But reading it back now, isn’t it a little over-wrought? Not to mention overly wrought…
Flip open the disc and inside you find an impeccably engineered machine, fascinating in its intricacies. Even more so when it’s set in motion. Gears interlocking and sections shifting to both hide and reveal pathways. Tick. This is the place the Doctor has been transported to. Tock. This is the script written by Steven Moffat. Tick. This is the performance given by Peter Capaldi. Tock. This is all of those things.
Heaven Sent is immaculate, harmonious Doctor Who. It’s a marvel, it’s a top 10 best-ever story, it’s… I really liked it. Inspect it in detail, with your jeweller’s eyepiece in, and the workings are incredibly beautiful. It is a circular story housed inside a circular structure with actions running clockwise, whether that’s the title character counting out the minutes from one side of the castle to the other, or pacing around and around the TARDIS console.
Being a one-hander, it’s also self-evidently unlike anything the series has ever brought us before – and yet it’s absolutely indicative of it, presenting a definitive portrait of the man who calls himself the Doctor. While it’s a given that we should never truly be privy to the Time Lord’s private thoughts, Moffat’s script nonetheless brings us some fresh insight. “I always imagine I’m back in my TARDIS, showing off,” says the traveller as he introduces his own version of Sherlock’s ‘mind palace’. This visualisation of those inner-workings is one we can easily apply to any other point in the drama’s history whenever he has been placed in peril. There it goes, the mighty brain instantly processing a billion calculations (“The faster you think, the slower it will pass… assume you’re going to survive”), filtering for a solution based upon a search algorithm that also identifies which would be the wittiest.
That is how he’s always ticked along, but we’re only made aware of it now, because it’s only now the Doctor has been required to externalise it. “I’m nothing without an audience,” he admits inside his imaginary TARDIS, giving a sly look down the lens to us at home (with an extra special twinkle for those who connected this with remarks made by Moffat in his DWM column last month).
Ever since The Runaway Bride, it’s been asserted our hero needs a companion, but I never truly believed that. At last I see it. Although the Doctor doesn’t require validation, Heaven Sent reveals that like any entertainer, he hungers for a reaction. The way he backtracks to flag up his cleverness in dropping a petal to covertly test for atmospheric pressure, and the eyepiece (for gravity) and how he flung that chair out of the window (for altitude) – he does that simply to impress us.
Such an inclination is why, when he first arrives in his prison, he’s full of the usual bombast; shouting and making big proclamations. He’s still the Doctor people want to see. But as his internment continues, that aspect erodes and we witness a quieter more reactive personality. Granted, a lot of that is due to the horrendous conditions he’s having to endure, but I’d also assert it’s about the fact he doesn’t have anyone left to play to. When he persuades a door to open, early in his stay, that instinct is to the fore. “See Clara, still got it”. However, he displays a fragment of discomfort at her name. She’s gone. What is he even doing?
It’s a convincing thesis on the Time Lord, which illuminates him a little, but leaves plenty of shade. Better yet, it’s not about the manufactured mythos of its subject, unlike some of the storylines in recent times where universes have been held in sway over the question of ‘Doctor who?’ This is instead a measurement of the kind of man he is. Moffat’s script may reference the Brothers Grimm’s Household Tales but we should look to Ancient Greece, rather than Eastern Europe, for the real insight. Because within these 55 minutes, the Doctor is portrayed as Sisyphus, caught within a loop – that totally amazing sequence – where he’s losing his life over and over, purely to chip tiny slivers out of a 20ft-thick wall which is 400 times harder than diamond. Around he goes. For 7,000 years, then 12,000 years, 600,000, two million, 52 million, nearly a billion… two billion years. Crunch the numbers: infinitesimally miniscule gains over unimaginably huge timescales. Within the contrariness of those stats is charted out something of the scope of his character.
Accompanying this never-ending task, Moffat looks at how the Doctor’s compulsion for things to be set right has also become an impossible labour. “I can’t keep doing this, Clara. I can’t. Why’s it always me?” he asks, when it’s flagged up – by his own subconscious – that he must continue to win (underlined three times). “Can’t I just sleep?” he implores, as he sinks deep into the murk of the ocean. But no, never. It’s an obsession that will not let him rest. That burden is best encapsulated when we stand back and realise that, when the traveller first stepped from the teleportation booth and made his vow to “never stop”, he did so while running his own ashes through his fingers – unaware that he himself had pushed the lever which brought him there.
On the subject of burdens, one wonders how tested Peter Capaldi felt when he was first made aware of this episode. If he did have concerns, I’d guess most of them faded upon reading the script, because it’s so rich narratively. Although you could perhaps loftily term this story a meditation, it’s always in motion. And often very funny: “What sort of person has a power complex about flowers? It’s dictatorship for inadequates.” Capaldi’s performance reflects that as he stalks and talks, sometimes charming as our guide, sometimes attacking the space around him. The really important thing, though, is that he communicates such diverse facets of his Doctor – from his humour to his loneliness – without it ever feeling as if he’s laying out some kind of master class. Which, let’s be clear, he totally is, but it’s pitched just so. Dazzling without showing off.
Showing off per se isn’t a bad thing in Doctor Who. The very notion of a one-handed episode is audacious. And this programme has always been at its greatest when those steering it possess the chutzpah to make a huge move. Bigger on the inside. Recast the title role. Bring in the Time Lords. Now let’s also drop in a former childhood friend as a villain. Say Davros invented the Daleks. Hint the Doctor was one of Gallifrey’s founding fathers. Kill them all in a Time War. Bring ’em all back. Those are a few of the tectonic shifts that have moulded the current landscape… Or, you could just say they’re some of the times in its 52-year history when the show received a massive kick up the arse (particularly now Clara has brought that word into our sphere, another paradigm change, I guess). The point is, Doctor Who does not welcome careful drivers, and this year’s run has been blessed with a special kind of recklessness that’s made it seem as if it could take us anywhere. That it will not observe the normal rules. “I didn’t leave Gallifrey because I was bored,” admits the Doctor as the confession dial’s mechanisms work upon him. “That was a lie. It was always a lie.” Those kind of portentous statements can often feel empty, like a tantrum that quickly passes. But in this current climate? It’s electric, crackling with possibilities, and I think, right now, Moffat would – as the glib often say – actually ‘go there’.
He leaves the Doctor outside the city: his home. His eyes blazing as they did when we first caught sight of him in The Day of the Doctor, where he joined with his other selves to save the civilization. However, this man, who is wired so that he can never stop, now seems to be contemplating something truly terrible.
Teeth within the machine connect. Wheels turn. The Doctor advances. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock…