The penultimate episode of Season 9 finds the Doctor whisked away after having just watched the excruciating death of his best friend. Being forced to contain his rage by a final promise to Clara, the Doctor is in a hell of a state. Angry, afraid, alone, and confused, anyone getting in his way from this point on better think twice about staying there for long.
The Doctor materializes in some sort of transport pod moments after Clara’s death. Knowing Ashildr’s plot was meant to trap him somewhere, the Doctor sets off with a “don’t get in my way” attitude. But the mystery of where he is doesn’t escape his attention. He quickly surmises what he can, goading his captors to reveal themselves.
A dreadful hooded wraith is the only other thing in this tower of terror besides the Doctor, and he knows as much to stay away. With nowhere to run the Doctor grows very afraid and his ramblings both to himself, and many times to his recently deceased companion, become frantic. Peter Capaldi gets a chance to show off as the Doctor like never before. His performance is an exquisite, nuanced masterpiece, proving once and for all that Capaldi is indeed deserving of the mantle of The Doctor.
The whole episode is a study in the range of emotions not only which Capaldi can display, but how a two-thousand year old immortal might experience them. The Doctor is pretty much in a panic throughout the episode as he runs through every possible scenario while trying to keep from falling to peaces. This might be the most afraid we’ve ever seen the Doctor, and it’s not pretty.
When the Doctor finally gets back to the TARDIS his ramblings are at a fervor. He can’t help from showing off to someone. The whole scene makes him seem so very sad, which I guess is one way of describing the Doctor. He’s a sad man clinging to memories. Heaven Sent shows us this in a remarkably beautiful way. But it is as sad as it is beautiful. Even sadder when the Doctor realizes how bad things really are.
Heaven Sent isn’t so much a traditional episode as it is an introspective look into the character of the Doctor. The Doctor is never more vulnerable as after the departure of a companion, especially when one dies, and even more so when it’s the Impossible Girl, Clara Oswald. This episode is an opportunity to see the mind of the Doctor laid bare, and it is terrifying. There are times when the Doctor is just plain scary and times when he’s shaking like a leaf. For someone who has raised armies and forged heroes he is remarkably unsure of himself.
What’s most amazing about Heaven Sent is the chance to see inside the Doctor’s mind as he processes a situation. We learn the method he follows whenever he faces danger and death. It turns out the relationship he has with his companions is even deeper than we ever knew. We actually get to see how he relies on others to help steer his decisions. He can calculate odds in seconds, and access a situation quicker than anyone, but he needs someone to help keep his fear in check, and to whom he can boast of his cleverness to after they narrowly escape.
Eventually the Doctor realizes he’s being interrogated, trapped in his worst nightmare. Only by confessing his darkest secrets can he progress through the labyrinth. In a moment of sheer terror he exclaims he never left Gallifrey because he was board, but because he was scared. Although we’ve heard him say before he left Gallifrey for several reasons, including simply not agreeing with the Time Lords policy of non-interference, this isn’t much of a revelation. It would have been cool for the writers to really blow our Whovian minds with some unexpected secret nugget, but we’re in store for some major canon-altering stuff soon enough.
The Doctor works out that either he’s locked in some sort of time energy loop, or perhaps he’s just in Hell. Either way he almost begins to accept his fate as some sort of punishment despite his need to solve the mystery. This also speaks volumes about the character of the Doctor; even in the face of what might be his own eternal damnation he’s an unwavering skeptic and investigator.
One of the times he encounters the mysterious wraith the Doctor’s confession turns to the mysterious “hybrid” mentioned throughout this season. The Doctor confesses to knowing what the hybrid is, and being afraid of it. Before long there’s only one barrier left to escape, and he must make one final confession. The Doctor, at his lowest point, talks about how regeneration is a horribly slow process of dying. It’s a depressing narrative that tops off an entirely heart-wrenching episode.
As the lead-in to next week’s season finale, Heaven Sent doesn’t quite resolve in a nice neat package. By the end of the episode you feel horrible for the Doctor. You actually feel worse for the Doctor’s loss than you do for Clara having actually been the one to die. But the very end of the episode almost erases everything that came before it because somehow the Doctor has arrived home. Having escaped the time loop interrogation, the Doctor emerges on Gallifrey. It’s the one thing I’ve wanted to see since the 50th anniversary special. Finally seeing it is surreal. Why? How? Who? Next week’s season finale, Hell Bent, is sure to keep our jaws agape and our hearts pumping!