Sunday, November 29, 2015

Doctor Who Season 9, Episode 11: Heaven Sent

This week's episode is an unusual departure for Doctor Who, as it's basically a one man show, and another tour-de-force for actor Peter Capaldi.

It's probably tough to come up with ways to keep a show fresh, especially one that's been around for fifty years (give or take) like this one. So I don't mind when the series occasionally tries something different and breaks from the traditional formula.

That said, I am not a fan of so-called "one man shows." No matter how well such shows are written, no matter how good the actor may be, they're always the same-- a guy in a room talking to himself for an hour or so, with little or no action. I find such one man shows dull and sleep-inducing. The actor usually senses this, and starts chewing the scenery with gusto in order to keep the audience awake.

For the record I didn't fall asleep during this episode, but it was definitely talky, there was no action, and the scenery was well-digested by the end.

I've been very critical of showrunner Steven Moffat the past couple of years, and with good reason. His scripts are usually overly complicated and convoluted to the point of incoherence. It's almost like he comes up with three of four "cool" scenes first, and then tries to think of a way to string them together. 

Not so with this episode. It's tightly written, and actually makes a certain amount of sense as it methodically doles out information, allowing the audience to slowly realize what's going on. Kudos where kudos are due.

There's a very troubling revelation at the end, and I really hope Moffat isn't heading where I think he's heading. I guess we'll find out next week in the season finale.


The Plot:
Picking up where we left off last week (in Face The Raven), the Doctor materializes in a teleportation chamber, located inside Hogwarts, er, I mean a castle whose rooms are constantly shifting. The castle's located in the middle of a vast sea, making escape impossible. Scattered throughout the castle are large video monitors, showing the point of view of a large, shambling creature the Doctor names "The Veil." It slowly but relentlessly pursues him throughout the castle.

At one point the Doctor is cornered by The Veil, and just as it's about to grab his face in its clawed hands, he confesses that he's afraid to die. This causes the creature to freeze. Hogwarts then reconfigures itself, and the Doctor escapes. He's cornered again and this time dives out a window, landing in the ocean far below. He notices the ocean floor is littered with millions of skulls from the previous victims of the creature (this is our first big clue as to what's going on).

The Doctor returns to the castle and finds a courtyard with a fresh grave and a spade nearby. He digs up the grave and finds a stone with the message "I AM IN 12" chiseled into it. The sun sets and the Doctor tries to work out where he is by the position of the stars. However the constellations don't match any location within the teleporter's range. The Veil appears again, and the Doctor stops it by confessing he didn't leave Gallifrey because he was bored, but because he was scared. He realizes that the purpose of the castle is to force confessions from him.

The Doctor notices that whenever he reenters a room, it's been reset to its original state, and any changes he made are gone, Groundhog Day-style (clue!). He finally finds the door to Room 12, but when he opens it, it's blocked by a brick wall. He returns to the teleport room where he first arrived. He sees a skull lying on the floor, along with the word "bird" written in the dirt (more clues!). He walks to the top of the castle (carrying the skull) and looks at the stars. He notes that their positions are 7,000 years off, even though he's sure he hasn't time traveled. He places the skull on the edge of the castle wall, where if falls into the sea far below (BIG clue!).

The Veil appears again, and the Doctor confesses he knows what the Hybrid is (the mysterious figure prophesied by the Time Lords) and where to find it. This freezes The Veil and reconfigures the castle, The Doctor can now get into Room 12. Inside he sees the way out, but it's barred by a wall of Azbantium (a material four hundred times harder than diamond) that's twenty feet thick. He realizes that the "bird" written in the dirt is a reference to The Shepherd Boy story (more on that below).

The Doctor begins punching at the Azbantium wall, until The Veil catches up with him. It grabs his face, severely burning him (which curiously doesn't cause him to regenerate). Mortally injured, he crawls back to the teleport room. He hooks the teleporter up to his head so his body's energy will power it. He then scrawls the word "bird" into the dirt and pulls the lever. His body is disintegrated (except, for some reason, his skull) as it powers the teleporter. A brand new copy of the Doctor appears inside the teleporter, fresh from his adventure in Face The Raven, and starts the whole cycle all over again.

The Doctor goes through the cycle for billions of years, slowly chipping away at the Azbantium wall (which oddly enough does NOT reset itself each time he starts over) until he breaks through. He exits onto his home planet of Gallifrey, and sees the castle shrink into his Confession Dial, which plops to the ground. He realizes the Time Lords were behind his billion year torture. He tells a passing boy to tell the Time Lords that he's returned. He says to himself (and us) that the Hybrid prophesied to destroy Gallifrey "is ME!"

 So it looks like the Doctor is this mysterious Hybrid we've been hearing about all season. The Hybrid's halves are supposed to be made of two warrior races, presumably the Daleks and the Time Lords. The Doctor says that's impossible, as the Daleks would never allow a hybrid anything. So what exactly is his other half supposed to be?

Way back in the 1996 TV movie, the Eighth Doctor told his companion Grace Holloway that he was "half human on his mother's side." This was news to fans who'd been watching the show for years, and was met with much anger and derision. By the time the series started up again in 2005, this bone-headed notion had been swept under the rug, and rightly so

Unfortunately the end of this episode makes it seem like Moffat's planning on resurrecting the half human concept. There've been a lot of misfires in Doctor Who's fifty plus year history, but this is one of the biggest. I cannot emphasize enough what a bad idea the half human thing is.

In fact, it's so stupid that if it's true I'm going to have to sit down and evaluate whether I want to keep watching this show or not.

If Moffat really is dredging up this half human malarkey, we all need to show up at his mansion with torches and pitchforks. Better yet, toss him into a castle maze for two billion years.

 Last week the Doctor pretty much visited Diagon Alley. This week he visits Hogwarts, complete with rooms and corridors that rearrange themselves at random. Somebody on this show really, really likes Harry Potter.

 The Veil, the monster that relentlessly stalks the Doctor, is modeled on one of his nightmares. Specifically one in which he saw an old dead woman covered in veils, surrounded by flies.

So apparently they have flies on Gallifrey too. Interesting.

 As the Doctor tries to escape The Veil, he's trapped by a locked door. He then initiates a psychic link with the cranky door and sweet talks it to get it to unlock for him. Shades of Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy!

If he's always had this ability, why hasn't he ever used it before now?

 The Doctor says every time he exits a room it "resets" itself to its original state. Flowers with their petals plucked will be intact, holes dug will be filled, words written in the sand and rubbed away will reappear.

It's a good thing that rule didn't apply to the Azbantium wall though, eh? No matter how many cycles the Doctor lives through, the hole he punches in the wall over the eons always retains his progress. Funny how everything else in the castle resets itself except that.

 The first time the Doctor sees the stars he says they're all wrong, as if their positions are off by 7,000 years. However it appears he's only been in the castle for a couple of days. So how to explain this vast discrepancy?

Obviously there's some fancy editing going on. Even though this is the first time WE in the audience have seen him stare at the stars, it's not the first time HE'S done so. He must have gone through the cycle hundreds of thousands of times by this point. There's no way 7m999 years passed before his first "reset."

 Every time the Doctor was "reset," he apparently performed the EXACT same actions in the EXACT same order in the EXACT same amount of time, over and over for two billion years. What a coincidence!

It shouldn't work like that. Phil Connors, the hero of Groundhog Day (which Moffat is clearly referencing here) relived the same day over and over. But once he figured out what was happening, he was able to alter his routine and do something different each time through his loop.

Not so here though. It's like the Doctor's caught in a time loop rather than being reborn every couple of days. I suppose it's possible there were some cycles in which he did things a bit differently, and due to that fancy editing we just never saw those.

 The Doctor figures out that he can calculate his location in the galaxy by noting the position of the stars. When he sees them though, he says they're off by 7,000 years. 

Um... if the Doctor knows the stars are 7,000 years off, shouldn't his giant Time Lord brain be able to figure out how they'd have looked that long ago, and tell him exactly where he is? Whoops!

 The Doctor eventually discovers the castle's exit is in room 12. I'm assuming that's because he's the Twelfth Doctor.

 When the Doctor dives into the ocean, he sees the bottom is lined with hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of skulls. The reveal that the field of skulls were all his own was quite eerie and shocking.

 During one of the Doctor's confessions he admits that he didn't leave Gallifrey because he was bored, but because he was scared.

Was the "bored" bit ever a thing on the show? I certainly don't remember it ever being established. I always thought he stole a TARDIS and left Gallifrey because the Time Lords refused to get involved in the affairs of other planets, and he wanted to get out there and help. Is the bored thing a retcon?

 Supposedly the horror of the Doctor's torture is the fact that he endures it for over two billion years. But every time he enters Room 12 and dies, his body and his mind are reconstituted and reset to their original factory settings. He steps out of the teleportation chamber with no knowledge of the castle or what's gone on inside it. In essence, every time out of the chamber is the first for him, not the millionth or the billionth. 

What kind of torment is that? If you were a sick bastard who wanted to torture someone for two billion years, wouldn't you want to make sure they had to endure every single second of it for all that time? Not just experience it for a couple of days?

I suppose when the Doctor looks up at the stars and sees their positions are billions of years off, that might be a crushing revelation, but hardly as bad as living through the entire period.

 This happened last year in the episode Into The Dalek, but it bears repeating-- why does the Doctor appear to have fillings in his teeth? 

Despite the fact that he looks like a fifty year old human, this particular body is only two years old. Why would a newly-regenerated body already have cavities that needed filling?

 During one of the cycles, the Doctor looks at the stars and says it's like he's "twelve hundred thousand" years in the future. Wha...? 

I know the British version of a million is different from ours. Is 1,200 thousand the British way of saying one million, two hundred thousand?

 I get that the Doctor was busy dying as he wrote in the dirt, but... couldn't he have come up with a less cryptic clue than "bird?" Maybe "eternity," or "cycle" or something?

 When the Doctor uses himself to power the transporter, his entire body burns away to nothing. Except for his skull, that is.  Why doesn't it disintegrate along with the rest of him? To provide him with a clue? To fill the ocean floor with copies of it?

 As always, there were some well-written lines in this episode.

The Doctor: "I'm not scared of Hell. It's just Heaven for bad people."

The Doctor again: "It's funny. The day you lose someone isn't the worst. At least then you've got something to do. It's all the days they stay dead.

 When the Veil finally grabs the Doctor's face, it severely burns him, leaving him nearly dead. So why he didn't regenerate? 

Actually there may be a precedent for this. Several years ago in Turn Left, the Doctor was killed so quickly he didn't have time to regenerate. Maybe that's what's going on here.

 After the Doctor's mortally injured, he retreats to the "TARDIS in his mind." There his memory of Clara encourages him and tells him to get off his ass and win.

It was a nice little moment I guess, but I don't think it should have been included. This is supposed to be a one man show. Clara poking her head in kind of ruins that conceit.

 As the Doctor slowly chips away at the Azbantium wall over the millennia, he recites the story of The Shepherd Boy. It's a real story that's been around for hundreds of years, and has been attributed to many different people, including Jesuit author Jeremias Drexel, James Joyce, and even the Brothers Grimm.

In the story, a king asks a lowly shepherd boy to define eternity. The boy thinks and says, "There’s this mountain of pure diamond. It takes an hour to climb it and an hour to go around it, and every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on the diamond mountain. And when the entire mountain is chiseled away, the first second of eternity will have passed."

The Doctor then adds his own little flourish, saying, "You may think that’s a hell of a long time. Personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird.” A particularly apt addition, given the Doctor's perseverance in this episode.

 The Hybrid is prophesied to be half Dalek, half Time Lord. At the end of the episode the Doctor says that's impossible, because, "Nothing is half-Dalek."

Apparently the Doctor (and Steven Moffat) forgot about Dalek Sec, from Daleks In Manhattan.

 When the Doctor finally escapes the torture chamber, he finds himself on Gallifrey. He speaks aloud to the Time Lords who imprisoned him, saying, "You've got the prophecy wrong. The Hybrid is not half Dalek. Nothing is half Dalek. The Daleks would never allow that. The Hybrid destined to conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins... is me."

Earlier in the season in The Woman Who Lived, Ashildr says she's lived for so many centuries she's forgotten her name, and simply calls herself "Me." Coincidence, or connection?

 As the Doctor escapes, the castle shrinks into his Confession Dial, which falls to the ground. He then picks it up. So... is this a copy of his Dial? He gave the original to Ashildr last week before he was teleported.

 Next week: The season finale! Hopefully we'll get to the bottom of the whole Hybrid thing, and hopefully it won't involve the Doctor being half human. Let's all think good thoughts.


  1. I watched this last week, for the first time. (I'm waaaay behind in my Dr Who!) I found it a well-written and thought provoking episode. Judging from what I've read online, you are one of the few critics who disliked it. One source even said it received a higher Rotten Tomatoes score than any episode in the revived series! (Not quite sure it was that good.)

    I haven't watched Hell Bent yet, and have managed to avoid all spoilers. But I wouldn't be at all surprised if he's saying "The hybrid is Me." Given that Moffat took such pains in the previous episode to remind us that's what Ashildr calls herself.

    Also: I don't think the Doctor said that nothing is half Dalek. He said the Daleks wouldn't tolerate anything half Dalek. They killed Dalek Sec, right? And the genetically impure Ironside Daleks? So, that's totally consistent with previously established Dalek logic.

  2. Eh, I didn't dislike it. I said I wasn't a fan of "one man shows," which this episode definitely was. But as one man shows go, this one was OK. There was some cool and interesting moments. Maybe my writing could have been clearer.


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