Season 9, Episode 11 “Heaven Sent”
Directed by Rachel Talalay
Written by Steven Moffat
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Jami Reid-Quarrell
Air date: Saturday, November 28, 2015
WARNING: SPOILERS for Season 9 of Doctor Who…
This week on Doctor Who, Episode 9.11 “Heaven Sent,” we are forced to consider the myths of Prometheus, the Greek Titan. In an episode featuring only three actors, the Doctor is trapped in a prison apparently designed to both punish and tantalize him. A method of escape apparently exists, but it comes at a horrible price. It is a beautifully atmospheric piece of Gothic horror with a clockwork castle, an amorphous death-like adversary, and plenty of chills that bite deeply enough to hit bone.
First, let us consider the connection to myth. With a name meaning forethought, Prometheus rendered a first great service to humanity by tricking Zeus into accepting the inedible parts of a cow as sacrifice (the leg bones wrapped in fat), freeing the edible parts for humans to eat as food. When a vengeful Zeus withdrew the gift of fire from humanity for this trick, Prometheus then rendered a second service by stealing fire and giving its secret back to the human race. For both these acts, Prometheus was chained to a rock and suffered agony each day when an eagle swept down to eat his liver. Since Prometheus was a Titan, he did not die. Instead, he regrew his liver each night. Finally, he was freed by Hercules.
How is the Doctor like Prometheus? Like the Titan, he is the savior of multiple worlds. He has defended Earth many times. As the Doctor said when Matt Smith took over the role, the Earth is defended by the Doctor. He also literally brought fire, to a group of cavemen in the first Doctor Who serial ever, “An Unearthly Child.” He ultimately assumes a similar role for his own people on Gallifrey. When the Time Lord High Council precipitates a Time War with the Daleks, the Doctor ultimately ends it in “The Day Of The Doctor” by hiding the planet and bringing about the destruction of the Dalek fleet. He defies the High Council to save the bulk of his people.
For those acts, the Doctor appears to receive punishment this week. His adversary, the Veil, is the inevitability of death in an ever-changing maze. The Doctor may run, may trick, may outwit the Veil temporarily, but it is always after him and will get him if he stays in one place for too long. How does one escape such a creature? In the Doctor’s case, it involves rather large rock and repeated suffering.
To accomplish all this, writer/producer Steven Moffat, director Rachel Talalay, and star Peter Capaldi do something rather daring. In over 50 years, the Doctor has rarely been a solo act. This is an action somewhat born of necessity; the Doctor spends much of his time explaining what has happened, is happening, and will happen. Constantly doing that as a monologue in a TV drama would become very boring, very quickly. Companions create an audience stand-in that can ask questions, react, and drive the plot. It also places tremendous weight on the actor playing the Doctor. As in a one-man play, that actor must play all the entire range of emotion and captivate the audience entirely alone.
Yet a nearly one-man play is what “Heaven Sent” gives us. The entire cast consists of three actors. One of them plays the Veil, a part with no lines. Another appears very briefly. It is Peter Capaldi who carries over 90 percent of the action this week, and does so masterfully. Through a series of (sometimes winking) monologues, he presents the whole puzzle to the audience, reacting with words as the scope of the thing grows until at last, the whole picture becomes clear. The jewel of Capaldi’s acting is placed in an amazing, moody, atmospheric setting. The whole thing is a moody nightmare, both ethereal and eternal at the same time.
There is a lot of talk this season about Capaldi not connecting with the British public as the Doctor as a cause of low ratings. I don’t think that’s due to a lack of connection to the role. For any doubters, this is Exhibit A. Talk about how the writers treated Jenna Coleman, how the show emphasizes bluster over substance, or how ratings sag for a show that’s been on the air for nine seasons, but you cannot say that Capaldi merely inhabits the role. I didn’t think it true before, but it cannot be denied after this.
As an episode, “Heaven Sent” is exquisite. It is visually appealing. It is tremendously acted. It is beautifully written. It is a tour de force.