Doctor Who Series 9, Episode 11
Posted by Sage
The shepherd’s boy says, “There’s this mountain of pure diamond. It takes an hour to climb it, and an hour to go around it. Every hundred years, a little bird comes. It sharpens its beak on the diamond mountain. And when the entire mountain is chiseled away, the first second of eternity will have passed.
When normals ask you what’s so great about that show with the tall, British guy and the trash can robots and the blue box, what do you usually say? Sometimes I tell them about 53 years of history. Other times I tell them about how the Doctor does what’s right because it’s right, not because he expects any kind of salvation or about a fan culture that transcends every kind of physical and societal border there is. After “Heaven Sent,” I can also tell them that instead of resting on the laurels of international success, Doctor Who is out here serving art, testing the limits of a medium, and showcasing masters at the top of their game.
(And I may Who trash for life, but if you think my praise is guaranteed, please see my pained recap of the dreadful “Sleep No More.”)
I was surprised when it became clear what it means to “Face the Raven” that Steven Moffat would leave the death of Clara Oswald to another writer, and I agree with Kim that first-time Who scribe Sarah Dollard gave the character an exit worthy of her tenure as a companion. As “Heaven Sent” unfolded, I could see why Moffat made the decision he did. Since Twelve was coughed out of the mouth of a displaced dinosaur, he’s benefited from having a showrunner who truly gets the sort of man he is. (Unlike Eleven, unfortunately for all of us.) I love that Moffat stepped in with such a clear, bold concept for the aftermath of the loss of Clara Oswald. And as the best of his scripts do, “Heaven Sent” functioned on a mechanical and an emotional level.
Structurally, all this script had to do was get the Doctor from Ashildr’s trap street to whoever was using her to summon him. The end point of his journey? Gallifrey, as anyone whose been paying attention since the 50th anniversary guessed long ago. But instead of rushing him off to face the Time Lords immediately, “Heaven Sent” allows the Doctor an entire episode to occupy his grief. And not that I get my ya-yas from seeing the man suffer, but Clara Oswald deserves to be well and truly mourned. Especially with a “screwball comedy” of a Christmas special only two episodes away.
“Heaven Sent” picks up almost to the moment that “Face The Raven” leaves off. We don’t know at the end of that episode where the Doctor is immediately heading (and the castle in the trailer looks nothing like what we know of Gallifrey, so), and neither does he. The one thing he does know as he steps off a teleport and into hard, unforgiving stone is that even her last wishes weren’t strong enough to hold the Doctor back from avenging Clara.
If you think because she is dead, I am weak, then you understand very little. If you were any part of killing her, and you’re not afraid, then you understand nothing at all. So, for your own sake, understand this: I am the Doctor. I’m coming to find you, and I will never, ever stop.
Guys, it was right there. The whole time! Rewatch the episode if you haven’t yet, and you’ll see that the last words in this snatch of monologue aren’t the only clue to the Doctor’s medieval imprisonment. The first image, even before his materialization, is a scorched hand burning away in the sand. The newly arrived Doctor bends down and takes a handful of the stuff, letting it spill out through his fingers. The interrogation begins again.
There’s a running meme on the internets right now involving New Who fans asking Classic Who fans why the Doctor’s own people are the source of such shittiness. “Because the Time Lords are dicks,” is the only cogent answer. And this incarceration has the Time Lord stink all over it. (And let’s be real, it’s the kind of punishment the Doctor would have no trouble dreaming up either. Remember the Family of Blood?) They basically imprison the Doctor inside time. If the Doctor ran because he needed freedom, then what could be worse than locking him inside a never-ending energy loop where he’s doomed to repeat his every action until he tells them what they need to know? I’ll tell you what’s worse: sending him to that place alone. I know the Time Lords didn’t plan to kill Clara, but that certainly worked out for them. Or it would have, if their bond weren’t as strong as it is, even in her death. (“I let Clara Oswald get into my head. Trust me, she never leaves.”) They did take the opportunity to redecorate his quarters, but hanging Clara’s portrait on his wall was another tactical error on their part. Just like Missy, the rest of the Time Lords think of his human companions as the Doctor’s pets. They can’t comprehend how anyone “below” their race could have anything to offer the Doctor besides someone to show off to. (I mean, that’s part of it.) Clara’s likeness is there to taunt the Doctor and to weaken him with grief and guilt. It never occurs to the Time Lords that her memory can do more than that – that what she continues to give to him can be what sustains him. Consider Ten back in “The Shakespeare Code” when the Carrionites toss out a Rose reference to throw him off his game. “Oooh, big mistake,” he says, growing about two inches taller. “Because that name keeps me fighting.”
The Doctor comes to this place ready to make things right for Clara; instead, Clara gets her wish. It just doesn’t matter anymore, how the Doctor will get revenge. As his teacher would say, that’s the wrong question. The right one, as usual, is how is the Doctor going to WIN? Have I mentioned how much I love the recurrent use of that word and how it’s not interchangeable with “survive”? Clara is the most competitive companion we’ve had in the modern series. She wants glory for her and her Doctor. She wants them to walk out of scuffles with everything they came in with, and maybe a little more. In this case, the win comes with the Doctor keeping the secret of the Hybrid, whatever it takes. The castle has all the elements necessary to wear down his resolve and finally, finally put him in the mood to lose. (“It would be so easy…”) But the Doctor is one tough motherfucker, and even more so with Clara Oswald’s voice in his ear. The toughest motherfucker of them all. And they’ll be no crybaby-ing on her watch.
It’s funny. The day you lose someone isn’t the worst. At least you’ve got something to do. It’s all the days they stay dead.
I don’t know if this was Moffat’s intent, but I see “Heaven Sent” as a direct allegory for mourning. The creature that stalks the Doctor through the castle looks like the reaper himself, and death and decay imagery is everywhere. The Doctor’s days involve outrunning death, but no matter what he does, it’s only a matter of time until it catches up to him. The in-between periods are his only chances to “eat, sleep, and work,” before looming grief makes any productivity impossible. But the bleakness of the castle is juxtaposed with the Doctor’s inner monologue, where Clara is whole and even tangible. (For Sherlock, it’s a “mind palace.” For the Doctor, it’s a “store room.” Terminology says it all, doesn’t it?) When he’s up against a wall, the Doctor retreats to where he feels the most safe and in control. “I always imagine that I’m back in my TARDIS. Showing off. Telling you how I escaped. Making you laugh.” (Canoncanoncanoncanoncanon.) Clara’s absence is the cause of his grief, but remembering her is his only healthy method of coping with it.
Back in September, I was able to attend a Radio Times Festival panel with Moffat, producer Brian Minchin, and Peter Capaldi himself. (Looking fine, I might add.) Capaldi previewed this episode by lauding the direction of Rachel Talalay, who also directed last series two-part finale. Talalay has a good deal of horror films under her belt, and her mastery of that genre is apparent here. The Doctor is in a haunted house, for all intents and purposes. But it’s a haunted house within the Whoniverse, and you know we gots to stay on brand. The composition, score, and production design all work together to maintain that sense of claustrophobia and of being hunted, without stooping to gimmicks that wouldn’t fit this world.
If the last 10 minute stretch of this episode doesn’t become a part of filmmaking courses all over the world, then I know nothing about the power of visual storytelling. The climax of this episode is relentless. Every time, I’m desperate to close my eyes or change the channel or do anything to just make it stop. How revolutionary to show us a character we love so completely be broken to the point of no return, over and over and over again, knowing that he endured that way for 2 billion years, just to make it clear that his convictions are as strong as ever. Every time the Doctor stands on that parapet and reads the years in the stars, I cried a little harder. But he keeps on choosing pain and punishment over giving in. How many times does he try to quit because a life without Clara seems meaningless? How many times does Clara lay her hand on his cheek and tell him to suck it up and be her hero again? How many times does he confess his fear of death and then willingly walk into it anyway? This is what we expect of him and yet, it’s still overwhelming and terrible to watch. But we’re the companion in this story, and what kind of companion would we be if we looked away?
Timey Wimey Observations:
- “See, Clara? I’ve still got it.”
- “Rule 1 of dying: don’t. Rule 2: slow down.”
- Mr. Darcy moment, god bless us everyone.
- “What would you do?” “Same as you” “Yes, of course, which – let’s be honest – is what killed you.”
- Oh, Moffat and his numbers. He does think it’s so clever.
- No offense, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the first time the Doctor admitted his fear of death.
- Clara is all up in the Doctor’s mind palace like Molly in Sherlock’s. They’re both remarkable, but they are nothing without these women.
Fucking Time Lords, I tell ya. Kim will be recapping the series finale “Hell Bent,” so please join me in wishing her luck. For now, let’s talk about this episode in the comments.