Sunday, 2 April 2017

Groundhog Doc

Doctor Who
Heaven Sent
Series Nine, Episode Eleven

Writing is hard.  It is the creation of something from nothing.  Of all the ideas and images swirling around your head, you’ve somehow got to pluck a precise sequence that complement each other and build, that go somewhere and hold together, that are entertaining.  Ideally this isn’t something you’ll aim to do just once, and every time you’re diving back into that maelstrom, making sense of white noise, returning with music.  Oh, and it can be quite fun sometimes.

Now imagine you’re a TV writer, and you’ve got to do this over and over again, yearly.  (Well, on a good year.)  And now imagine the thing you’re writing over and over again has been written over and over again by countless other people already.  Having trouble coming up with something new?  Boo hoo, do it anyway.  No one-off guest writer spot for you.  Oh, you wrote Blink, did you?  Brilliant.  Now do better than that, and often.

Similarly, I've got to come up with a funny caption every time,
even with episodes I like.  #TheStruggleIsReal.
Anyway, the whole "Doctor's personal hell" thing is a bit irrelevant, isn't it?
(No?  Well, I tried.)
It’s perhaps kind to bear this in mind on some of Steven Moffat’s bad days, when things frustratingly don’t come together, such as his often barrel-scraping Specials and finales.  But the TV writer’s journey, particularly the Doctor Who When It’s Past Fifty writer, muttering “Oh shit oh shit oh shit” as the shoot approaches and the cursor blinks on a still-empty page and for god’s sake we’re on Series Nine already, has never been quite as apparent as in Heaven Sent, which metaphorically puts it on the screen for you.

The Doctor materialises in a castle.  He is alone, apart from a slowly approaching spectre that symbolises death, probably literally.  He’ll have to run around evading the creature, and the only way to find answers (and escape) is to rearrange the castle, which occurs only when he confesses something.  Each time he’s in peril, he has to retreat into his mind and frantically figure out how he’ll get out of this one.  And he’ll have to do this again and again and again to escape.

Well, I mean, there it is.  Practically a blank page to start with, nothing but hero and threat chasing each other, almost writing itself as it goes until it’s something clever, and the only way to succeed is to keep doing it.  Making Doctor Who in a nutshell.

And the meaning goes deeper than that.  Here be spoilers, but this is a popular episode so you’ve probably seen it: to get out of here the Doctor must literally punch his way through a wall that’s harder than diamond, and that would take an eternity, so when he’s exhausted or dead the only possibility is another Doctor.  So he returns to the teleporter that brought him here, which still houses a handy Doctor pattern from when he arrived, and beams him up.  But he needs energy, so he uses his own expiring body as fuel.  Thinking aloud to a non-existent Clara, he says: “How long can I keep doing this?  Burning the old me, to make a new one?”

Well, I mean, there it is.  The ongoing story of the Doctor, living and dying and living again.  It’s tempting to view the Doctor’s regenerations as a handy get-out-of-death-free card – you might as well, that’s what they are – but if you think about how that would affect an actual person over centuries, and certainly how David Tennant’s Doctor referred to it (as “some new man sauntering away”), it does involve actually dying in order to start again.  Time Lords: they don’t live forever, they just die and get born more often.  And whereas The End Of Time focussed on the toll this takes by making the Doctor sulk and drag his feet (which, to be fair, could be pretty compelling), Heaven Sent shows the determination he needs to keep doing this.  Quite often he wants to roll over and rest, or let’s face it, finally properly die, but that’s just not who he is.  There’s a mystery to solve, a villain to vanquish, and – in the long run – a death to avenge, so he doesn’t have the option to stop.  In character terms, as well as a possible window to the writer’s process, Heaven Sent is absolutely bloody wow.  Who knew he still had something like this in the tank?

And that’s just the writing.  Here is an episode, peeking indulgently over 45 minutes to about 53, of just Peter Capaldi.  Okay, there’s the thankless dude in the monster costume shuffling down corridors, and there’s an inevitable Jenna Coleman cameo (although she’s totally still dead, you guys), but it’s ultimately just him.  Many, many, many hims, but that’s not the point, and he held my attention absolutely from Minute #1 to the end.  Talking to himself like Spider-Man after too much coffee, this could easily run the risk of “Describe everything that’s happening” syndrome, but instead it naturally feeds the Doctor’s impulse to investigate (and his need to have someone to relate it to), as well as adding to all that natty meta writer stuff.  As the Doctor ruminates on how to cope with a death, tries to figure out why the stars don’t look right, and ultimately relates the whole situation using a certain Grimm’s fairytale, it becomes yet another performance full of light and shade.

We’re losing Peter Capaldi’s Doctor soon, and gaining goodness knows what instead, and looking back now, Heaven Sent almost rubs it in.  Series Nine reshaped the excessively crotchety Twelfth Doctor, sometimes poorly, adding cuddly nonsense like electric guitars and hoodies and trying too hard to sand off his edges.  But Capaldi also unearthed a real warmth, and held onto that vicious streak that made him interesting.  It’s all there in Heaven Sent as he longs for an absent friend and rages against an invisible foe, but this stuff is peppered through Series Nine as well, quality of the episodes be damned.  I’ll probably cling to each episode of the next series, good or otherwise, just for this guy.

Why does frying yourself leave the skull behind?
Isn't that the one bit you'd probably have less of?
There are nitpicks, of course, or it wouldn’t be Doctor Who.  He says the wall is made of something 20 times harder than diamond; well, your fist wouldn’t make a dent however many times you punch it, then.  Duh.  What kind of diamond isn’t immune to fists?  (And not that it would help, but shouldn’t he at least use the shovel he’s got lying around?)  Then there’s the question of how every room eventually resets to how it was when he arrived, except for the diamond wall (which is diminishing) and the painting of Clara (which is ageing), and quite possibly those chalky and scratchy messages left by, presumably, previous hims.  (And if he can leave messages, why is he buggering about with riddles?)

Rather more ominously, there’s this ongoing nonsense about the hybrid.  Not only is it very hard to believe that Steven’s got another really good arc story in the tank, even after a slam-dunk episode like Heaven Sent, but this episode makes it apparent that the hybrid is something that will change the Doctor’s past as we know it.  And that’s always disappointing.

Did the Doctor’s life story become richer from knowing that he needed Clara Oswald popping up over and over to help him out?  No, and we didn’t believe it because we’ve never seen her before.  Did we really believe the Doctor’s name was going to be revealed?  No, because we know they’d just be making it up 50 years later and it couldn’t live up to the hype, and in any case he’s been called the Doctor for about 95% of his life so who cares; it would be like revealing that his birth certificate had a typo.  And now we’ve got the hybrid, a “prophecy” (those are always terrible) which is apparently the real reason he left Gallifrey.  Dun-dun-DUN?  Moffat loves re-establishing the fundamentals, or at least dicking around with them, as it proves this was really his show all along.  The moment the Doctor starts talking about the real reason he left Gallifrey, a sinking feeling ensues.  Oh yeah, Doc?  Bit odd that it hasn’t come up in fifty-plus years, innit?  Ditto this prophecy in general, which apparently has the Time Lords shit-scared, but not so much that anyone has ever actually talked about it or been remotely troubled by it.  When it comes to ideas in a long-running show, you just can’t cheat mileage.

But frankly, most of that hybrid stuff – including the continued and depressing hints that the Doctor is so awesome that everyone ought to be terrified of him, which is an ongoing hubris kind of like Clara’s, only they probably won’t address it – falls on the next episode, which has the unenviable task of resolving everything.  And as for the niggles about how this world works, well, they’re not important enough to get in the way of what’s good about the episode.

Moffat finds time to come up with another “elemental” monster, this one representing the slow, inexorable march of death.  Bloody hell, that’s not for kids!  And he comes up with a way to genuinely threaten the Doctor, more so than just threatening to off him: this prison, much like the earlier Pandorica (which was great until they threw it away minutes later), is far more of a nightmare for a long-lived person than just death.  Deep down he must know he’ll always find a way out of that, and that in itself is something to regret (as sometimes, a long rest sounds pretty nice compared to the alternative).  Trapping the Doctor for good, though, in a way that regeneration won’t help, rings very true as his absolute nightmare.

There’s tons here to unpack, and yet Heaven Sent still feels like an economical bottle show.  Not every note of it is perfect, but it’s a pretty obvious step up for the show, and evidently it’s bigger on the inside.


  1. This interesting perspective on such a fascinating episode has been well worth the wait. I look forward to your thoughts on Series 10.

    1. Well, ta very much! I hadn't rewatched it in ages but boy, it stood up.

      I'm hoping to get Hell Bent and Husbands Of River Song up before S10, as well as the next 5 Virgin books. Fingers crossed!