Sunday, 29 November 2015

WHO REVIEW: 9-11: Heaven Sent

After an exceedingly hectic week, one in which I didn't even find time to review Face the Raven, but did find time to watch The Day of the Doctor, Remembrance of the Daleks and An Unearthly Child in a pub's basement bar, Saturday was pleasantly relaxed. Although not for the Doctor. He had an absolute shitter of a Saturday, and it lasted several billion years.

Essentially a single-hander for Peter Capaldi (barring a couple of cameo moments), it's very hard to see how this episode would have worked as well under any of the previous Doctors. John Hurt could've pulled it off, because he's John Hurt, but Smith, Tennant and even Eccleston would have struggled to maintain sufficient gravitas, vulnerability and believability throughout the fifty-five minutes of the episode. Doctor Who has experimented with new approaches and storytelling devices quite frequently over the last few years, from the dream logic of Last Christmas to the flawed found footage style of the recent Sleep No More. It's with Heaven Sent, though, that it really manages to create a unique episode of the series, one which feels genuinely different to anything that has come before it.

Which is quite an achievement, considering that so much of Heaven Sent is Moffat taking his now overused tropes and stretching them to their endpoint. Though it's not a “timey-wimey” story as such, the cyclical storytelling brings those stories to mind. Creepy imagery and scares aren't new for the series, although they've rarely been as effective as the veiled ghost, dredged from the Doctor's nightmares and sent to slowly track him down. The Doctor's hypertime mental state is exactly the same as Sherlock's mind palace, down to the sleuth's ingenious last second before the bullet hits in His Last Vow. The time-stretched nature of the story is really a better realised version of the Doctor's long last stand in The Time of the Doctor. The shifting castle brings to mind Harry Potter, Dark City, The Cube... it's not original. Nothing is really new here. It's the way it's being deployed that's makes it so brilliantly effective.

It's an episode which relies on the skill of its central player and his support. Without wanting to overlook the many people who work on a production like this, whose skills go into making every episode, the success of Heaven Sent is down to Capaldi, Moffat and director Rachel Talalay, the latter in particular really making this something of a masterpiece, maximising the tension and managing to create a feeling of aeons passing as the story progresses. Also worth mentioning is Murray Gold, whose excellent music is sometimes overlooked when discussing the success of an episode. That said, it's still too high in the mix. If we're going to have emotive scenes of Peter Capaldi talking to himself, I'd like to be able to hear what he's saying.

Although this is a pure character piece for the most part, it manages to also be an intriguing example of science fiction. Sci-fi rarely takes the idea of how a teleporter actually would have to work and runs with it (there are some excellent stories that do, the best on screen being the adaptation of Christopher Priest's The Prestige). The dawning realisation of the Doctor's situation, the movement of the stars tipping him off that a vast amount of time has passed, and his sheer, bloody-minded refusal to lose to whatever has him trapped, makes for an incredible combination of high-concept and emotive storytelling. Again, it's Capaldi that makes it work, expressing the Doctor's fear, rage, and finally triumph against this haunting trap. It would be the best regeneration story ever, if he changed his form instead of iterating as an endless run of Capaldis.

That's not to say it's flawless. I'm finding it hard to invest in Clara's death, since I don't believe for a second she's not coming back. Even if we didn't already know she was set to appear in the finale in some fashion, nobody ever stays dead in this show (q.v. River returning once again for Christmas). There's also the question of whether any of this actually happened at all. If the castle really did exist inside the confession dial, it was surely some virtual environment, presumably in some region of the Gallifreyan Matrix (as with the Nethersphere in last year's similarly Hell-themed finale). The Doctor would still have suffered in his own personal Hell, but it still reduces the impact. On the subject of impact, his arrival on Gallifrey would have ahd more clout if it hadn't been revealed in the press release weeks ago, although I guess it was no big surprise anyway. However, the main problem with Heaven Sent is precisely what's so wonderful about it. The production team have had the guts to do an experimental, intense one man show, that repeatedly shows the Doctor blackened, burnt and on the edge of death, but how many children could have sat through this? This is genuinely adult Doctor Who, but it's worth remembering the series' target audience is meant to include the whole family.

Still. It was bloody good.

Continuity Corner: The Doctor has generally suggested that he left Gallifrey because he was bored and wanted to see the universe, although there have been suggestions there was more to it. He, he confirms that he fled because he was scared.

So, is he really the Hybrid, or is he just really cross and spitting blood? This could be a resurrection of the idea that the Doctor is half-human from the TV movie, something that most fans prefer to ignore. Personally, I assume it only applied to the eighth Doctor (due to an anomaly in his regeneration), and that he was put back to pure Gallifreyan biology when he regenerated into the War Doctor.

Alternatively, what the Doctor actually says is, “the Hybrid destined to conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins is me.” Maybe he actually means Me, aka Ashildr. She is in the next episode, after all.

Maketh the Man: As I didn't review last week's episode, I missed the chance to comment on the Doctor's new Pertwee-esque look, with a frankly gorgeous burgundy velvet jacket.

Questions: I may have missed an explanation for this, so forgive me, but why didn't the wall of diamond-like material reset like the rest of the castle?

Also, the Doctor, after diving into the sea, swaps his sopping wet clothes for his previous iteration's nice dry ones, leaving his wet ones to dry out for the next one. Does this mean the first iteration of the Doctor spent most of his time in the castle naked?

And Another Thing:

Neil Perryman of Adventures with the Wife in Space points out that “Heaven sent and Hell bent” are lyrics from “Sweet Bird of Truth” by The The. This might be a clever reference, or it might be Neil getting carried away.

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