Doctor Who Review: Heaven Sent

“I’m not scared of Hell – it’s just Heaven for bad people.”

Steven Moffat


Heaven Sent, the penultimate episode of the current series of Doctor Who, sees the Doctor stranded in a strange prison, terrorised by, um, a corpse in a shroud and searching for a way out.

The second Scary One of the season, it’s an episode with significant links to Sleep No More, albeit much better executed, generically speaking, than that story. Set in a Gothic castle which shifts and twists like a cross between Hogwarts and the house in House of Leaves (and hold on to your hat, Constant Reader, I wrote a whole dissertation on Gothic castles), its prime agent of fear is not the shrouded corpse itself but the television screens dotted throughout the castle, which show what the corpse sees.

“It’s trying to scare me…That’s the point. It’s all about theatre,” the Doctor says, astutely; it’s a moment which recalls Sleep No More‘s use of the convention of story to break the fourth wall. But here it serves a different purpose: instead of undermining the power of narrative as Sleep No More tried rather incompetently to do, it co-opts us, the viewers, into the story. We too are watching; we too are scared, or at least we are supposed to be. The Gothic castle’s menace comes not from the details within the story, the movement of what should be fixed, the uncanniness of what should be canny, but from the fact that it threatens us, too. Doctor Who – the whole Whovian edifice – is a metafiction, as Moffat is fond of pointing out to us, and as we follow the Doctor inexorably in to the spirals of his grief, we hear the door swing shut behind us.

So it can only be a mark of the success of the episode that it is boring. Because the Doctor is bored as well as afraid, spiralling endlessly around the ages (“How long do I have to stay here?”), trapped within the castle; and if we are bored too then the castle is doing its job. The Doctor is objectified through the television screens; he sees himself through another’s eyes, as object not subject; he sees his very nightmares bodied forth. The castle encroaches upon his subjectivity, upon his mental privacy; it threatens his sense of himself as different from what is around him. And because that fourth wall is broken, it threatens our sense of self too; our sense of ourselves as different from, as separate from what we are watching. It is only by escaping through the castle and to the light of “HOME” (Gallifrey for the Doctor, and for us a BBC continuity announcer, perhaps, or simply a domestic living-room) that our sense of self, and the proper order of things, can be re-established.

Which is all very well and good; but what’s the point of this complex metafictional edifice?

The episode is quite obviously one about loneliness. The scene where the Doctor fries his own brain to create a new copy of himself is a reference to Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead (not coincidentally, also a Moffat story), in which River Song incinerates herself in order to save the Doctor. The point is, of course, that the Doctor no longer has anyone to save him, only endless copies of himself, endless doppelgangers; it’s no wonder his sense of self becomes blurred, with no-one else, and nowhere else, to define himself against. The episode asks us and the Doctor to experience solitariness, the crushing and literally self-destroying weight of being alone.

It’s an interesting episode, but not a particularly good one. The best Gothic narratives – Gormenghast, Rebecca, House of Leaves, The Mysteries of Udolpho – are hypnotic, fascinating, deep dark wells down which it is perilous to fall. Though Heaven Sent shares formal generic qualities with these narratives, it never achieves that same depth of atmosphere; it never entrances us quite as much as it needs to, given the fact that when you think about it the actual plot is as full of holes as most of my socks. (Why doesn’t the diamond wall reset when the rest of the castle does? Who winds the corpse’s clockwork? How come exactly the same thing happens in exactly the same sequence every time the Doctor resets himself? For two billion years?) It’s a bit…disappointing, actually, for the beginning of the series finale.

Oh well. We’ll see what happens next week, back on bloody Gallifrey again.

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