Doctor Who Heaven Sent review: Peter Capaldi’s one-man show is an instant classic

The Doctor divulges secrets and gets a sense of déjà vu as Steven Moffat plays with the programme's lore

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★★★★★  I’m calling it now: this is an instant classic.

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I believe you can spot a classic on first sight. I first watched Heaven Sent as a work-in-progress rough-cut – and even in its unfinished state it sang to me and gripped me.

This is Peter Capaldi’s hour and he has earned it. OK, the running time is five minutes shy of one hour, but this brilliant, bold, extended episode is a one-man show – a tour de force from the magnificent Capaldi. This year he has made the role his own, subtly made his cranky interpretation more loveable, and now he’s been rewarded with the chance to shine with no one else to play off. Almost. 

I kept thinking: Tom Baker, in his day, would have killed for this opportunity, this material. In his arrogance, he often stated he didn’t need or want a companion co-star. The closest he came to that was the 1977 serial The Deadly Assassin. And perhaps episode three of that story (when the fourth Doctor fought inside the Time Lord Matrix) is the only other part of Doctor Who that Heaven Sent resembles. 

British TV occasionally coughs up one-handers, format-busting programmes that can be viewed as bold experiments. More often than not, these have showcased a good, great or indifferent actor playing a right old misery. In 2008, EastEnders devoted an entire episode to June Brown’s character Dot. In 1993, One Foot in the Grave served up 30 minutes of non-stop Victor Meldrew. Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads were lauded monologues for dismal old biddies lolling against their antimacassars.

Has it been attempted in sci-fi/fantasy TV before? I confess I don’t know. Despite appearances, I’m not a massive fan of the genre (I just happen to adore Doctor Who). There probably has been a sci-fi solo show, especially in one of those myriad US anthologies I’ve never watched. As for British telefantasy, Heaven Sent only reminds me of a classic 1966 episode of The Avengers, The House That Jack Built, which showed Diana Rigg’s Mrs Peel trapped inside a maze-like manor with mechanical sliding walls. (Other characters appeared.) 

Steven Moffat (aka “The Moff”) told me that the Doctor would be “99.99 per cent alone in Heaven Sent”. Yes, he is constantly stalked by “the Veil”, a ghoulish apparition derived from a childhood nightmare. It’s a non-speaking role but very much present – and, it has to be said, the Veil is bloody terrifying. Only two other people appear, and then fleetingly: the ghost of Clara and, ultimately, a silent little boy on Gallifrey. 

But this couldn’t work as a silent drama. We have to hear the Doctor’s thoughts, we need to hear him speak. He talks to himself and shouts at his unseen enemy. The clever conceit is that he consults his imaginary friend; he uses the image of Clara to process his thoughts and bounce ideas off. In moments of crisis, he retreats into an inner dimension, which is, of course, in his mind, the Tardis. All this works perfectly without ever seeming contrived.

The Moff has structured the narrative with his trademark intricacy. Capaldi plays it to perfection – in the moment, every moment. Rachel Talalay (who directed last year’s two-part finale) steeps the production in atmosphere and sustains the momentum right until the final revelations. And Michael Pickwoad has designed and lit some magnificent sets; it’s almost impossible to spot the joins with the location work at Cardiff and Caerphilly castles. 

The trap for the Time Lord is both beautiful and appalling. The mechanical, rotating castle is a puzzle box of nightmares… The clockwork motifs reflect the cogs in the title sequence, suggest the script of the Time Lords, and are shown to be the workings of both the Veil and the Doctor’s confession dial… The final square of the game is marked HOME (which he mistakenly believes to mean the Tardis) and it’s a massive block of “azbantium – 400 times harder than diamond”… It takes billions of years to break down. (If only the twit had used his boots or that shovel instead of his fists, he might have halved the time!)

When it finally sinks in for the viewer that the Doctor has already been in this trap an incredibly long time – 7,000 years – it’s jaw-dropping. Fortunately, I’d completely forgotten the BBC’s spoiler list that came round months ago kindly informing me that all the skulls on the lake bed are the Doctor’s. He’s been killed by the Veil many times. Countless “lives” have been expended. Rather, many thousands, perhaps millions of fresh downloads of his self, created from the teleporter hard drive, have suffered and died. Can we even be sure that this is the same Doctor any more? 

To make any progress within this trap, to freeze the Veil and stay alive, the Doctor must make a series of confessions. “It’s not just truth it wants. That’s not enough. It’s confession. I have to tell truths I’ve never told before,” he says – as Steven Moffat dares to undo one of the long-held tenets of Doctor Who. “I didn’t leave Gallifrey because I was bored,” admits the Doctor. “That was a lie… I ran because I was scared.” 

During his decade writing for Who, the Moff has stretched and tinkered with the format. Sure, by now we can whiff his tropes on the wind. But let’s not forget, he is, above all, a fan. He admits to a fan’s buttock-clenching aversion to tampering with the established lore of Doctor Who. Unless needs must. 

He’s looked back over the programme’s history and realised that, at certain points, his predecessors needed to make the lore – or trample all over it. In the very early days, Terry Nation reinvented the Daleks between their first two stories. In 1966, the Doctor, shockingly, changed his face and entire persona, became a Time Lord in 1969 and was, bizarrely, given two hearts in 1970.

In the 1996 TV movie – to the abject horror of fans – Paul McGann’s Doctor blithely revealed, “I’m half-human. On my mother’s side.” This development was seen as a major blunder at the time; it diminished the character; and ever since it’s been conveniently ignored by the many fans who have written and produced Doctor Who. It wasn’t the Doctor’s dark secret; it became the fans’. Now, unless I’m misreading it, the Moff has had the cojones to address that issue.

The coming of “The Hybrid” has been drip-fed ominously throughout this series. In The Witch’s Familiar, Davros spoke of a prophecy on Gallifrey of a “hybrid creature… two great warrior races forced together to create a warrior greater than either”. He wrongly assumed that the hybrid would be half-Dalek, half-Time Lord.

Now, the Doctor finally – after billions of years of toil – makes it back to his home planet, and he is ready to reveal his secret once more: “The Hybrid destined to conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins is me.”

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Who else can’t wait for next week…?