The following review contains ALL THE SPOILERS for Doctor Who S9 E11, ‘Heaven Sent.’ Be warned, fools.
One of my favorite things about Steven Moffat‘s best Doctor Who scripts is that you don’t know what the hell’s going on until you know what the hell’s going on. He has the ability, when he tries, to make mysteries in which all the clues are there to be solved, but the context for them hasn’t been revealed yet. Like a clockwork puzzle box, every piece fits together just so until it all hums along and finishes its cycle. Series 9 episode 11, “Heaven Sent,” is exactly this type of episode, and it’s, I think, one of Moffat’s crowning achievements.
After “Face the Raven” last week, in which Clara outsmarted herself into getting dead, and the Doctor was well and truly defeated by whomever hired Ashildr, it seemed we’d be getting some kind of answers this week. And we did, but it took a long time to get there—roughly 2 billion years in fact. This is one of those episodes that illustrates just how resilient, how defiant, and how ultimately brilliant the Doctor is. He always finds a way to win, even if he has to die billions and billions of times to do it.
The episode begins not at the beginning but in the middle, around 7,000 years after the Doctor was taken and deposited into the ever-shifting castle in the middle of a body of water. Of course we don’t yet know it’s 7,000 years later, and we don’t yet know what that means. Throughout, the Doctor has to determine his own given circumstances and slowly piece things together, just as we do. We know two things for certain: someone knows his deepest and darkest nightmares—personified by the Veil, the shrouded death monster that haunted the Doctor as a child—and whoever that someone is wants the Doctor to be afraid, as evidenced by all the video screens letting the Doctor know where the Veil is, and how close, within the castle.
It’s all a game, and the Doctor is following the breadcrumbs left for him from the very start. Why is that? Well, we find out it’s largely because he set all the pieces in place himself. And because the Doctor is only as smart as himself, it makes perfect sense for him to stay on the same path over and over and over again, stuck in a Groundhog Day of someone’s own making.
I was equal parts intrigued and worried about an episode where Peter Capaldi was truly on his own, but thankfully he still had someone to talk to: Clara. Granted, Clara is just the person he talks to in his TARDIS mind palace, but it allows for him to convey information to the audience without literally just talking to himself. As ever, he needs to talk things out to solve problems, and even to talk him into doing something. It’d be so easy to lose, but he knows he has to win. That moment of doubt is very much what the Doctor is all about. I thought this worked very well, and the moment at the end when Clara finally speaks (the we-got-Jenna-Coleman-for-one-more-day money shot), it’s powerful enough to shake the defeated Doctor out of his stupor and start the Grimm’s story about the bird and eternity. And, need I even say it, Capaldi knocked this whole episode out of the park.
I want to take a moment to sing the praises of director Rachel Talalay. Last year, she directed the two-part finale, “Dark Water/Death in Heaven,” and she returned to do so here. What I think is so great about her direction is that, in the three different episodes she’s done, none of them are approached the same way. This one, being 55 minutes, feels like a lengthy novel; it’s something to savor, to mull over, and experience. The final 13 minutes are made up almost entirely of montage of the Doctor repeating the events and slowly, painfully, and undauntedly punching the thickest, hardest wall in existence until he’s finally eroded it to the point that he breaks through. This had to be painstakingly edited with shots chosen for specific reasons, and it works so beautifully. It’s only part-way through the montage that you even realize what the Doctor’s doing. I can’t wait to see what she brings to next week’s finale, “Hell Bent.”
Another shout out I want to throw is to series composer Murray Gold. He’s been the one constant member of the show since 2005, and while a lot of his music is functional and generically rousing, this episode allowed him a lot more variety. There’s allusions to Ennio Morricone, to Bach, there’s even some synth horror music at one point. This is a triumph on Gold’s part, and I can’t wait for the score for this series to be released so I can listen over and over again.
And now we finally get to the big reveal: the Doctor was inside his own confession dial the whole time, and “Home”—as the final square on the board connotes—was not the TARDIS, but Gallifrey itself. He found it; he took the long way ’round. But it’s not the moment of jubilation that we might have assumed following “The Day of the Doctor.” The Doctor knows the truth about the Hybrid, a being purported to be half Dalek/half Time Lord. But how could it be? Daleks don’t let anything be half them; it’d be impure (even though the Cult of Skaro tried it in “Evolution of the Daleks,” which we should all forget because it’s terrible). So the Doctor finally revealed who the Hybrid really is: Him! How can that be? I have no idea! That’s why it’s called a cliffhanger. But he’s back on Gallifrey and he’s pissed. And we all know he’ll never stop.
“Heaven Sent” is another huge win in a series that’s already produced some stone-cold classics. This is a special episode, and one that I think could only happen after a showrunner, and a show for that matter, have been around for a very long time. When Moffat focuses on telling a good story and doesn’t focus on too many cutesy inside references, he’s still one of the best in the game. Let’s see how it all wraps up next time!
Let me know your thoughts on this episode in the comments below, or on Twitter! I like having chats with y’all.
Images: BBC America
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor, a film and TV critic, and the resident Whovian for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!