One of Doctor Who’s greatest assets is its flexible format. One week you might get a tried and tested Base-Under-Siege story, but the next could bring something so entirely out of the ordinary it completely changes your expectations of the show’s capabilities. Of course, not all experimental episodes pay-off (see this year’s Sleep No More), but it’s more than worth the gamble when you get an episode like Heaven Sent.
Penned by Steven Moffat, the first episode of this year’s two-part finale takes the concept of Listen’s opening sequence (Capaldi talking to himself) and stretches it into 54 minutes of tensely plotted drama as the Doctor is confronted with his darkest secret. As with most of Moffat’s stories, it can be viewed as thrillingly complex or woefully convoluted, with its intricate metaphors and open-ended meanings likely to frustrate as well as entertain. Some may dislike it for its strangeness, but for those who get swept up by it, Heaven Sent is an utterly powerful piece of storytelling.
Following on directly from the end of Face the Raven, Heaven Sent immediately reveals where Ashildr’s teleporter has sent the Doctor. Unfortunately, even he doesn’t know exactly where, or even when, he is. He appears to trapped in an automated castle that can change form at certain moments, but isn’t entirely sure how. Still, at least he’s not completely alone. Someone, or something, is watching from afar as the Doctor is pursued by the mysterious but deadly Veil.
With Clara’s death continuing to lay heavy on the Doctor’s mind – painful reminders of what he’s lost lurk behind every corner – Moffat naturally drops his usual bonkers energy for something more mournful and introspective. The plot unfolds at a gradual, languid pace as the Doctor endlessly wanders the castle ruminating on the nature of life, death, loss and time.
“It’s funny, the day you lose someone isn’t the worst… it’s all the days they stay dead,” the Doctor laments at one point. Lines like this might be too heavily weighted for the youngest of viewers to comprehend, but for those a little longer in the tooth it will undoubtedly resonate. As morbid as it feels, Moffat deserves praise for gently tackling the lasting effect Clara’s death has had on the Doctor rather than simply glossing over the loss by moving on to the next adventure.
Also worthy of acclaim is returning director Rachel Talalay, whose superb direction ensures this complex, singularly-focused episode never feels boring. There’s shades of gothic horror to the palette with Talalay dropping in haunting images of drowned skulls, sodden graves and fog-swept courtyards to create a palpable sense of unease. Her direction is also highly dramatic, with bursts of piercing light and deep shadows lending a theatrical feel to the action.
Composer Murray Gold’s work is just as vital as the visuals here, his operatic score deftly heightening the tension via several sweeping, pulsating melodies to seamlessly replace the absence of dialogue.
Of course, the episode really belongs to Peter Capaldi and his magnificent performance. Sustaining an entire episode on your own is no mean feat, yet Capaldi’s ferocious energy makes it seem effortless. The depth and range of his performance is simply extraordinary. From anger and despair to confusion and wiry energy, Capaldi runs a whole gamut of emotions as the Doctor is put through his paces inside the castle.
As you might expect of a single-hander, Heaven Sent sees the Doctor embark on a deeply personal journey. Arriving to find the castle littered with relics from his own nightmares, the Doctor rapidly uncovers the structures sinister purpose as his own personalised torture chamber. The information his hidden captors wish to extract? Everything the Doctor knows about the Dalek-Time Lord hybrid that has been prophesised all series.
In one of those rare moments where you genuinely fear for the Doctor, the psychologically draining ordeal he is put through here is hard to watch as the castle preys on his fear and loneliness, pushing him to the ends of his limits.
Though he’s the only one who speaks throughout the episode, the Doctor is not entirely alone in the castle. As he roams the corridors trying to crack the puzzle of his prison, the Doctor finds himself being stalked by the Veil, a demonic figure that best resembles a cross between a Weeping Angel and a frosty Dementor.
In keeping with the inventiveness of the episode, Moffat’s latest creation is not your typical monster. It never speaks, nor do we learn much about it other than it can only be halted by hearing the truth. And it’s all the more terrifying for it. There’s a sense of haunting inevitability to the Veil’s ability to catch up with its victims that means even the mere suggestion of its presence has the ability to chill you to the core.
The long-teased cliffhanger isn’t quite as shocking as advertised, with the journey building up to that point proving to be the most enthralling and intriguing part. But while the revelation that the Time Lords on Gallifrey are the Doctor’s captors won’t come as much of a surprise, it certainly serves as an effective teaser for next week’s extended finale as the Doctor looks set to once again go to war.
All in all, Heaven Sent is likely to be one of those Marmite episodes that viewers will either love or hate depending on their feelings towards Moffat’s writing. I for one loved it, being mesmerised by its grim atmosphere, weighty themes and Capaldi’s masterful performance. More like this, please.
Click here to watch Doctor Who: Heaven Sent on BBC iPlayer