|Peter Capaldi in Heaven Sent (C) BBC|
by Steven Moffat and starring Peter Capaldi
Review by Cameron K McEwan – follow on Twitter HERE
Fan of corridors? You’ll love this one.
In fact, if you’re a fan of anything, you will utterly adore this bold, fascinating and, at times, deeply disturbing fifty-plus minutes of Doctor Who.
Showrunner Steven Moffat has prepared us for this moment; we’ve seen some very angry moments from Peter Capaldi (who I feel has really defined his Doctor in recent episodes) and witnessed the tumultuous goodbye from Clara. This alone time, as it were, was always coming for him. Not only is it a punishment for him, the Doctor, but also us, the audience, as we see our favourite Gallifreyan ripped apart physically and mentally.
I make no bones about it, this is a tough watch. I think younger viewers, and those of a sensitive disposition, may be scarred for a while (never did me any harm, I should add, the Mandrels scared the hell out of me back in ’79 and I turned out ok). We’ve never seen a Doctor so raw and so scared before, it’s absolutely engrossing.
Before we get to the ‘meat’ of the story, if you pardon the pun [that wasn’t a pun – Ed.], let’s address the special feature of this week’s episode – that it’s a “one hander” (meaning Peter would be in this by himself). Firstly, as you’ve no doubt seen from the images, the Time Lord is not alone in this episode and we’ll come to The Veil later. Secondly, any notions that this might be a gimmick are quickly distinguished. Heaven Sent could only exist in this form, in this style. Within minutes you’re lost in the story, just as the Doctor is lost in this nightmarish castle. There may only be one speaker, but you’ll hear a thousand voices.
|The Veil in Heaven Sent (C) BBC|
As mentioned, Capaldi has a co-star – the hideous Veil (see above). This slow-moving, doom-laden monster creeps after the Doctor all day and all night, giving the Time Lord little respite. Like a creature from Hieronymus Bosch, it is unrelenting, signalling its appearances with dozens of flies and their incessant and irksome buzzing. Not only that, the bugger delivers scares the likes Doctor Who has not seen in quite some time. Again, I don’t want to second-guess an audience, but some viewers may not find this monstrosity palpable, so haptic and visceral is its menace.
The threat to the Doctor, throughout, is all too real.
In true style, thankfully, he does have a chipper outlook on the situation initially and uses all sorts of devices to keep himself amused and focused. Steven Moffat has been good enough to remind us of the Gallifreyan’s sense of humour, including a neat dig at gardeners, a cracking corridor gag, and another fourth wall-breaking nod to the audience (and do look out for one of the maddest faces I’ve ever seen Peter Capaldi pull in, well, anything ever).
But really, this episode will take you down, down to the Doctor’s personal hell. His anger at the loss of Clara in Face The Raven remains as strong and pushes him on to find out who caused her death and who brought him to his own bespoke torture chamber. This then subsides into curiosity about where he is and, ultimately, how he will escape. It’s this mystery and the Time Lord’s resourcefulness that are at the heart of Heaven Sent. Whatever emotions we felt at the start of the episode, are overcome by wonder at what unfolds in front of us.
And you will feel a number of emotions as each strip of the mystery is peeled away. No matter how shocking or unsettling the episode gets, one can’t help be completely and utterly engaged with the diegesis. It’s quite unlike any other episode of Doctor Who. (Though, on a superficial level, it does bring to mind the “out there”ness of Warrior’s Gate, some imagery from Logopolis and the mind games of Castrovala). Director Rachel Talalay must be commended to the highest for her ground-breaking work here, making this slow and torturous journey seem like an unimaginable rollercoaster horror show that gets in your mind and stays there for days after. Creating horror, heartbreak and thoughts is no easy feat, but Talalay has most assuredly done the job perfectly.
|Peter Capaldi in Heaven Sent (C) BBC|
Of course, there’s more perfection going on elsewhere. Composer Murray Gold has, again this year, delivered a soundtrack of such sublime beauty that one wonders just how far this man can touch your heart and make it sing or cry. At times heroic and triumphant, at others mournful and wake-like, this is Gold’s finest moment; a majestic lament. It’s a soundtrack that sounds like nothing he’s done before including synths that will make you queasy, strings that will haunt your soul and brass that will embolden your spirit.
It’s almost as if a challenge was set by writer Steven Moffat. His script and story are so unique that all those around felt compelled to deliver their finest work. Moffat has his trademark gags in there (as previously mentioned) but the whole premise is to be admired and applauded – the Doctor alone fighting for his life and freedom with nothing and no one to help. Steven has chosen a slow and languorous pace to tell this story, and I certainly don’t mean either of those words pejoratively. This is our showrunner taking the long way round, if you like. This isn’t just a story, Heaven Sent is akin to an epic poem from Milton, an allegorical journey into hell of our own self. I don’t want to spoil any part of this luscious and affecting script, but one of the stand out lines for me was from the Doctor as he reflected on Clara’s death saying the first day isn’t the worse, “it’s all the days they stay dead.” You may want to pause at that particular moment just to have a cry.
Finally, there’s Peter Capaldi. Man, he pulls no punches here. In The Zygon Inversion and Face The Raven we witnessed new sides to his character but here he wipes the slate clean and dives into a raw abyss. The fragility of his Doctor is shown as is his inventiveness, boldness and, in one key scene, his vulnerability. And then there’s the many moments of contemplation and reflection, where you may wonder if all will end well. His bloodied face and hands have been displayed in various clips and promotional pictures, these moments will make you squirm and look away. Capaldi is such a violent force here. A desperate violent force, who we root for uncategorically as he fights passionately and frantically against his imprisonment. It is not a portayal for a “family” teatime show (not that it is any more, of course), this is a tragic performance of Shakespearian fortitude. Nothing more, nothing less.
Heaven Sent is a true work of art, fitting for any visual arts museum anywhere.
Doctor Who, Heaven Sent airs 8.05pm, Nov 28 on BBC One
Thanks to the BBC