This is a spoiler-free review. Already seen it? Read on at the end for spoilers.
Blimey, Charlie. We’ve given out a few 10/10s this season to episodes that deserved it for entirely different reasons. The Witch’s Familiar was a big old fan-pleaser, The Zygon Inversion was a perfect geo-political adventure that capped an immediate and iconic story and last week’s Face The Raven saw new writer Sarah Dollard make one hell of a first impression with a pivotal episode. The latter of those is still this writer’s personal favourite, but Heaven Sent may be the very best – an instant classic that finds Doctor Who in completely unfamiliar territory.
As if you need reminding, last week’s episode ended with Maisie Williams’ Mayor Me sending the Doctor off on a teleport after the unintended death of Clara Oswald. Her mysterious antagonists in this act remain unseen, but we seemingly pick up almost immediately: the Doctor is alone, friendless and trapped on a world that seems custom-made to terrify him into sharing unspeakable truths.
This is the much bally-hooed one-hander that was alluded to in the pre-season publicity and the hype is understandable. To do an episode of Doctor Who that’s entirely (or more or less) carried by one cast member is bold, unless you have an actor as marvellous as Peter Capaldi in the title role. As expected, he’s more than capable of dominating a solo effort, but he’s also truly remarkable, raising his game in response to an utterly unique script from showrunner Steven Moffat.
Apparently, this episode is based on an unused pitch that Moffat devised for audio producers Big Finish long before the series came back to BBC One in 2005, and you can see how the story might not have necessarily been the most visually friendly concept, but Capaldi isn’t the only one who brings his A-game here. Director Rachel Talalay, who did such a splendid job on last year’s two-part finale, makes a bravura return here with her sturdy direction of an episode that must have looked absolutely bananas on paper.
For starters, there’s more insight into the Doctor’s head than we’ve ever had before, including a number of sequences that are reminiscent of Moffat’s own Sherlock, as we discover how our hero gets by in just a few seconds of mortal peril. But that’s not the only thing we find out about the Doctor here, in an outing that pushes boundaries in its storytelling while also playing rough with the mythology of the show as we know it.
Before now, we’ve seen the Doctor travel without a companion or even his TARDIS, but never so completely alone. Moffat’s script includes a couple of jokey asides to the Doctor’s unseen overseers, which feel entirely in character early on, but goes on to up the stakes quickly and ruthlessly at any moment where he may have felt like the viewer was settling down; if you ever acquire any false sense of security about Heaven Sent, it never lasts for very long, with Talalay also turning up the jump scares and horror movie atmosphere way past 11. But that’s not the only way in which this is a very atypical episode of Doctor Who – the extended length is another thing, but it’s the bleakness and the staggering difficulty of the central conceit that sets this apart from any “part one of the finale” that has gone by since the series returned to our screens in 2005.
We’ve got different reasons for giving different episodes in Season 9 five stars and Heaven Sent is no exception. This would get full marks for its myriad surprises alone. It puts the Doctor in a vulnerable place and keeps him there – the result is electrifying. It’s not the kind of adventure you would want from Doctor Who every week, but it’s tough to imagine that you’ll see a better hour of science fiction anywhere else this year.
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Additional notes (contains spoilers)
“How many seconds in eternity?”
– So, Steven Moffat took a mixture of Cube, The Prestige and, most importantly, The Shepherd Boy by the brothers Grimm and made one of the most original episodes of Doctor Who ever created. This is an episode in which the Doctor, a man who literally changes every cell in his body on a regular-ish basis, embodies the Trigger’s Broom paradox more than ever before. Every seven years, our cells have changed so much that we’re a completely new human being, so how many times has our Doctor changed completely over the course of his two billion year ordeal in this exceptionally cruel gauntlet?
– He certainly fails a lot and it’s not for the sake of a downer ending, as in Episode 9 (Sleep No More), but as a matter of course: he’s in a situation where he can only lose, and must lose, again and again, to finally win. He uses his time wisely with each circuit of the trap, punching a little further into a 20′ thick wall of super-tough azbantium and reciting a little more of the Grimms’ fairytale each time.
– We could go on forever about Capaldi’s tremendous one-man show and his performance is clearly one of the reasons why this works so well. Over the course of this season, he’s racked up a number of adventures in which you simply cannot imagine any other Doctor in his place. Heaven Sent is the peak of that recent trend – it could have been designed from the drawing board as a showcase for one of the nation’s finest actors, except that there’s far too much else going on in plot terms to deem it a character study.
– To go from Clara’s death to an episode in which the Doctor is alone is astonishingly bold and it pays off magnificently. His grief isn’t the headline here, but it’s still raw, and Coleman’s cameo in the Doctor’s mental storm room (very reminiscent of Sherlock’s Mind Palace) doesn’t undercut the impact of her exit last week. Rather, it reinforces the finality of it.
– Of course, at the end of it all, it turns out that the Time Lords laid down this challenge to the Doctor, and coerced Me into helping them to trap him, inadvertently bringing about Clara’s death in the process. If we’re to take the closing monologue at face value, then the Doctor is the oft-mentioned Hybrid predicted by an ancient Time Lord prophecy, destined to conquer Gallifrey. But the Doctor is in and so, next week’s homecoming season finale, Hell Bent, ought to be a blast.
Photo: Ray Burmiston / BBC