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Doctor Who (Spoilers!) Review: "Heaven Sent"

                Being alone in a strange place can be an eerie and uncomfortable thing. In my days as a theatrical tour guide I’d often have to lock up at night, which did mean walking around dark old caves alone. During those routines it’s not unusual to feel there’s a Veil behind you every moment and it’s certainly not a predicament you want to be in for a very long time.
                Yet such is the predicament the Doctor finds himself in. “Heaven Sent” is very fascinating in that the Doctor is just about the only character, and therefore all of the dialogue is him monologuing. Which sounds stale, but it isn’t. There’s such an atmosphere to the episode and smartness in its character and construction (good on you Moffat! And you too director Rachel Talalay) not to mention a sense of unease and dread that never loses momentum or power. The eventual reveals are incredibly good too with the episode actually incorporating an idea I’ve been waiting to see in Doctor Who
                Picking up where the last episode left off, the Doctor has been transported away from Earth to this mysterious castle in the middle of nowhere. There are screens all along the walls which the Doctor soon discovers are transmitting the vision of a hooded spectre called the Veil who is very slowly stalking him. Whenever it gets too close, hands outstretched to kill him, he puts as much distance as he can between them giving him over an hour before it catches up to him. He spends at least weeks doing this and during the time between evading the creature, he tries to figure a way of escape as well as the mystery to where he is and why he’s here.
                The setting is really spooky and mysterious, a castle high in the clouds over an ocean with shifting parameters, it reminded me of Hogwarts in the old PC Harry Potter games. Also spooky was the Grim Reaper tailing the Doctor. There was a definite symbolism in how it as death is slowly catching up to the Doctor and though he can avoid it for a time, it’s always going to get him in the end. From the harrowing moment the Doctor sees it just staring at him from the window on the opposite side of the courtyard, the audience is put on edge. It’s just a wonderfully terrifying entity. The Doctor’s always able to know where it is but that just increases the tension as we know exactly how close it’s getting, and even then is capable of at least one jump scare. Its nature as a confessional is very interesting too. The Veil couldn’t just let people sit in booths with metal windows.
                Being on his own provides Peter Capaldi with surprisingly ample dramatic opportunities. This is some of his best performing ever! Gone are the days when we could only see this Doctor as a clean-mouthed Malcolm Tucker, Capaldi has completely made this character his own distinct figure and earns every moment. The writing, the environment, and the mood all compliment his abilities and he really shines in the uncertainty and fear of the Doctor in this situation, while never letting go of the anger over what’s just happened. Oh yeah, he hasn’t forgotten that Clara just died and when he first appears he’s still stony and grim, but throughout the episode we actually see him cope with the loss in a way that also keeps him pushing forward. I like how his psyche is in the TARDIS where a motionless Clara is writing on the chalkboard her advice and suggestions. Whether or not she was that important to us, she meant a lot to this Doctor and it’s nice to have the death of a companion honoured by the impact it leaves on the Time Lord. And it works to the plot’s advantage without being clumsy by helping him understand the clues and figure out where to go.
                But now let’s get into spoilers because there are quite a few, they’re pretty smart, and they begin fairly early on. The prison is very fascinating in design and for the longest time especially given the layout of the transporter chamber, I thought it might actually be an aged or mutated TARDIS until the word ‘confessional’ started popping up and the clues started falling into place. But what’s interesting is we get a spoiler to the end at the beginning without knowing it. In fact we almost see the exact final scene before the opening titles, because that is how this situation starts. Through a series of events wherein the Doctor jumps out a glass window into water, resurfaces and changes into new clothes waiting for him, digs up a spot in the courtyard discovering instructions to go to room #12, spends an unspecified length of time searching for the room while evading the Veil, finds the room, discovers a wall of harder-than-diamond Azbantium, starts punching away at the wall breaking through a little, is touched by the Veil severely burning him, makes his way nearly dead back to the transporter chamber, resets it to its original state, writes a clue in the sand, and disintegrates in time for a copy to be created from his energy, he goes through the whole thing again and again and again.
                Yes, in a way this is a time loop story and I for one, am pleased. Temporal loops are a favourite trope of mine in science fiction and I’ve been waiting for Doctor Who to do one for years. We’ve seen them done wonderfully in Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow, and a couple stellar episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I’ve always known Doctor Who could hit one out of the park. And it did! It’s a spooky concept too, being trapped repeating the same sequence of events over and over. With no memory to draw from the last cycle, you could go on forever. I love that mysterious aspect of these kinds of stories: that we don’t know if we started in the first cycle, the fiftieth, or the hundredth. Who really knows how big that Azbantium wall was? Judging by those skulls, the left out clothes (note how he leaves his in the exact same place), and various other clues, he’s been trapped in this purgatory for centuries upon centuries already. It’s really clever and chilling. It’s even morbid when you realize the skulls he’s been holding have been his own, each going through the same process of being found in the transporter room then eventually fallen from the ramparts to the water below. Over the eons we see the Doctor is stuck in this place and course of events, chipping away until he finally breaks through and then we have our last great spoiler: Gallifrey!
                Yes behind all that Azbantium and literal ages of working through it, the Doctor has finally found Gallifrey, hidden away in “The Day of the Doctor”. It’s a nice reveal, though I’m surprised we’ve returned to it this soon after the fiftieth anniversary special and I wonder if it’s a wise decision (we’ll see next week in any case). It’s certainly a smart way to have hidden it. And in the end, the whole prison-castle turned out to have been the Doctor’s confession dial, which really raises some questions considering last we saw the dial, the Doctor had given it to Ashildr. Could she have something to do with this? I’m certain it’s no coincidence and in any case, reassures me that she’s probably going to resurface at some point to answer for it. Late in the episode the hybrid thread was brought up, having been the thing the Doctor knew but refused to confess to the Veil leading to its quickened taking of him each time at the Azbantium wall. In the last moments now on Gallifrey, the Doctor admits an actual hybrid doesn’t exist but the prophesied one is him …which isn’t a big surprise. As soon as you take the Dalek side out of the equation, who else is going to be a prophesied Time Lord? He’s already been President, might as well be this kind of a Chosen One too.
                There are twelve episodes this series and I was initially wondering at the start why there wasn’t one more. Now I actually wonder why there’s not one less. Because this really feels like it’s where the series should end. Doctor Who’s never gone out on a proper cliff-hanger before, each series has been a consolidated whole and I feel Doctor Who misses some opportunities of dramatic tension in that. I don’t necessarily want to see the conclusion next week or even at Christmas. The rediscovery of Gallifrey should be something to leave the fans on until the next series, building interest. That and “Heaven Sent” was done on such a grand scale with a perfect balance of terrific writing, thrills, atmosphere, and brilliant execution of a concept. Peter Capaldi did fantastic with this one-man show and we even got nice closure for Clara. She reappears as I thought she might, briefly in the Doctor’s mind to urge him forward. It’s actually nice, if a little too reminiscent of Amy’s last appearance before the Eleventh Doctor regenerated. (Hell this would have been a suitable story for the Twelfth Doctor to go out on, not that I want him to leave by any means). But it was a great exit for her and such a build for what’s to come, a perfect way to leave the audience wanting more. So I’m a little bummed out they’ll be delivering as soon as next week, to be honest.
But nonetheless, there’s no other episode like “Heaven Sent”. It’s by far the best of an already very good ninth series and may be one of my top ten of the revived series (looks like I’ll have to update this list). Tremendously executed, a much better Moffat script than almost anything he’s written since “Blink”, a character piece, haunting mystery, and exquisite piece of sci-fi all in one, this episode is brilliant and I certainly hope it’s not the last of its kind.

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