One of the fundamental elements of Doctor Who, a show about a time-travelling alien that has lasted over 50 years — give or take a couple decades of hiatus — is that the Doctor does not travel alone. The Doctor’s companions serve as audience surrogates, asking for explanations about the sci-fi world of the show. As outlets for friendship, romance, and, sometimes, mourning, they help humanize him. “Heaven Sent,” the penultimate episode of Doctor Who’s ninth season since the show’s 2005 semi-reboot, is a contradiction of that premise, a story of the Doctor on his own, mourning a recently dead companion and talking to his memory of her, trying to solve his way through a horror puzzle box.
Rachel Talalay directs “Heaven Sent” and it is one of the best episodes the show has seen since 2005. According to Talalay, Stephen Moffat — Doctor Who’s showrunner and the writer for “Heaven Sent” — said to her, “Make it beautiful, make it scary,” after handing over the script to what he thought would be an unfilmable episode. It’s amazing how she’s able to work the ideas out. Talalay films Peter Capaldi as the Doctor alone (for the most part), his ongoing commentary layered in tragedy, boastfulness, and dramatic irony. “Heaven Sent” deepens upon subsequent rewatches (What does the Doctor mean by, “I can’t keep doing this?”).
Insanity is proverbially defined as doing the same thing over and over again, yet Talalay’s work — built upon painful repetition — is far from the thing. “Heaven Sent” is a brilliant episode of delayed gratification and a whole lot of pain. It is filled with a tenderness that gets at exactly who the Doctor is: someone who will put themselves in harm’s way if they can save somebody else. The fact that he couldn’t save one person manifests itself in guilt, casting a shadow through the entire episode.
“Heaven Sent” is a fundamental episode of Doctor Who, but it is also essential as a 21st century work with feeling and real pain, its hero totally alone. Talalay hits hard, chipping away at the viewer’s emotions. And then she chips again. And again. It just keeps on going.
Doctor Who – S9E11 – “Heaven Sent” is available to stream on Amazon Prime. Follow Doctor Who on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the show’s website, and follow Rachel Talalay on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter.