29 November 2015

Doctor Who: Heaven Sent

There was a moment about halfway through Heaven Sent, when the Doctor is digging out the grave in the cloisters, when I turned to my partner and explained how I thought the story was going to play out. It turned out I was half right (at that stage, we didn’t know about the diamond wall). But this, I think, is a good thing. Moffat plays scrupulously fair with the clues, taking a structure inspired by the recurring nightmare of Dead of Night, and countless horror films since, and combining it with Grimms’ Shepherd Boy. The result, more so than Face the Raven, is Doctor Who’s best example of a dark fairy tale.

Largely because of its empathy with the Doctor’s situation: the fear and grief and anger that drive him, this is easily Moffat’s best script since the fiftieth anniversary; perhaps even since 2010. And this is despite it including yet more hit-and-run assaults on continuity. This time, the target is the truth behind the Doctor absconding from Gallifrey – surely the most over-exposed “mystery” in the series’ history. Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks, Eric Saward, Andrew Cartmel, Ben Aaronovitch, Marc Platt and Russell T Davies have all pecked away at that particular diamond mountain in the last 46 years.

The cliffhanger in particular is a masterpiece of Moffat’s simultaneous fan-baiting, crowd-playing instincts, certain to have some people up in arms and muttering darkly about the 1996 movie, and others excitedly chattering about what it all means. Similarly, bringing back Gallifrey will worry some fans who suspect that if it returns the whole Horde of Travesties will come through as well: the Habitat soft furnishings; the weary Planet Zog politics; Colin Baker in a ridiculous hat. I take hope from the fact that Gallifrey returning does not, at least going by the Next Time trailer, look like a Good Thing, and because Moffat, though willing to play with continuity, has never wrecked it.

In fact, in a curious way, the climax of Heaven Sent reminded me of The War Games: both of them see the Doctor peeling back layers of misdirection to reveal the Time Lords, and the answer to the great mystery, at the heart. In The War Games, Gallifrey is the one place the Doctor’s been running from all his life. Since The Day of the Doctor, it’s been the place he’s heading towards. Both times, it’s positioned as a kind of final destination of his travels, the moment when the series can reach a natural end point. The death of Doctor Who, if you like.

How entirely appropriate for an episode, and a season, that’s steeped in death. It began with Missy brandishing the Doctor’s last will and testament, continued through episodes that have explored mortality and the consequences of immortality; infected all of its viewers with a dusty death, and forced Clara to face the raven. As a literal manifestation of the ‘second shadow’ that haunts everyone from the moment they are born, the Veil is a supremely effective image. It takes the tired old convention joke about trying to make running through corridors away from a shuffling monster look dramatic, and turns it into something truly nightmarish.

What really sells the monster, as it always has, is the Doctor’s reaction to it. Capaldi has already been universally praised for his blistering performance in the otherwise fatuous climax of The Zygon Inversion. I think he betters it in Heaven Sent, and while he’s not uniquely capable of carrying an episode pretty much single handedly (how many classic Doctors had to do that regularly, in one take?), he is absolutely compelling. In years to come, this will be rightly held up as one of the all-time great Doctor Who performances.

Whether Heaven Sent is held up as one of the all-time greats remains to be seen. Since The Sensorites, posterity, and fandom, hasn’t always been kind to outstanding first episodes with lesser second parts, and a huge amount rides on Hell Bent. But right at this moment, I’m willing to bet this season is going to go up and up in people’s estimation.

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