Heaven Sent: Doctor Who!!

I’m a bit worried about Hell Bent, the season nine finale of Doctor Who which airs in less than two days.  It’s got a lot to live up to, and even with the promise of stuff like the return of the Time Lords, revelation about the Hybrid, and some sort of final farewell to Clara Oswald.  The problem is I just don’t know if it can live up to the hype.

The blame for this sense of uncertainty and doubt really falls on an unexpected culprit:  the season’s penultimate episode, Heaven Sent.

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Heaven Sent 1Image: BBC/Simon Ridgway

Because Heaven Sent was a bit of a tour de force of just about every area that is important for a TV show:  writing, directing, acting, design, characterization, etc.  It was so good that it’s hard to imagine the the show can retain the quality into the next chapter, especially because for all intents and purposes the finale has got a lot more work to do from a narrative point of view.

We had a similar problem last year, when the second-to-the-end story, Dark Waters, proved to be tight and strong,  while the follow-up conclusion was only “pretty good.”  So a bit of disappointment does seem sort of inevitable.

Of course, maybe this is proof that our expectations over this show are a bit unrealistic.  Since when does “pretty good” = “disappointing”?  Well, somehow with this show, when you enjoy it as much as I do, and you’ve seen it truly be outstanding, that’s sort of the bar that you work with.

Anyway, Heaven Sent was not my favorite episode ever, but it deserves to be considered amongst the greatest that the series has produced. (Some spoilers ahead) As a (nearly) one man show, it was not as fun as many other stories, and of course it had a somber and emotionally brutal tone.  So you’re not exactly “enjoying: yourself as you watch it in the same way you d0 when you’re watching something like Blink or Human Nature or The Eleventh Hour.  But the range and depth of emotions you experience as we join the Doctor on what might be his most personal journey is pretty unparalleled.  We see  the exhilaration of his brilliant victories and the brutality of his failures in a way we never have before.

Peter Capaldi has been good since day one on this show, but he is called to pull of a level of rawness and engagement with the audience that none have his predecessors have had to aspire to.  I hope this guy is around for a long time because I am sure going to miss him when he’s gone.

Speaking of missing people when they’re gone, the episode does a great job taking us toward a bit of closure after seeing Clara’s fate last week.  Jenna Coleman is gone from the credits this time around, but the spectre of Clara hangs over everything.  The revived Doctor Who has given us many episodes that show us why the Doctor travels with companions, but none as cleverly as this one.  Her faceless presence, her voiceless questions, the use of the chalkboard to call back to her role as a teacher…these things are a narrative masterstroke by Steven Moffat, and a bit reminiscent of his best work on Sherlock.   The direction, by Rachel Talalay, was also outstanding.

Toward the end of the episode, as we saw what appeared to be the close of the Doctor’s journey, I was a bit worried that they denouement was going to be depressing and unfulfilling, but then to my surprise and delight, it kept going.  And it brought us to the most amazing of victories out of what seemed like the most miserable of defeats.

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Heaven Sent 2

Image: BBC/Simon Ridgway

Were their story inconsistencies?  Maybe.  The Doctor claims that every room resets each time he reappears – but clearly some did not.  His “exit room” for example, retained the cumulative impact of his blows.  Similarly his “arrival room” retained his hand scrawled message.  I guess he was just wrong–only some of the rooms reset, but not all.  Also, I’ve read (and thought myself) that it was confusing that the Doctor reveals the secret of the hybrid immediately after spending all that time avoiding spilling the secret.  This one is easily explained, in my mind–the Doctor guessed that the whole scenario was a trap to get him to reveal the secret of the Hybrid–and he knew that if he didn’t, he would never have been allowed to leave the castle.  So he had to escape, and once he did, it no longer mattered who knew.

Those details aside,  I can’t say enough good things about this story.  I don’t know what to make of the revelation about the Hybrid, of course–that is clearly what next week is for.  I’m only worried that the conclusion to this epic won’t live up to the heights of what we saw this time around.  I’m also a little worried that whatever we see won’t fully add up with End of Time or The Day of the Doctor or everything else about the hybrid  this season–but in the long run, that won’t matter so much.  Either way, I’ll be there with metaphorical bells on, eager to lap up whatever they throw at me.



2 thoughts on “Heaven Sent: Doctor Who!!

  1. I’d definitely put Heaven Sent up there with Blink, Human Nature, The Day of the Doctor, Silence in the Library, etc. It’s an undisputed masterpiece for me.

    I’m also a bit wary of raising my expectations too high for Hell Bent (I’m already prepared for its being a climbdown from Heaven Sent), but I have a feeling that the exhilaration of seeing Gallifrey back and a standoff between the Doctor and the Time Lords will be enough to leave me satisfied, in a kind of squeeing fanboy way.

  2. I’m a big fan of all the episodes you mentioned (as are most people, I guess) and I’m hoping that your anticipating of the finale proves true: that the shear bigness of it all will carry the episode. I guess we’ll see soon!

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