Doctor Who: Heaven Sent / Hell Bent Review

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By Will Barber Taylor

In previous years we at this humble website had reviewed each episode of the then new series of Doctor Who individually as they went out. However, in the spirit of the return of the two parters, it has been decided to review the two parters together as if they were one coherent story. Series 9 concludes with Steven Moffat’s daftest finale story ever which goes from the wonderful to the absurd in one timey wimey breath.

Steven Moffat is an excellent writer. He’s written some truly great Doctor Who stories such as The Empty Child/ The Doctor Dances and The Girl in The Fireplace. Yet, Moffat’s true problem is that he buries his own skill under his interminable need to prove that he is awfully clever. There is no doubt about this; he clearly has a sharp eye for dialogue and sometimes for character. Yet, Moffat continues to try to write stories which mark out his sheer, untenable genius. He is in some respects like M Night Shyamalan – a once well received and acclaimed creator who now is more obsessed with showing off his own intellectual capacity than he is in telling a cohesive and interesting story. The first part of the two parter, Heaven Sent is a prime example of this.

In Heaven Sent, The Doctor is trapped within a prison of his own making; his Confession Dial which is designed for a dying Time Lord to give up his secrets. Throughout the majority of the 45 minute episode we are treated to something special. Peter Capaldi carries an entire episode almost single handily and is more compelling than ever in his role. Yet the episode then suffers a deadly blow; Moffat tries to pull a bunny from his Sherlockian top hat. The bunny is that the only way for The Doctor to get out is to smash a wall made out of diamonds, only getting a few punches in before being mortally wounded. To stop himself dying, The Doctor brings himself back to life at the moment he entered the Confession Dial. The ridiculous nature of the scenario can’t be understated. Having set up an intriguing situation, Moffat promptly ruins it by putting in a Shyamalan twist. Not because it is in anyway relevant to the plot or is something that is different; it is simply so he can prove his intellectual superiority. To hammer this home, Moffat interlaces the sections which show the various Doctors hitting at the wall of diamond with quotations from the Grimm’s story of The Shepherd Boy who once explained the concept of eternity by talking about a little bird that sharpened its beak on the side of a mountain. How The Doctor can remember which bit of the story he’s up to and not simply repeat the same bit is a mystery.

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To follow up this, Moffat returns The Doctor to Gallifrey for a confrontation with the Time Lords who were responsible for Clara’s death in Face The Raven and trapping him in the Confession Dial. As the saggy dialogue mumbles on, we are never told A) why the Time Lords are so suddenly concerned about the Hybrid; B) why they didn’t contact The Doctor is a more direct way and just bring him back to the home world he was looking for that way or C) why should we care about the threat of the Hybrid?

The last is the most important. Having introduced the supposed threat of a Hybrid at the start of the series we are never really told what it is, why it is a threat or how it would do the Time Lords any damage. Seeing as the Time War was their darkest hour, you would think that the Time Lords would have become concerned about this “Hybrid” sooner rather than simply being madly afraid of it for no good reason. Then, the plot devolves even further.

After Clara’s noble end in Face The Raven, Moffat mucks it all up by bringing her back to life for no other reason than to yap on about how fantastic she is and how important she is, etc. to infinity. This serves nothing other than denigrate a rather thin plot to the equivalent of hand wash soap and not even nice soap. The sort of hand wash soap that you’d find in a rather dingy secondary modern that has had its entire budget cut and so could only make hand wash soap by grinding the bones of pupils into a paste and then adding water. Instead of giving us the triumphant return to Gallifrey we are left with a hollow shell of a story, devoid of wit, intelligence, subtlety or anything. To quote Jacques from As You Like It, Moffat’s writing is “sans everything”.

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The acting in the two episodes is well performed with Capaldi giving all he has got. In Heaven Sent his forceful presence gives the episode a pure electric quality. Even though some of his dialogue is not fantastic, Capaldi still does a sizzling job. From the witty to the prophetic (particularly the scene with the soup) he dazzles with an astonishing range which is reasonable to expect of an Oscar winner. Donald Sumpter’s Rassilon, though rather fleeting because of the Clara show that follows, is grouchy and enjoyable. Sumpter makes Rassilon less like Timothy Dalton’s insane dictator but more a befuddled bureaucrat; this is an interpretation that is both interesting and amusing.

The direction by Rachel Talalay is particularly innovative. Talalay takes Moffat’s lacklustre scripts and creates a stunning visual landscape. In Hell Bent particularly, Talalay’s exquisite filming of The Doctor’s stand off against Rassilion is a sight to behold. Keeping the camera firmly on Capaldi for the first few moments, Talalay expresses every ounce of The Doctor’s anger without him speaking a word.

Heaven Sent and Hell Bent are great concepts for stories but they do not fulfil the full possibilities of those concepts. Instead of being an example of grand space dramas, they are instead a mixed bag of lacklustre scripts with excellent performances and superb direction. They are two episodes that are nicer to view than actually watch.

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4 responses to “Doctor Who: Heaven Sent / Hell Bent Review

  1. You really didn’t understand Heaven Sent. The doctor doesn’t remember the where he’s up to in the story of the shepherd boy, he simply gets further and further into the tale as he breaks through the wall, giving a little more time before being caught by the Veil.

    I’d agree that Moffat often tries to make himself look clever at the expense of good story telling, but I’d class Heaven Sent as one of his few successes, possibly even the best story ever told on the show. The themes of loss, loneliness and sacrifice texture the story in a way that is both poignant and heatbreaking. This was not an episode for kids because most of them won’t have understood it and those that did will have been completely freaked out by the true horror of what was happening to the Doctor.

    • Thank you for the comment. I glad you enjoyed the story but I’d disagree that I “didn’t understand it”. Taking your point abou the poem, why would he know to get further along with the poem? It is clear he doesn’t remember speaking the previous lines of it aloud so why would know he had to say a particular line of the poem when punching the wall? Obviously he knew to attack the wall as it was the only possible thing he could do before being killed, I just wonder about the credulity of him reading out each line of the poem (which he must have repeated hundreds of millions of times as he was there 4.5 billion years!) Also, though it wasn’t exactly clear (and I didn’t so much say it in the review as it went against the overall theme of “Moffat’s own cleverness” ) I did actually enjoy the writing in Heaven Sent up until the point when we learn the “twist”. The twist turns it from a well thought out piece of drama to an episode of Loony Tunes – that is my problem with Moffat sometimes, as I point out in the review., that he sacrifices good story for making himself look as prophetic and clever as possible.
      Regards,
      TCD

  2. The Doctor starts the Brothers Grimm story at the beginning on each loop and tells more of it as his progress takes him further from the Veil, buying more time. I personally didn’t have any problem with the ‘twist’ as such, but I can see your point.

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