Sunday, 29 November 2015

Doctor Who: Heaven Sent (Episode Review)

Oh this one was off to a brilliantly creepy start. From Capaldi's monologue to the unique, unsettling nature of the environment and the monsters, the fantastic horror show beginning held so much promise in a very Hammer-like way. It's certainly one way to get the audience immediately engaged, and keeps them guessing from the opening. As you might suspect from that, it starts strong but, in a nice change from the usual problems, it doesn't gradually weaken as the credits roll.

The best way to really look at this one is as a horror story. Oh, there's plenty of non-horror elements and mystery aspects to be sure, but the monster, the themes and the nightmare elements almost reach Hammer levels at times. This is in no small part thanks to the iconography involved and the setting, a very unconventional castle of 16th century design. Upon being teleported, seemingly right from the finale of Face The Raven, the Doctor finds the place abandoned. Bereft of all life save for certain cryptic hints of some prior struggle, his ever step is hounded by some mysterious being driving him towards its lower depths. It's a simple premise to be sure, but there is such an sense of style, such a bizarre twist in its presentation, that it's hard not to become engaged.

While you might not expect it at first, you could really put this down to Doctor Who attempting to pull off its own version of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. You have the traditional setting, of course, a horrific and seemingly unstoppable monster and a hero constantly at a loss for what he finds. However, there's more to it than simply this. While the rather distinct plot elements would be spoilers - no, before you ask, they don't simply involve him losing his memory - the visual style just seems so in-sync with that flavour of horror. The slow panning shots, the bleak gloom of the environment, even a few iconic visuals such as the decaying paintings and mountains of skulls all play a part in this. These points are only made all the more evident thanks to the faceless horror hunting through the castle and the horrifying nature of the ending.

The story itself is sure to be a difficult one given that this features Capaldi on his own. While we've had stories utterly bereft of companions in the past, and Tom Baker even once suggested trying to run the show with him alone, this one is completely absent of people. Given that there is no human interaction, no contact, it could have easily caved in upon itself, but it succeeded. This is naturally thanks, in a big way, to Capaldi himself but also a few interesting tricks the writers pull. In order to give him more to react to, in order for his monologue to work into the narrative, the writers effectively use a "mind TARDIS" to have him retreat back into. In those brief moments before death, in those moments where brilliance is needed the most, we see just how he thinks. We see him rapidly piecing things together in his mind and how he calculates every second. It sidesteps the whole Sherlock Holmes thing Guy Ritchie made famous, but it ultimately has the same effect. It is, however, also in these moments where see just why the Doctor needs a companion so badly in certain adventures.

The whole mystery, much like Clara's plot in the last story, ultimately builds and gradually culminates in a final point. Admittedly, it's a twist you might well see coming from quite early on but it manages to work thanks to being delivered with such style. It's one of those few moments of recent years where Doctor Who embracing style over logic has been more awesome than it is facepalming, and the combination of acting, direction and the sheer scale of what the writers have in mind really pays off. Better yet, it builds up into a final moment which doesn't dominate the entire story or overshadows what came before. Oh it leaves you with questions to be sure, many, many questions, but there's still the hanging possibility for immediate answers the following week.

If there is one very distinct problem to be highlighted here, it's how often the story plays with the idea of time and the eternal torment of the place. Even after watching it, far too much seems to just conveniently fall into place over time. Even counting the episode's rather obvious justifications, given all that passed and how things played out, it just becomes increasingly questionable as to how many times things fell perfectly into place for the Doctor's foes. 

Still, when a minor logical flaw which the script mostly justifies is its biggest failing, it's clear we have a winner here. After the mixed qualities of last week and the constant ups and downs of the past series overall, it's nice to see the writers are still capable of pulling off truly fantastic episodes. We'll just have to wait until next week to see how they finish putting it all together and cap off this latest chapter in the show.


  1. I figured out part of the twist right from the start but only because I assumed that the hand we saw turn to ash was the doctor's and because the pod was that we see him arrive in reminded me of the vita chambers from Bioshock.

  2. If the Doctor and the rooms all return to their "original" condition, how is he able to accumulate knowledge and what keeps "bird" written in the sand?