“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” – William Blake
I wouldn’t blame you for asking why it’s worth writing an analysis of Heaven Sent. Heaven Sent seems to be one of the very few recent Doctor Who episodes to have received near-unanimous praise, with generally the worst thing said about it being “I don’t think it’s quite the single best Doctor Who episode ever”.
With that said, I believe there’s a clear and present need for pieces like this on episodes like Heaven Sent. Certainly, one of the dangers it runs into is the assumption that it’s good and that’s all. In other words, it successfully manages to be an experimental one-hander and that’s seen as enough. To many critics, Hell Bent is a more interesting episode, and whilst I will concede that Hell Bent is indeed fascinating in its metafictional implications, well, I just love Heaven Sent.
The purpose of this analysis, then, is not to persuade you that it’s a good episode: you probably know that already. It’s to persuade you that there’s even more going on under the surface than just neat experimentalism, and to make you understand why it is absolutely my favourite episode of Doctor Who ever.
So, trigger warnings. If you’re liable to accuse a critic of “reading too much into” something, you should probably stop here. Whether spiritual or scientific or a bit of both, I’ll be suggesting a number of alternative readings for Heaven Sent, most of which are certainly unintentional. But that’s really the fun of storytelling – the variety of potential interpretations. Reading Doctor Who, I believe, is about understanding what the show means to you, and so regardless of the actual authorial intent, a great approach is to read episodes within the context of what matters to you. Of the many ideas put forward, I hope that at least one will appeal to each reader. With introductions out the way, let’s get started.
“As you come into this world, something else is also born.”
The cold open is a circle within a circle, so let’s start by looking at what a circle actually is. We might as well dive in at the deep end, since the circle more or less epitomises all the main themes of Heaven Sent. There’s focus, through which the Doctor is able to beat the cycle he is trapped in; the cycle itself, with the circle most obviously and uninventively signifying an endless loop (also, infinity); perfection, relevant to the Doctor’s process of self-purification; and completion, which is achieved by the end of the episode, as the Doctor completes an eternity-long task.
Plato likened enlightenment, experience of the Forms (the ‘true’ images of what we see reflections of in ordinary objects) to walking out of a cave and onto a bright, lit landscape. True understanding of the world came from looking up to the Sun, the personification of the Good. The Sun has, for a long time, represented Goodness and Truth. It also represents the hidden truth – a light we can never look at, much like the truth of the Confession Dial. In both the Platonic and material sense, the Doctor’s eventual realisation of his task could be likened to staring at the Sun; learning the truth, wishing to return to ignorance, and eventually accepting the weight of the world he has been born into.
Ah, yes, birth. You see, the opening sequence is running two ideas in parallel. Out of context as a cold open, the Doctor is addressing the audience: “as you come into this world”. The Sun, the circle, is linked to our own births. When are born, the first things we see are circles: the faces of the people who welcome us into the world, the light of the room we are born in, and lastly, the sun. It makes sense that the circle is a symbol of birth and rebirth.
But try watching the opening scene when you know what’s happening, and you can place the emphasis elsewhere: “as you come into this world”. The dying Doctor distinguishes the world of the Confession Dial from the real world, and with “you” is addressing his future self, yet to be born. So, again, birth, and more strongly this time rebirth. Add to that the circle’s connotations of infinity and you’ve got a story of cyclical time (pardon my science) or Eternal Return (pardon my philosophy). But more on that towards the end of the episode.
“What sort of person has a power complex about flowers? It’s dictatorship for inadequates.”
The first thing we say here is that Steven Moffat is a very witty man. Which of course he is – something that makes Heaven Sent so eminently watchable is the use of one-liner and aside comment, a bit like Shakespeare (but let’s not get on to Shakespeare quite yet).
But there’s more than just wit here. Through the Castle, a symbol of administration of power and oppression, we learn about what the Doctor fears, as theoretically the place was also chosen for him, plucked from his nightmares. The Doctor fears places of oppression – hardly a surprise. What’s left up to the viewer to decide is whether he most fears individual oppression – the ‘bespoke torture chamber’ – or the oppression of a whole society; the kind of thing we saw him fighting in The Witch’s Familiar.
“I’m falling, Clara. I’m dying. And I am going to explain to you how I survived.”
Here we get another invocation of The Witch’s Familiar: always assume you’re going to win (this is, of course, metafictional comment: the reason the Doctor is alive at the end of every adventure is because everyone writing the series assumes he’s going to be). In The Witch’s Familiar, the Doctor is trapped at the heart of the Dalek city without his sonic screwdriver or his TARDIS. So what’s changed?
This time, the Doctor is stripped of all the Doctor Who iconography. He doesn’t have a sonic screwdriver (we’ll touch on the sunglasses in the final scene. Yes, they’re relevant). He doesn’t have a TARDIS. His companion is dead. And he doesn’t even have the Daleks there to remind himself of what he’s not (which is what being a Hybrid is all about – defining yourself in terms of what you embrace and what you reject – “The Doctor, and not the Daleks”).
So what does he do? He escapes into the recesses of his mind and brings it all back. He has a TARDIS to run around in, and a companion to explain things to. To win, the Doctor requires the Doctor Who iconography. He’s become dependent on the trappings of his own show. But this will only get him so far, because the conventions of his show are breaking down. He’s even run out of corridor.
Even more than The Witch’s Familiar, though, what’s being invoked here is His Last Vow (my other favourite Moffat script), with a scene that consciously mirrors Sherlock’s escape to his Mind Palace after being shot by Mary Watson. One of the purposes of this scene was to show the rate at which Sherlock’s mind works. The Doctor’s own Mind Palace is similar.
The whole episode, in fact, is about understanding how the Doctor thinks, a challenge many Doctor Who writers have taken up and failed. Moffat’s attempt to communicate the experience of being a Time Lord relies on scale. Here we see the Doctor thinking quicker and bigger than humans can think – seeing everything coming, performing impossible calculations, and surviving by treating it all as an ordinary episode of Doctor Who.
“Another spade? Someone wants me to dig.”
There’s a lot of symbolism in digging. The Doctor digs up the past; why he left Gallifrey, what the Hybrid is – and he also ‘digs’ for meaning (just as we are now), trying to understand the castle. Even though this is an independent action, he’s giving in to the ‘oppressive gardening’ regime, now living under the dictatorship of inadequates, undertaking a laborious task (foreshadowing?).
But let’s not look at that – let’s look instead at a throwaway line: “Physics of a triangle – you lose”. Yes. Just as the episode opened with a circle, the Doctor uses a shape to keep out the Veil. This is a creative solution, and creativity is a trait associated with the triangle. Also associated with the triangle is ascension, which we won’t see until later in the episode; but again, this is foreshadowing.
The thing that’s really special about the triangle is that it can be changed. The circle is the same whatever you do with it, but if you turn the triangle in any direction deviant from its original position, it changes (an equilateral triangle can return to its original shape another two times during that process, but this isn’t an equilateral triangle). For the alchemist, this can alter the meaning of the triangle, turning it, say, from Earth to Fire. So the Doctor takes a shape whose meaning and purpose he can manipulate. How delightfully mercurial of him.
“It’s funny. 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.”
Ah, irony! Just as brilliant as “Because you won’t see this coming!”. You see, this isn’t the day Clara Oswald died. Clara died 7000 years ago. These are days she’s stayed dead.
Could it be that the Confession Dial is secretly what the Doctor wants? He believes that the worst part of someone’s death is the moment you have to sit down and think about it, so he undertakes a task that will take him four and a half billion years to complete. At least he’s got something to do. Because no amount of torture, no amount of stolen, manifested nightmares will ever compare to the pain of Clara Oswald staying dead.
Shortly after this passing comment, the Veil returns. The Veil is signalled by the sound of flies. The Doctor fears the flies because of their connotations of death – the way they gravitate towards rotting corpses. Yet this is a trait of his own. No, he doesn’t find himself regularly snacking on the corpses of old women, but he does face his own challenges in a similar way – he acts quickly, seizing opportunities before anyone can stop him, ruthlessly getting what he needs. All the same, it’s not just a case of the Doctor himself embodying the attributes of a fly. The flies are still a genuine challenge for him.
When I was eight years old, I was staying at a hotel in Barbados. It was a luxury hotel – we’d been able to treat ourselves, using the money left by a deceased relative who’d entreated us to do something fun with it. The juice was freshly-made, the fish freshly-caught, and the dining area exquisite. Yet they couldn’t keep out the damn flies.
And how luxuries seem reduced when there’s something as small but persistent as a fly getting in your way. Flies change the conditions around us. Not only are they distracting, they make ordinary tasks uncomfortable. This is what the Doctor goes through. He doesn’t just have to complete a set of tasks – he has to do it with bloody flies catching up with him at every opportunity. Never allowed to rest, never allowed to fully focus. No wonder we haven’t seen him take a trip to Barbados.
Are the flies the work of an inadequate dictatorship? Not necessarily. Flies are, surprisingly, an extraordinarily Biblical animal. “I will send a swarm of flies upon thee,” says God in Exodus 8:21. There’s still a sense that an omnipotent force is controlling the Doctor’s prison – that the flies aren’t the sign of a centuries-old, disregarded castle, but a higher force, raining pestilence down upon the Doctor at every second.
“Or maybe I’m in Hell? That’s okay. I’m not scared of Hell. It’s just Heaven for bad people.”
Well, hopefully the purpose of my Blake quote is starting to become apparent here. Now we’re beginning to notice the themes of Heaven and Hell, and perception. If there’s no omnipotent creator around to stick labels on everything, who defines Heaven or Hell? And so we have the Doctor, or whoever is in his place, making a Heaven in Hell’s place.
The most striking thing about the line is that it’s not at all out of place to imagine the Doctor being sent to Hell (indeed, the strangest thing about the thought is imagining the Doctor dead, which we’ll get to later). And of course, this is Hell; the Doctor ends up being burnt for an eternity here. But he’s able to redefine Hell and what it means. Because Hell is Heaven for bad people, and at least from a traditional perspective, the Doctor is a bad person.
At the very least, one could not imagine God lining up the sheep and the goats and the Doctor following contentedly with the line of sheep. Were that line to be drawn – and personally, I think Doctor Who’s always more prescribed to Hume’s ‘betwixt vice and virtue’ position – the Doctor would have to be a goat. He has anarchic tendencies, a stubborn refusal to give in to fate or preserve the inherent laws of the universe, and serious problems with authority figures.
“Is that why we always stare into the eye sockets of a skull?”
“We live, as we dream – alone,” said Joseph Conrad, in what’s now becoming a just slightly overused quote when people like myself are trying to be pretentious about Doctor Who. But, I mean, when a Doctor Who episode genuinely seems to take that position, there’s no harm in dropping it in just to up the dramatic tension. On the edge of your seat? I should think so…
Though, really, the writer we should be mentioning here is the Bard. This isn’t quite a Shakespeare story, but nevertheless, it’s got one hell of a Shakespearean aesthetic. Not only is there the Castle, the administration of power, or the linguistic conventions – the soliloquy, aside comments, bitter irony, etc. – there’s this scene, a full-on “alas, poor Doctor, I knew him” moment. The thing that most gives Heaven Sent a Shakespearean scale is the intense contemplation on themes of life and death. And it works beautifully. It doesn’t get caught up to the extent of seeming out of its time, literary-fixated or arrogant, but it’s enough of a nuance to make this seem like something more than your run-of-the-mill Doctor Who episode.
Blake also once said that “no bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings”, which is a neat little link between the Bird motif and the Doctor’s ascension. And I think this could possibly be my favourite part of the episode, at least when it comes to written analysis. After all, how many different ways are there to read the symbolism of the Bird?
The most obvious, and I suppose the most Blakean, would be freedom. There’s definitely a literary trend in birds signifying freedom, and the first story that comes to my mind is Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, where the Bird is a recurrent symbol of freedom (and freedom, in the time of the Brontes and particularly in the eyes of Charlotte Bronte, was all about transcending class boundaries). There’s also another kind of freedom, more to do with the sacred significance of the Bird, which is the freedom to travel between worlds. The Bird can travel from land or sea to sky, in traditional thinking, the sky is the way to Heaven. As such, the Bird can move freely from Heaven to Earth, or Earth to Heaven. The Doctor, then, is able to undergo ascension by taking on the role of the Bird.
Of all my weird and wonderful interpretations, the one thing I’d be willing to bet was deliberate is the slightly unsettling allusion to Face the Raven. After all, only a week ago Clara was killed by a bird, and now the Doctor dies likening himself to one, inscribing ‘BIRD’ as he burns to death. The question is, what does the figurative presence of the Raven mean in Heaven Sent?
Typically, the Raven is a doom-laden symbol in literature. Part of facing the Raven for Clara is facing, as an English teacher, an ancient literary symbol of death. Becoming the Bird – if you like, the Raven – the Doctor draws a parallel between himself and Clara’s murderer, inadvertently re-enacting her death for four and a half billion years. And yes, that’s a bit messed up.
Then again, why is the Raven such an ominous symbol? One reason, though far from the only one, is its tie to British culture: the presence of ravens at the Tower of London. This is something Doctor Who makes a joke of, with the ravens implied to be a sort of security system (not unlike the Raven that kills Clara, which is the manifestation of Trap Street’s justice system) for UNIT. But being caught up in the culture of the Tower of London is quite a burden to carry, and imbues the Raven with an unfortunate bleakness it never really asked for.
The attribute of the Raven that has led to this rather tragic conversion is its blackness, with black traditionally being the colour of death. Some legends have even attempted to explain this blackness, like Greco-Roman stories about the Raven undergoing a change from white to black because of its inability to keep a secret. Following this legend, the Doctor becoming the Bird is actually his refutation of the Raven – he maintains his whiteness by keeping a secret for eternity.
But I’m not really sold by that at all, since blackness is essential to the process of purification (more on that coming up). And it’s worth pointing out, for any confused or piqued readers, that ‘blackness’ or ‘whiteness’ aren’t concepts in the straightforward sense of colour, but more fundamental ideas of processes, where both are different sorts of cleansing in a larger process of purification.
Stripped back to its barebones, the Raven is an intelligent creature, and it’s creative. Even if you take morality out of the equation, you’ve got a sound basis for a comparison: to break out of the Confession Dial, the Doctor needs the ‘Bird’ cue; he needs the intelligence and imagination of the Raven. He needs to become the Raven.
The Doctor has already hinted at this earlier in the series, where he impersonated Odin. Odin, in some myths, was referred to as the Raven God, often accompanied by two Ravens. In The Girl Who Died, Clara ‘faces’ the Raven for the first time, whilst the Doctor, again, takes on the role of the Raven in her absence. Here he’s doing it again on a larger scale, but he’s doing it to save her, becoming the real Raven of history – the intelligent, creative Raven able to transcend the boundary of worlds. Not, as it happens, the Raven of Death.
“Whatever I do… you still won’t be there.”
Not only is this an episode where Doctor Who is stripped of its iconography, it’s also one that threatens to ‘break’ the narrative of a Doctor Who story. The Doctor decides he wants to lose. He’s lost his companion; being the Doctor is meaningless when the thing that defined him has gone. So Clara changes his mind.
Some critics have taken issue at the use of Clara in this scene, essentially raising the problem that Clara’s only role in the episode is, again, to motivate the Doctor to win and empower him as a character. But these are still clearly Clara-ish attributes, and the Doctor’s reconstruction of her is a perfect imitation of the original: she acts as a teacher, tells him what to do, and delivers harsh truths.
Clara has always acted as the Doctor’s conscience. In The Name of the Doctor, the Great Intelligence and Clara both entered the Doctor’s time-stream, imprinting themselves into his history. The Great Intelligence was a manifestation of the id – an aspect of the character acting out of a primal desire, an urge, hence his slightly awkward characterisation. Clara, on the other hand, became the superego.
And that was the Clara mystery solved. He thought she was a trap, but all that time she was his conscience: she became a mystery because she was an ordinary young woman who believed it was her obligation to do something good. Her morality was what created the mystery in the first place. And from then on, she motivated him to do what was right, even if it wasn’t necessarily what he wanted, from saving Gallifrey to not being a post-regenerative prat in Series Eight.
What this means, at least in the context of twenty-first century television, is that Clara was a character who was granted agency over the Doctor Who narrative, and so her appearance in Heaven Sent is just as fundamental to the character, and just as empowering to her as it is to the Doctor. Clara is able to maintain her agency after death – her personality and her sense of right and wrong is so strong, so influential and so good that it continues to guide the Doctor even after her material death. (The posthumous retention of agency isn’t a new idea to the Capaldi era either. Look at Last Christmas for another example.)
“How many seconds in eternity?”
It’s not that surprising that rather than confessing, the Doctor tells a story, most explicitly recalling The Rings of Akhaten (“That’s what I’ll do. I’ll tell you a story”). But the Doctor tells this story following on from “the truth”. An episode later, he says stories are where memories go when we forget them. Stories are real, and they have power over the real world.
The Doctor has told stories to save the day before the series – or rather, Ashildr has, defeating the Mire by telling a story good enough to ruin their reputation. Both the Fisher King and Odin are also ‘stories’ (myths), but are accessible to the time-traveller as memories. In the Castle, the Doctor references Hansel and Gretel (“I’m following breadcrumbs laid out for me”). Here, the Doctor recalls The Shepherd Boy by Brothers Grimm.
The Shepherd Boy is a kind of Ascension story. A wise shepherd boy is told by the King that “If thou canst give me an answer to three questions which I will ask thee, I will look on thee as my own child, and thou shalt dwell with me in my royal palace.” It’s evocative of one of those classic ‘asking questions at the Pearly Gates’ jokes, but the dramatic tension comes from the fact that the King is asking questions which are effectively impossible to answer.
The King’s first question is how many drops of water there are in the ocean, which the boy twists against the King by asking him to complete an equally impossible task so that it is possible to count (“have all the rivers on earth dammed up so that not a single drop runs from them into the sea until I have counted it”). The second is how many stars there are in the sky, which the boy answers by making hundreds of dots on a piece of paper and asking the King to have them counted, saying that that’s the amount of stars in the sky, essentially giving an answer that no one is able to disprove. And the third and final question is how many seconds there are in eternity.
What the boy does in answering the third question is not just communicate the definition of eternity, but convey a real, vivid sense of what an eternity feels like, using human analogy to get the King to contemplate time in a way that he never has before. Steven Moffat himself is the shepherd’s boy in this narrative – he constructs a story through which we can visualise and understand the notion of eternity by experiencing it as a story. Except he takes the emphasis off eternity itself, and places it on the Bird: as such, we are asked not to sit in awe of the amount of time which has passed, but of the Doctor’s ability to persevere, alone, through it all.
(It should be noted that the boy doesn’t actually answer the question properly. He’s asked how many seconds there are in eternity, but answers the question of how long a second of eternity is. Really, though, he’s again critiquing the question he’s been given, saying how it’s impossible to describe an eternity; an eternity is so great that we can only comprehend a second of it. Smarty-pants. I’d have sent him home and asked for someone who could give me some proper answers without a smug grin.)
“I’ve just been here a very, very long time.”
This is a real contender for my favourite Doctor Who scene ever, I think. Let us not forget, this is the one episode in Doctor Who history to actually, irreversibly kill off the Doctor himself. Yes, he gets another go, but he does so carrying around the skull of a version of him that failed. In any meaningful sense, the Doctor dies here, and then another version of the Doctor dies, with the process repeating over and over again, until one lucky hard copy makes it out alive to carry on the legacy of the rest.
So when people say that this is a Moffat puzzle-box which plays out exactly as you’d expect, I always have to challenge that. Did anyone really expect the Doctor to die in this story? This is, for my money, the most subversive Moffat story ever, which rejects his usual hallmarks in favour of a crueller and harder-hitting solution. There’s no “timey-wimey” here at all, no cheating death, but one man trying over and over again for four billion years.
Hell Bent offers a narrative substitution that the Doctor was not breaking out of the castle for his own ends, but to save Clara. He both punches through a wall for four billion years and sacrifices himself, over and over again, to save one woman. It’s either romantic, or a stunning subversion of a typical romantic gesture (guess which one I prefer?). And it’s a story of breaking out of a cycle, channelling anger and love in a violent catharsis (just like the Daleks were shown to do, back in The Witch’s Familiar), a metaphor for the Doctor’s grief. Because that’s what grief is like, running round and round in your own personal torture chamber for what feels like four billion years.
Series Nine really is a landmark series. In this story, the Doctor dies in a way which is never reversed. The same can even be said for Face the Raven: we know Clara does die there, just not when. In Hell Bent, the Doctor and Clara both walk away with, effectively, a whole eternity to explore. So we have a series in which both the Doctor companion die, on-screen, and yet walk off immortal. That’s pretty clever.
We learn earlier in the episode that the Doctor is scared of dying – it’s his first confession. He carries the skull around with him as a reminder of what is at once a fear and a fascination – his own memento mori. It embodies his own death, in a way far more prophetic than he will ever be able to understand.
And how does the Doctor die? By burning himself, of course. I return here to my earlier point of blackening: this is the nigredo stage of alchemy, where the alchemist must confront his shadow aspect (the Veil) and, literally, burn.
No wonder this is the Time Lord concept of purgatory.
“The Hybrid, destined to conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins… is Me.”
Well, there’s a momentous piece of trolling. Still, what a glorious cliff-hanger, the orange sky of Gallifrey signalling the final stages of alchemy.
And yet, there’s been a twist. Something has gone wrong. In the final act of this story, things… haven’t happened how they were meant to.
Normally, the purification process ends in peace. Normally we become better, wiser. Normally, when Steven Moffat writes a story about this, the Doctor dons a funny hat, says it’s cool, and saves some people.
Instead, the Doctor puts on a pair of sunglasses, visual aids designed to make the world darker. We see, reflected in the lens, Gallifrey: the corrupt city, a part of the Doctor which he cannot escape. Yes, the Doctor is a Hybrid, and if anyone half-Dalek, half-Time Lord, it’s him – the man who is at once a good Dalek and a bad Time Lord.
Note how the Doctor doesn’t refer to himself by name in this final scene, at all. He’s just “me” – and that’s not only to hint towards Ashildr’s involvement in the Hybrid arc. It’s because he really isn’t the Doctor. “The Doctor’s no longer here, you’re stuck with me,” said the Doctor in Face the Raven, and he was right. If Heaven Sent killed off the Doctor, then who the hell is this man on our screens?
“Doctor Who?” indeed.