Season 9, Episode 11 of Doctor Who, “Heaven Sent,” gives us the Doctor in a way we’ve rarely seen him—alone. Yet he is never completely alone—not because of the creature that slowly stalks him through the castle, but because his continually fresh grief means that the memory of Clara is never far. Though the Doctor is without a companion, it is the idea of Clara that serves as his audience, instructor, and, ultimately, his conscience.
The Doctor never names the creature from his nightmares, but the credits tell us it is called the Veil. The Veil’s representation of death adds a feeling of horror. One could argue that it has a Dementor vibe, but the slow, never-ending stalking of its prey creates a distinct creep factor, especially since the Doctor is further terrorized by always knowing it’s approaching. The flies are a particularly disturbing touch.
“Heaven Sent” begins and ends with the Doctor’s grief and anger over Clara’s death and the trap that triggered it. Between these moments we see the Doctor working through what’s happening, while the Veil creature from his nightmares slowly hunts him throughout the castle prison. He retreats into his mind, represented by the TARDIS, to consult with Clara, or at least the memory of Clara. It’s less WWCD (as Clara points out, she would do what the Doctor would do, which led to her death), and more Socratic method. The representation of Clara asks the Doctor the right questions. She doesn’t let him give up.
It’s only towards the end of the episode that it’s understood by the audience, and seemingly the Doctor, though we can assume he has come to this realization many times before, that the Doctor has been reliving this nightmare again and again. He is repeatedly using his dying body and mind to serve as the energy needed to jump-start the transporter. In doing so, he is able to generate a new version of himself from his pattern stored on the hard drive of the transporter. It feels far more Star Trek than Doctor Who, but provides for a stunning twist. This is no time loop, but instead two billion years pass before the Doctor can escape.
Before Clara dies in “Face the Raven” she tells the Doctor that he’s very bad at being alone. In the new series, we have learned that the Doctor needs a companion to deal with his loneliness, anger and guilt, as well as to serve as the Doctor’s moral compass. It’s understood that the companion stands in for the audience, for the purposes of exposition, but in “Heaven Sent” the Doctor actually says as much:
“I always imagine that I’m back in my TARDIS, showing off, telling you how I escaped, making you laugh. That’s what I’m doing right now. I am falling, Clara. I’m dying. And I’m going to explain to you how I survived. I can’t wait to hear what I say. I’m nothing without an audience.”
The impossible task that the Doctor accomplishes is not to escape. Rather, it is that he never confesses the secrets sought by his unknown captors during the two billion years prior to his escape. Instead, he chooses a painful death and a rebirth that continually places him back into the anger and grief of having lost Clara moments before. Each time, he must begin unraveling the puzzle once more. It would be a Sisyphean task, but for a little bird that comes once every 100 years. The Doctor points out:
“There are two events in everybody’s life that nobody remembers, two moments experienced by every living thing. Yet no one remembers anything about them. Nobody remembers being born … and nobody remembers dying. Is that why we always stare into the eye sockets of a skull? Because we’re asking, ‘What was it like? Does it hurt? Are you still scared?’”
“Heaven Sent” was a powerful episode despite, or because of, having much less dialogue that we typically see in Doctor Who. Steven Moffat’s script was amongst his best. Director Rachel Talalay kept the pace of the episode moving while taking necessary moments to increase the suspense. We would have liked some more interior shots of the Hogwarts-like moving castle, not because it felt like something was missing, but because it was a great set. “Heaven Sent” was genuinely scary and the reveal made it that much more frightening. Not enough can be said about Peter Capaldi and how outstanding he is in the role of the Twelfth Doctor. “Heaven Sent” was a showcase for his skills as an actor, essentially providing him a stage unto himself. As we move into the final act of Season 9, “Heaven Sent” reinforces that this season we are seeing Doctor Who at its best.
“As you come into this world, something else is also born.”
After having just seen Clara die, the Doctor finds himself transported into a building made of stone. He is filled with grief and anger, and threatens his new captors:
“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.”
Looking at the equipment in the room, the Doctor surmises that he is no more than a light-year away from where he was originally transported. He begins to explore his prison, and finds himself in a castle. He finds a shovel in the hallway and expresses his disdain for gardeners, referring to the practice as a “dictatorship for inadequates.”
As he looks around, the Doctor sees himself in one of the monitors placed throughout the castle. He can see himself in the monitor and searches for where the camera would be. When he looks across the courtyard into the window from where he is being watched, the Doctor sees a veiled creature and is taken aback. He seems genuinely terrified, which almost never happens, so now we’re pretty scared too. The creature leaves the window and he can see the view on the monitor change as the Veil moves along the corridor. The Doctor calls out to the empty hallway, telling his captors to show themselves, saying,“I just watched my best friend die in agony. My day can’t get any worse. “Let’s see what we can do about yours!”
The Doctor hears footsteps approaching, and the creature that had been across the courtyard stands before him. The Doctor recognizes the creature referred to as the Veil, and runs. He manages to get the doors at the end of the corridor to unlock, but when he opens them a wall blocks his escape. The Veil has him cornered and begins to approach. As he backs up the Doctor says, “I’m scared. I just realized I’m actually scared of dying.” As he says this, the creature freezes, as do the flies around it. The castle begins to move, à la Hogwarts. When he reopens the wooden doors, the solid wall is now an opening, providing him an escape route.
The Doctor finds himself in a room with a very old portrait of Clara. As he examines the painting, the Veil enters the room. The Doctor describes seeing a dead woman covered in veils and surrounded by flies when he was a child. The image gave him nightmares for years. This childhood nightmare has taken form in the Veil, and is coming after him. He realizes that the castle is not a prison or trap, but a torture chamber. He points out, “Anyone who can put all this together and steal my bad dreams, they should know better.” The Doctor is not telling his secrets and before the Veil can touch him, the Doctor jumps out the window.
“You begin your life, and it begins a journey … towards you.”
The Doctor walks into the TARDIS—well it’s not really the TARDIS, but it’s an image of the TARDIS within his mind. He begins to talk to Clara—again, not really Clara, but a representation of her in his mind. He shares some rules with her:
“The first rule of being interrogated is that you are the only irreplaceable person in the torture chamber. The room is yours, so work it. If they’re going to threaten you with death, show them who’s boss. Die faster! You’ve seen me do that more often than most. Isn’t that right, Clara? Rule one of dying—don’t. Rule two—slow down. You’ve got the rest of your life. The faster you think, the slower it will pass. Concentrate! Assume you’re going to survive. Always assume that.”
The Doctor describes how he has locked himself in the storm room of his mind—the TARDIS—so he can think. He tells Clara that he always imagines himself back in the TARDIS telling her how he escaped. We learn one of the Doctor’s techniques—as he faces death, he imagines what life will be like after he has survived. He’s very Solution-Focused, but with the Doctor’s long and complicated life, looking backwards probably doesn’t help him. He realizes that the force of hitting the water will render him unconscious. As the Doctor floats unconscious in the ocean, back in the TARDIS we see the chalkboard used in “Listen” and “Last Christmas,” both terrific episodes. Part of the Doctor wants to let go, but the chalkboard serves to express the subconscious thoughts that drive him to survive. The chalkboard begins to fill with questions that force the Doctor out of his unconscious state:
Question 1 What is the place?
Question 2 What did you say to make the creature stop?
Question 3 How are you going to win??
The Doctor awakens underwater and sees the sea floor piled high with skulls. Creepy. He swims towards the surface. Once out of the water, he goes into the castle where he finds A fresh set of clothes next to a burning fire. Here the Murray Gold score is a little much. We know how we’re supposed to feel—thanks anyway.
“It moves slowly, but it never stops. Wherever you go, whatever path you take, it will follow. Never faster, never slower, always coming. You will run. It will walk. You will rest. It will not.”
The Doctor finds himself in a room with an octagon stone tile missing from the middle of the floor. It has arrows on all sides pointing toward the empty space. He asks out loud why the Veil keeps following him. We see the chalkboard of his subconscious:
Not why. What?
The Doctor notes that the monitors allow him to constantly see where the Veil is and how close it is. The Doctor realizes that the creature is trying to terrorize him and the entire castle has been created to do the same. He says, “It’s a killer puzzle box designed to scare me to death, and I’m trapped inside it. Must be Christmas!” Does he mean it must be Christmas because he often faces similar circumstances in the Christmas special, or is he referring to his love of puzzles? We’ll never know.
The Doctor finds a small courtyard, filled with spooky half-dead vines and brambles. There’s a freshly dug grave-sized hole in the middle of the courtyard. The shovel nearby suggests someone wants him to dig. He asks out loud what Clara would do, and we see “Same as you” written on the chalkboard, reminding us what got Clara killed. After seeing all the skulls on the sea floor, the Doctor doesn’t believe that he is the first prisoner held at the castle. He wonders where they went wrong. The Doctor digs, estimating he has a hour before the creature arrives.
He hears the flies and looks at the monitor, but can only see flies on the screen. He opens the courtyard door and the Veil is waiting on the other side. The Doctor manages to shut the door and use the shovel to secure the door. The Veil heads towards the room with the missing stone tile in the floor. The Doctor continues to dig until he uncovers the missing octagon stone tile. On the tile it says, “I am in 12.” Twelve, of course, refers to the Doctor, but here it refers to something else. In this moment of discovery, the creature attacks.
He retreats to the TARDIS in his mind to figure out how to escape. The messages on the blackboard are:
Tell no lies
Question 2 What did you say to make the creature stop?
The Doctor realizes that the only thing that stops the creature is sharing truths he’s never told before—confessions. He notes there are some truths he can never tell. But he is alone and very scared. In the face of pure terror, can the Doctor contain these most important secrets?
In the courtyard, the Veil reaches out toward the Doctor’s face. He confesses that he didn’t leave Gallifrey because he was bored, but because he was scared. The creature freezes and the Doctor runs out of the courtyard. He finds himself on the outer edge of the castle, looking out at the sea that completely surrounds the fortress. Two skulls float to the surface, taunting him about the futility of his efforts.
Later, we see the Doctor sitting in the room with the portrait of Clara. We hear his internal monologue with his dead companion: “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.” By his count, if he draws the creature to one side of the castle then runs to the other, it gives him 82 minutes before the slow moving but constant creature can reach him. The castle wants him to find room 12. He takes those 82 minutes to figure out what to do next.
The Doctor explains that each room returns to its original state after he’s left it long enough. He thinks it’s a closed energy loop, adding, “Or maybe I’m in Hell. That’s OK. I’m not scared of Hell. It’s just Heaven for bad people. But how long will I have to be here? Forever?” If it were Hell he must’ve been very bad, because he’s going to be there a long, long time—what some would describe as an eternity.
“One day, you will linger in the same place too long. You will sit too still or sleep too deep … and when, too late, you rise to go … you will notice a second shadow next to yours. Your life will then be over.”
The Doctor considers that there are two events experienced by every living thing that no one remembers—birth and death. As he ponders death in the teleporter room, he picks up a skull with cables connected to its temples. As he holds the skull, he looks down and sees “BIRD” written in the sand. He’s not sure what it means. A wall moves, revealing a stone staircase. He walks up the stairs, still holding the skull.
He finds himself on the roof of a turret and thinks, “There’s something I’m missing, Clara. And I think it’s something terrible,” as he looks up at the stars, then back at the skull. He leaves the skull on the turret and heads down a stairwell and sees a door with “12” written on it. When he opens the wooden doors he sees only a stone wall.
As the Doctor stands back on the roof, he says out loud: “It’s a trap, Clara. A lure and a trap. I’m following breadcrumbs laid out for me. This is somebody’s game and I can’t stop playing, a game that everyone else has lost.” He knows he will have to give a confession to the Veil in order to move the wall and get into room 12. Then he notes that the stars are in all the wrong places. He knows he didn’t time-travel to get there because he can feel time travel. He calls out: “If I didn’t know better, I’d say I’ve traveled 7,000 years into the future. But I do know better. So, who moved the stars?” As he talks, the Veil comes up behind him. The Doctor has a confession prepared, and it’s a confession his captors are very interested in, even if it’s not the final confession they’re seeking:
“The Hybrid. Long before the Time War, the Time Lords knew it was coming, like a storm on the wind. There were many prophecies and stories, legends before the fact. One of them was about a creature called the Hybrid. Half Dalek, half Time Lord—the ultimate warrior. But whose side would it be on? Would it bring peace or destruction? Was it real, or a fantasy? I confess, I know the Hybrid is real. I know where it is, and what it is. I confess, I’m afraid.”
The Veil freezes and the castle begins to move. The shaking knocks the skull into the sea, where it lands amongst all the others. The Doctor heads back down to room 12. He begins counting the seconds with his hand and puts on his sonic sunglasses as he walks down the corridor. We won’t lie, we were hoping to go a whole episode without the sonic sunglasses. This episode deserves the classic feel of the sonic screwdriver.
He enters a room with a 20-foot wall made of azbantium, a substance 400 times harder than diamond. For a moment the wall says “HOME” and he believes that the TARDIS is only one confession away. He suddenly remembers seeing “BIRD” written in the sand, and has a terrible realization.
We see the Doctor in the TARDIS, angry and fearful. He shouts out, “That’s when I remember! Always then. Always … then. Always exactly then! I can’t keep doing this, Clara! I can’t! Why is it always me? Why is it never anybody else’s turn?!” The chalkboard message reminds him that he needs to find a way to win. He realizes it would be easy to just tell whoever wants to know all about the hybrid. He tells Clara that it’s not fair, asking why he just can’t lose. Clara writes “NO” on the blackboard. He tells her, “But I can remember, Clara. You don’t understand; I can remember it all. Every time. And you’ll still be gone. Whatever I do … you still won’t be there.” As the Doctor sits mournfully in the TARDIS, Clara approaches him. This is the first time he’s been able to see her face, with his fresh grief only allowing him to envision her back previously. She speaks for the first time:
“Doctor … you are not the only person who ever lost someone. It’s the story of everybody. Get over it. Beat it. Break free. Doctor, it’s time. Get up, off your arse … and win!”
The Veil is coming for the Doctor. He tells it, “No more confessions.” The Doctor begins to punch the wall of azbantium. It hurts. A lot. The Doctor declares that the hybrid is a very dangerous secret, one that needs to be kept. Instead he plans to get out of the castle, find out who put him there and what they’re trying to do, then stop them. Despite the 20-foot azbantium wall between him and that goal, we believe him. As he continues punching the wall, he begins the Brothers Grimm story The Shepherd Boy: “According to them, there’s this emperor and he asks this shepherd’s boy … ‘How many seconds in eternity?’” The Veil reaches the Doctor and grabs his head. The doctor screams and falls to the ground. The creature disappears in a blue flash.
As the Doctor lies on the floor, we see the TARDIS lights of his mind come back up:
“People always get it wrong with Time Lords. We take forever to die. Even if we’re too injured to regenerate, every cell in our bodies keeps trying. Dying properly can take days. That’s why we like to die among our own kind. They know not to bury us early.” The Doctor begins to drag himself through the castle, estimating that it will take him a day and a half to get to the top of the tower.
It’s become clear to the Doctor that the castle, with his own nightmare come to life and the portrait of Clara, was always meant only for him. He has realized that there were never any other prisoners, the stars weren’t in the wrong place, and he hasn’t time-traveled. The Doctor has been attaching the teleporter cables to his dying body to jump-start the transporter. He has been generating new versions of himself from the copy of him stored on the hard drive of the transporter as his previous incarnation is burned up for energy. We see the damaged hand that spells out “BIRD” and disappears just before he arrives in the teleporter. He knows he has done this many times before because the stars tell him that he originally arrived at the castle 7,000 years before. He asks, “How long can I keep doing this, Clara? Burning the old me … to make a new one?”
As we see the Doctor go through this cycle again and again, with more and more time passing—12,000 years, 600,000 years, 1,200,000 years, 20 million years, 52 million years, nearly a billion years, over a billion years, then finally 2 billion years—we hear the story of the Shepherd’s boy:
“‘How many seconds in eternity?’ And 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 and sharpens its beak on the diamond mountain. And when the entire mountain is chiseled away, the first second of eternity will have passed!’”
Through the eons he is at the castle, the Doctor continues punching through the azbantium as the Veil attacks him again and again. At the end of The Shepherd Boy, the Doctor comments, “You must think that’s a hell of a long time.” Then he finally punches through to the other side, and adds, “Personally, I think it’s a hell of a bird.” The Veil collapses behind him into a pile of gears.
The Doctor steps out into a desert while behind him the castle entrance transforms into a castle in miniature and falls to the ground. He picks it up and discovers it’s his confession dial. A boy runs up to him and the Doctor instructs him to tell someone important that he’s back and that he knows what they did. He turns around we see that he is standing on Gallifrey, After the boy leaves, the Doctor says, “You can probably still hear me … so just between ourselves … 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.”
In “Heaven Sent,” Doctor Who reveals some of the Doctor’s secrets to the audience. Not so much that he’s scared to die and that he left Gallifrey out of fear, or even the likely red herring about the identity of the Hybrid, but how the Doctor works things out inside his head. “Heaven Sent” gives us a glimpse behind the magic. After a terrifying episode with an unexpected turn of events, we are given a final jolt when the Doctor finds himself on Gallifrey. We’ve been hoping for the return of Gallifrey since the start of Season 9, and can’t wait to see the Doctor amongst the other Time Lords. It’s not the happy reunion we’d imagined, but perhaps a return based on deceit, torture, and death is more appropriate for one of the most destructive races in the universe. “Heaven Sent” gave us an extraordinary performance of terror and suspense, unlike anything we’ve seen previously on Doctor Who. Let the BAFTA nominations begin.