So, obviously, this episode is amazing and an out and out classic. And it rests entirely on the brilliant work of four people, all of whom bring their A game: Murray Gold, who delivers his best soundtrack for the show, Rachel Talalay, who gives Doctor Who the best direction it’s ever had, Peter Capaldi, who gives an astonishing performance, and Steven Moffat, who crafts an utterly perfect script. The only criticism I’ve seen of it comes from Phil Sandifer (who, to be clear, still rates the episode as a good one), who makes the not unreasonable claim that it unfolds much as you’d expect a one hander starring the Doctor, written by Steven Moffat, to unfold. But while I agree that a story where Moffat tries something new (such as “Listen” or “Hell Bent”) is perhaps more interesting, watching him, and the other three key figures in the episode, do the things they are brilliant at as well as they can, is still an utter joy.
And the story is helped by the fact that it is not shy about its status as a puzzle box episode, or its invocation of classic Moffat tropes: the Doctor calls the castle a “killer puzzle box”, and the shot of the Doctor’s hand (not yet revealed to be his hand) vanishing at the start of the episode is, in many ways, a sick joke about the fact that this episode is a one hander with the Doctor. Other visual details, such as Capaldi’s face fading into the skull, and the moment where the Doctor hangs the clothes up by the fire are other moments that make it clear the episode isn’t trying to hide its loop, but steadily unveils its exact, inevitable nature (that ultimately shows the story to be perfectly linear, in a fantastic sleight of hand) in a way that still takes on a great deal of weight. It’s the sheer brutality of the Doctor’s fate that makes the episode stand out from Moffat’s other puzzle boxes. The Doctor’s description of “burning the old me to make a new one” is basically a disturbing twist on regeneration, and deliberately poses some unsettling questions about the nature of personal identity. Is the Doctor who vanishes at the end of “Face the Raven” the same person as the Doctor Who arrives on Gallifrey at the end of the episode, or even the “7000 years into the future” Doctor at the start of the episode, who would have already been “reset” thousands of times? The Moffat Era has, ultimately, settled on the conclusion that, as far as it matters, he is, over the course of the “who frowned me this face?” arc: the Doctor burns an old him to make a new one all the time, as long as he holds on to the values that make him the Doctor, which, as he made clear in “The Witch’s Familiar”, is a role he performs and aims to live up to. He may augment a new body for himself hundreds of billions of times over a four-billion-year period, but he is still definitely the Doctor. Nonetheless, the question really is posed in as stark and powerful a way as the series has ever managed.
The central concern of the story is ultimately its exploration of grief. At the start of the episode, the Doctor claims that, having watched his best friend die in agony, his day can’t get any worse. But at the mid point of the episode, he admits that “the day you lose someone isn’t the worst. At least you’ve got something to do. It’s all the days they stay dead.” The endless cycle of grief and manic depression becomes the Doctor’s literal trap in this story. Or, as Steven Moffat so eloquently puts it: “all of us are locked in the castle of grief sometimes”: in the Doctor’s case, it isn’t just a mental state, he is physically trapped in it.
As with much of the Capaldi era, “Heaven Sent” is built around a parallel to a classic myth: in this case, the Doctor is paralleled to Sisyphus, most specifically, Sisyphus as interpreted by Albert Camus for his philosophical theory of absurdism. Quoting Wikipedia for a quick description of the theory, according to Camus, the absurd is “man’s futile search for meaning, unity, and clarity in the face of an unintelligible world devoid of God and eternal truths or values.” Does the realization of the absurd require suicide? Camus answers: “No. It requires revolt.” He then outlines several approaches to the absurd life. One thing that often prompts people to decide that life is meaningless, that the universe is a cruel random, and hostile place, is, of course, the loss of a loved one, and the Doctor has (as far as he can tell for most of the story) just lost Clara, something that fuels his behavior and informs his mindset throughout the story. As a result, his actions place him as an absurd hero, trying to make meaning out of an event that was cruel and pointless, save for the meaning Clara gave it, a meaning the Doctor has failed to fully accept. And the cycle he is trapped in inside the castle, repeatedly going through the same incredible agony again and again, for billions of years, has an obvious parallel to Sisyphus, trapped in an eternal punishment by the Gods (just as the Doctor is interrogated and tortured by the Time Lords), and cursed to push a boulder up a mountain only for the boulder to roll back down the mountain upon reaching the summit, forcing him to start his task again. Of particular interest to Camus is the moment when Sisyphus goes back down from the summit of the mountain to start his task again: “It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. […] This is the truly tragic moment, when the hero becomes conscious of his wretched condition.” The Doctor’s “but you don’t understand, I remember it all, every time” outburst upon reaching the Azbantium wall and remembering the meaning of the word “bird” are his parallel to Sisyphus understanding his fate at the top of the mountain, the moment where the trials subside, just for a second, and he recognises the cruel and brutal nature of his fate, realizing that he has been trapped in the cycle for thousands of years, and will seemingly continue to do so for eternity. “It would be so easy, just tell them what they want” the Doctor desperately reasons, addressing suicide, which Camus describes as the “one truly serious philosophical problem”, as one potential response to this knowledge, as this action is potentially suicide for the Doctor. For all he knows, he is at the mercy of his unseen enemies once he gives them the information he needs. Yet he contemplates doing so, as it would mark a release from his seemingly endless trials. He could also live in ignorance, and seek out endless distraction to avoid noticing the absurdity of his fate, but the Doctor’s distraction involves seeking out knowledge (“Do I have to know everything?” he asks his projection of Clara, and the answer is yes, he does, that’s why she’s still asking the questions), so he will always reach the point at the top of the mountain, where he finally remembers his fate. The other option is to embrace absurdity, to accept the meaningless nature of the universe, and continue to do so, instead creating your own meaning, with Camus listing several ways this meaning is created. The Doctor’s meaning is a form of revolt, a determination to break the cycle he is trapped in, no matter how long it takes, or as Clara puts it: “get up, off your arse, and win”.
Which leads us to the episode’s exploration of the incredibly alien nature of the Doctor’s mindset. This is primarily explored through the storm room scenes, and his exchanges with the “Clara” asking him questions from the blackboard. This is revealed through gorgeous bits of writing such as the breakdown of the seemingly innocuous and random things he does to jude the safety of jumping out of a window, and the twisted yet inspired take on interrogation: “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.” As with “The Girl Who Died”, the episode breaks down key aspects of the Doctor’s mindset that enable him to keep on fighting when others would just give up. The “torture chamber” line is particularly telling, linking nicely to Clara’s realisation in “The Witch’s Familiar” that the Doctor assumes there is a way out of any situation. It’s the culmination of the “how are you going to win?” thread of series nine: having seen the Doctor lose for two stories in a row, we believe him when he says “I can’t always…” before he sees the word “win” written on the blackboard, and his desperate cry of “why can’t I just lose?” carries more weight, he wants to be able to not just lose, but to truly accept defeat. The heroism the Doctor shows isn’t rooted in his ability to win out every time, but to always look for a way to win. And this applies to the the episode as a whole, as well as his ill advised jump out of the window: he plays an incredibly long game, on a scale and with suffering that most people simply cannot comprehend, to act out his plan while keeping the information he needs from the Time Lords.
And once again, at the heart of the Doctor’s plan is a fairy tale used to bring him home: the brothers Grimm story about the Emperor and the Shepard’s boy. Here, it is worth noting that the original myth of Sisyphus doesn’t portray Sisyphus’s return down the mountain as a moment of heroic acceptance of his fate. That aspect of the myth is something Camus adds to explain the nature of his philosophy. But just as the Sisyphus myth was retooled for the sake of absurdist philosophy, the Doctor escapes the castle by retooling a brothers Grimm fairytale. Instead of making the story about the weight of eternity, he makes it about the little bird, and its grim, unceasing determination. The original intent of the story is, obviously, to suggest the single bird is, in fact, many birds, who eventually, over billions of years, break through the mountain, marking the first second of eternity. And just as many birds break down the mountain, the Doctor has to clone himself many times to break through the Azbantium wall. But in his retelling of the story, the Doctor makes the bird an individual being with a singular purpose: “You might think that’s a hell of a long time. Personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird”. And that is what he becomes here: the bird, slowly chipping his way through the diamond mountain. Linking himself and his purpose to the story enables him to retain his memory and identity over the course of his ordeal. Of further significance is the way the story becomes a measure of his progression: the further he gets, the longer he keeps going, the more of the story he is able to tell. And so, against impossible odds, in defiance of the sheer absurdity of his situation, the Doctor uses the power of a story to get up, off his arse, and win.