Even Hell Can’t Scare The Doctor In “Heaven Sent”
“Hell is just heaven for bad people,” says the Doctor, full of bravado at the beginning of Saturday’s episode of Who. But is it enough to get him through the next two billion years?
When we last left him, the Doctor had suffered the double blow of losing his companion and being sentenced to a stint… somewhere—somewhere that had a high probability of being highly unpleasant. His destination does not fall short of expectations. The Doctor finds himself in a prison of sorts, a very large torture chamber, the design of which is based on his own nightmares. There’s faceless, claw-handed wraith haunting him up and down the halls of a castle that shifts and moves like a circular rubik’s cube, a puzzlingly ancient oil painting of Clara, and clouds of house flies (ugh).
Throughout the castle are clues—messages left by previous prisoners (or so it would seem). As the Doctor works through the puzzle, he’s urged on by an imaginary Clara (a teacher to the end) who communicates with him by writing questions on a chalkboard, ordering him not to give up, even if it takes an eternity.
And it does. Again and again the Doctor solves the castle’s game, each time reaching the last square, Home. And each time he’s met with a harder-than-diamond wall blocking his path to freedom. Because the way to advance through the game is tell the truth. Not just any truth, but untold and untellable truths. Dangerous secrets about a prophecy of a Dalek/Time Lord Hybrid destined to do terrible things. Someone has built this prison in order to learn those secrets and avoid that fate.
Alone for an entire episode with only his memories of Clara to spur him on, the Doctor faces his biggest fear: being afraid. With no one to play off of but the silent wraith and an imaginary companion, Capaldi turns in his best work of the season (and that’s saying something—remember the speech at the end of ‘The Zygon Inversion’?). The episode-for-one, penned by showrunner Steven Moffat, is exemplary Who: a perfect mystery accompanied by a perfect performance.
When the prison’s mechanism is finally revealed, it’s genuinely surprising: the Doctor hasn’t time-travelled 7,000,600,000, or billions of years into the future. He’s spent those years right there in the castle, dying and recreating a new copy of himself from the hard drive of the teleporter he arrived in.
Continuing on appears to be completely futile but it soon becomes clear that the Doctor of year 698,459 has learned something from the Doctor of year 8,291: each time he arrives Home, he punches the wall as hard and as many times are he can before the wraith reaches him. And each time he comes a tiny fraction closer to being free. It only costs him two billion years (and we thought Rory had it bad waiting nearly two centuries for Amy).
When the Doctor finally breaks through the wall, he finds himself standing in the middle of a desert. There’s a young boy at his side. “Go to the city,” he tells the kid. “Find someone important. Tell them I’m back. Tell them I know what they did.”
The prophecy, announces the Doctor, is wrong. The Daleks would never allow for a hybridized version of their kind to exist. The Hybrid is a cross of something else, destined to destroy Gallifrey. And that something is standing right at its gates.