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REVIEW: Doctor Who 9×11 “Heaven Sent”

We should have seen it coming. A Doctor Who episode in which Peter Capaldi only has himself to interact with (kind of) written by a guy who the majority agree should step down from his position as showrunner and return to writing individual stories rather than controlling the entire show. “Heaven Sent” is, of course, brilliant. Being a Steven Moffat episode, it’s dependably full of Moffat-esque hokum that many fans have since given up with, but Capaldi makes this episode burn with awesomeness. And oddly, Moffat does a decent job as well.

“Heaven Sent” finds a grieving Doctor mysteriously transported to a seemingly abandoned castle tailor-made to frighten him to death. Haunted by both his immediate past and a prowling creature hell bent on ending his life, the Doctor winds up fighting for his many, many lives in an effort to piece together the riddle behind this torture chamber he finds himself in.

“Heaven Sent” is a tense, meditative episode that asks a great deal from its audience thanks to Capaldi’s practically solo performance. But being Capaldi, he pulls the episode off in an effortless manner. After his riveting showmanship in “The Zygon Inversion”, how could he do no less? It’s always a challenge for an episode of any form of television drama to pull of the sort of episode where the audience has just the one character to engage with. Often it’s simply safe enough to go the Alan Bennett/Talking Heads route and fill a fifty minute space with some static, dreary monologue. But Doctor Who‘s too manic for that. It may have lost the magic it had when Russell T. Davies was in charge of things, but episodes like this show there’s still fire in the show’s belly.

“Heaven Sent” shares a sense of individuality with “Sleep No More”, in that both episodes offer a fresh take on the format of Doctor Who. But where “Sleep No More” felt deliberately disjointed, “Heaven Sent” is an immensely smooth ride. Director Rachel Talalay makes Capaldi’s performance and Moffat’s script weave in and out of each other with greater effect than past alumni have done throughout this whole series. Perhaps she’s the real star here. I’m sure we all guessed that Capaldi would deliver a fine performance, and we all guessed that Moffat would produce a story that has as much ambition as it does head-scratching. Those two elements often create nothing more than another day at the office for Doctor Who.

Here however, there’s a smouldering sense of unease in the drama of it all that makes for hooky viewing, a genuine feeling of uncertainty on the part of the Doctor. Whether that’s because of Capaldi, Moffat or Talalay’s individual contributions to the episode, or whether it’s because everything here clicks is down to you. All I can tell you is that “Heaven Sent” is a delightfully Gothic outing for the Doctor, and easily one of the strongest episodes we’ve had in Series 9. I do wonder how things will be wrapped up satisfactorily in the space of one remaining episode, but for now let’s just enjoy the fact that Doctor Who seemed to remember what it’s like to be Doctor Who again.

Overall grade – A

+ Peter Capaldi. That is all.

+ The episode mastered a truly eerie atmosphere.

+ You could feel the Doctor’s fists bleeding as he punched his way through that diamond-like wall.

– Even in death, Clara’s still annoying.

– That little Gallifrey kid seems pretty obedient to wandering strangers.

Extra thought

When the Doctor declares the Hybrid to be ‘me’, is he referring to himself, or Me, i.e. Ashildr?

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About the author

Fred McNamara