Doctor Who: 9.11 Heaven Sent
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If you're going to devote an extended episode to just one actor, you had better be sure that the acting is top notch, the direction flawless and the script electric. Fortunately, the penultimate episode of Doctor Who series nine nails all three.
To be fair, the ingredients were there; this year Peter Capaldi has gone from strength to strength and I am still mesmerised over his speech in The Zygon Inversion. It was Steven Moffat and returning director Rachel Talalay that had the harder job but Moffat wastes not a single moment with superfluous dialogue while still giving audiences an engaging story - and a great mystery - that keep will keep audiences gripped from beginning to end. And thanks to a beautiful set piece (the rotating castle), a well-realised and chilling monster in the Veil and plenty of atmospheric moments, Talalay absolutely succeeds too.
The story is strikingly simple - the Doctor finds himself transported to a mysterious castle not too far from his previous location on Earth. As the walls shift around him, he finds himself hunted by a creature called the Veil while searching for the mysterious room 12 and the secrets to who captured him and why.
But there is so much more too. The shadow of Clara's death hangs over the episode, from the tapestry of his dead companion in the castle bedroom to his 'mind palace' on the TARDIS (perhaps I've watched too much Hannibal but the idea works well here. A place he can retreated to in his head and formulate his thoughts). His companion stands with his back to him, wearing the clothes she died in, writing questions on the blackboard. Later on Jenna Coleman makes the briefest of appearances (the veil aside it is about 98% a single-hander episode) but even then it in his own mind. You feel that her death has hit him very hard; he growls at the enemy trapping him that he blames them solely for the death if his 'best friend' (few companions get that accolade) while there is a moment he turns to talk to Clara in the castle and realises that he is alone, which is heartbreaking.
The Veil meanwhile is the stuff of nightmares - think the ghost of Christmas future from A Christmas Carol - that stalks the Doctor through the castle corridors, only stopping when he 'confesses' (more on that later). It was a clever idea to see the Veil's viewpoint through the monitors, allowing the Doctor to plan his next move and race across the castle to give himself more time and as the episode progresses we see him adapting to life in the castle. But the Doctor is a patient man, even when he knows his companion is dead and he is a prisoner and the mystery is thoroughly engaging throughout.
Capaldi of course is mesmerising, delivering the hell out of the episode and Talalay directs plenty of atmospheric scenes that remind us the of the skeletons in the water tombs from last series' Dark Water. The moment when the Doctor escapes the Veil by jumping into the water and discovering a sea bed full of skulls is chilling and the scene where he digs up the grave in the courtyard while the Veil closes in is pure Hammer Horror. But Moffat's script gives fan breadcrumbs to keep us hooked throughout as he admits he ran from Gallifrey all those years ago not because he was bored and sought adventure - as the previous 51 years have suggested.
And the 7,000 years is significant too; the episode builds to that dramatic moment - the skull attached the to the device, the solid crystal wall, the grim realisation that every one of those skulls are the Doctors and he sacrifices himself the the Veil, using the last bloody moments of his life to create another version of himself before dying. It is a bold and chilling moment as we see the Doctor die over and over and over again for two billion years, each time chipping further and further at that crystal wall with his own fists. Younger fans will probably have found the image of their Doctor dying of his injuries pretty disturbing but then this story was quite adult in nature.
“I’ve figured out the cliffhanger to the penultimate episode of [Season 9]. And it’s a whopper. Ohh, I don’t think you’ll see this coming!”
Steven Moffat's words were slightly spoiled by the BBC-released synopsis for the final episode Hell Bent a couple of weeks ago that mentioned the Doctor's home planet Gallifrey. I assume like the rather spoilery trailers for Face The Raven that it was more a ploy to increase ratings. But is still a great ending. The Doctor finally smashes few after dying billions of times and steps foot on Gallifrey, sending a message with the first boy he encounters. The Doctor searching for his home planet was established in the 50th special Day Of The Doctor and teased by Missy in the series eight finale Death In Heaven but this is something bold and unexpected.
And as for the mystery of what the confession dial was? In a brilliant twist, everything we saw in Heaven Sent was inside the dial. The Doctor wasn't transported to another place and time but within the very device he has been carrying about his person all series. Nice bit of Time Lord kit that. Of course as to has it now - is it Ashildr after all these years and / or does time move differently inside the confession dial?
Heaven Sent was a bold, ambitious and completely successful episode of Doctor Who - if Mark Gatiss's effort two weeks ago failed at the final hurdle, Moffat shows how to do it in style. Like any two-part story much of its success will rest in how Hell Bent delivers but I suspect, regardless of how people react to the finale, this will go down as one of Peter Capaldi's greatest episodes.