Warning: If you haven’t seen tonight’s new episode of Doctor Who, it’s pretty heartbreaking. And kind of grueling. Remember “Midnight,” the scary-weird David Tennant bottle episode? This is sort of Peter Capaldi’s version of that. Goosebumps!
And the thing that comes across, after watching “Heaven Sent” a couple times, is how much the episode is about the Doctor having to work incredibly hard to achieve a victory that probably looks “easy.” This is, as the Doctor notes in the episode, what got Clara killed in “Face the Raven”—the persistent digging into mysterious graves in secluded gardens, but also the sense that the victories are easy and always achievable.
In fact, the Doctor’s victories aren’t as easy as they look, and in this episode he sort of lays bare just how much work goes into this “effortless” panache.
In “Heaven Sent,” the Doctor arrives where that teleport bracelet he was forced to wear sent him. He’s in a scary sort of castle, where the walls move around and his worst childhood nightmare is stalking him. (It’s a moving castle full of howls, in fact.) And the childhood nightmare, which is based on an old woman who died, was covered with shrouds and attracted flies, never stops coming for the Doctor. In one of the best applications of Steven Moffat’s “don’t blink/don’t look away” horror aesthetic, the castle is full of screens which show you the creature’s viewpoint—so it’s easy to tell where the creature is, and how close to the Doctor it’s gotten. This is meant to scare the Doctor, because he can always feel the creature’s breath on his neck.
The Doctor has a couple of very narrow escapes from the creature, and here’s where the episode’s cleverest invention comes in. When the Doctor is about to die, by jumping out the window or being trapped by the creature in a grave he’s dug, he freezes the moment in time, slows it down by thinking incredibly quickly. And he retreats to an imaginary version of his TARDIS, the place he feels safest and most in control, where he “explains how he survived” to an imaginary version of the dead Clara. He doesn’t actually know how he’s going to survive, but by grandstanding loudly enough to a nonexistent friend, he can figure it out in the split second he has left.
Am I spoiling the magic? He asks. I work really hard at this.
Back before Steven Moffat started as showrunner of Doctor Who, I interviewed him at Comic-Con and asked him about the “godlike Doctor” thing that the show sometimes teases, where the Doctor seems unstoppable and nigh-omnipotent. Moffat responded that it’s always a trick—like, in “The Girl in the Fireplace,” the Doctor bursts through a window on a horse, and it looks miraculous to everyone watching. But we, the viewers, know there was a horse on the space station, and a portal for the Doctor to go through.
Anyway, that business with the Doctor pausing the “action” a second away from death, so he can retreat inside his imaginary sanctum and painstakingly figure out a solution, is the flipside of what we saw in the opening two-parter. There, Missy told Clara about a scenario where the Doctor is being stalked by killer androids who are shooting at him and he’s about to die. We see the action freeze-frame, and the Doctor magically finds a solution, and Clara says it’s because the Doctor always knows he’s going to win.
Here, the Doctor breaks that process down a lot more, and shows that it’s not that simple. He does offer the advice, “Assume you’re going to win.” But in the same breath, he also says that if you’re being interrogated, you should “die faster.” Which is a bit fatalistic, really. And in fact, he’s tired of winning, and the costs of the victories have gotten too high. (That’s the mindset that made him turn Ashildr immortal.) He only keeps going, in this episode, because the imaginary Clara keeps demanding, via her chalkboard, to know how he’s going to win. And then she appears in person, just for a second, and tells him that he’s not the only person who’s lost someone, and he should get off his arse and win the day.
And the Doctor’s mystique also loses a lot of its sheen because he’s just so terrified. The transition from ranting, vengeful “I’m going to find you, and I will never stop” Doctor to terrified, running-for-his-life Doctor is really amazingly well played. Even in an episode full of Capaldi at his best, that turn is something to behold.
Oh, and the monologue the Doctor gives at the start of the episode, about how your death begins the moment you are born, is also written on the wall of the castle:
So the Doctor is trapped in a torture chamber with his worst nightmare and a painting of Clara (to remind him of his loss), and the only way out is through a wall, 20 feet thick, made of a substance harder than diamond. It appears he can only his release by spilling all his secrets—because the only thing that makes the nightmare creature stop coming is to “confess” something he’s never told anyone, and every confession rearranges the castle. (He never tries delaying the creature by confessing about the time he raided Reginald Styles’ wine and cheese, which might have bought him a few moments.)
The Doctor reveals some stuff—we’ll get to that in a moment—but then decides he won’t give up any more confessions, because there are some secrets he needs to protect with his life. So instead, he gets out of the inescapable castle, by beating down the 20-foot wall of superhard material, with his bare hands.
He achieves this seemingly impossible feat, because he just repeats the same agonizing sequence of events over and over again, for over two billion years. He gets killed by the creature, then with his dying breath he crawls up to the teleport chamber where he arrived, and uses his own body to provide energy for the teleporter to create a brand new version of himself, as if he had just arrived. He leaves himself a message, the word “Bird,” to remind him of the Grimm Brothers fairy tale about the bird that sharpens its beak on a mountain of diamond, until the mountain is gone.
So from one perspective, the Doctor’s victory looks ridiculously easy—he shows up, he evades the creature, and then he beats down an unbreakable wall with his bare hands. But we know that it’s actually been monumentally difficult, and (whether or not the Doctor remembers all the iterations) has required unthinkable effort and pain. (Plus, what if the transporter buffer eventually degrades after a few million years? Or the diamond wall resets itself, like everything else here.)
Going along with the theme of “demystifying the Doctor,” this episode also sees him confessing that he didn’t leave his home planet of Gallifrey because he was bored with the Time Lords’ policy of only observing the universe, and never interfering.
This is just the first of the confessions that the Doctor makes to keep the nightmare creature from getting to him. And at the end of the episode, we discover that he’s been inside his own Confession Dial, which Ashildr took from him at the end of “Face the Raven.”
The Confession Dial is the Doctor’s last will and testament, but it’s also something where he confesses his darkest secrets. The Doctor himself tells Ashildr that he doesn’t really understand how it works. But he chose to ask the Sisterhood of Karn to send it to Missy back in the season opener, because he thought he was going to his death. And now, it turns out that the Confession Dial doesn’t actually have the Doctor’s confessions in it, until he’s forced into making them.
So someone—presumably the Time Lords—has tricked the Doctor into going inside his own Confession Dial, so he can reveal the secrets of the Hybrid. (They’ve had approximately 1,000 chances to ask the Doctor about this before, but apparently it only just became urgent.) As season-long arcs go, the Hybrid/Confession Dial thing feels pretty flimsy—we find out about the Hybrid because Davros randomly decides to bring it up in conversation, like you do. And the Confession Dial seems similarly random, including the part where the Doctor suddenly wants to send it to people after all the other times when he was facing certain death and didn’t bother. But forget it, Jake, it’s Doctor Who—this is the same show that once tried to turn “the bees are disappearing” and random mentions of “Medusa Cascade” into an arc.
Anyway, here’s what the shaggy-dog story of the Hybrid and the Confession Dial adds up to. Long before the Time War, the Time Lords had hints that it was coming, and there was also a prophecy of a Hybrid, that was half-Time Lord and half-Dalek, which could destroy everything or save everything. The Doctor got wind of this prophecy and was so scared he fled from Gallifrey.
But the prophecy got it wrong—the Hybrid isn’t half-Dalek, because nothing is ever half-Dalek. The Daleks would never allow this. (Shut up, Dalek Sec! Nobody cares what you have to say.) Rather, the Hybrid is the Doctor himself, and he’s destined to conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins.
The Doctor says this after he’s walked out of the trap and found himself back on his home planet for the first time since the Time War. He looks at the Citadel, off in the distance, and tells a little boy who’s conveniently found him to run to the city and tell them that he’s returned and he’s coming for them.
So why does the Doctor finally confess that he’s the Hybrid—when the Confession Dial can still hear him—after he spent two billion years being chased around and beating on a super-strong wall with his bare hands to avoid confessing it before? I guess now that he’s back on Gallifrey, there’s no point in keeping it hidden any more. He didn’t know that the Time Lords were responsible for his predicament, and now he does.
Plus, it’s kind of cool that the Doctor is Klaus. I’m just going to keep making that joke.
All in all, this was a brilliant episode of Doctor Who. Just amazing. I was honestly feeling a bit burned out by this season, with its non-stop two parters, because the pacing felt “off” and I didn’t really care that much about whether Davros had turned over a new leaf, or whether the Doctor could cheat death in the 1980s. But the upside of the slower pacing has been a lot more chances for Peter Capaldi to give layered, electrifying performances. And it turns out that’s more than enough to make for great television.
Let’s hope the stuff about the Hybrid pays off—I guess we’ll find out next week.