Doctor Who Recap: Faultless Direction, Extraordinary Scale, And A Hell Of A Concept
The series goes mega-weird to make an all-time classic episode.
This is a recap of the most recent episode of Doctor Who. It contains spoilers.
Doctor Who’s attitude to death has always been a tricky thing. It’s a lot like, but not exactly the same as, the Doctor’s own attitude to death.
Because how do you depict the emotions of a character to whom death means something completely different than it does to us? Is he more aloof because he himself is (effectively) immortal, and can simply travel back to a point in time when his friends are alive? Or does death hit him harder because everyone he knows is fleeting, and he must deal with everyone he knows being dead every time he moves a few decades into the future?
The show has, over its history, attempted all approaches. And somehow they’ve all felt consistent. Regeneration, the method by which he stays alive/changes actors, can feel like both death and renewal. The deaths of his human friends are inevitable and unavoidable, and also always devastating. But each time, he finds a way to move on.
This year, the Doctor has made someone immortal (Ashildr, in The Girl Who Died) and watched his friend die (Clara, in Face the Raven). In this week’s episode, he says he’s out for vengeance, but he actually seems more intent on self-punishment, killing himself over and over and over again over the course of billions of years to incrementally escape his prison. As redemptions go, it’s epic.
At the conclusion of last week’s Face the Raven, the Doctor is about to be teleported away. He doesn’t know where, he doesn’t know by whom, and he hasn’t even had time to mourn Clara’s death. The elaborate human trap of Face the Raven leads to the elaborate conceptual trap of Heaven Sent, as the Doctor finds himself within an enormous, ever-shifting castle, pursued by an indefinable creature that lumbers menacingly and unstoppably after him. He can never escape the creature, but he can delay it by either running or simply telling it a secret. Someone is scaring him into revealing his deepest confidences, and there doesn’t seem to be any way out.
It’s a hell of a concept, employing the same puzzle logic that goes into writer Steven Moffat’s favoured time-loop plots, only this time there’s no actual time-loop. The plot, if not the story, is surprisingly linear.
Then there’s the very 21st century notion of televisions holding a clue: the castle is laden with screens that display the point of view of the approaching creature. As with all the best Doctor Who ideas, it has a practical and effective in-story reason (it’s designed to terrify him), but also a real-world analogy (the surveillance state). Everybody is watching everybody, and seeing what they’re seeing does not necessarily give you any sort of advantage.
The scale of the castle is extraordinary; this must be one of the rare times in the show where the production has been able to successfully interpret a writer’s Biggest Idea Ever. How exactly did they pull this off? It’s awe-inspiring.
The ongoing rote criticisms of showrunner Moffat take their rightful place in the dustbin as he delivers one of his best scripts ever. I said this last week, but I’ll say it again: this is precisely what Doctor Who should be doing. It completely reinvents itself from the ground up, but doesn’t lose the essence it’s had for 50+ years. That contradiction is what keeps the show alive.
The idea of a one-hander — of the Doctor essentially monologuing as he runs around a haunted castle — is an enticing one, but it’s surprising to see the TV series tackle it. This is the sort of idea that might be more at home in a Doctor Who book or audio, where there’s more scope for invention and experimentation. But on TV, in prime time, when your audience is not hardcore Doctor Who fans but the general public? That’s a pretty ballsy move.
That the episode should be so propulsive and terrifying and fascinating is extraordinary, and everyone’s working at full force. Rachel Talalay, who did such a great job with last year’s two-part finale, leaves her previous work in the dust with this episode. Go back and watch the choices she makes in Heaven Sent: every single shot construction, every movement, every background reveal, is all geared for maximum effect. This is some of the best direction Who has ever had.
And Peter Capaldi! What a performance. Nobody was in any doubt that he was a great actor, but what he does here is something else entirely. I’m not going to fall into the tired and incorrect cliché that no-previous-actor-what-played-the-Doctor could have possibly pulled this off, but this does appear to be one of those instances where the story seems uniquely geared towards a particular incarnation. There are often stories that feel interchangeable, where one Doctor could be swapped out for another without any noticeable difference. Heaven Sent is the most Twelfth Doctor/Capaldi episode yet.
It’s also one of the most Doctor Who episodes ever, and it’s easily destined to be an all-time classic.
Question To Ponder
- So, wait, the prophecy about the half-Dalek/half-Time Lord thing isn’t true, and it’s actually just an angry Doctor? Or is this another fake-out? That last scene was a tad confusing. Honestly, I’m just hoping they go back to the rarely-repeated revelation from the 1996 telemovie that suggested the Doctor was half-human. That would have the dual advantage of being a great twist and enraging nerds!
- Does this story mean the Doctor is over two billion years old at this point? The age of the Doctor has always been impossible to pin down. “I’m several thousand years old!” claims the Third Doctor. “I’m 953!” says the Seventh Doctor. “I’m 900!” exclaims the Ninth. But forget all that: the Doctor’s perpetual deaths mean that at the end of Heaven Sent, he is (at most) a couple of days older.
- Did anyone else pick that he was in the Confessional Dial? The twisting castle and the monster-freezing secrets helped your author put it together. But was it literally the dial, or was it a sort-of representation? A doorway to another place? The mystery of the star pattern makes this difficult to answer. He could have figured out early that he was on Gallifrey, but then we know Gallifrey isn’t where it’s supposed to be, don’t we? …Don’t we?
Ghost Light wasn’t the last classic Doctor Who story to air, but it was the last one to be recorded. Perhaps that’s why it feels so daring, in a “Screw this show, let’s see what it would be like if Samuel Beckett wrote science fiction horror” kind of way.
It’s weird, it’s experimental, it’s often baffling, but it’s absolutely wondrous, and further proof that some of Classic Who’s best work was being done in its final year.
Doctor Who screens at 7:30pm Sundays on ABC, before reruns at 8:30ppm Mondays and 12:15am Tuesdays.