‘Heaven Sent’, Five Years On: When Doctor Who Produced a Masterpiece

Samuel Rubinstein 30 November 2020
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Like the Sun City garage Jackson Pollock and the Toulouse Caravaggio, extraordinary works of art have a habit of turning up in unexpected places. ‘Heaven Sent’, the Doctor Who episode which graced our screens exactly five years ago, is a case in point. It is the penultimate episode of an uneven series. Its protagonist, Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor, is a controversial iteration of the Time Lord, more sour and dour than David Tennant or Matt Smith. It is the second instalment in a loosely connected, otherwise mediocre three-part finale. And it is Doctor Who, which, though an iconic staple of British television, is hardly highbrow.

The fifth anniversary of ‘Heaven Sent’ affords as good an opportunity as any for me to gush about it. I make no apology for doing so with a proselytising zeal. My comparisons with Pollock and Caravaggio might have seemed a bit grandiose, but the fact remains that ‘Heaven Sent’ is the best hour of television that I have seen: not the best of Doctor Who, but the best overall. It might seem strange that I should discover a masterpiece in what is ultimately a low-budget family-oriented TV show, a silly and frivolous romp known for flatulent Slitheen, robotic dogs, and pepper-pot villains. Yet there it is, a glistening jewel amidst all the Doctor Who hits and misses; there it shines in its awesome glory. It shouldn’t exist, and yet it does; there simply is nothing else like it.

It is a glistening jewel amidst all the Doctor Who hits and misses.

Every episode of Doctor Who follows a reliable, if unambitious, formula. If you have ever seen an episode, you will know that it goes something like this. The TARDIS spits out the Doctor and his companion in a strange and exciting setting (how strange and exciting will depend on the BBC’s budget). They encounter aliens who harbour some generic nefarious plan, usually targeted at humans. Two thirds into the episode, it will seem that all is lost: the Doctor is helpless and he does not know how to foil the aliens’ evil scheme. But it turns out that, in fact, the Doctor is much more powerful than we had realised: really, he was always in control. Then he saves the day in an invariably non-violent and family-friendly manner. He talks a lot – and very quickly – bedazzling his companion, stunning his foes, and winning, always winning, through the power of words. There is a nod to the broader series arc, the curtains close, and the audience awaits more of the same.

There is nothing wrong with this formula, which has entertained and delighted the nation for almost sixty years. But the genius of ‘Heaven Sent’ is that it flips this formula on its head. For the first time since Doctor Who was revived in 2005, we find the Doctor completely alone, his companion, Clara Oswald, having died in the preceding episode. He is stalked constantly by a mysterious veiled figure surrounded by flies – a figure which, we learn, is lifted directly from his nightmares. No matter where in the castle he goes, the Veil follows him, edging closer and closer and closer. The Doctor can make it go away only by confessing to something or other, by telling it a truth that he has never told anyone else. Even that will only make the Veil go away for so long, and eventually the Doctor will run out of confessions. The entire castle is his ‘own bespoke torture chamber’, designed by his enemies – we do not yet know who – to pry all his secrets from him.

For the first time since Doctor Who was revived in 2005, we find the Doctor completely alone.

Steven Moffat, the Doctor Who show-runner who wrote ‘Heaven Sent’, usually takes the traditional Doctor Who formula to the extreme. He is famous (or infamous) for his love ofcomplexity, paradoxes, time-loops. When it comes to storytelling, the Moffatist dictum is simple: the more convoluted, the better. Every story is too-clever-by-half, and no matter how dire the situation appears, the Doctor can always wriggle out of it.

But watching the Doctor babble his way to victory every week can get tiresome. So one will be forgiven for letting out an exasperated sigh when the Doctor, like Moffat’s Sherlock, visits his ‘mind palace’, an imagined TARDIS, in ‘Heaven Sent’. He has just been cornered by the Veil, and, fearing for his life, he jumps out of a window. As he falls into the sea below, his mind slows down, as he tries to work out a way to survive. In his self-plagiarism of Sherlock, Moffat winks smugly at the audience; it is fitting that the Doctor then briefly breaks the fourth wall, his eyes flicking towards the camera as he says ‘I’m nothing without an audience’. But then, for the first time, Moffat makes the Doctor, rather than the audience, the butt of the joke. When he throws himself out of the window, he says defiantly to the Veil, ‘you won’t see this coming’. The dark irony is that the Doctor’s behaviour is entirely predictable, and that the Veil, and eventually the audience, knows more about his predicament than he does.

Doctor Who (and Moffat) relish contrived twist endings, usually involving ‘wibbly wobbly timey wimey’ dei ex machina with countless plot-holes plastered over by lots of fast and confident talking. Insofar as ‘Heaven Sent’ has a twist, it is that the Doctor’s bluster is useless, and that he must instead, for the first time in the revived era, brute-force his way out of the situation. Contrary to the Doctor’s earlier suspicions, there are no ‘timey-wimey’ shenanigans in this episode: really, there is no time travel at all. If the Doctor finds himself 7000 years in the future, it is only because he has ‘been here a very, very long time’. The futility of the Doctor’s mind palace, of his speechifying, and ultimately of his cleverness is laid bare. The entire episode therefore feels like an anti-Moffatism: it is an exquisite exercise in self-parody.

It is an exquisite exercise in self-parody.

The montage at the end of the episode is extraordinary, which is why it has been imprinted on my mind for five years and will persist there, I imagine, for the rest of my life. The Doctor, more desperate and helpless than ever, must punch a wall forty times stronger than diamond, slowly chiselling it away over billions of years with his fists until he is free. The mind-numbing length of time – ‘the first second of eternity’ – makes for a sickening existential nightmare, accentuated by Murray Gold’s magnificent score: I often listen to it during essay crisis all-nighters, painfully typing word after word just as the Doctor liberates himself one punch at a time. Feelings of horror give way to elation as the Doctor, using his fists rather than words, eventually destroys his obstacle. It is a victory for the Doctor, but a defeat for what the Doctor stands for: reason, language, and brains over brawn.

‘Heaven Sent’ is brilliant because it takes risks. It is a one-man show, and only an actor as talented as Capaldi can hold it up. It abandons the stale, tried-and-tested formula and enters unchartered territory: as the Doctor himself says, ‘Now this is new’. Moffat gives himself constraints in writing an episode where the Doctor is alone and vulnerable, and constraints are the friend of creativity. Doctor Who is a campy family television programme that strives ultimately to be good fun. But it is capable of greatness, and when its writers are prepared to take bold risks, it can be transcendent.