Doctor Who series 9: Heaven Sent review

So many spoilers: Peter Capaldi gives another masterclass in Doctor Who series 9's penultimate episode...

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.

9.11 Heaven Sent

“The Doctor will see you now. Show me what you’ve got”

Doctor Who’s not done this before.

It’s the penultimate episode of the series. The stakes have been shot through the roof by the demise of Clara in Face The Raven. It’s the big lead into the final episode of the run. And, for virtually all of its runtime, there’s only one person in the episode.

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Even this close to the end, Doctor Who series 9 is rolling the dice. And more often than not, as it does this week, it’s winning.

”Get up off your arse and win”

Heaven Sent picks up, then, in the aftermath of last week’s episode, as the Doctor finds himself transported into a mysterious castle-type place. There’s a bit of a sinister Hogwart’s feel about it, as walls move around, and director Rachel Talalay skillfully marries up horror and mystery, finding interesting angle after interesting angle to keep the location an involving one.

The script for this one’s by Steven Moffat, and in many ways, it’s one of his most ambitious. It actually gets through quite a lot of business very early for a start, and what’s impressive there is how efficiently it does it. The pieces are very well put into place, as the Doctor finds himself with plenty stacked again him, facing relentless tests.

It’s not just the Doctor as we know him, either. Here, he’s still hurting, he’s still raw and he’s still angry. Whoever’s put him here knows it too, and The Veil – looking not a million miles away from The Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come in A Christmas Carol adaptations – offers a foe who’s not as straightforward to defeat as something like a Dalek.

Incidentally, does anyone else remember the chat show Star Test? Where a sort-of famous person found themselves in a room, giving answers to a computer? Heaven Sent had a little bit of a flavour of that to me too, as the Doctor was pushed harder and harder to give up answers, in this case answers he didn’t want to give.

But I digress a little. This is Steven Moffat on very good form. He’s being confident and clever with time, without zipping backwards and forwards and asking us to hold on. There’s an inherent trust that the audience is on board with what he’s doing, and – in a recurring theme this series – there’s a genuine gamble with format and story.

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“Nothing is half-Dalek”

Moffat’s dragged the Doctor to a very raw place in Heaven Sent, and one where the he has to fail an awful lot of times before he succeeds. There are no cheats, there are no sonic devices to get him out of jail(even the old glasses offer little assistance). There’s just a relentlessness, a lot of dying and fresh copies being made, and a passing of time that comes across far more effectively than it did in, say, Time Of The Doctor.

Furthermore, just look at the Doctor himself here. He’s certainly been a less effective character at saving the day these past few weeks: in Sleep No More, he effectively lost, and then of course there’s his failure to save Clara from the raven of doom. Here, copies of himself die lots and lots and lots of times – just look at all the skulls at the bottom of the water – before he finally makes it to the end of the test that’s been set for him.

At some price, too. By then, he’s had to bare his soul more than we’re used to seeing. Without anyone around to soften his edges, the Doctor is unvarnished, rage never much hidden here. And it goes without saying – but still should be said – that Peter Capaldi is quite brilliant again.

It seems an odd formality to give out television acting gongs next year. They could save themselves some time and an awful lot of money by just posting them to Capaldi’s house, at a time convenient to him. Week after week, he’s knocked this out of the proverbial park. Even appreciating the snobbery towards sci-fi that award-givers seem to have, someone has to notice what he’s done. 10 minutes of The Zygon Inversion is still winning for me as peak Capaldi this year, but there are many moments in Heaven Sent that fight for second place.

“I’m not scared of Hell. It’s just Heaven for bad people”

In the midst of being chased by The Veil – a surprisingly creepy foe – and hacking through a thick diamond wall for quadrillions of years (approximately), some crucial confessions came to the fore then. Ones that go right to the core of the show and the character. The Doctor didn’t leave Gallifrey because he was bored, for one, but because he was scared.

Furthermore, the Time Lords knew the Time War was coming, and knew that the hybrid was on the way. “The ultimate warrior”, apparently, set to bring peace or destruction. How could it be anyone other than the Doctor? Well, unless there’s another twist in the tale is coming along.

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Inevitably, when the very history of the Doctor’s character is touched upon, there’s a degree of protection that goes on. Is it right that the show digs into things that have been set in some form of stone for some time?

Personally, I’m open to that, depending on how it works for the character. Did editing Clara into the lifespan of the First Doctor offer much enrichment? I’d argue not. Yet how can the show be called Doctor Who, and the central character not evolve, and have his history examined? I get this one is a red line for some fans. I just think it’s too early to call this time around.

“This whole place is designed to terrify me”

I do have a grumble, though.

Doctor Who is a globally enjoyed TV show, that continues to make serious and heavy inroads around the planet. It’s also a programme that therefore has to – even though it’s a BBC show – dance to the ratings game a little. As a consequence of that, the decision has been made somewhere along the line to release what I’d class as fairly significant spoilers in the build up to this episode, a few weeks ahead.

I think – and it’s easy for me to say this from my perspective – that’s a mistake. Worse: I think it hurt the ending of Heaven Sent for those who had read what should have been a more spoiler-light synopsis – or at least a more time sensitive one – for Hell Bent, the series finale.

Appreciating that Steven Moffat, a year ago, already began teasing the cliffhanger of this episode, for those of us who were exposed to spoilers ahead of time – and this wasn’t internet chitter-chatter, they were formally released in a piece of publicity by the BBC – the reveal at the end of the episode lost a good chunk of its impact. Because we knew the Doctor was going to end up on Gallifrey. A big, geeky, nerdbump-generating moment had been sacrificed for many at the altar of the publicity machine, and that’s a real pity.

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Would the ending have had impact had spoilers not been in the open? I honestly can’t tell you. Maybe someone in the comments can. Sure, we still get that the Doctor is the hybrid that’s been teased all series. We still get that he spent the episode basically in his confession dial (although I don’t think it was much of a shock when that was confirmed). But the biggest reveal was gone for many people (and I’m someone who usually manages to duck spoilers).

Still, there are interesting, huge questions to resolve. Who sent the Doctor to Gallifrey? Who trapped him in his confession dial in the first place? Has Into The Dalek come true, and is the Doctor a little bit of a Dalek after all? Is Clara really gone? Where does Ashildr continue to fit into all of this? And what shinola is about to hit the fan when the Doctor encounters the Time Lords again?

I can but salivate at just what this sets up. The Doctor is still angry and hurt here, and he’s back on the planet where his old wounds are the deepest. All signs point to Steven Moffat throwing a metaphorical grenade into the heart of the show here, and I for one can’t wait to see what’s going to happen. The series finale has been extended to 65 minutes, and there’s surely some serious shit about to go down (hey, if Doctor Who can go potty-mouthed this week, I’m having a go too).

I dearly hope Hell Bent sends Doctor Who series 9 out on a high, because I think this has been a joy of a run. Even the weakest episode at least put its cards on the table and had a try at something. There’s been no playing safe here that I can see.

Heaven Sent? I liked it a lot, for its entrusting of Peter Capaldi, and for its entrusting of us as viewers. If the BBC can pull back on its spoilers for just seven more days, next Saturday evening promises some serious fireworks…

Our review of last week’s episode, Face The Raven, can be found here.

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