Previously on Doctor Who, ‘Face the Raven’
“Time’s short. Yes, or no?”—Clara in “Face the Raven”
This season of Doctor Who has explored meeting and/or accepting deserved ends, whether through occupational hazards, moral flaws, or miscalculation. Spring-boarding off of Clara’s own crib-note observations, “Heaven Sent” plunges deep into the mind of the Doctor and reveals exactly what it takes to be him: despite the ever-looming specter of death haunting him, just as it haunts everyone, and despite his mournful, secret wish for rest, the Doctor absolutely, positively refuses to stop playing a game everyone else has lost. What game better defines that than life?
“I am the Doctor, and I am coming to find you. And I will never, ever stop… Clara said I shouldn’t take revenge. You should know I don’t always listen.”
Transported into a fortress, the Doctor declares revenge on his unknown captor. He finds the winding hallways and rooms empty, save for a flaking portrait of Clara, which he regards with a beautiful, fleeting look of admiration and sorrow, and a looming, shriveled figure called The Veil, played by the same actor who embodied Colony Sarff, heralded by buzzing flies and monitors showing where it is at all times. He again breaks the fourth wall by revealing the secrets behind his Magician-like reasoning, something Clara couldn’t quite replicate due to, as Ashildr often lamented, the limitations of the human mind. Mapping the rooms and watching blocked doors and circular walls shift, he surmises that he’s in a personalized nightmare palace, and, at his first confession, that he can’t see a way out and is scared of dying, The Veil halts.
“A killer puzzle box designed to scare me to death. Must be Christmas.”
Plunging out of a window to escape the figure, he retreats to his TARDIS mind palace, a safe space for him and for us, to work out his plans. It makes sense that the TARDIS would be his mind palace, growing and changing to suit his wishes and style at every regeneration; it wants to be what he needs. Inside the TARDIS retreat, his determination takes a creepy dream form of Clara, with her back turned, silently questioning him with the blackboard in a callback to “Listen.” Why her? Because she would do whatever he would normally do, of course. The key to interrogation, he reasons, is that you’re the only irreplaceable person in the room, explaining his leap out of the window—he smelled salt air, threw a stool through the window to test the distance to splash, plucked lily petals to test the gravity, and then hurled himself into the ocean where innumerable skulls line the bottom.
What is this place?
What did you say that made the creature stop?
How are you going to win?
Not why… What?
Crawling back on land, he finds an exact change of clothes and digs a deep hole in the courtyard until evening when he can calculate time and place through the stars. Finally he hits a carving reading, “I am in 12.” (On the missing floor tile.) He takes this to mean the solution is in Room 12, and, as the creature finds him again, he discovers the palace wants his confession. Through this, we learn a second truth: He left Gallifrey because he was scared of the Hybrid prophecy. The castle freezes and turns again. At this point I realized we were inside of him… and his closed-energy-looping, self-resetting confession dial.
“The day you lose someone isn’t the worst. At least you have something to do. It’s the days they stay dead.”
Never so thoroughly have we felt what it’s like to be him. Every day a countdown, a whiff of death following him, loss fresh on his mind, a scramble to find a few moments of peace to work out his problems as the world tidies itself up only to start self-destructing again just as he sits down for soup. Returning to the transport room, he holds up a skull Hamlet-style—to be the Doctor, or not to be the Doctor?—and finds another clue: BIRD. Climbing a parapet he stares at stars that should be 7,000 years in the future and confesses to halt The Veil again: the Hybrid is real and he knows where it is. Time purchased, he finds Room 12—a long hallway ending at a wall of Azbantium, 400 times harder than diamond and 20 feet thick, a TARDIS-like glow behind it.
“I’m not scared of hell, it’s just heaven for bad people. But how long will I have to be here? Forever?”
At that, the apparent solution sends him back to the TARDIS mind palace for a pity party. Why can’t he just lose for once? He remembers the feeling of losing Clara every time he’s been through the dial and knows the dial’s goal: it wants the Hybrid’s name. Who among us, on the day we lose someone, is prepared to fight the most difficult problem of our lives? He flops on the floor, growing misty at the futility of Clara still being gone. Her hand touches his face, and, just for a moment, she appears to say, “Get up off your arse. And WIN.”
He grits down into his deepest self, determined not to reveal his final secret, and punches the wall, painfully crushing his hand as he begins retelling the Grimm tale, “The Shepherd Boy,” about a bird that chipped through a diamond mountain, sharpening its beak at every crack. The Veil strangles him, and, heartbreakingly, he drags his bloody, burnt body back through the castle to the beginning, explaining that Time Lords take forever to die, even when it’s their time, so they prefer to be with their own kind. Divulging that the skulls and dust are 7,000 years’ worth of his own, he resets the machine, attaches his own skull as the battery, recalls his original pattern through the transporter, scratches BIRD into his own growing pile of ashes, and starts the day over.
“All you need for energy is something to burn.”
The Doctor literally asks how long he can keep doing this, referencing this day and the series as a whole, and then answers:
The final 13 minutes gloriously montage him struggling through the cycle, telling a bit more of the Grimm fable each time, as he painfully punches through that damn wall every day for TWO BILLION YEARS just to get through the other side and punch that sharpened beak through the face of whomever killed Clara. Not seek revenge? HO HO!
At last he steps through the hole, and it isn’t the TARDIS on the other side. The confession dial closes and falls at his feet as he gazes up at Gallifrey and tells a little boy, “Go to the city. Find someone important. Tell them I’m back. Tell them I know what they did. And if they ask you who I am, tell them I came the long way ‘round.”
The Hybrid destined to conquer Gallifrey and stand on its ruins? “It’s me.” AHHHHHH!!!!!
This episode was nothing short of Capaldi in all his Twelve-ish glory, and I am 100% here for every eternal second of it. Not only was the Doctor stripped of his companion, which he nicely filed in his brain as his problem solving mechanism, but the lack of sonic screwdriver begins to make sense. Unable to simply zap his way to the end, he uses the sunglasses only to evaluate the material and depth of the wall, something that nearly breaks his resolve, and is then forced to prove just how serious he is about solving this problem. Like so many of his encounters were forced to do while he skated away, the Doctor can’t skip to the end and must take “the long way ‘round,” like Amy, Madame du Pompadour, Billy Shipton in “Blink,” and Ashildr. To answer the inevitable question, the wall does not reset because it is at the edge of the time field and forms a back door for the program.
What is the Time Lords’ motivation? Did they trick the Doctor into his own confession dial to uncover the secret of the Hybrid only, or is there something more sinister behind it? Was this trap designed to kill him or was that only an unfortunate side effect? While it was wonderful relief that the Doctor undid the killing of his entire race in “The Day of the Doctor,” keep in mind, they were essentially megalomaniacs by the time it reached that point. It’s further debatable as to whether 2 billion years actually passed, or if this is some sort of Gallifreyan “Matrix” situation. I can’t wait until next week’s season finale when at last they confront each other.
Moments I absolutely loved… The Doctor dropping his spoon into the soup as he contemplates doing this forever. His face merging with the skull. The castle making its first shift. Him sweet talking a door into opening. Wondering exactly what he noticed was wrong with the stars. His joy at outsmarting the Veil with a shovel. Him admitting he needs an audience. The Veil collapsing into clockwork parts. Pretty much everything.
By the way, it is still the same Doctor even though he says “copy.” His pattern is stored in the hard drive, or buffer, and, using his own energy, he calls out a fresh re-materialization of himself. The Star Trek TNG episode “Lonely Among Us” is probably the closest comparison, in which Picard is separated from an energy being and restored via his stored transporter pattern without memory of the day’s events, rather than say, “Second Chances,” in which Riker is accidentally copied through a transporter accident. If you really want to go down the transporter buffer copy vs. original rabbit hole, try “Relics,” “Realm of Fear,” “Up the Long Ladder,” “Rascals,” and DS9’s “Visionary.”
References, Facts, and Quotes:
- This metaphor for eternity is from “Considerations on Eternity” by Jesuit priest Jeremias Drexel.
- More British cursing in this episode with the first instance of “arse.”
- At 2 billion years of repeats, the program went through over 304,375,000,000 Doctors.
- His beginning monologue is literally the writing on the wall in one of the hallways.
- His “scared and alone” speech again recalls his dinosaur translation in “Deep Breath.”
- I thought for a brief moment that the “second shadow next to yours” was referencing the Vashta Nerada.
- The Doctor’s room in “The God Complex” was room 11.
- “Clearly you can’t establish a psychic link with a door for one obvious reason: they’re notoriously cross.”
- “I’ve run out of corridor. There’s a life summed up.”
- “The brothers Grimm. Lovely fellows. They’re on my darts team.”
Doctor Who S9E11
A collaboration between Steven Moffat, Peter Capaldi, director Rachel Talalay, editor Will Oswald, and composer Murray Gold, “Heaven Sent” utterly defines the character of the Doctor via Capaldi – his cleverness and utter determination, his grief, his need for an audience, his random cutting insults, and his unabashed regret. The music draws from a variety of genres without overwhelming, unlike how I felt last week, and the editing communicates frustration, fear, creepiness, and futility, stopping just before the cuts lose novelty but not before you’re made to feel the years passing. At one point, the sound breaks down to simply Capaldi’s fingers clicking the seconds away. Outrageously good.
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