Penultimate episodes are meant to whet the whistle; keep you captivated, locked in and on course to see out a season. They can make up for lost hours if a season sagged at points by giving you enough of an adrenaline kick to make you wonder if you’ll sleep until you see the final instalment.
‘Heaven Sent’ is possibly the greatest episode of Doctor Who ever put to screen. It contains every cumulative lesson and success that the show has enjoyed and learnt since its revival and was arguably the pinnacle of the characterisation begun more than 50 years before. It certainly went the longest way to answering the eponymous question of ‘who’ by revealing what was in the lead character’s soul.
Big words, I know, but it’s taken 4 days to process it. Such was my first impression that I fear a re-watch could, ironically, chip away at it and I’m content to have the shock of its power linger in my mind (particularly so since I have treated Peter Capaldi’s tenure and the direction of the show since series 8 with fluctuating confidence).
Yet, here we are. The second big-formula shake-up in series 9 (an improvement on the failed revolution that was ‘Sleep No More’) has turned into the surprise frontrunner. Capaldi is, for most of this episode, on his own but not in a way that was immediately apparent or advertised. It seemed to be another effort to break the mould and it actually did. For all the criticism that the show was increasingly giving away big spoilers about its upcoming plots, this was a secret winner. Nothing was told, and certainly nothing revealed about the closing moments (except that Gallifrey was going to appear, but was a given). No, there was much more to be found here.
What was so shocking was the reminder that Steven Moffat still has it in him to write. He can still remind us that he was the writer who, for so long, tantalised us with episodes like ‘Silence in the Library’ and was the man who brought us such shock and pleasure by fully indulging the implications of The Doctor’s life and his wobbly wobbly, timey wimey jaunts.
But here’s the new dimension to Moffat’s writing. He went grim. Blood and gore grim. Lonely grim. He gave us a Doctor story that combined the muddied and bloodied decline of the Fifth Doctor and made-up for the emotionally charged but never dark implications of the Eleventh Doctor spending 900 years defending Trenzalore for humanity and Gallifrey alike.
So here’s the Gallifrey, season finale, Doctor dying and taking-the-long way-round in time, part II that we always deserved. And it a triumph because it not only remedies recently lost opportunities (‘The Time of the Doctor’) but by being an epoch-pushing reminder of what the show can be as a whole.
The setup of a changing Rubik’s cube castle in the middle of the ocean was a gorgeous lock-in of fear that could have only been an episode for the scares without the expectation of a finale-lead in. It was sincerely scary; moments with ‘The Veil’ were terrifying and unexpectedly so. Doctor Who doesn’t just frighten children and Capaldi’s tenure has been a solid reminder that it appeals to all ages, and always did.
What made it work so well? The Doctor speaking to himself and making the audience his companion was a sharp choice. The references to Clara and her surprise appearance were not tawdry and if anything added to the thread of characterization that defined the hour. We see how The Doctor works, in moments of near-death and in death. His mind-palace (borrowed from Sherlock and deployed brilliantly) was neat and showed us the rationale and logic of a hero who always seems to have the answers.
The best, most perfectly used, Murray Gold score, ever?
All of this is aided by the music. Murray Gold has always been on form and never suffered a lack of innovation. But the Beethoven motif, a leftover from the beginning of ‘Before the Flood’ is musically cunning and is the Twelfth Doctor’s theme; the eccentric professor, the classical interests and the arrogant snootiness that goes with it. Captured brilliantly by Gold, it chimes with the classical elements of the season too. There was even another Shakespeare reference this season after “well of human kindness” (Macbeth) in the ‘The Girl Who Lived’, the title ‘Sleep No More’ (another Macbeth) and skulls and monologues inspiring keys plot elements this week (Hamlet).
This, of course, aids Rachel Tally in her mission to do justice to this episode. One must wonder if Moffat’s script red circled ‘blood and death’. Certainly, whoever took the decision, made the right one with the brutality and tone. This episode has brilliant directing with falling out of windows and enclosed moments of terror and expansive vistas of loneliness, but it also zooms in on the man and what it means to be The Doctor.
The cruel reality of the life and death cycle over and over again was painful to watch. The Doctor presented in such a wounded and disfigured way has never been seen before. Certainly, it matched the tone of Capaldi-era, a more hardened and less romantic display of time in motion last attempted with The Doctor growing old and dying on Trenzalore. His line that people get it wrong about Timelords because they take forever to die, as he claws his way through the castle and collapses in his mind palace, is gut-wrenching, terrifying and captivating. The sight of the Doctor dragging himself, blood trailing blood was horrific, but shed new realism into dying and regeneration as a whole.
Of course, this is merely the starter. Direction, script, music and, of course, acting congeal to give us the most moving Doctor Who sequence ever put to screen. The Doctor dying and being reborn and the realisation that the sea of skulls is actually a sea of Doctor skulls as the guitar-driven score picks up (borrowed and adapted from ‘This Time There’s Three of Us’ is stunning. His speech as he punches the diamond wall, seemingly in vain, the montage, the sadness, the billions of years that pass; it’s The Doctor in one. It’s the blurb for the show. He never gives up. He never gives in. And it means all the more because he’s on his own and has no one to impress. Capaldi, after that, is seared onto our hearts as The Doctor.
A tour de force then let down only by the knowledge that the Timelords were coming. But it’s never a waiting game. It’s the tensest episode you’ll ever watch, particularly when you consider that The Doctor first believes the diamond is protecting ‘Home’, his TARDIS. The characterisation was rich, the secrets of ‘the Hybrid’ promising a big reveal but none of it distracted from the character element.
“I’ve finally run out of corridor. There’s a life summed up” could well be the epitome of life. The Doctor will never give up, and he never does, and the music alone, to stress it again, has been on repeat, repeat and repeat as a reminder and anthem for never, ever, ever giving up.
There is something then inherently tragic and wonderful to this episode. That in many respects is Doctor Who and if there was one episode which was allegorical to the tune of what the show is about, it’s this. A madly surreal, ingenious combination of direction and writing and of course, Peter Capaldi, creates a frenzied, haunting and manic indulgence of a script that understands its leading man’s strengths.
This episode was, in short, and to borrow from a wonderful man, a helluva bird.