Contains spoilers. Only to be read once you have already seen the episode. You have been warned!
Well, that was certainly extraordinarily audacious.
Seriously, can you think of any other television show on any other major network in the world that would hand over 55 minutes of its prime time Saturday evening schedule to what was in effect an experimental one-man avant-garde stage show?
The end result will likely be extremely polarising: some people will surely love “Heaven Sent” and rate it as one of the best things that the show has ever done, while others will doubtless trash it as self-indulgent pretentious nonsense. Still more will just wonder what the heck it was all about having been completely baffled and bemused by the whole thing. And many of us I think will just need some time to let this one sink in before we’re able to fully decide where on the spectrum we sit.
Let’s make three things perfectly clear from the outset, starting with Peter Capladi who was magnificent. I’ve always been a big admirer of the actor, and been increasingly impressed with his performances as the Doctor especially in some stand-out scenes so far this season. But what he did in “Heaven Sent” in every single scene with every look, every gesture and each line of dialogue went light years beyond even any of that. I don’t think I’ve seen a stronger, more compelling single performance from any actor ever, and he surely certainly has a claim to the title of ‘best actor of his generation’ if nothing else. It was simply stunning.
Secondly, huge credit and praise to the director Rachel Talalay, retuning to the show after also helming last year’s two-part season finale “Dark Water”/”Death in Heaven”. Every individual frame of this week’s episode was absolutely gorgeous, each one a work of art. There wasn’t a single false note in terms of shot selection or execution, and the FX were seamlessly integrated into the visuals to beautiful effect. The script gave Talalay the chance for some more sumptuously artistic touches than usual for an episode of Doctor Who and she grasped them with relish and produced something truly stand-out, drop-dead ravishing. Even the interior of the Tardis has never looked more divine than it did here; and the way the Doctor’s conversation with Clara was held using chalkboards and the back of an ‘obvious’ stand-in’s head was brilliant for the impact it meant that Jenna Coleman’s fleeting cameo then had after we’d given up all hope of actually seeing her again.
And thirdly there is Steven Moffat, who set himself the challenge of producing a story that not only featured just one significant character but which felt huge and epic despite its intimacy. He came up with a story that is an intricate puzzle box of a tale which is itself contained within another conundrum wrapped up in yet more enigma. Every single line was machine tooled and hand-polished to absolute perfection, including perhaps the single most pure line of meta-dialogue ever with “I’ve finally run out of corridor; there’s a life summed up.” If things didn’t make sense when you were watching then the fault lies entirely with you, the viewer and not with the script or its on-screen realisation. That’s not to say it was easy to fully comprehend by any means, but if you stuck with it and concentrated and didn’t allow your attention to stray then you were duly rewarded by a dazzling montage in the last ten minutes that spanned billions upon billions of years and gave you every answer and pay-off you could possibly have asked for.
I’d be tempted to add Murray Gold to the list of things to laud as there were some truly fantastic music cues in this episode; however there were a few that didn’t seem to fit quite so well and which distracted from the on-screen action, although part of that might have been the sound mix which for the second week in a row felt annoyingly and distractingly overpowering.
All the appropriate accolades duly handed out, we turn our attention to the big question of the day: was this bold experiment actually a good idea? Did it in fact work?
I’m going to answer that by declaring that in the broadest sense possible, taking risks and trying something different is always a good idea and one that should be applauded, welcomed and encouraged, especially in a series like Doctor Who. That point of view is also probably why I was a lot warmer toward the found-footage episode “Sleep No More” a couple of weeks ago than many other people seemed to be, and certainly means that I’m well disposed to this attempt to introduce the single-hander format into the show this time around. A programme that doesn’t try new things and innovate is going to stagnate, and that’s especially true for a show that is already 50 years old. It either takes the chance of falling flat on its face or plays it safe by doing nothing of interest at all so that it goes off in and dies in a corner unnoticed by anyone who used to care about it.
“Heaven Sent” is unquestionably taking a risk – a big one at that – and it absolutely doesn’t fall flat on its face as there is certainly much to be admired and applauded here. Maybe it won’t suit every individual taste, and a lot of people will no doubt expound at length about why they really hated the episode, but that’s another subjective matter entirely. For example, new or casual occasional viewers will find the episode utterly impenetrable (and not for the first time this season) and I would have to say that I sympathise and agree that Moffat isn’t making it at all easy or providing much help for anyone who isn’t a fan to jump on board at this point in the proceedings.
Unhappy sections among the more dedicated and longer term fans will doubtless complain that this just wasn’t a ‘proper’ episode of Doctor Who. This is probably one of the most vacuous complaints of all, because Doctor Who has never been simply one thing but has changed and grown and transformed over the years even more times than the lead character has regenerated – there’s just no basis for naming any particular part of the show’s five decade history as being more ‘proper’ than any other part because the programme is always in flux and always changing, just as it should be.
In any case, what could be more old school Doctor Who than running through endless corridors to stay ahead of a pursuing monster? Even the idea of a surreal abstract nightmare featuring the Doctor on his own running from a deadly predator through a landscape that makes no logical sense has its precedence in the show’s long history, with “The Deadly Assassin” very much a case of prior art in this regard from the peak of Tom Baker’s tenure as the Time Lord. All Moffat does is update it for the 21st century by adding infinitely more structure and detail and emotional resonance to the existing framework.
Although “Heaven Sent” is strictly speaking a continuation of the story started in last week’s “Face The Raven”, in actual fact it felt more like a direct sequel to season 8’s “Listen” which was a story that I liked very much and that indeed vied for my favourite of the year along with “Flatline”. I commented then that while the Baker/Hinchcliffe years of the show in the 1970s had made great stories from riffing off classic Hammer horror themes, the Moffat/Capaldi era likewise draws strength from the more existential and psychological horror of MR James. In that vein “Listen” had also been about confronting deep fears, represented by a shrouded barely-glimpsed figure in the back of frame; and in “Heaven Sent” the stalking Veil (wordlessly played by Jami Reid-Quarrell, who previously appeared as Colony Sarff in the opening story of the season) is from very much the same mould albeit with added scary hands. The Veil is a stand-in for the traditional figure of death which catches up with us all in the end – and so it does with the Doctor in this episode.
Once it does, and after we’ve been through the accelerated action replay of the episode highlights to date, we finally arrive at the big reveal – although to be honest, the little mentions and themes through the series meant that this was always going in one direction, aptly summed up by the Doctor himself as being “the (very) long way home.” In many ways this moment was tee-ed up long ago by “The Time of the Doctor,” another story in which there is an extended passage of time folded into a single episode, although notice how painfully busy and rushed that had been compared with the majestic time and space to breath afforded “Heaven Sent” this week.
It was still hard to follow, of course – but that’s Moffat for you. Technically speaking this wasn’t one of his head-scrambling timey-wimey efforts that we’ve come rather too familiar with, since the story itself is completely linear and the events happen in sequence with no branching off. The only ‘tricksy’ bits are when the Doctor pauses the action and retreats into his head to think things out, using a mechanism that feels awfully like Sherlock’s mind palace only in this case the mental space looks just like the Tardis – of course.
But in truth even the ostensibly linear nature of the plot is just Moffat finding a completely new way to use time to confound and confuse us. Here, he comes up with a representation of how things differ if you look at them from the long term view rather than from the perspective of the very short lives and attention spans of humans. But surely such high concept thinking about temporal matters is only to be expected from a series about a Time Lord: in many ways it’s delivering an answer to the question raised in the very first episode of the show, “An Unearthly Child”, which aired on November 23 1963 wherein the Doctor asked his new companions, “Have you ever thought what it’s like to be wanderers in the Fourth Dimension? Have you? To be exiles?” We have now, thanks to Moffat. Far from rewriting the basic tenants of the show, it turns out that Moffat is actually busily delivering on some of the promises the show has made over the years but not always been able to keep for one reason or another. Why this should vex so-called long-time fans of the show to the extent that it clearly does completely baffles me.
But enough of other people’s opinions, Taking The Short View is about my own and it’s time to bite the bullet and state it.
In truth this was just such an extraordinary, brilliant, wildly different sort of episode that it’s going to need a few more viewings before I fully get my head around it and come to a firm and final decision about how I really feel. I’ll admit that there were moments when it irritated me, whole stretches where it confused me completely, even parts that bored me and allowed my mind to wander. Perhaps these were even intended and planned by Moffat when he wrote the script. But then there were other moments – many more of them in number – that were spellbinding, gripping, thought-provoking, even terrifying.
We’re used to crediting Moffat’s scripts as being brilliant and clever, so much so that we somewhat take it for granted these days, but here all those aspects were right out there front and centre on show for all to see. In a world of television dominated by soaps and reality shows and talent competitions it’s quite astounding to see something with this much ambition that is also lucky enough to be paired with the talent required to achieve its aims. I rather think that in fifty years time, whether or not the show itself or even the BBC is still going, it will be this hour of Doctor Who that will not only be remembered but also held up as one of the pinnacles of television drama of all time.
In light of this, and in lieu of those multiple viewings I need to conduct which are sure to come once the Blu-ray is released, I’m going to err on the side of over- rather than under-praising the episode and simply acknowledge “Heaven Sent” for what it is: as a soaring work of brilliance by Capaldi, Moffat, Talalay, Gold and the rest of the team. The question of how much I merely happen to ‘like’ it seems almost insignificant in the circumstances.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Doctor Who continues in the UK on BBC One on Saturday evenings. Episodes are available for a month after broadcast on the BBC iPlayer.