Reviews – Doctor Who: Series 9, Episode 11 – Heaven Sent

As Doctor Who Series Nine approaches its end, Chris Jordan reviews the fantastic first half of its finale, Heaven Sent.

Doctor Who goes from the darkly fantastical world of Face the Raven straight into the pitch-black stuff of nightmares as series nine escalates towards a finale that looks rather unlike anything we've seen on the show so far. Even after the emotional punch in the gut provided by last week's episode, Steven Moffat has found a way to crank up the intensity even more, and in the process has given us the strongest script he has written all year, if not longer. Rather than the action-packed epics that Moffat so often loves writing, Heaven Sent is a quietly brooding character and mood piece that expertly builds up tension over a luxurious nearly-an-hour runtime. Peter Capaldi takes center-stage in what is essentially a one-man show, and the result is one of his strongest performances in one of his most compelling stories.

"Visit Silent Hill," they said.
"It's a nice town," they said.
The Doctor is trapped in a nightmarish personal hell: a giant castle-like puzzle whose rooms and hallways constantly shift and move. The only other being in the castle with him is a shambling, cloaked figure that looks like death incarnate, and the whole place is a mystery that he must solve – alone. It's like a setting out of H. P. Lovecraft (specifically The Outsider), transformed into an enormous version of Clive Barker's Lament Configuration; one of the most memorable locations in Doctor Who history. It's also a location that makes for a very different sort of season finale. For those who complain about the amount of action-y running-around that often happens in Moffat's finales, you'll be happy to know that there's none of that here: this is a situation that The Doctor can only face with his mind, and a fatalistically-approaching threat that can't simply be run from. With all his usual tricks rendered futile by the situation, we really see Capaldi's Twelfth Doctor put to the test. Moffat is put to the test as well, as he blocks off his typical plot-devices and must fully work the storytelling muscles that made us first think of him as such a great writer, back in the days of Blink and The Girl in the Fireplace.

Both men pass the test with flying colors. This is Steven Moffat's best-written episode since at least Last Christmas, with his strengths as a writer in full-force and his weaknesses nowhere to be found. He can be pretty uneven, but Heaven Sent reminds us why we wanted him to be the showrunner in the first place. By now we're very well aware just how excellent a Doctor Peter Capaldi is, but there is no test of an actor's skills more powerful and revealing than an empty stage. Isolated from any supporting cast or dramatic foil, acting essentially in a one-man-show version of Doctor Who, Capaldi propels this episode with emotion and intensity. Heaven Sent will likely be one of the moments that cements his reputation as one of the truly great Doctors.

"I am the ghost of Christmas Future... oh, this
isn't the Christmas special? Alright, I'll come back
in a few weeks."
The third person responsible for the greatness of this episode is director Rachel Talalay. While Talalay may be best-known for the decidedly more bombastic Tank Girl and Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, here she demonstrates a remarkable control of atmosphere and suspense. The nightmarish world she creates drips with dread as the extra-long episode explores all of its dark corners, and tightens its grip with great skill. Last year at this time her first directorial work on Doctor Who, Dark Water, caused quite a stir when a sizable chunk of the show's viewership complained that the episode was too dark and nightmare-inducing for younger fans. Those people must be freaking out now, as Heaven Sent is easily darker, creepier, and feels all around more like an actual nightmare; the most purely horror episode we've had in a while. That may not make it an episode that everyone will love – people who watch Doctor Who with their kids may want to watch out – but I think it's fantastic. It's also a much better episode than Dark Water, proving once again that this is the year that the Capaldi era has found its footing.

Now there's only one episode left in series nine – and the build-up in this episode suggests that it's going to be a big one. Aside from the mediocre Sleep No More, this series has been uniformly excellent. The stage is set for this to not just be a very good year for the show, but a truly great one that makes a lasting impact on the world of Doctor Who. The question now is whether Steven Moffat can pull it all together in a finale that does it justice, or if he will drop the ball as he has occasionally been known to do. So far, things are looking good – but I must admit, Moffat's unevenness with series finales has me feeling a little nervous. Next weekend's Hell Bent will likely make or break series nine's legacy, but in the mean time Heaven Sent joins a short and illustrious list of Capaldi-era episodes that are worthy of a perfect 10/10. This one is a classic.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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