Sunday 29 November 2015

Doctor Who - Heaven Sent

A Gallifrey Your Thoughts

Doctor Who - Heaven Sent
UK Airdate: 28th November 2015

Warning: Yeah, there are some hefty spoilers here, I guess.

Ha. Okay, so judging from my Twitter timeline last night, this episode was fairly divisive in its reception and appreciation. It seemed, by the looks of it, to be a particularly ‘Marmite’ episode, with some people absolutely hating it, giving up on the show and calling for a return to the fun and excitement of former years while others in my timeline seem to be saying it was one of the best pieces of television broadcasting in recent memory.

Okay, all of that is all very nice but I’m afraid I didn’t get such a big hit from it either way, to be honest. I didn’t love it and I didn’t hate it. It was an okayish episode and it wasn’t terrible... certainly not as bad as the last two at any rate. Also, I think I can understand what Steven Moffat, who is the series show runner and who wrote this one, is trying to do with this latest series in general and this episode in particular.

That is to say, the show seems to have become a little less relevant in recent years with the ratings going down slightly and with a lot of people jumping ship towards the end of Matt Smith’s era and into Capaldi’s. The show from two weeks ago, Sleep No More (reviewed here) for instance, had the lowest ‘appreciation index’ score for the programme in quite a number of years. So I’m guessing as a writer/producer you have to stir things up and what better way to do this than make Doctor Who a bit dark and scary again. Now I know Moffat has a very good memory of the history of the show and I would be really surprised if he and his co-conspirators weren’t trying for an episode here which hits exactly the same kind of tone of the old, and very controversial in its day, Tom Baker story The Deadly Assassin. That story got some complaints against it (not least from Mary Whitehouse) and helped seal the reputation of Doctor Who as being... well... too scary for kids. For the record here... there’s not much in fiction that’s too scary for kids, in all honesty. If you can’t be scared of something when you’re a young ‘un then when can you be? It’s the only way to toughen yourself up to life, I believe. Or, at least, one of the easiest... let those nightmares come and then conquer them forever.

So, yeah, I think this episode was a deliberate harkening back to hitting some of the beats of The Deadly Assassin... something which I was pretty sure he was doing on the opening of the first story this season, The Magician’s Apprentice (reviewed here). Interesting, also, that The Doctor lost the company of a companion just before The Deadly Assassin took place too so... yeah, I suspect there’s a lot of thought about how this season sits in terms of the history of the show. I may be wrong but... it’s my theory at the moment and, frankly, it doesn’t matter too much either way, as long as it gets people talking about the show again.

Heaven Sent is a bit of an experiment in terms of its content, for sure, with a very small cast. It’s essentially a one hander but, of course, we also have Jenna Coleman playing a manifestation of The Doctor’s mind as his recently deceased (maybe) companion Clara, and a monster figure and a young Gallifreyan boy. It’s very much a tour de force for Capaldi as an actor... but nothing we don’t already know he’s capable of, to be fair. We already know he’s a brilliant actor and he’s certainly a brilliant Doctor, whether the stories are any good or not. The trouble with this one, though, is that it’s so focussed on solving the ‘mystery’ at the heart of the story without any real distractions from the problem at hand, being as it’s essentially a one man show... no bickering with newcomers, no space battles or much running around in corridors (lots of shambling in corridors but, you know, the pace is down a notch) that the real problem with tackling a story like this reveals itself fairly easily. That is to say, once you’ve figured out how long The Doctor has been there and what the key to the story is... it’s all over and you’re just waiting for the central protagonist to catch up with you. Which, in this case, is maybe 15 minutes into the story tops? Once you’ve seen the skulls in the bottom of the ocean which all look exactly the same, you will have probably figured out that they were all The Doctor and, when you see the spare clothes drying by the lit fire, you can probably figure out who left them there for The Doctor... in fact, you see him do it.

So yeah, it’s an interesting idea and I’m very glad that Moffat tried it but, since we’ve known forever that Gallifrey was gong to return in this series, it’s not too hard to figure out what was going on (and if you cast your mind back to hte late 1970s, parts of The Deadly Assassin were set ‘in The Doctor’s mind’, so to speak, on Gallifrey).  The one thing it did take me a while to see was the gradual chipping down of The Doctor’s escape from his ‘confession disc’. The reason I didn’t quite see that coming until 5 - 10 minutes before it happened, and was still a bit iffy on the premise, is because we were told that all the rooms were resetting themselves to exactly what they were when The Doctor arrived (and keeps arriving) every day... so wouldn’t the wall reset itself too, don’t you think? Just a thought.

The episode does bring back another common element of the modern Doctor Who series though, which was originally perpetrated by Russel T. Davies in David Tennant’s last regular year on the show but which is something which Steven Moffat has run with for a while and, given the nature of the show over it’s 52 years, to date... I’m surprised it’s only in the last few years that this idea has been greatly touched upon. The element I’m talking about is... the long game. The times when we see The Doctor and he’s been in the same incarnation but there’s been a gap of hundreds or more years since we last saw him. Tennant’s incarnation went a bit loopy and ran off for years at one point after he lost Donna and Moffat’s been using that ingredient of ‘the character who takes the long way around’ quite a bit since. It’s almost become a bit of a signature for him on the show. Examples would include Amy Pond, the girl who waited decades for her second meeting with The Doctor in The Eleventh Hour (reviewed here) and even longer than that when she was trapped in that alternate timeline in The Girl Who Waited (reviewed here), Rory in The Big Bang (reviewed here and don’t get me started on that whole Pandorica thing again), River Song as a youngster in the opening scenes of Let’s Kill Hitler (reviewed here), Matt Smith prior to the events of The Snowmen (after losing Amy and Rory, reviewed here) and even Capaldi himself quite recently in Before The Flood (reviewed here). And more times than I can remember, I suspect. So yeah, once again we have The Doctor taking the long way around... this time by way of over a million days in which he dies at the end of each one... and they really padded that repeat montage out just way longer than was necessary for pretty much any audience comprehension, I believe, but who am I to argue.

And there you have it. We’re back on Gallifrey, wherever it was hidden, and I am really expecting to see Clara again at some point during the next episode. Also kinda hoping to see John Simm’s back as The Master so we can finally see him regenerate into Missy as we know him now but... I’m guessing that won’t be happening anytime soon. The other thing is... Moffat’s guilty of a little revisionism on the show here. The Doctor as ‘the hybrid’ is not such a big problem to me as it might be to some long term fans, to be sure, but the fact that this possibly contradicts the knowledge that The Master is The Doctor’s brother does rankle me a little. So we shall see how this is handled... presumably next week. Other than that though, not much to say other than I stand by my judgement that this wasn’t a great episode but neither was it a poor one. I think next week will really either be quite spectacular on it’s follow up or... possibly just go the way of most of the previous Smith and Capaldi season finales and be... well... a bit of a let down. No worries... time will tell. I’m really looking forward to catching up with River Song again in this year’s Christmas special so... not that fussed about the finale at the moment.

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