Doctor Who #971: Heaven Sent

"The first rule of being interrogated is that you are the only irreplaceable person in the torture chamber. The room is yours, so work it. If they're going to threaten you with death, show them who's boss. Die faster."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Nov.28 2015.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor is trapped in a puzzle box designed to terrify and interrogate him.

There is no other episode of Doctor Who like this. Except for one small scene in which Clara figures as a memory/ghost, the Doctor is the only character to have lines in the story. He ends up talking to himself a lot - which he's noted before is a problem when he's without a companion - sometimes in his "mind palace", an idea ported from the Moff's own Sherlock, but well used (and it explains all those sequences where the Doctor broke the fourth wall this season, we were simply inside his mind). We'll discover that, in fact, the way a mere seconds become all the time in the world inside his mind, is what's happening on the macro scale, and the Purgatorial puzzle offered by this castle in the middle of a vast ocean is just an extension of the same investigation/interrogation/escape attempt, lasting forever on a limited loop. In both cases, we are inside his mind (though see Theories for a more complete answer), and should take the clue about the special door "I am in 12" as a hint, never mind all his most visceral fears being in there with him, and the frankly silly idea that you could punch a diamond wall down with time (which works if these are all mind constructs).

The second time we watch it, knowing what's really going on, we'll find plenty of foreshadowing and additional clues, like the Doctor saying "I will never stop" or that's he been in there "forever". Meditating on death and the afterlife, alone on stage, he's a Hamlet figure, but Yorick's skull is his own. The Doctor has two problems to solve: The puzzle and how to get out of it, and his deep grief over Clara's death. Because this bit of his life keeps repeating, he's not given much of a chance to fix the latter, so don't expect a big change once he's out, but this grief acts as a distraction to the former. The eerie figure of Clara standing with his back to him in his imagination and the despair he feels are impediments, but he manages to turn her memory into an advantage, a "teacher" figure who focuses his problem-solving abilities by writing the right questions on a black board. The Time Lords, meanwhile, have a single reason for putting him in there: Questioning him about the hybrid, which they believe he knows something about. The shocker ending where he claims to BE the hybrid is mere bluster, surely, and we're led to believe he's prepared to destroy his own people again if need be. They haven't become a peaceful society again, and everything screams Time War between their underhanded practices and the child in the desert the Doctor finds outside the Capitol, clearly meant to evoke young Davros at the start of the season.

Heaven Sent is a daring experiment that plays well to an older audience, but may be tougher on the kids. Not just because it takes its time, has many silent scenes, and can be obtuse on first and even second viewing, but because the Doctor dies on screen again and again, until his skulls form a reef around the castle. The number of cycles through the machine is impossible to calculate, as we don't know how many days are in each loop, but if the whole experience lasts billions of years, and each loop occurs several times a year, possibly dozens of times a year... Well, if the Doctor were to remember it all, it would be character-breaking. As it is, the simple knowledge that he's been trapped in that experience for all that time is enough to anger him, but how much of himself has he "purged"? This is perhaps a zero-sum game as far as character development goes, but we do get insights into the Doctor's psyche along the way, especially how he views his constant companion, death.

THEORIES: So the Doctor was inside his confession dial all along, but what ARE those things? Well, to grasp at an answer, we have to remember the Matrix. In Classic Who, this has been referred to as a telepathic hub where every Time Lord's knowledge (and consciousness?) goes after death, as well as a databank apparently connected to the TARDIS' telepathic circuits, making a record of every Time Lord's experience. We've also see people enter it physically through a portal, and some Time Lords seem adept at manipulating its inner landscape, drawing others into surreal nightmares (The Deadly Assassin, The Ultimate Foe). So it's the Time Lord internet, with an extra-dimensional component to it. The confession dial seems to me an adaptation of that technology. In the old days, Time Lords mostly stayed at home and didn't interfere with history, so you'd have ready access to the Matrix before (and during, since they die so slowly, shown here) they had to upload their knowledge to the hub. The Time War would have changed all that, and perhaps confession dials are the field version of the Matrix, a portable "drive" designed to debrief you after death. But since war corrupts technology to its own ends, perhaps they started using the dials for interrogation purposes; the Time Lords clearly have the means to turn the dial experience into a nightmare scenario designed to get the information out of someone. Normally, it should probably be a pleasant experience - and Missy's Nethesphere's is another example - until the dial is found and its info uploaded to the Matrix proper. Time Lord afterlife. Entering physically is possible just like entering the Matrix physically is possible (though one wonders why the Time Lords left the dial out in the desert), though probably not for "dying" personnel, who would just come out dying or dead anyway. (Some of this is confirmed in the next episode.)

VERSIONS: The DVD includes several deleted moments from the episode, most notably a cryptic riddle on a wall, and a bit where the Doctor convinces a door to unlock.

REWATCHABILITY: High - It doesn't give answers up easily, but that's what makes this puzzle episode worthy of repeat viewings.


Anonymous said...

I can watch that montage over and over, I still feel (some of) the emotional twist watching it on the 20th+ time: at first I'm hit with despair that he's trapped in a perpetual hopeless cycle, until it dawns on me that the Doctor has found the one thing he can change and has figured out how to turn the perpetual hopelessness into an escape plan. That is one hell of a bird all right.

So how much is taking place inside the confession dial and how much somewhere in the cosmos? The most obvious answer is that it's all in the confession dial, but two details make me question that: the stars change, and the super-hard diamond wall doesn't reset. The former could be explained away by some sort of "the confession dial is showing the position of the stars" thing. The diamond wall, though: if it's all some sort of matrix-y simulation, there's no reason it wouldn't reset the way stuff resets in a videogame. Now if the changes to that diamond wall are happening so slowly that they're difficult to detect, or the material is so hard (and real enough) that it can't be repaired, that explains that.

Another thing suggesting the "reality" of the place: the subtle clues the Doctor left himself, like burying the sign, or drawing arrows to sand. At least I think that's what was going on. The Doctor found himself having to come up with clues that had so little detectable impact on the environment that they wouldn't get reset. Sort of the same thing as the diamond wall, except in reverse: clearly COULD be reset, but nobody bothered. Which makes me think not all of it is a resettable videogame.

But it could all be explained away as, a weaponized confession dial makes a very realistic simulation of reality and then plays by those rules. As sometimes happens with Moffat, all you can do is shrug your shoulders and admit you don't know enough about Gallifreyan technology to say for sure.

LiamKav said...

Anon there might have just solved the one issue I had with the episode... why do most things reset but other things (his clothes, the wall) not reset. By the time we are seeing the loop things had already been going on for a while, but the first few would have had to have been a bit different... once he realised what was going on and came up with a plan (which in "our" loop is when he first sees the wall, but could be at other points in the earlier loops), he might have done things like slightly moved the shovel, made some small markings, and so on. It also means that he would have had to have done at least one of the loops with no clothes on. Or two loops with only half his clothes on, I guess.

I also wonder if his breakdowns got worse towards the end of the loops. It's one thing to realise that you are millions of years away from your goal, but when the wall was down to only a few centimeters, was that worse or better, knowing that THIS TIME could be it, or it could be another thousand years?

Did you stop that the narration that plays as the episode starts is written on a wall during one of the early sequences?

And yeah, that montage gets me. The first time the "I've been here x years" increases. And then increases. And then again. It was stunning. Although I did have to go back and listen to it again in order to actually here the bird story properly. The first time I was too overwhelmed by "oh god, is THAT his plan?" to do it. It's properly epic stuff, and for me will be the defining moment of the 12th Doctor. (And I think the next episode also adds some interesting wrinkles to it, when Clara is astonished at what he did. I do wonder if a less grief-stricken Doctor would have done things that way.)

"The shocker ending where he claims to BE the hybrid is mere bluster, surely, and we're led to believe he's prepared to destroy his own people again if need be. "

Except that's not what the Doctor claims. He says that the Hybrid "is me". Or, possibly, that the Hybrid "is Me".

Anonymous said...

LiamKav - good point, that the Doctor didn't need to have a plan worked out on the first iteration. All he really needed to do on any given loop was figure out that rooms reset and that he can make a fresh Doctor. Eventually he figured out the "small changes" thing, and finally developed a plan that all his successors could participate in.

Wish I could see that narration on the wall more clearly, because I see some letters are in red caps and others are not. Doubtless another clue the Doctor's leaving himself, but making it sound like he's talking about Veil rather than his next iteration.

Andrew Gilbertson said...

It's a lot harder to find as much to say when something's good; complaining's easy, but praising- and certainly praising interestingly, or non-repetitively, is difficult. Suffice it to say, this episode truly astounded me in any number of ways. Packed to the gills with fantastic concepts, amazingly executed, and that reveal at the end- Gallifrey at last, after all these years; after this and Face the Raven (my wife and I caught up on both in one night, and had three days to wait for the next ep), we were particularly psyched. I think this one will definitely be remembered alongside Blink and The Doctor's Wife as a New Series classic.

Anonymous said...

I just noticed something else about this episode. Early on, the Doctor points out that, if you're being interrogated, that makes you the most valuable person in the room, so use that. Then, just before he punches the diamond wall the first time, he says: "No more confessions, sorry, but I will tell you the truth. The hybrid is a very dangerous secret, a very very dangerous secret, and it needs to be kept. So I'll tell you nothing, nothing at all." The Doctor has just given his interrogators a very good reason to not, at some point, stop resetting the teleporter.

Moffat sets up rules and he plays fair with them.

Anonymous said...

... and I wonder if it's not even necessary for the Doctor to crawl back to the teleporter room and burn himself? After all, if the Doctor dies without spilling the beans about the hybrid, that's an unsuccessful interrogation, so maybe it's all DESIGNED to make infinite successive copies of the Doctor. Except that the Doctor has taken to taking charge of the process so that he can leave himself clues and put himself out of his misery?


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