Doctor Who: Heaven Sent

Posted on November 30, 2015

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Our brains hurt.

Steven Moffat loves to write these sorts of puzzle box episodes, but the results haven’t always been as flawless as they probably should have been. After all, if you’re going to take on this style of story, you better make sure every moving part fits exactly as it’s supposed to, every i is dotted and every t crossed. The success of puzzle box stories rests entirely on the execution being perfect. And except for “Blink,” we don’t think he’s ever managed it. We still don’t think he managed it here, but what he did manage to do was write and produce possibly the most ambitious episode in Doctor Who history. And probably one of the best episodes in the show’s run as well. Even if it was intensely confusing and doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny.

But as an examination of who the Doctor really is and how he does what he does? Unparalleled. Truly. We didn’t expect to get such a thing going into the episode – and we didn’t realize until it was over how much an episode like this was probably needed at this time – but by the end of it, we not only got the definitive take on Capaldi’s 12th Doctor, but a fairly definitive take on the traits that bind all of the versions of the character together. He’s curious, frantic, brilliant, quick, brave, scared, and above all, ridiculously, relentlessly tenacious. And there’s no better way to demonstrate that last quality than to have a character spend two billion years punching his way through a diamond wall.

Were we utterly confused through the first watch? Oh, yes. In fact, we’d say that was probably one of the episode’s flaws: the storytelling wasn’t nearly as engaging as it could have been. Granted, a lot of that was by design, but when the entire premise of your story relies upon a lack of information followed by a relentless repetition of scenes, shots and lines over and over again, you’ve got a bit of a structural problem in terms of getting your narrative across in an entertaining and engaging manner. If anything, it was more annoying than entertaining at spots. And we admit, we zoned out a bit at a couple points, mainly because we mistakenly thought we had the ending figured out (when he found the dried clothes, we figured he was on some sort of time loop). But even before the shocking last minute or so had us sitting upright and muttering a “Holy SHIT” before we could stop ourselves, there was just enough there to keep us invested – and it all came down to Peter Capaldi.

A one-hander episode like this one is pretty much an invitation to shine a spotlight on your lead’s abilities and skill level. It takes a lot of talent for one actor to handle an entire 45-minute script themselves, but when you add on a maddeningly obtuse puzzle that needs to be meticulously explained, not to mention a Sherlock-style “mind palace” technique that can get awfully precious when it’s not handled well, to say nothing of the faceless ghost writing questions on a chalkboard, you’ve handed that actor a stack of roadblocks to conveying anything like true emotions with any sort of poignancy. And yet, he fascinated through the entire thing. He never stopped being fascinating, which should be, now that we think of it, the Doctor’s entire raison d’etre: to never stop being fascinating. When a writer loses sight of that goal in writing the character, he’s losing sight of the character. If nothing else, for all his faults as a showrunner and occasional script writer for Doctor Who, it cannot be denied after this episode that Steven Moffat really gets the character of the Doctor. And we think the same can be said of Peter Capaldi, who gave one of the best single-episode performances of this character in its 50-year history. That moment when he slumped to the floor upon realizing once again that Clara was dead? Utterly heartbreaking, and yet it was done quietly and simply, without histrionics or showiness. We imagine Matt Smith or David Tennant – two very fine performers and talented actors – making their way through this episode and frankly, we don’t think it would have been remotely as interesting to watch. Granted, that’s not entirely fair to them because they both played far more demonstrative and melodramatic versions of the character. Part of what made this episode and Capaldi’s performance work so well is the man’s age. That sense of rage coupled with weariness can only truly be pulled off with finesse by someone with some years under their belt.

And yes, that final reveal of the long lost Gallifrey got us to gasp. We had no idea that was coming and yet it all made perfect sense once it was revealed. Actually, that’s a lie. It didn’t all make perfect sense. After all, you have to come to terms with the idea that the Doctor who started the episode, the one we’ve been following all season long (and for 50 years, if you want to get technical about it) died and his skull lies at the bottom of a very tiny ocean. You have to agree to believe that a man can punch through a diamond wall if you give him several billion years to do it. You have to not question why the room with the diamond wall didn’t reset (or at the very least, come up with an explanation not found in the script), and probably most difficult of all, you have to believe that the Doctor will do the exact same thing billions and billions of times, in exactly the same way at exactly the same pace with no deviations. It’s the only way you can get to the end of the story. In other words, this puzzle box Moffat constructed only really works if you make all sorts of concessions or believe all sorts of impossibilities that the script asks of you. And to be fair, if it didn’t end so well or feature such an amazing performance from its lead, we might be sitting here pounding away at our keyboard about how much it sucked. But even if we point out the flaws we perceive in the story, we have to concede that its creator knew what he was doing, because the results were truly interesting to watch. That final scene was one of the best cliffhangers this show’s ever pulled off. And how ironic for us, because our last review outlined all the ways in which this season has been disappointing and even went so far as to declare on of the episodes this season to be among the worst in the show’s history. In retrospect, looking back at it now, any season that can give us both one of the worst episodes and one of the show’s all-time best, within weeks of each other, is a season that probably deserves some serious props for pulling out all the stops. Despite all our issues with this season, if Moffat can nail the landing with next week’s finale, he may have pulled off one of the most interesting seasons in the rebooted show’s history, as well as the best season in his time at its helm.

 

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