Sartre wrote, through the mouths of his characters, a detail that people always forget when they misunderstand him, that hell is other people. Well, Doctor Who demonstrated the opposite this week. If hell is anything, it’s isolation.
No, it’s worse than that. But you’ll need some
because the solution to the mystery of what the mysterious castle of Heaven Sent is, reveals probably the most terrifying concept that Steven Moffat’s ever come up with.
The Doctor arrives in a teleportation chamber, seemingly for the first time. It’s right after Clara’s death in Face the Raven. He’s pursued by a creeping, unstoppable monster. It says nothing, and is only a spectre of death, drawn from his first nightmare, relentlessly tracking him.
He knows that if it touches him, it will kill him. So he runs, figuring out the mechanics of the clockwork castle he’s in. He figures out how to manipulate confrontations with the creature to rearrange the castle and give him more time.
He figures out the mystery of the place one step at a time, and reaches the last, inescapable dead end: a 25 foot thick wall harder than diamond that he’ll have to punch through to escape.
But he’ll only get a few punches in before the creature catches up with him. Just a few punches to slowly chip away at this harder-than-rock wall. All the time, he’s terrified of death. And when we finally see it, it’s horrifying.
He can only get a few punches in at a time, the impact almost shattering his hand. After all the effort of investigating the trap, all the fear and terror of fleeing this unstoppable murder machine, he’s still lost. He achieves no more victory than a raindrop’s erosion against a cliff.
The Doctor dies. He loses. It’s his worst nightmare, that all his effort, ingenuity, and fear adds up to nothing. Just another undignified death, burned almost beyond recognition and climbing back through the stairs of the castle to the teleportation chamber.
Where he starts again, from the same spot, as if he’d just arrived from the end of Face the Raven. With none of the knowledge he’d accumulated from the last time. The Doctor disintegrates his body to recreate himself from the memory banks of the transporter.
The climactic montage makes it clear. He does it all again. Step by step. Exactly as before. The fall into the sea where the castle rests, the chases through the corridors, timing how far away he can get from the plodding spectre of death. Those few pathetic punches against a cliff face. Death.
The version Heaven Sent spends itself with takes place 6000 years after the Doctor arrives. Eventually, he repeats this exact sequence of events – the terror, the puzzle, death – for another 7000 years. 12,000 years. 1,000,000 years. 400,000,000 years. 2-billion years.
He repeats the events of Heaven Sent, probably only a few days of his own life, over and over again for 2-billion years.
At one point, the Doctor thinks about the castle’s nature as a prison for himself, a personal hell. Nothing wrong with that, he thinks, “Hell’s just Heaven for bad people.” Then he asks himself, “How long will I have to stay here?”
This is what I love about Moffat more than Russell T Davies. When Davies wanted to apply a sense of scale to the Doctor’s travels, he’d talk about the huge swaths of time we’ve covered in an episode. “We’re in the year 500,000!” “We’ve gone to the year five-billion!” “We’re at the end of the universe! 100-trillion years in the future!”
All these are huge numbers, but they’re just numbers. Declarations.
Moffat has written a story that displays for you the visceral experience of actually living through 2-billion years of time. You see a full story that, as you watch the montage of that slow wearing impact, its narrative gives you a sense of each repetition’s lived duration.
Once you feel the grit of that experience in watching the hour of Heaven Sent, you have something more than a superficial conception of just how much time an astronomical figure like 2-billion years really is.
Our sense of lived time that we follow through a story gives us a sense of time’s accumulation, and we can conceive astronomical quantities as more than just empty words.
And it’s the Doctor’s experience. He’s the only speaking role in the episode. It’s his story and his alone. He can actually think and act on the scale on which a Time Lord can think.
People have tried to communicate the Doctor’s alien, inhuman nature in different ways throughout the show. Sometimes, it’s with a morality that’s often callous, letting some tragedy or great evil happen for a cosmological scale judgment that it will all turn out for the best.
Sometimes, the Doctor is just written as an ass, emotionally oblivious to how others think. “He thinks like an alien, so he doesn’t know how to relate to people.” Even Moffat has written the Doctor this way, with Peter Capaldi’s callousness and Matt Smith’s comic self-absorption.
No, Moffat has just pushed himself farther into the truly alien than he’s ever gone as a writer of Doctor Who. Here’s how alien the Doctor is.
The Doctor has one confession left, and the creature is after his confession. If he gives it when he’s still in the castle and under the creature’s power, there’ll be no reason to keep him alive anymore. So he has to get away without giving the last of the information it wants.
To get that last bit of information, the castle will let the Doctor run through the process again. And he gets that must closer to escape each time. One more raindrop on Mount Everest.
On his own, he thinks it’s perfectly reasonable to live through Heaven Sent enough times to wear the Himalayas down to a prairie plain by smacking it with his fist. Just so he’ll be able to break out.
That is the time scale at which the Doctor operates as a practical individual. He even plans his quip to unfold over 2-billion years of repetitions.
The end of Heaven Sent leads into the season finale and the return of Gallifrey. After the pinnacle of this episode, adventuring with the Time Lords and Maisie Williams again will be a bit of a comedown.
But maybe that’s the real underlying theme of this season, exploring what it means to live on a cosmic scale of duration. Ashildir explores this in one way, and haunts the Doctor through the season, a spectre of how to break immortality badly.
This episode shows, more than any direct confrontation between the two, how their immortality differs.
Ashildir drifts from job to job, life to life. Viking storyteller, nurse, soldier, landowner, highwayman, watcher of the Doctor for a while, then administrator of a refugee camp. She drifts, she gets bored, restless, and forgets. She forgets her past, her motivation, her purpose.
The Doctor is able to maintain a sense of purpose and dedication through the repetitive wearing of 2-billion years. A purpose so powerful that he'll experience his actual death every few days for 2-billion years. Because eventually one of him will wear down the Himalayas. If he keeps losing for that long, he'll win.
Thinking and living on a cosmic scale, and capable of maintaining dedication the entire time. That's the ethical power of the character.