TV He’s not is he? Is he? Since 1996, many is the spin-off story written to account for the Eighth Doctor’s “joke” about being half-human on his mother’s side and here we are in 2015 on the cusp of a massive episode about the Doctor returning to his home planet and having revealed that it’s not in fact the Daleks with which a Time Lord has been hybridised but some other warrior race and since it is apparently the Doctor who is the hybrid, well there can be only one answer to that conundrum.
Eighth was telling the truth. Possibly. If this is supposed to be some huge, scary secret, quite why the post-regenerative fop felt the need to tell some random at a New Year’s Eve party isn’t clear. Who’s his mother? Ashildr? Clara? Some other passing random? Does that mean Susan was 1/8th human? What about Brax? The whole thing could be a massive tease, probably is a massive tease with Moffat giggling away in the background in a way we can no way imagine him doing, unlike Russell.
Really, he’s not is he? Is he? Would Moffat really go there of all places? I expect he probably would. Thanks to his mind palace he’s nothing if entirely capable and willing to draw out bits of continuity for a laugh. Three Atlantises. The idea of making the Doctor’s mixed heritage canonical is just the sort of thing he’d do. In fact, he'll probably say in his next DWM Q&A that it was canonical anyway, all along, because the Doctor said it himself on screen. But such things are for next week ...
... when it'll probably be revealed that when he says "The hybrid is ... me" what he actually means is "The hybrid is ... Me" and Ashildr's new name was selected as a high order form of trolling of McGann fans. Let's not forget that rumour had it one stage Paul was going to have another comeback in this episode along with Tennant in some kind of strange degeneration business on the TARDIS which would eventually end in Reece Sheersmith recreating his Patrick Troughton impression. But I digress ...
Heaven Sent is the best episode of this series and indeed of the Capaldi era, I think we’re quite comfortable in saying that. This is Steven Moffat on top form with a simple question ("What if the Doctor was trapped in a castle which acted like the the shack on the poster for The Cabin In The Woods?"), rich with ideas, of potent imagery, stunningly realised by Rachel Talalay, composer Murray Gold channelling everyone from Beethoven (the Allegreto in 7th) to Paddy Kingsland (Castrovalva) and Peter FUCKING Capaldi. Few series have the sense of jeopardy in relation to shifting quality and after two distinctly average instalments dropped us back at the metaphoric base camp, now we're back at the top of the mountain.
The Eighth Doctor era infuses the episode in a number of ways although I’m sure none of it intentional. Of all the Doctors, he’s the one who inevitably has a fair few solo stories across his various media, but it’s the shorts written for the BBC Short Trips of which this reminded me most, (Stephen Cole writing as) Tara Samms's Totem and Jon Blum's Model Train Set, both about Eighth coming to terms with his earlier incarnation through repetition and creation, almost attempting to absolve himself of past sins.
Of the audios, Eddie Robson’s Prisoner of the Sun has Eighth trapped in the centre of the sun for an eternity repeating the same actions in a controlled environment to stop it from exploding or so he thinks. There’s also Jonathan Dorney’s Companion Chronicle Solitaire, in which Charley Pollard (with the Doctor somewhat indisposed) faces numerous riddles posed by the Celestial Toymaker as the toy shop in which he holds her captive changes its dimensions. Big Finish have noticed the similarities themselves and have that on sale this weekend.
In none of these stories and if we’re to glare at the main series, The Deadly Assassin, is the Doctor truly alone, its main actor spending much time talking to himself, albeit within his own head. Are we to see the moments when the Doctor dips inside his mental TARDIS as justifications for the fourth wall breaking in Listen and Before The Flood? He does glance towards us again here when suggesting that he works best with an audience. Are we all supposed to exist inside the Doctor’s brain like the Whoniverse equivalent of the Tommy Westphall theory?
Outside Doctor Who we find Triangle, no, not the North Sea ferry nightmare, the psychological horror in which Melissa George is trapped on a boat repeating the same actions and to say anything else would spoil things (it is well worth seeing). Star Trek’s Cause and Effect is often described as inspired by Groundhog Day, but notice that Picard et al are only peripherally aware of the change each time around, they mostly repeat the actions of their predecessor. Here the variable is the glass wall, the Doctor literally breaking out of the loop by smashing its surface.
But the last director I expected to see inspire an hour of Saturday night television is Terrence Malick. Although the structure of the episode doesn’t allow for the whole piece to be shot in magic hour, the way the camera often rests on unusual compositions with Capaldi’s voice poetically investigating the Doctor’s predicament is pure Malick, especially in The Tree of Life, scenes proceeding more like blocks of action rather than part of a continuous narrative even though as is eventually revealed they very much are.
Otherwise this is a pretty unreviewable episode which is how I know it’s Moffat at his best, unable as I was to write anything coherent about any of his superior work back in the day. My fear is that however much I’d like to think a general audience would like to be challenged by what’s essentially the show in “art house” mode, effectively filtering Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad into the gap between Strictly and Causality, sorry, Casualty, the cheery populism of everything pre-Moffat 2.0 has been extinguished and that is a problem. The reason Blink works so well is because it manages to do both.
Such complexity has been noted by a number of the professional reviewers, one or two even admitting that they didn’t understand the ending first time around. Although it took me a moment to catch on in a way which was clearly supposed to be a feature of the episode, I didn’t not understand his predicament and gasped numerously as the length of his incarceration stretched out waiting for each moment of revelation as it spun around again, the Doctor never aging himself but the essence of him trapped within this pocket universe for all those eons.
But evidently some are scratching their heads enough for the Radio Times to publish an article explaining its various arcania, with a useful transcript of the Doctor’s bird story and a strange utilisation of the Sugababes and an explanation of Trigger’s Broom which I don’t think applies here. He’s still the same man who Me trapped, the two thousand year old version, he doesn’t remember all those ways around, only inferring their existence in the revelation which leads him to start punching the diamond.
Notice that I don't think the original Doctor is dead somehow and we now have a copy walking around or some parallel version taking over ala Harry Kim in Star Trek: Voyager. The transporter recreated the original on each occasion, the room resetting itself each time in order to achieve this. Plus this isn't an actual space. It's a pocket universe of sorts existing within the confessional dial through some high end dimensional technology rather like the duplicate Gallifreys in the bottles in the Eighth Doctor novels.
Nevertheless, the implications of that are pretty horrible. For billions of years, billions of versions of him reach that diamond wall and begin punching knowing full well they’re not the ones who’ll reach home. They’re punching for the version who come after him or after him or after him. But imagine the penultimate Doctor within tasting distance of Gallifrey who is nevertheless killed by the shade, full of hope perhaps that his replacement will be the one to step across the threshold but knowing that it isn’t him as he drags himself through the castle to the chamber in order for that to occur.
Such notions are not unlike Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS in which its revealed the mutants are earlier failures to achieve success in a similar mission. The only matter which is really carried through into the next revolution are the skulls, though the planet is apparently large enough to contain them all. The T-Mat room mustn’t fill with dust because in returning to the state it was in when he notionally first arrived. I assume. Good god, I’m busking to fill paragraphs now. But what more is there to say? This is the television event of the year.
Clara’s still dead, at least for this episode, her mental ghost fulfilling roughly the same function as the voice interface in Let’s Kill Hitler of spuring the Doctor on in his heroism. Notice her non-mention in the credits. Is this the first occasion since the show returned that only the Doctor actor’s name has featured in this slot? I’m sorry but I still don’t think she’s dead or at least the real one. I still haven’t dismissed the possibility that it’s been one of the fragments in play since the start of The Witches Familiar. Or something like that. Unless ...
The next time teaser for next week’s episode is oddly subdued in its own way. It’s utterly bonkers, of course it is, but for the first proper Gallifrey episode since the show returned and given the symbolism the world has had since 2005 or indeed 2013, the fact of the Doctor’s home planet feels oddly matter of fact, which might explain why the BBC were so happy to spoil its return, that it’s besides the point. You have to love the fact they’re simply running with the 70s designs again and the archival casting. John Barrowman's going to be in it too, isn't he?
The actual teaser which will run on television is much more impressive though there's a couple of revelations in there which I'm not sure I wouldn't have wish to have been kept for next week. Not that it actually says very much at all about what the episode is really about and how it'll answer any of the questions posed in the previous eleven weeks. Or indeed explain what's happening in the cover of Doctor Who Magazine. Or the inside pages. But now I'm reviewing the publicity so it's probably about time I went to bed.
Here’s are my theory about the regeneration chamber. Three options. It’s Clara. Somehow. Ashildr giving her life to become Clara through the same mechanism which means the Twelfth Doctor has Frobisher’s face or Sixth bares a striking resemblance to Maxil. Or it’s the Doctor shedding his hybrid DNA. Or it’s simply Ashildr being given the gift of becoming a Time Lord as a payment for capturing the Doctor not that at this point does it seem like it’s the Time Lords who’ve drawn him here. It’s not Davros again is it?