I normally review two-parters together, but I’m making a judgment call here and reviewing the two episodes of the finale separately, as they’re clearly separate scenarios and a lot more distinct than in a conventional two-parter, and it seems like it would be difficult and probably inappropriate to review them together. This one, in particular, feels like it could easily stand on its own. The formats this series are totally messed up anyway so I’ve got some discretion here.
There are times, after I’ve watched a Doctor Who episode — or indeed any film or television — that I just know, instinctively, that I’ve just witnessed something truly sublime. I’ve learnt to recognise the feeling now: it’s a strange feeling of disorientation, like you’ve been wrenched back to reality from another world. Your absorption in the world of the screenplay was so intense, so complete, that you forgot that the real world carried on around you. It leaves you reeling, thinking of little else for hours, if not days. That’s how I felt after watching Heaven Sent, and that’s how I knew, immediately, without even having to think about it, that I had just witnessed something really special. Thinking about it, though, I’ve no hesitation still in putting it up there with the very best of New Who—indeed, the best of Doctor Who, full stop. It was astonishing; sensational; phenomenal. I think that if there were any doubts about Moffat’s ability as a writer before now, they should have been conclusively exploded by this script, which I regard as nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s just pure art.
Steven Moffat has always been an unconventional, experimental writer, and he’s at his best when he’s pushing the boundaries of what Doctor Who can do. Under Russell T Davies he was responsible for that era’s most experimental, and memorable, scripts, most notably Blink and Silence in the Library (my all-time favourite). As showrunner there’s been, ironically, less opportunity for him to fully indulge in his creative impulses, but here Moffat returns to his roots. And isn’t it fantastic? It’s meaty, high-concept stuff that could easily have been a trainwreck, but, carried by the considerable combined talents of Peter Capaldi, director Rachel Talalay, composer Murray Gold, and Moffat himself, it’s some of the most enthralling and genuinely well-produced television around at the moment. In Heaven Sent, Doctor Who punches above its weight to rival any of the high-budget, award-winning prestige drama of our time.
The Doctor, alone, trapped, stalked relentlessly by a frightening creature. No baddie to beat, no one to save, just his own survival to think about, and finding a way out. Just reading the idea, the premise, makes you sit up, intrigued, no? As I said, there was broad scope for danger—at 55 minutes, this might have been a abject snoozefest like the last time Doctor Who subjected us to extended alone-time with the Doctor in The Deadly Assassin. However, it’s irresistibly thick with tension and suspense, rather because of, not in spite of, the more leisured and introspective approach. The mystery keeps the story beating along delectably, helped by the terrifying presence of the Veil, which, I found, at least, a seriously freaky, nightmarish creature. Aesthetically, it reminded me of the Dementors from Harry Potter, which basically have been my worst phobia since the age of eight. Additionally, an effective little addition to the dialogue was the way the Doctor kept talking to Clara, perhaps as a way of coping with his pain and his loss. I don’t know, but I found it physically painful, in the gut region, whenever he addressed Clara.
It’s a profoundly personal piece for the Doctor, not only because it’s set in the Doctor’s own personal hell, inhabited by his own nightmares and adorned with reminders of his loss, but, also, through the monologues spoken by the Doctor which punctuate this piece, his ruminations on life, death and loss, we’re given an intimate glimpse into the Doctor’s soul, the tortured soul of a man who’s known far too much of each. It’s screenwriting poetry, and Capaldi does justice to the material, delivering a stirring, brooding performance both physically and verbally. The production rises to the challenge of realising convincingly such an introspective and artistic piece, particularly with respect to the setting, which exudes the perfect atmosphere of spooky claustrophobia, weird otherworldliness and profound intimacy. To be honest, it’s difficult to articulate the specifics, but everything about this episode just feels finely, meticulously, lovingly crafted, like the most exquisite work of prose — I’ve found that the best episodes always convey this impression.
But we have to talk about that twist. The Doctor as bird, punching his way through a great wall of impossibly dense material for two billion years, dying and recreating himself endlessly. That was mind-blowing, and so, so exquisitely executed. The way it was done was fantastically clever; it was truly a rollercoaster of emotions, bringing us down to despondency and despair when, after the revelation that the Doctor’s been at it for 7,000 years, it seemed as though he would be stuck in that horror shop for eternity, going through the same motions in an endless cycle and never escaping — until the Azbantium wall was shown to be being imperceptibly chipped away by the Doctor’s relentless efforts, and it all turned into something invigorating and triumphal as the Doctor furiously punches progressively deeper into the wall, suffering an untold number of births and deaths over two billion years in the process. Capaldi played that so well, conveying so powerfully the Doctor’s fury, bravery and fierce resolve (in other words, hell bent). The perfect finishing touch to that sublime sequence was the Doctor’s telling of The Shepherd Boy over two billion years: “And when the entire mountain is chiselled away, the first second of eternity will have passed.” Really, properly spine-chilling, that. Oh, and the best thing? That it was Clara who pushed the Doctor on, who kept lifting him up and pushing him on, over all that time. “I let Clara Oswald get inside my head. Trust me. She doesn’t leave.”
Some final thoughts. It almost doesn’t need saying that Peter Capaldi was absolutely magisterial, and to a good extent this episode rides on the personal coat-tails of Peter Capaldi. If there is any justice in this world, Capaldi will win enough acting awards to melt down and make into a pure gold Mercedes, or something. Also deserving of praise is Murray Gold, who surpassed himself here with a majestic score in an episode where music was inevitably going to be especially prominent. Rachel Talalay has also, once again, delivered some of the best directing work this show has seen. This really is an exceptional piece of work from all involved, and I can honestly only make one criticism of any consequence, which is that the episode could have done a better job at explaining why the Doctor was forcing himself to punch through the Azbantium wall, why he couldn’t just yield up his confession to free himself… especially when it appeared that, after finally freeing himself, he promptly told his frustrated captors the very secret he had just spent two billion years trying to avoid telling them. Maybe I missed something, but it didn’t make sense to me.
That said, this is a tiny criticism with respect to an episode that is 99% perfect. This has been one of my most pleasurable, gratifying and exhilarating experiences watching Doctor Who. I’ve no hesitation in pronouncing it an all-time great. I only hope I’ve done the episode justice in this review.
Quote of the week:
“I’ve finally run out of corridor. There’s a life summed up.”