30 November 2015

Doctor Who S9E11 "Heaven Sent" review

Any regular (or even semi-regular) readers of Screen Nerds should know by now that I'm no Whovian. I think it's fair to say that the show is inconsistent in terms of quality - for every truly great episode of the show since 2005 we've had our fair share of mediocrity and worse, and I've never tried to make excuses for a show that I believe could and should be a lot better. So when I say that "Heaven Sent" is a legitimately great episode of not just Doctor Who but television as a form of entertainment, I want you to know that this isn't coming from a place of wishful thinking.

Following on from last weeks "Face the Raven", "Heaven Sent" sees The Doctor materialising in a water-locked castle with only one other inhabitant - a slowly shuffling shrouded creature that never stops walking towards The Doctor. We watch as The Doctor tries to figure out where he is and how to escape a prison that seems to have been designed just for him.

As that basic synopsis would indicate, "Heaven Sent" is pretty much a one-man show for the vast majority of it's run time, an extended monologue of sorts that sees Peter Capaldi reaffirm that he is perfect for the role of The Doctor. He has a lot of work to do in "Heaven Sent", carrying the entire weight of the plot while also showing us The Doctor attempt to process his emotions regarding the events of "Face the Raven", and Capaldi makes something that might have tripped up previous incarnations of The Doctor look easy.

I've always said that Doctor Who is at its best in the more horror-orientated episodes, and "Heaven Sent" certainly delivers in that regard. For most of the episode "Heaven Sent" is pretty much everything you could expect from a good horror episode, with an interesting premise, a creepy tone and the odd jump-scare - but towards the end the full scope of "Heaven Sent" is revealed and things suddenly become a lot darker, the episode turning into an existential horror that wouldn't seem out of place in I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (the video game, not the book). There is a lot to unpack in "Heaven Sent", but this central twist is the kind of thing that turns a great episode into an instant classic, and "Heaven Sent" certainly qualifies as both.

It's stunningly well-directed, with Rachel Talalay (who directed last seasons "Dark Water"/"Death in Heaven" double-bill and will also be directing the season finale "Hell Bent") managing to fully live up to the story that Steven Moffat has written here, and just by putting Capaldi in a position from which he can shine. There are some truly stunning shots in "Heaven Sent", and the way in which the aforementioned central twist is revealed to us and then expanded on with a montage of sorts only adds weight to what would already be a very disturbing reveal.

My only real complaint is that as far as the logic of the season wide plot goes, I'm having a very hard time figuring out both how The Doctor ended up where he did, and how The Doctor winds up where he does at the end of the episode - but these are both very minor things that I am more than willing to forgive thanks to the sheer quality of an episode that really did blow me away, an episode that isn't just the best of the season so far but quite easily one of the best, maybe even the best, since the show was revived in 2005. Will the season finale "Hell Bent" live up to it? I doubt it - but only because of how downright interesting, well written and imaginative "Heaven Sent" is, an unmitigated success that continues to mark season nine as Moffat's best.

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