Specters & Shadows
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
“As you come into this world, something else is also born. You begin your life, it beings a journey towards you. You move slowly, but it never stops. Wherever you go, whatever path you take, it will follow, ever faster, ever slower, always coming. You will run, it will walk. You will rest, it will not. One day, you will linger in the same place too long, you will sit too still or sleep too deep when, too late, you rise to go, you will notice a second shadow next to yours. Your life will then be over.”
Death. It is a terrifying concept in its simplicity and its simultaneous complexity. It is like a simple shroud that has fallen onto the wall of life, whose descent reveals, what? Is it a pitch black vastness of darkened depths, like the seemingly nonexistent horizons of space? Is it heaven, the Garden of Eden with its debauchery and wine flowing through the flora as if rivers and their tributaries? Is it hell, circumbulating in seven layers down to where the fires of Hades torment the soul for all eternity? Or is it, as the Doctor notes in the beautifully written monologue above, a mere shadow that travels with each being from the moment they are born to the moment when their eyes close for the final time? No one truly knows, for there are two moments that no being has any memory of. The first moment is their birth and the second is their death. They, in the simplest of terms, simply occur in what is essentially a complete vacuum, the last of vestiges of their memory being the moments that come after and before them, respectively. What happens before birth is known to anyone with access to an anatomical dictionary and or the Internet, but what happens after the second shadow finds you at last is not and that feeds into the fascination and fear of what death truly is. There are a plethora of things one feels like is out of their individual control, like the outrageous prices at Starbucks or public transit arriving on time, but the phenomenon that seems most likely to truly escape one’s grasp is death. It can arrive at the depths of the sea, it can ensnare you as you jump through the window using a barstool, it can arrive to suffocate you as you stand before an impenetrable wall.
The Doctor is not a man who likes to find himself in circumstances beyond his control; in this case, circumstances that find him ensnared within a contraption constructed of his own nightmares. There is seemingly no escape from this contraption, either, each layer of the Hogwarts-like castle twisting itself so the Doctor is infinitely trapped in a loop, a loop he can only escape by confessing. For all intents and purposes, the castle functions as a trap to ensnare the Doctor and keep him there, but it also functions as a torture chamber. After striking the deal with Ashildr/Mayor Me (I’m sticking with the former), the captors of the Doctor reveal the vast extent of their knowledge by crafting two physical embodiments that would emotionally trap the Doctor, his earliest nightmare and his most recent tragedy. Named the Veil (the second creature in Doctor Who lore to be named as such), the creature resembles an ivory Dementor but one with a fuller form and a relentless seemingly at odd with its languid pace. The Veil is a literal personification of the Doctor’s metaphor of death that began the episode, a dark token of his childhood where he remembered seeing a dying Time Lady lying still, dying the slow death of her race but the flies nevertheless came in droves even when her final breaths were rattling out of her. The Doctor may run and run and run, or even throw a barstool out the window and then jump out after it, but the Veil will never stop coming. That’s where the torture chamber aspect of the castle comes in. It is not only a psychologically torturous edifice, it is a design to get the Doctor to confess the greatest secret he holds: the identity of the hybrid.
The Doctor staves off the Veil at the first juncture by revealing that he is, in fact afraid of death. It’s a sudden, fervent admission that staves off the Veil but speaks volumes about the Doctor himself. In an episode full of cinematic photography and the most incredible performance from a Doctor yet, the most incredible accomplishment stands out in Steven Moffat’s script. To have a character become so revealing in what is technically its thirty-fifth season is an absolutely astounding feat. A quasi-reasonable argument could be made from the vantage point that each regeneration of the Doctor allows for the story to be told from the centering around of a different character, but that argument would be centered around an understanding that each Doctor is an entirely different character. Just imagine Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, or Matt Smith at the height of their acting powers (to use the most recent examples) giving the performance Capaldi provides here and it wouldn’t work. That’s not a knack on the talents of the other three, even though Capaldi’s theatrical experience is of a wider berth. It’s an acknowledgement that the Doctor’s attributes change in the sense of what he displays and the manner in which he behaves. Yet his core remains the same. He knows the power of death, he knows how little control over it, having lost Clara just moments ago to its grasp. The thought of that happening to him has the same effect death has on most humans. It utterly terrifies him.
In a sense, the absolute masterpiece Heaven Sent is centered around the Doctor’s grief over the loss of his companion. The death metaphors, the visual triumph that is Rachel Talalay’s direction, Peter Capaldi’s finest performance yet, and Steven Moffat’s tightest script, all of it can be whittled down to the emotions of a singular individual. That all of the episode can boil down to the Doctor missing Clara is impressive in a plethora of magnitudes, primarily because the episode never feels that small but it simultaneously always manages to feel strongly intimate. At each juncture of his torturous existence within the castle, the Doctor feels the presence of Clara and whenever a significant thought crosses his mind, his mind immediately jumps towards his lost companion and a brief lights flashes in his eyes before its flame cruelly whispers away. In his mental TARDIS, where he escaped throughout the episode to discover a route that would lead him out of the maze, he is led through his odyssey by the specter of Clara, as she dropped hints like a teacher trying to lead her pupil towards the right answer she knows is in his mind. It is her personification that leads him when he feels the most lost, as if he had truly met his end at last, after having run so far and for so, so long. She leans down, grasping him and putting his pain into perspective. He’s not the only who had lost something and the rage he had been giving into, the despair and the grief could not hold him back. He had to win and that final guidance from Clara during that ordeal pushed the Doctor to confront the wall of Azbantium and break it again and again without confessing. Torture never really works and that push from Clara gave the Doctor the strength to die over and over and over again until he was at last able to break the wall away from its hinges and crack through a wall into the deserts of his home. “The hybrid destined to conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins is me,” he whispers quietly and with a quiet sentence to a ruminating hour, the storm clouds rumble loudly in its wake.
Special Note: I truly, truly cannot emphasize how utterly phenomenal Peter Capaldi’s performance was tonight that made the Doctor more human than ever before. An actor of incredible acumen and ability, Capaldi can do more to rouse an emotional response from his character and transfer it to the audience in a singular expression than a plethora of actors can do with all of their being. The smallest of motions brings out the heaven within him, like the slightest smile that lit his face when he saw Clara’s portrait. The way his eyes softened before they drowned in sorrow was absolutely heartbreaking.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+The imagery of the clockwork
+“If you think because she’s dead I am weak, then you understand very little. If you were any part of killing her, you’re not afraid, then you understand nothing at all. So for your own sake, understand this, I am the Doctor. I will find you and I will never, ever stop.”
+“I don’t always listen.”
+“I hate gardening! What sort of person has a power complex about flowers? It’s dictatorship for inadequates. Or, to put it another way, it’s dictatorship.”
+“I’ve finally run out of corridor. There’s a life summed up.”
+Murray Gold’s music was utterly phenomenal this week
+“Isn’t that right, Clara?”
+“I’m nothing without an audience.”
+“Am I spoiling the magic?”
+“See, Clara? Still got it.”
+Leaping out of the window
+The seabed of skulls
+“What do you think, Clara?”
+“Which, let’s be honest, is what killed you.
+“I ran [from Gallifrey] because I was scared.”
+A castle in the middle of a sea
+“It’s funny. The day you lose someone isn’t the worst — at least then you’ve got something to do. It’s all the days they stay dead.”
+The Doctor on hell: “It’s just heaven for bad people.”
+Pause at “How long will I have to be here?” and the fear at “Forever”
+The skull eye socket metaphor was amazing
+“Can’t I jut lose? Just this once?”
+“I remember it, every time, and you’ll still be gone. Whatever I do, you still won’t be there.”
+“Doctor? You are not the only person who ever lost someone. It’s the story of everybody. Get over it. Beat it. Break free. Doctor, it’s time. Get up, off your arse, and win.”
+The Brothers Grimm and the bird cutting through the mountain
+“How long can I keep do this, Clara? Burning the old me, then making a new one.”
+“Personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird.”
+The tiny model of a clotted, confession dial
+“I came the long way round.”
+“Nothing is half-Dalek.”
+The bloodied Doctor crawling through the corridors towards the TARDIS was a grueling deception of the Doctor’s vulnerability, phenomenally acted by Capaldi.
+/- Jenna Coleman-less credits 😦
Episode Title: Heaven Sent
Written by: Steven Moffat
Directed by: Rachel Talalay
Image Courtesy: What’s A Geek