Saturday, 28 November 2015

Doctor Who - Heaven Sent

Contains spoilers.

It's quite strange to think that just two years ago I found myself struggling with a series of Doctor Who. Alas, Matt Smith's final year was flimsy at best, with Clara's "Impossible Girl" arc undermining her character and an abundance of average stories worsened with poor execution. Here we are, approaching the conclusion of Peter Capaldi's second year aboard the TARDIS, and week by week this show is finding ways to better itself, even after episodes that showed no signs of ever being topped. In the vast majority of Doctor Who's early years, episodes such as The Zygon Inversion or Face the Raven would be the absolute annual peak, yet here the former episode can now no longer claim to land in the season's best two entries.

Heaven Sent is a monumentally brave piece of television. Not only does it exceed the general Doctor Who episode run time by ten minutes, but it does so with Peter Capaldi acting as the only speaking character throughout; in fact, we only see three faces across the full fifty five minutes. As well as this, Heaven Sent even offers us visual representations of the Doctor's mentality, a truly terrifying monster, an insanely ambitious narrative structure and an absolute whopper of a cliffhanger. I don't think there are enough superlatives in the dictionary to describe just how great tonight's episode was.

Following on immediately from the events of last week's Face the Raven, the Doctor is teleported into a castle in the middle of nowhere, alone. Or, at least he thinks. He soon discovers the Veil, a mysterious creature that slowly stalks him through the environment, and is only stopped should the Doctor reveal the confessions that he has never spoken aloud. So, with the Veil never speaking, the Doctor is left to talk aloud to himself; Heaven Sent would not work as a silent piece, so this dialogue is truly needed.

Steven Moffat's script is masterful in how it allows the Doctor to talk aloud without ever feeling forced; he begins addressing whoever it is that took him here, before talking aloud to "Clara" for the remainder of the episode, still showing off his skills and ideas even after she has died and left him alone. The episode's most interesting method of explaining the Doctor's actions, though, comes with the repeated cutaways to the TARDIS interior, as the Doctor speaks to "Clara" who (despite never seen to be moving) stands by the blackboard, writing questions for the Doctor to answer. Yet, these sequences aren't real. At least not in the physical world. This is a visual metaphor for the Doctor's mentality, a visible exploration of how his mind works and how he saves his own life repeatedly, even at the last second. It's a brave move packed inside an episode filled with brave moves, and it's absolutely wonderful.

Perhaps the most incredible thing about Heaven Sent, though, is how all aspects of the episode's production come together seamlessly. The directing, the writing, the acting and the editing are the focal aspects of this episode that needed to gel together for the episode to work, and not only do they all click but they wonderfully compliment each other. The episode begins at an insane pace, and Capaldi's performance nicely strengthens Moffat's script and William Oswald's editing. Once the episode slows down, though, Rachel Talalay's direction flourishes. The constantly moving castle is truly a sight to behold, and she allows the script's slower moments to still feel loaded with risk and adrenaline.

And then there is Peter Capaldi. This guy is just in a world of his own. He has treated us to an absolute abundance of bravura performances across this series, but he surpassed himself yet again tonight. Heaven Sent represented an enormous ordeal for the Doctor, and Capaldi does a breathtaking job of portraying every emotion and every thought that he endures. Rage, sorrow, playfulness, giddy excitement, terror. You name it, Capaldi sold it. Sci-Fi is generally ignored across the British television awards circuit, but if Peter Capaldi goes without any nominations this year then it will be an enormous injustice. He is just something else.

Heaven Sent is also one of those episodes that is completely dominated by its final moments. Don't get me wrong, the first 45 minutes are superb television, but when this episode's big twist comes, it is jaw dropping. The Doctor has already been in this castle for seven thousand years, on a repeated cycle of completing all the tasks, reaching the diamond wall, punching it a few times before being attacked and defeated by the Veil. Yet, every time and following clues from the first time he experienced this, he crawls back to the teleportation chamber, resets it, and starts the whole thing off again.

The three minute montage of the Doctor repeating his own actions across a multitude of years - what began as 7,000 ends at around three billion - is exhilarating. In fact, I can confidently say I forgot to breathe throughout it. And as if that wasn't enough, the Doctor eventually breaks through, and finds himself on Gallifrey. His home planet. If next week's finale lives up not only to the standard of Heaven Sent but to the standard of this entire series, then I'll finally be sure. This won't only be Doctor Who's greatest season by a long mile, but it will be one of the greatest television seasons I have ever seen. Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi, please never leave us.

Notes - 
  • I don't think I completely sold just how terrifying the Veil was. The moment its arms appeared inside the grave was heart stopping, as well as its sudden appearance when the Doctor opened that door in the garden. And the fact that its visual form is the replica of a dying woman from the Doctor's childhood is a brilliantly nightmarish touch. I'm never looking at a swarm of flies the same way again. 
  • Jenna Coleman's brief cameo achieved the impossible: it was genuinely touching, and didn't undermine her death last week. Clara was never physically in the episode's narrative, she's just buried in the Doctor's mind. He talks to her even now she's gone. The more I think about this episode, the more emotional I find it.
  • The episode actually began with the Doctor's wounded hand dissolving into the sand before the new version stepped out of the teleporter. And isn't it great that the dry clothes the Doctor changes into after jumping from the window are just the previously wet clothes of the previous version following the exact same scenario. This is one of those episodes that gets increasingly more rewarding with every viewing.
  • It was wonderfully weird seeing just one name in the episode's opening title sequence. 
  • I'm still ridiculously impressed at how ambitious this episode was. The fact that it nailed it in every respect is just the icing on the cake. This whole series has played with Doctor Who's format in such exciting ways, even the one episode that didn't work still gave us something we'd never seen before. 
  • Next week will see the conclusion of Doctor Who's best year to date. Deep breath, folks...

Next - Hell Bent

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