Sunday, 17 April 2016

Heaven Sent

Chapter The 22nd, which goes round in ever increasing circles.

Consumed by grief and guilt after the death of Clara, the Doctor is forcibly transmatted into an eerie clockwork castle, where he is stalked by a creature from his nightmares. He can gain brief respite if he confesses things that will annoy online fanboys, but he runs out of those quickly, and realises he's going to have to spill about the 'hybrid'. He doesn't want to do this, because it's been clear for weeks that no one gives a toss who or what the hybrid is, so anyone that's gone to this much trouble to find out about it must be completely insane and dangerous. Instead, he strives to elude the nightmare creature and follow clues to find room 12. When he finally does find the room, it contains the exit, helpfully positioned behind a thick wall of pure space diamond. The Doctor escapes by punching the wall for four and a half billion years, while dying and - arggh! While dying and recreating himself - arggh! While dying and recreating himself, over and over and over again.

This is another story not randomly chosen. For the - gosh! – nearly a year I’ve been doing the blog, I’ve only now had to deal with a Doctor Who box-set arriving and disrupting the flow. Yes, the latest series came out on Blu-ray recently, and naturally I received it immediately on release date after a pre-order. So, in the last few weeks, rather than skipping, fleet of foot, across the decades from story to random story, I’ve had to plod along the slow path of 2015’s ninth series.

I still had to inject some variation. Though not a set of stories I found unenjoyable, it did lack a certain spark - except for one story. It didn’t help that the music that underscores every Blu-ray menu is taken from the climactic sequence of the best episode of the year; but, even without that cue, I wouldn’t have watched many episodes in order before I cracked and jumped ahead and watched Heaven Sent. That I ended up watching it four times with different members of my family, is testament to how good it is. Additionally, I think I’ve watched that last sequence (“and the shepherd’s boy says…”) a few more times in isolation. It deserves and rewards multiple looks as a bravura piece of editing. Plus, even on a rewatch, it achieves a level of pure excitement that is rarely matched in the show; it’s up there with the last 15 minutes of Utopia, all of Androzani episode 4, and the bit in The Curse of Fenric where Ace sees her gran off safely to London just before the incidental music goes all Italian House piano.

Afterwards, my youngest two children (boy of 6, girl of 3) and I played ‘The Veil’. One of us would start talking about a mountain of pure diamond that takes an hour to walk around, while another would creep up behind with hands outstretched, claw like, grab the speaker’s head and ‘zap’ them. Great fun.

First-time round:
I’d heard that this one was going to be special, so stayed up and watched the recording late on the Saturday night of broadcast. Then, I watched it again with the kids on Sunday morning. And finally, we persuaded Mum (who’d given up on the series around the Zygon two-parter) to come and watch it too. Then, I watched it again on my own just before Hell Bent’s broadcast.

I’m seeing a pattern here: I do realise that the episode is all about endless repetition, so my adding another level of repetition by watching it again and again is somewhat apt. Anyway, I’m not sick of it yet.

One feels Tom Baker would have loved to have a crack at something like this, back in his day. He only got an outing without a companion as an experiment after moaning about having to share the limelight; but imagine the production meeting, imagine the smile on his face: Tom, we want it just to be you, no other characters, and you’re talking to yourself for 50 minutes.

In fact, the idea is so strong, it makes one want to see every actor who’s ever played the part have a crack at a one-man show. For now, though, it is Mister Capaldi in the limelight, and he delivers in spades. It’s like you’re watching someone who’s been practising being Doctor Who by themselves for their whole life. And in many real ways, you are. He gets a ton of gifts from the script as an actor, going through defiance, bravado, dread, fear, panic, relief… and that’s just in the first five minutes. The finest moment of his performance for me is the heartbreaking moment of reluctance and weariness as the Doctor fully realises his predicament “Why can’t I just lose?”. And in a beautiful bit of Moffat puzzle-box plotting, it makes sense first time you watch, but has even more impact second time around when you realise exactly what the Doctor has to do to win.

There are criticisms one could make with the logic, but they’re mostly ‘refrigerator moments‘ (things that only trouble the mind after watching, when one goes to the fridge for a snack). The entire premise is based on the rooms of the castle reverting to their original state when the Doctor first arrives, except for the stuff that doesn’t, like the painting. And the spade and the dry clothes must be reverting to their position on his second visit at the earliest. There’s also something that doesn’t feel quite right about the Doctor being trapped in his confession dial but also able to see recognisable stars from a real vantage point in the universe. All this doesn’t matter, though, as the story is operating on a metaphorical level. Moffat himself believes it's representative of the Doctor working his way through his grief, but it seems more fundamental even than that. It's a perfect visual and lyrical metaphor for life: every day we're born anew, punch a wall of futility, and die again, only to get up the next day and do it all once more.

Both contain threats that are at least partially mechanical, both see the Doctor trapped in a physical space locked off from the normal universe.

Deeper Thoughts:  
Retrospective. Watching series nine again from the vantage point of now, all Doctor Who fans can feel lucky. Even those, like me, who found the year mostly disappointing compared to Capaldi's first, don't need to worry. Whatever happened on screen in 2015, something probably unique in the history of the show took place: a commitment has now been made that Doctor Who will still be on TV in three years time. Has that ever happened before?

Ok, so the first of those three years will only have one episode broadcast, but still we've never had it so good. As the announcement mainly focused on Chris Chibnall taking over as showrunner, though, the fanfare and celebrations got a bit lost. News of the gap year too, seemed to fly out under everyone's radar: if it had happened in the 1980s, there would have been a distressing protest song written.

So, series nine can be viewed in context as just another year that Doctor Who passed through in its ongoing adventure in time and space. Not a lot of it worked for me 100%, and the show struggled to find as large a UK audience as it's reliably found in previous years (though it still performed well compared to other drama). Maybe the focus on two-parters was one of the reasons for that: not enough variety of stories or locations. If the idea was to allow more room for complex stories to breathe, I'm not sure it worked. They just felt longer. It was galling, for example, when watching the deleted scenes, to see how wonderful some of the character moments were that ended up on the cutting room floor, such as Clara and the Doctor talking about Danny Pink in The Girl Who Died, or the Doctor apologising to Prentis for what's to come in the underwater base one. (If you haven't seen these, I recommend getting hold of the DVD or Blu-ray, as there's lots of material from many episodes, and all worth a look.)

The season as a whole felt more inward looking and geeky than normal. A big reveal of the series trailer assumed that its audience would also be Game of Thrones viewers, and would be excited that Maisie Williams appeared - I'm not, and I wasn't. The big reveal of the series assumed that its audience would know that the gleaming spires in the big bubble were Gallifrey, and know why this was a big deal. I knew it was Gallifrey, but I was underwhelmed - the planet was better off lost.

Perhaps everything would have zinged a bit more with a different companion to shake up the dynamic. Jenna Coleman stayed too long, I think. Mind you, Last Christmas, which was also on the Blu-ray, would have been a bit too bleak had it ended with an aged Clara saying goodbye to the Doctor. As it was, apart from Heaven Sent, it and The Husbands of River Song were probably my favourites of the set; hooray for the Christmas specials. Just as well, as - grumble, grumble - that's all we're getting in 2016 (twelve months is too long to wait, bring back the Doctor, don't hesitate, etc. etc.).

In Summary:
Heaven Sent is like an expensive wristwatch: beautiful, precise clockwork. The season either side of it meanwhile is dull as strap.

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