How you feel about Peter Capaldi as the Doctor will likely play an important role in how you feel about the latest Doctor Who episode, “Heaven Sent.” If you like Capaldi, this episode will only solidify and magnify that appreciation. If you dislike Capaldi, “Heaven Sent” is likely to feel interminable. Luckily, I like Capaldi a lot and found the episode to be something of a tour de force on his part. An episode that features only Capaldi’s Doctor and no Clara? Why, that’s right up my alley! It’s a good, compelling episode with lots of creepy visuals that stuck with me and a kicker of a final moment. No complaints. Well, okay, maybe a few small nitpicks. This is me, after all.
I guessed the Doctor was stuck in a time loop — or a “closed energy loop” this time — the moment I saw the second set of his clothes drying by the fire. (Although when you think about it, the presence of a set of clothes already there would have required one of his previous iterations to have left his clothes and continued on naked. Let the fan fiction commence!) I actually started to guess it might be a loop from the first shot of the hand pulling the lever, but that’s not the episode’s fault. I just know all this show’s tricks by now! Still, a two billion-year time loop is more timey-wimey than I can swallow. Luckily, the revelation that all of this took place inside the Doctor’s confession dial indicates that two billion years have probably not actually passed. Aside from several clues that this is all happening mentally rather than physically (the creature from his own subconscious, the Doctor’s opening speech about how your death is always marching toward you, It Follows-style, also being printed on a section of wall in the castle, calling it a closed energy loop rather than a time loop), if the Doctor is inside the dial there’s no way he can see actual constellations in the sky overhead and judge the passage of time. I suspect very little time has truly passed at all since the events of “Face the Raven,” although we won’t know for sure until the next episode.
Having all the rooms in the castle reset after a certain amount of time except the room with the wall and the room with the spare set of clothes is a bit of a cheat. The wall I can partially understand — it’s evident this is a trap the Doctor is meant to escape from eventually, because Gallifrey wants him back — but the clothes? They’re only there to give us (and the Doctor) a heads-up that he’s stuck in a loop. There’s no reason the clothes should still exist after the reset. And of course the Doctor’s plan to punch his way through a wall that’s four hundred times harder than diamond and twenty feet thick (!!!) makes little sense when you think about it. Even after two billion years, there’s no way to punch through something that thick and that strong. Chipping away at it with a tool (there are obviously kitchen utensils in the castle, since we saw the Doctor eating soup, not to mention a shovel) would make more sense and fit more closely with the Brothers Grimm fairy tale he tells the Veil.
After the Veil grabs him and burns him, the Doctor claims to be dying. He also claims it will take him a day and a half to die from his injuries, but what’s to stop his body from regenerating in all that time? He mentions something about being too injured to regenerate, but he’s come back from a lot worse than a face burn. Hell, the Ninth Doctor basically swallowed the TARDIS’ power supply and still regenerated. I suppose this question can be answered once again with the fact that none of this is physically happening to him, but it felt like handwaving away something that has proved to be critically important to the show.
I’ve mentioned before that Steven Moffat likes to end his seasons with two things: timey-wimey gobbledygook and superfluous additions to the series’ long-running canon. The billion-year closed energy loop covers the timey-wimeyness well, although I suspect there will be more next week, while this time the superfluous addition to canon comes in the Doctor’s admission that he didn’t run from Gallifrey because he was bored, as he has been stating continuously ever since the 1969 Second Doctor serial “The War Games,” but because he was scared. Of what, we don’t know yet, but I assume it has something to do with the Hybrid. (That no Time Lord has ever mentioned the Hybrid before is neither here nor there.)
If the Doctor truly is the Hybrid himself, as he mentions at the end of the episode, I feel like that’s a bit of a cop out after everyone and everything else that’s been brought up as possibilities, especially Ashildr. However, if it is the Doctor, I can’t say that’s entirely unexpected. Moffat also likes his season finales to be about the Doctor in some way, rather than the culmination of a plot line independent of him. So we get the Doctor as the “most dangerous creature in the universe” locked inside the Pandorica, the Doctor having to die at Lake Silencio, the Great Intelligence finding the Doctor’s tomb and Clara entering his time stream, Missy creating Cybermen as a gift for the Doctor, and now this, possibly.
Of course, there’s another reason the Doctor could be the Hybrid. In the 1996 TV movie, the Master discovers a secret the Doctor has apparently been hiding all this time: he’s half human on his mother’s side. I was hoping the revamp would ignore that, as they’ve done so far, because it’s stupid and makes no sense, or that they would at least adhere to the Doctor Who comic’s storyline “The Forgotten,” which claims it was all a trick involving a chameleon arch fob watch to fool the Master, but it looks like they might be bringing it back in full force. Oy vey. Here’s hoping I’m wrong about that!