghost Doctor, and Hologram Clara, and just the general conceit that “seeing” the words, even if incomprehensible, leads to death, a metaphor for foresight. And, frankly, the sign language, which is an imagic mode of communication, and as such terribly apt for cinema.
I have not been very happy with this season, btw. While I’m thrilled with what so far is the conclusion, the way getting there has been… well… like punching through a wall of ice.
And I’m tired.
November 29, 2015 @ 4:13 am
Personally, I’ve loved this season, with the caveat that it hasn’t done very well by Clara. All my other favourite runs of the New Series (Series 1, Series 5, and Series 8) had strong character work for Rose, Amy, and Clara. This season, by contrast, has clearly had it’s moments for Clara, “Face the Raven” being particularly great. But I don’t like the extent to which she became a marginal figure in the narrative, even though there are some interesting themes to read into that.
November 29, 2015 @ 12:09 pm
Wow. A bit of a masterpiece for me this one.
I have found some the series a bit up and down, but with some amazing highlight like Zyon Inv, Me and the Doctor, but was not really into Whithouse’s work this time.
Loving the final stories so much.
November 28, 2015 @ 9:12 pm
So, this is what, the fourth? Fifth time this season Clara’s entire role has been reduced to “remind the Doctor he always wins”? And she’s not even alive for it? This is just how the Doctor remembers her, I guess.
Why did this even need to be a one-hander? Couldn’t Clara have actually said this stuff instead of just writing it on a chalkboard?
November 29, 2015 @ 8:11 am
I think that’s the problem of the ep for me. It was pretty and well-acted and well-directed, but I can’t gush because it just reminded me of how badly Clara’s been used this season.
November 28, 2015 @ 9:18 pm
I think there’s a lot to be said for experimentalism as an aesthetic that’s worthy of imitation in and of itself. It’s interesting to see Moffat take popular experimental filmmaking as a mood, a set of tropes, and ultimately the cornerstone of his recent reevaluation of the Doctor as a man who tries to live up to his name. For me, it’s not so much teleport ethics as it is the Doctor’s conscious choice to torture himself for billions of years out of pure stubbornness. (I mean, couldn’t he have stalled for time and grabbed a shovel?) He’s the man who would CHOOSE to take the long way round. Maybe that isn’t high art or a unique mish-mash of influences, but I certainly thought it was a masterpiece anyway.
That being said, I think international relations is an often-unseen influence in Doctor Who, so Inversion is certainly my top pick. (But I could totally see some Jacques Ranciere in the Veil TVs.) You’re certainly right that Doctor Who has been frequently experimental in recent years, often in episodes and little scenes that people don’t notice. But I think “an Ingmar Bergman episode of Doctor Who that’s resolved with punching a mega-diamond wall as a way to mourn Clara for two billion years” is just as innovative as Girl or Inversion.
November 28, 2015 @ 9:20 pm
I was half hoping this episode would be just kind of okay, nothing I’d really have to think about much, mostly because I want to focus on some other things, both writing-wise and work-wise. But dammit, it feels like it was written just for me, so I’m torn. So, obviously, I’m one of the over 50% who gave it 10/10 on GB, which makes me feel incredibly bourgeois.
For this episode is not concerned with social systems. It’s concerned with a single person, with his experience of grief and death and rebirth. It’s terribly Nietzschean, with the Eternal Return at its heart.
I think I caught on to it being the Confession Dial shortly after the Doctor’s first confession. Before he said the word “confess” but not too soon before that moment. It’s kind of a blur. Because this isn’t just an Eternal Return, it’s also a Near Death Experience, or perhaps an Ascension. It’s certainly foreshadowed by the Smoke Monster in the previous episode. For… to confess has got to be a near-universal experience upon death, and if not then it’s to rebuke confession itself, which I think is a kind of confession anyways, so there.
I found it terribly interesting that Water was the symbol of Memory. The Confession Dial reset almost everything exactly to the way it had been when the Doctor teleported. The skulls persisted in the sea, for example. They accumulated. Likewise, the “wall” between the Dial and Gallifrey, which was visually just a wall of ice.
I’m wondering if Under the Lake/Before The Flood is meant to be seen without the audio track, just as a series of images.
Anyways, yeah, I think it’s a brilliant middle episode in a three-part-trilogy. Middle episodes tend to lack the clarity of beginnings and endings, but this is episode is like crystal. I mean, it’s a bridge from one part to the other, which kind of makes it like the guitar solo at the center of Comfortably Numb. It’s brilliant. But it’s still in service to a larger mythology, an epic mythology. And I, for one, can’t fully place this episode with intellectual honest until I see what comes after. (Emotionally, it’s a fucking 10, sorry, but that is the truth. Blaine is a pain.)
For me, the answer to that question is ultimately going to be how we end up reading the return to Gallifrey. It’s not a real place; I must read it as metaphor. And that will largely depend on the schema of how the parts fit together, on the maps (if any) in play.
Finally, Rachel Talalay rocks my fucking world.
November 28, 2015 @ 9:30 pm
While I’m at it…
November 29, 2015 @ 4:55 am
“I mean, it’s a bridge from one part to the other, which kind of makes it like the guitar solo at the center of Comfortably Numb.”
That is an inspired comparison.
Roderick T. Long
November 28, 2015 @ 11:01 pm
I guessed it was the confession dial, but only because last week Ashildr asked how it works and the Doctor said he wasn’t sure, so I figured something surprising about how the confession dial works was coming up.
November 29, 2015 @ 12:13 pm
“Middle episodes tend to lack the clarity of beginnings and endings, but this is episode is like crystal.”
Oh hell yes. A piece of beauty for me.
November 30, 2015 @ 3:30 pm
Speaking of middle episodes, how about this: Face the Raven, Heaven Sent, & Hell Bent as nigredo, albedo, & rubedo?
November 30, 2015 @ 11:18 pm
The first stage is one of putrefaction, of death, of loss — the Doctor loses his companion, the jewel of his lotus, the seat of his soul, the crux of his identity.
The second stage is one of purification, of sharpening the soul, of identification, of learning to shine — the Doctor learns who he truly is, what he stands for, what motivates him. This is his period of reflection.
The final stage is one of integration. Of participation in the material world, and engagement with social progress. Synthesis. The Doctor confronts the power structure that informs his mythology and shapes the foundation of the world he lives in.
Yeah, looks pretty alchemical to me.
March 24, 2016 @ 4:37 pm
Hi, I’m a masters student studying multimedia in Dublin City University and I read these two comments and they intrigued me so much I’ve decided to use the Alchemical Magnum Opus and these three episodes as the basis for an audiovisual essay for an assignment.
My approach will be to examine the three stages of Nigredo, Albedo and Rubedo and how they apply in both content and imagery (and there’s so much to work with).
I’m just writing to ask if it ok to credit you Kat, and Jane for giving me the idea and putting me on the path I’m following? My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any further questions or would like to see the finished piece once it is finished.
November 28, 2015 @ 9:27 pm
“For god’s sake, fandom, get some fucking perspective.” Jesus Christ that made me laugh. Though weirdly enough the episode did make me think of Laurie Anderson’s O Superman video which plays on an endless loop at MOMA. Now I’m imagining that one day an 80’s version of Anderson will punch her way out of the screen, put on sunglasses, and go on to start a very average Instagram account.
November 29, 2015 @ 6:45 am
tbh I can’t help thinking that, given some of the beautiful shots and the music, the ep could stand amongst some of the best movies I’ve seen without blushing. Of course, this may be because my knowledge of movies is small and idiosyncratic (containing far too many Korean movies about gangsters, or serial killers, or both) and I am easily impressed. But still.
November 29, 2015 @ 7:57 am
You’re definitely not alone in thinking that, though I imagine Phil’s point is that astonishingly good direction and a reflective mood isn’t enough to earn a spot in a visual arts museum. But this certainly isn’t something you’d otherwise see on a primetime Saturday night drama, and I think Doctor Who doing Wild Strawberries + Sherlock + Warriors’ Gate is just as valid (and possibly as important) as doing something like The Brain of Morbius.
December 1, 2015 @ 1:02 pm
Interesting that you mentioned Brain Of Morbius and film references… My takeaway was “Only Doctor Who could pull off The Seventh Seal meets The Shawshank Redemption meets Groundhog’s Day.” And frankly, it’s the only show that would ever attempt it. 🙂
November 28, 2015 @ 9:35 pm
I’d like to point out that not only is Moffat using his favourite time loop plot line; this isn’t even the first time he’s sent his protagonist to a version of hell to face ghosts of the past (the last time being on his kids’ show Press Gang).
I think it’s the exploration of emotion that drives this more than the format- the detail of the Doctor being haunted by his childlike perception of a dead body- a rather mundane thing by Doctor Who standards; and the lines about how the continued absence of a loved one is ultimately worse than the specific moment of loss being the most affecting in my view. Beyond these moments, the episode felt more like a sequence of set pieces to uncover more clues than anything else. Not that I didn’t enjoy that either.
Overall, an experiment worth doing, but not a Listen level classic for me either
November 28, 2015 @ 10:24 pm
“I admit to being somewhat puzzled by the “the castle was the confession dial” revelation. Had the Doctor not actually made his confession yet? Is this a different dial than the one he handed Ashildir?”
Recall that he identified it to Me as his Confession Dial when he surrendered it to her but when asked said he /didn’t know what was on it/. It is completely in keeping with Moffat’s mild obsession with ontological paradoxes that the Confession Dial which has been driving the plot all season actually gets /created/ in “Heaven Sent” and at the end of “Hell Bent,” he will send it to Missy who will deliver it to a younger version of the Doctor in “The Magician’s Apprentice” who will then carry it around with him before surrendering it to Me who will forward it to the Time Lords in “Face the Raven.” It is perfectly proper for Time Lords who want the Doctor’s Confession Dial to manipulate him into creating one that can be sent back in time to an earlier point so that it will be easier for them to retrieve from a younger Doctor who doesn’t fully understand its significance.
November 28, 2015 @ 10:49 pm
I believe he said he didn’t know how it worked, not that he didn’t know what was on it.
November 29, 2015 @ 1:12 am
I like the theory but the confession dial starts out in the Doctor’s possession. In the prologue to Magician’s Apprentice, he gives it to Ohila, and it’s implied that the Sisterhood of Karn passes it on to Missy.
Here’s the script:
He tosses her something – a gold disk. OHILA looks at it in her hand (the Confession Dial, in its fully closed version.) It clearly means something to her.
THE DOCTOR (cont’d)
You know who to give that to. I won’t go straight away. I’ll hang out for a bit. Probably meditate on a rock somewhere, get myself ready.
You are embarking on an enterprise which will end in your destruction.
So what’s her role in all of this?
November 29, 2015 @ 1:13 am
Captcha: WMDs. Ominous news for Gallifrey….
November 30, 2015 @ 7:07 am
Regarding how the dial “usually” works, I brought that up on LJ, and one of my LJ friends, capriuni, came up with a good idea:
The Doctor says that Time Lords take a very long time to die, and usually do so in the company of other Time Lords. So that’s when they’re supposed to get transported into the dial, to record their confession. (A Time Lord who’s already dying when they enter the Dial can’t do the transporter trick, because that will just produce another Time Lord who’s already dying.)
November 28, 2015 @ 10:42 pm
I had fun with this episode. And I cracked up laughing at the cliffhanger. Oh Lance Parkin is gonna freak. And just when he released a new book. Well, at least the Veil wasn’t a Vale.
Roderick T. Long
November 28, 2015 @ 11:07 pm
“we don’t really believe the Doctor’s the hybrid, right”
I’m thinking Moffat is finally going to tackle the half-human-on-his-mother’s-side thing. Seriously.
“So what’s the over/under on Jenna Coleman playing Clara in the finale, as opposed to playing an echo”
My guess: she plays one of the fragments of Clara from Trenzalore.
a) So how did the figure out “bird” the first time? And where did he get his dry clothes the first time? This isn’t a time-loop/bootstrap-paradox situation because there’s a first and last time.
b) Last time we were in Diagon Alley. This time we’re in Hogwarts — shifting walls/stairs, plus a dementor. In the words of Kilgrave: “Good old J. K.!”
Roderick T. Long
November 28, 2015 @ 11:24 pm
Oh, and the TARDIS turns out to be a Sherlock-style memory palace.
Roderick T. Long
November 29, 2015 @ 12:49 am
2 other things I just realised:
a) The opening credits sequence is now, retroactively, about the confession dial.
b) When we pull back and see the rotating castle turret it also looks like the opening credits of Game of Thrones.
Roderick T. Long
November 29, 2015 @ 3:11 pm
My previous comments were made before I’d seen the full-length preview for next time (BBCA saved time by cutting it), so I didn’t then know that Maisie Williams was going to be in it. Now that I do, I think Me’s stock is rising and me’s stock is falling.
Roderick T. Long
November 29, 2015 @ 3:18 pm
Though if it is Ashildr, that means the Doctor didn’t know who the Hybrid was until recently, and so that knowledge can’t explain why he left Gallifrey. Whereas if he knew all along it was himself, it would explain why he left Gallifrey in fear — fear that he would destroy it (which he eventually did, or so he thought).
Roderick T. Long
December 6, 2015 @ 1:56 am
Okay, well, the episode deftly ended up endorsing both theories and neither.
November 29, 2015 @ 12:16 am
It might be “the hybrid is Me” rather than “the hybrid is me.”
I don’t think “bird” was there the first time, only from the second time on; he could only leave himself the clue once he had done it once. Presumably the same goes for the clothes, meaning the first iteration was done naked. Or maybe there were a couple hundred runs of trial and error with greater variation and ever-increasing entropy until the whole process started running like clockwork (so to speak).
November 29, 2015 @ 4:03 am
It might be “the hybrid is Me” rather than “the hybrid is me.”
I mean, I was taking the fact that the Doctor goes ahead and reveals that after going to such trouble to avoid saying it before to be an indication that Rule One was in effect (not to mention blatant “half-human” fan-baiting. But of course that’s it. How did I not spot that?
Really, we should all have been looking out for a significantly misleading use of the word “me” as soon as that started being used as a character’s name.
November 29, 2015 @ 6:51 am
omg. That’s why the process was so precisely repetitive by the time we saw it. It had become optimised.
November 29, 2015 @ 7:44 am
… although, as Jon pointed out, not perfectly optimised, or the Doctor would’ve been banging away at the wall with the shovel. A local maximum, then.
November 29, 2015 @ 3:53 am
Being the Doctor, he probably figured out Bird the first time around, after all, the solution is fairly close to the one used to put Gallifrey out of the way to begin with (what I’d call ‘the screwdriver trick’). He sees the wall, realises he can’t possibly break through it, but perhaps his successor can if he can get the Teleport to do what he needs. How to explain that; the story of the Bird.
The clothing is less easily explained, and I suspect Moffat didn’t really think about it, but in my personal head canon after a while the Doctor realises that running around in wet clothes isn’t fun, so he takes one for his team and leaves his clothes to dry by the fire, spending the rest of the ‘episode’ running around in his underwear so his successors can have more comfortable vision of hell.
November 29, 2015 @ 4:49 am
The first time he got to the wall, he didn’t punch it. He stared at it, thought of the plan, worked out he could get to the teleport in time, let the Veil kill him, dragged himself to the top of the tower, thought of the bird story, wrote BIRD, burned. Died.
And he did all of this completely naked.
November 29, 2015 @ 7:20 am
Making Gallifrey next week the Ministry of Magic…
November 29, 2015 @ 12:01 am
“For god’s sake, fandom, get some fucking perspective.”
People in glass houses…
November 29, 2015 @ 4:08 am
November 29, 2015 @ 4:59 pm
It’s a terrible investment choice, for one.
November 29, 2015 @ 8:19 pm
By all means, make a substantive claim. What have I done that displays a lack of perspective?
November 29, 2015 @ 1:42 am
I really, really wish they had phrased the ending line as
“The Hybrid is half human…”
“… On my mother’s side.”
December 2, 2015 @ 6:29 am
CASE CLOSED https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I4tyGOy7IOU
November 29, 2015 @ 3:54 am
I’m somewhere between smug at having been (unusually for me) ahead of the game throughout, having realised at once that the unidentified dying person must be the Doctor and that we were therefore in a time-loopy thing, and slightly disappointed at consequently not getting the full realisation effect.
Although from that point of view it’s interesting that Moffat included the bit with the Doctor finding his dry clothes and then carefully resetting the scene the way he found it, which would surely make the general set-up fairly obvious from quite an early stage anyway. Similarly, from the point where the Doctor starts talking about interrogation and so forth (even before he figures out the monster’s rules (playing the referencing-past-episodes game, a loud shout-out to Mummy for the shrouded-corpse-monster-symbolising-death-slowly-advancing-to-kill-after-a-fixed-interval thing)), there are plenty of nudges towards the idea that he’s inside the confession dial (as also the clockwork character of the castle, what with the prevailing chunky-pocket-watch aesthetic of Time Lord intimate accessories). It seems that this was a puzzle that was designed to be soluble as you go along, rather than aiming necessarily to surprise. Which makes me both less smug and less disappointed.
The clothes bit also implies that the Doctor himself has a reasonable hunch about where this is going at that point, which makes his subsequent slowness to grasp the significance of the skulls, stars etc a little odd, but that’s a very minor quibble.
Anyway, fabulously executed by all concerned, and definitely the peak of what has been, for me, a pretty ropey season prior to Face the Raven. Top stuff.
Regarding Moffat approaching this season as possibly his last, for me the setting for the finale smacks of a rather characteristic piece of deliberately hubristic masochistic brinkmanship – “I know, let’s put the last story on Gallifrey, because THOSE don’t in any way tend to fall horribly flat! Let’s see you finish on a high with that one, Steve!”. But maybe Moffat doesn’t share my sense of weary dread about anything involving Gallifrey.
Also some very self-referential nudging and winking about not only setting one of his stories, and putatively perhaps one of his last, in a literal puzzle-box, but even describing it as such in the script.
November 29, 2015 @ 6:54 am
With rare exceptions, it really is the dullest planet in the universe.
November 29, 2015 @ 8:05 am
The clothes bit also implies that the Doctor himself has a reasonable hunch about where this is going at that point, which makes his subsequent slowness to grasp the significance of the skulls, stars etc a little odd, but that’s a very minor quibble.
I think he has an inkling of what the skulls are early on but spends a lot of time in denial. That’s the power of the “Why me?” scene in the TARDIS memory palace, as he realises what he needs to do and how much suffering he will need to endure to escape. And this moment happens every time: he never remembers what happened last time, but goes through the same sequence of clues that will leave him with the same conclusion, and that same moment of anguish.
Not mentioned on here, but I’ve seen it elsewhere, is how the Doctor tells more of the bird story as the episode progresses and this must be a sign of the Doctor remembering, whereas the reality is far more horrifying: the Doctor is able to complete the story because each life he caves slightly more into the wall. Essentially an story about describing how to measure a moment in eternity takes an eternity to tell.
This is very much a story to rematch and unpack, but a surprisingly adult horror story on the futility of existence.
Roderick T. Long
November 29, 2015 @ 3:14 pm
“The clothes bit also implies that the Doctor himself has a reasonable hunch about where this is going”
November 29, 2015 @ 4:11 am
See, the thing I like about experimental theatre (and I’ve been responsible for quite a bit of it in my time) is often not the end result (the ‘product’ of the experiment if you like) but the odd, quirky, imagery and juxtapositions thrown up along the way. Experimentation (in drama terms) is not just about gratuitously ‘being weird’ but in the creation of hybrids. New forms of discourse formed by rubbing disparate concepts together to make fire. Or gold. Alchemy. Sometimes this must be achieved by smashing through the tougher than diamond wall of control to challenge the authorities on the other side.
So, Phil, while I think I agree that Heaven Sent is, in many ways, ‘an experimental take on experimentalism’ it’s also very much a traditional Doctor Who experiment of rubbing one genre up against another. In this case A Beckettian existential one hander (The confession dial as Krapps Last Tape) and a classic locked room mystery (with the added twist that the victim is also the detective). Add a touch of Edgar Allen Poe (I thought ‘BIRD’ was a clue about Facing the Raven) and you’ve got Doctor Who gold.
November 29, 2015 @ 6:22 am
Thanks for making me realise the extent to which this episode reminded me (or would have reminded me, had I had access to your comment at the time I was watching it!) of the work of Jorge Luis Borges.
November 29, 2015 @ 1:16 pm
Oh yes Borges definitely and more than a hint of Kafka. Particularly the experimental physical theatre versions by Betkoff. Not just The Castle. But The Trial (of a Time Lord!), Metamorphosis (what else is Gregor/the beetle but a hybrid?) and In the Penal Colony, (Colony Sarff. Or am I being silly?) Plus many other Kafkan short stories involving mental imprisonment, death, resurrection and nightmare.
November 29, 2015 @ 1:20 pm
November 29, 2015 @ 6:35 pm
I saw the Berkoff production of Metamorphosis with Tim Roth in London long ago, shortly before leaving for Japan. Despite not being a particular theatre-goer, I still cite it as my personal touchstone of what theatre is capable.
Roderick T. Long
November 29, 2015 @ 3:16 pm
Also The Prisoner. “Why did you resign?” “Why did you leave Gallifrey?”
November 30, 2015 @ 3:52 am
The Prisoner is nothing if not Kafka via Bond.
Lovecraft in Brooklyn
November 29, 2015 @ 3:22 pm
I’ve studied Borges and Kafka, but all I could think of was the castle in Dark Souls (which gave me a clue to the ending) with its clockwork elevators and forboding atmosphere and eternal rebirth. And then the Dark Tower at the end, and Gallifrey as Oz in Wizard and Glass.
November 29, 2015 @ 12:21 pm
“New forms of discourse formed by rubbing disparate concepts together to make fire. Or gold. Alchemy. Sometimes this must be achieved by smashing through the tougher than diamond wall of control to challenge the authorities on the other side.”
Yes, with you on this.
November 29, 2015 @ 4:31 am
All television is experimental television. Sometimes the experiment is how much more of this formula will the audience take.
November 29, 2015 @ 5:01 am
So that was the Doctor’s nigredo, then? Confronting the Veil/Shadow? Literally blackening, burning? Ascending, eventually, as a Hybrid: a union of opposites?
November 29, 2015 @ 9:14 am
I’ve been thinking about this. The hand is actually red as he disintegrates — that’s his rubedo moment in the story. But given that this the middle part of a three-parter, I’m inclined to given the entire episode over to the albedo. The iconography of Face the Raven, that’s the nigredo stage in a nutshell. Next week is Gallifrey, a Red planet. Here, in the albedo, the Doctor is in a hall of mirrors. Everything here is really about him. That block of diamond ice.
November 29, 2015 @ 9:47 am
Yes, I picked up on the Redness aspect of Gallifrey. The question, though, is when did the Unity of Opposites take place? I’d have said it was the Doctor and the Veil (or Shadow), but if the Doctor is the Hybrid, are those the opposites? And what is he actually a Hybrid of? (I’ve never tried to italicise on this platform before; I hope I used the right script.)
What if the original prophecy was right – the Doctor is a Hybrid of Dalek/Time Lord, used by the Daleks to bring down the Time Lords? In that case, he’s a unity of opposites in the traditional sense that the existence of an opposite defines each entity. The Time Lords are defined by not being the Daleks, and the Daleks are defined by not being the Time Lords. But the Doctor makes that bridge real, highlights the actual difference. Or maybe I’m completely on the wrong track. You’re so much better at this than I am.
November 29, 2015 @ 12:54 pm
Oooh, I love all this. Yes, the Doctor is a Hybrid of what he is and what he is not. Which is existential, not so literally genetic, quite right. He is a Time Lord; he is not a Dalek. But at the meta level he is defined by Daleks (without them he would not be, for they assured the success of the programme) whereas he himself defines the Time Lords, who don’t come into being until his sixth season.
And yes, he’s the Veil — the Bird. He identifies with that which killed Clara. He reenacts the moment of her death, over and over again, except he is the Raven and the Wall is Clara. Which presents an interesting mirroring for the planet Gallifrey. The Doctor is Death, but Clara and Gallifrey are now magically, symbolically linked.
Oh, another Union of Opposites — linear (historical) time and cyclical (mythical) time. Quite appropriate for a Time Lord.
November 29, 2015 @ 6:48 pm
November 30, 2015 @ 3:37 pm
Ah, you beat me to it! I was just saying this in one of the threads above.
November 29, 2015 @ 5:37 am
Isn’t there a Castle Revolving in the Mabinogian? Or was that just in Seven Soldiers?
Because if do you examine it from a Welsh persepective, the Confession Dial takes on another meaning. Dial: Revenge.
And maybe the Veil is a homophonic reference to Glamorgan.
November 29, 2015 @ 12:57 pm
Thanks for inspiring me to recall a connection in myth to this story!
The image of rotating castles which is key here, comes from an ancient Welsh poem called “Preiddeu Annwn”, The Spoils of Annwfn, known also as The Raid on the Otherworld – and it does have links within the second branch of the Mabinogion.
Annwn is the Celtic Otherworld into which Arthur with his ships sailed into to capture the cauldron of Annwn (a possible prototype of the Grail). On the journey they travelled to many islands with spinning castles such as “Caer Sidi” which has been said to be linked with the Irish Sidhe – doorways through worlds in the episode. The journey was one of great risk and a perilous one as the repeated phrase states that few survived:
“Except seven, none returned…”
Some writers have suggested that the journey through each of the castles can be seen to represent the journey of the soul and that each stage is a trial and a test – seems apt for this episode which feels like both a descent and an ascension.
“Complete was the prison of Gweir in Caer Sidi,
Through the spite of Pwyll and Pryderi.
No one before him went into it.
The heavy blue chain held the faithful youth,
And before the spoils of Annwvn woefully he sings,
And till doom shall continue a bard of prayer.
Thrice enough to fill Prydwen, we went into it;
Except seven, none returned from Caer Sidi.”
September 10, 2021 @ 6:21 am
I am glad someone else has noticed this! I typed in ”Heaven Sent”, ”Doctor Who” and ”Caer Sidi” to see if anyone else has noticed and found your comment from 2015. Strange that more people haven’t noticed despite the Arthurian connection.
The spectral guardian seems to be based on the silent, ghostly guards of Caer Sidi too.
November 29, 2015 @ 6:39 am
For me, the very very familiar elements were the mysterious other reality with its own rules and the “my God, this isn’t the first time round!” reveal. By now you have to do those super grippingly to keep my attention. But this story, and its gorgeous shooting and music and performance, not only kept me from talking all the way through it (unequalled since “Midnight” IIRC), but Mr Moffat made me gasp and start to weep by having Mr Capaldi say a number.
Applause for the way “bird” does double duty as the awful solution and as the phoenix the Doctor has to be to escape. “It lays one egg / not ten or twelve / and when it’s hatched / out pops itselve”.
November 29, 2015 @ 8:47 pm
The Bird is an Egg
November 30, 2015 @ 1:26 am
The Bird is an Egg is a moon.
November 30, 2015 @ 4:25 am
The teleporter is an egg – the Doctor burns himself to set it on fire and hatch himself out of it. (So we can legitimately say that this episode saw the Doctor brooding a lot.)
December 1, 2015 @ 3:52 am
Lovely phoenix imagery, deepening the alchemy in the story.
November 29, 2015 @ 6:52 am
I am likely over-thinking this but is The Doctor the hybrid on a class basis and it refers to the fact that he is from humble origins (similar to the farmers we see around his barn in the trailer) and was elevated to the aristocrat.
He’s the Hybrid because he’s the only person on the planet of the city (upper class) and the country (lower class).
November 29, 2015 @ 6:54 am
I’m still holding out for a Dalek resolution. Not that I care especially for the little pepperpots but I’m searching for misdirections, and I’m not hugely invested in Galifrey stories in general.
Fantastic episode, 10/10 easily for me on first viewing, although I’m less sure about repeat viewing.
Did anyone spot the projection of the doctor’s opening speech on the wall near the beginning? I think that’s what it was, but it’s out of focus and my freeze frame skills are not great.
November 29, 2015 @ 9:22 am
I vaguely registered the text on the wall and waited anxiously for it to be shown in full (I didn’t want to interrupt the ep by freeze framing), but as the episode drew me in I forgot it was even there.
It is indeed the opening speech. Makes me wonder if there was a cut moment where the Doctor acknowledged it being written there, or if it really was just meant to be a tiny detail.
November 29, 2015 @ 9:51 am
Knowing Moffat, I doubt the Hybrid will be something so… genetic. I always thought the whole thing would be a metaphor, even if it was Time Lord/Dalek.
Ashildr is not just a hybrid of a human mire: she’s a hybrid of transient and eternal; of the human mayfly, limited memory capacity and human error; and of the eternal, the unchanging, from everywhere and nowhere. She’s a hybrid of Ashildr/Me.
November 29, 2015 @ 7:08 am
Very happy with that episode. What I value in a showrunner, apparently similarly to you, Philip, is the bringing of things to Doctor Who that we haven’t had before. We disagree a little about how much innovation Moffat brings to the table: by and large I think he’s done a lot less to change the nature of the show from what it was like under RTD than, e.g., Letts or Hinchcliffe or Williams or JNT or Cartmel managed with their respective predecessors. But one thing that does seem to me to be new to Moffat!Who is its interest in telling stories about/using time travel and the fourth dimension in general. So this is totally Moffat playing to his era’s strengths and while it might not, with hindsight, be all that unpredictable in its construction, at least it’s an episode that couldn’t have existed prior to his reign, and rather a good one too.
So, yep, this has salvaged a season I was often appreciating but never really loving for me to some extent. Next week’s could so easily be an enormous trainwreck, but let’s not count our turkeys before they’ve hatched, eh?
Lovecraft in Brooklyn
November 29, 2015 @ 7:36 am
Dark Souls + The Dark Tower. Exactly what I needed tonight.
November 29, 2015 @ 9:33 am
November 29, 2015 @ 9:50 am
I’m imagining the dialogue from the Christmas special.
River: What time do you call this?
Doctor: I’m sorry, I spent a billion years punching my way through a harder than diamond wall.
River: Why didn’t you use the key?
Doctor: There wasn’t a key.
River: Yes there was. I put it under the doormat. You didn’t read my note.
November 29, 2015 @ 6:46 pm
November 30, 2015 @ 2:30 pm
“Heaven Sent” wasn’t bad, but this is better. 🙂
November 29, 2015 @ 11:05 am
More than just experimenting with the show, I think this episode did something much more remarkable. Think about the nature of the climax, where we discover that the Doctor’s plan is literally wearing down the stone wall like a mountain.
But with the impact of a single raindrop on the highest peaks of the Rocky Mountains before he’s killed and has to repeat the whole process again!
This, more than anything else in the Moffat or Davies eras that try to communicate the scale of the Doctor’s life and thinking, shows him acting at a truly cosmic level.
It’s the best lift of Christopher Priest’s idea from The Prestige that I’ve ever seen, and takes it in a chilling new direction.
Lovecraft in Brooklyn
November 29, 2015 @ 3:25 pm
That was in my head, too.
November 29, 2015 @ 2:57 pm
This episode somehow managed to take cues from a bunch of all of my favorite things, blend them together, and mix them all up with another of my favorite things; Doctor Who. We’ve got House of Leaves, Stephen King’s It, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, Dark Souls, and a cheeky sort of masocore game-esque situation. Whoa. It’s going to be hell to try and pick a top three for this series between Zygon Inversion, Face The Raven, and this.
Lovecraft in Brooklyn
November 29, 2015 @ 3:26 pm
Or one of those modern roguelikes like Rogue Legacy, where every run you die, but make progress to a meta-goal.
November 29, 2015 @ 4:26 pm
It’s possibly worth mentioning that the Bird Story is a Buddhist parable. Barry Letts would be pleased.
November 29, 2015 @ 4:46 pm
I admit to being somewhat puzzled by the “the castle was the confession dial” revelation. Had the Doctor not actually made his confession yet? Is this a different dial than the one he handed Ashildir? Are confession dials usually made through strange existential tortures? How exactly did the teleport aspect of it work? I fully expect absolutely none of these questions to be answered next week.
The confessional dial was in Missy’s hands for a considerable amount of time. And in “Death in Heaven” it was suggested that Missy knew where Gallifrey was, although she didn’t give the Doctor the right coordinates.
Missy and the leadership of Gallifrey, together, had ample opportunity to do whatever they wanted to the confessional dial.
November 29, 2015 @ 9:35 pm
There’s probably a good version of the confession dial where you’re having a nice chat with the memory of an old friend or mentor.
But the Doctor got the “bad cop” interrogation dial instead, the one that tortures you, and then gives you a glimpse of home at the end.
November 29, 2015 @ 5:27 pm
There was a point earlier this season when I was wondering if Moffat was really setting things up to actually end the show – or, at least, put it on another lengthy hiatus.
Especially in combination with all the rumour-mongering about what was going to happen next year; the fact that we haven’t seen many stories about casting a new companion – even the carefully released information about who was in the Christmas special made me very suspicious. After all, this “new” version of the show has been running for ten years already (which hardly makes it “new” of course); there aren’t a lot of places left to go without starting all over again. And whilst this is perhaps the one show that can do that, there are good reasons why RTD’s version worked so spectacularly – one of which was definitely the 20 year tv gap.
And then we get an episode like this, which tears me in both directions. It’s a reminder that the Doctor will be around forever, and yet it also says that there are dangers in circling around and around without being able to take a break.
It’s not my favourite of the season (for me this has been a very strong season anyway) but it does encapsulate a lot of my concerns about the future of the show.
November 30, 2015 @ 2:36 pm
I feel like there are plenty of places to go — you just have to actually go there, rather than trying to do what other shows do and explore the protagonists rather than using them as lenses to explore the rest of the universe.
Putting the focus on “who is the Doctor and why does he do what he does? what kind of man is he?” certainly makes sense from the perspective of how you do grownup TV in the 21st century, but it’s an inherently finite approach. I’d say at least one reason the show has been able to keep going so long is that it avoids dipping into this well too often.
November 29, 2015 @ 9:15 pm
Count me in with the Masterpiece crowd. My goodness.
This is my Golden Age of Doctor Who. Good. Very good. Great. Very great.
The iteration improves upon itself.
November 29, 2015 @ 9:28 pm
So the Doctor dies (billions of times) in the same way that River Song did, by linking himself up to a teleporter so that someone else can continue on.
Also, I wonder if that first door had its memory reset? Every couple of days someone comes to talk to it.
November 30, 2015 @ 9:55 pm
I don’t understand why the Doctor didn’t try to stomp through the wall, rather than punching. Punching took too long because the pain made him pause each time. And a good solid stomp is stronger than a punch. He could have been out of there in 20 million years, without breaking his hand.
November 30, 2015 @ 11:21 pm
He would have broken his foot… and then maybe not have been able to crawl with enough strength back to the teleporter room?
December 1, 2015 @ 12:40 am
Let me just say that if, like me, you didn’t think much of this episode the first time round, it’s worth giving it a second viewing. My perspective on what it was trying to do and what it actually accomplished changed entirely, and now I’m fully on board. Here’s an excerpt from what I ended up writing about it:
“At its heart, this is an episode about grieving: repeating what seem like identical, meaningless days doing the same things over and over, seeing reminders of death around every corner, running just to get away from them, hoping against reason that if you just keep doing the mundane everyday things long enough, maybe the person you’ve lost will somehow reappear, knowing there’s no chance it will ever happen…and relying only on their memory to propel you forward to be the person you know they would want you to be.”
Full review here, in case anyone wants to read the rest: http://encyclops.com/doctor-who-heaven-sent/
December 2, 2015 @ 12:45 am
Well, I really loved this. I could watch Peter Capaldi play the Doctor all day long, so maybe no real surprise there.
I too will start with my quibbles:
The Doctor clearly is able to leave some information for his next iteration – “the bird is the word” and his wet clothes. So why couldn’t he gradually accumulate more information over two billion years so that he could figure it out much earlier on. It wouldn’t take much at first – just buy yourself a few extra seconds to leave a few notes. Each iteration would pass on more information until thousands of years later the Doctor would have the whole scenario explained right at the start and be able to use his time to find room 12 faster and work on the wall more than just three punches in each iteration. Maybe he could jerry rig up the teleporter to create a diamond-dissolving ray and be done in no time. Hell, at least use the shovel and shave off a few million years!
That might be my only real quibble. I don’t fully understand the ending – who set the Doctor up to go to the castle and why? Was it the Time Lords? I gather the intended “solution” was for the Doctor to confess the truth regarding the Hybrid and then the diamond wall would break and the gate to Gallifrey would be opened. The Doctor refused to confess and broke his way in the hard way. If it wasn’t the Time Lords, then who? But I expect this will all be explained in Hell Bent.
Now a couple things that I liked:
This is how you do “the Doctor spends billions of years doing something”. I really hate when the show had Matt Smith spend 200 years swanning around and come back as if nothing whatsoever had changed. Or spend another 400 years on Trenzalore. Whole civilizations can rise and fall in 400 years, but that little village never changes, and the Doctor doesn’t change except to get grizzled. Or when Captain Jack was buried alive for 2000 years and popped back out like “OK, so where were we?” These things show a complete lack of understanding and appreciation for time. In real life, even a decade changes us significantly – imagine what 200 years would do.
But this was done right. The Doctor himself only spent a week maybe. But it happened over and over again. It reminded me of “Moon” and maybe a little of “The Doctor’s Daughter” (which is a less flattering comparison, I know).
A little thing that I wonder if it was intentional: The Doctor’s burned and dying body reminded me visually of Mawdryn when he was first found by Nyssa and Tegan. And this is very fitting because Mawdryn and his colleagues were also stuck in an endless loop of dying and being regenerated into boredom and pain.
Watching it a second time, the gasp as the mysterious person pulls the lever is pretty clearly the Doctor’s voice, but I didn’t catch that at first viewing.
Great episode, wonderful incidental music and a very scary “monster”. Hope the finale lives up to the standard this set!
December 3, 2015 @ 6:22 am
‘…why couldn’t he gradually accumulate more information over two billion years so that he could figure it out much earlier on.
1. Each teleport creates the Doctor anew preserved at the moment he arrives. He doesn’t actually spend ‘two billion years’ in the confession dial castle, only as long each time as it takes to work out the clues and get in as many punches at the wall as he can before the Veil gets him. Now, admittedly, he gets further into the wall and the bird parable each time and this gives the Veil a longer distance to walk before it gets to the Doctor but it’s only a matter of seconds. The Doctor never accrues any more information than he does the first time round. What I have to head-canon is why he doesn’t regenerate (I’m assuming he uses all the regeneration energy to power the teleport) and why only his skull is left each time (because it’s connected to the machine? Is this explained anywhere?)
December 3, 2015 @ 8:28 am
Just realised that the theme of doing things over again until they are done right, also emerges in The Zygon Inversion.
Does it come up in other episodes this series? He goes back to rescue the young davros, I guess…
December 3, 2015 @ 8:40 am
I’m still holding out for him sending the confession dial to Missy then going back to try and prevent the course of action that results in Clara’s death. Which is where he’s at in Magician’s Apprentice. Explaining his delight at seeing Clara, the hug and his constant references to her death over the rest of the series. Eg. – “That was the longest month of my life” “It was only five minutes” “I’ll be the judge of Time!”.
Even if only thematically.
April 19, 2017 @ 2:42 pm
thanks for sharing this great review, I really enjoyed while reading it. Also shared it with my friends over social media.
April 12, 2020 @ 12:01 pm
thanks for this.