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Doctor Who recap: Heaven Sent

The Doctor tells the world’s longest story.

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Doctor Who

TV Show
Sci-fi and Fantasy
run date:
Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas
BBC America
Current Status:
In Season

Last week, as Clara prepared to die, she asked the Doctor why she couldn’t be like him. But Clara was already like the Doctor; she just happened to be more breakable. Clara used her last run in the TARDIS to do as the Doctor does: She ran, helping others out of trouble and getting herself into it to distract herself from her own loss. It’s the Doctor’s turn now; the only difference is that he has more time. Watching it play out is an experience, haunting and triumphant, unlike any Doctor Who has offered before — unless it’s been offered every week, and we just don’t remember.

Scene: a turret in a castle. A hand, badly burned, pulls a lever on a teleport chamber, then falls to the floor and disintegrates in a pile of sand. The Doctor appears in the teleport chamber, fresh off Clara’s death and mad as anything. “If you think because she’s dead, I am weak,” he announces to his unseen captors, “then you understand very little. If you were any part of killing her, and you’re not afraid, then you understand nothing at all.” Clara did tell him not to take revenge, but he’s not so great at the listening thing sometimes.

As the Doctor takes in his surroundings — standard castle-and-moat fare, or so it seems — a veiled figure lumbers toward him from across the hall. The Veil is one of those impossibly frustrating horror characters who never have to run and yet always corner you, and this one corners the Doctor outside an imposing double door. Even the Doctor’s surprising knack for door whispering can’t save him; the doors unlock at his command, but they open to nothing but a wall.

The Veil closes in. “I’m scared,” the Doctor admits. “I just realized that. I’m actually scared of dying.” And just like that, the figure — along with its ever-present swarm of flies — freezes, and the floors of the chamber rotate like some kind of Hunger Games clock. The dead end gives way to a bedroom furnished with a “very, very, very old” portrait of Clara, and in spite of the circumstances, he smiles as he comes close. The painting is the Doctor’s newest painful memory; the Veil is one of his oldest fears. When he was young, he was terrified by an old woman’s dead, veiled body attracting flies in the heat. Who’s been stealing the Doctor’s nightmares?

Time out over, the Veil comes for the Doctor again, so he dives out of the window toward the water. In mid-air, the Doctor does just as Clara told Missy he always did: He imagines that he’s already won. But Clara’s version of events left out one detail — when the Doctor imagines winning, he imagines telling Clara all about it. “I’m nothing without an audience,” he jokes. He isn’t really joking. The Doctor is tempted to give up, but the Clara in his mind, still teaching at her chalkboard, pushes him to keep going.

He wakes up to the sight of an endless field of skulls spread across the bottom of the moat. When he emerges from the water to find his exact outfit laid out by a fireplace, the Doctor decides that he has this place all figured out: It’s a “killer puzzle box designed to scare [him] to death.” That’s Christmas to the Doctor, especially when he needs a distraction from his grief. But he’s wrong about this puzzle’s ultimate design: It doesn’t want to kill him. It wants him to confess.

Buried in a mound of fresh dirt in the garden is a sign that reads, “I AM IN 12.” Hiding beneath that sign is the Veil, who lunges for the Doctor. On the verge of death yet again, the Doctor goes back to his Mind TARDIS, where Mind Clara helps him figure out what stopped the Veil last time: He told a truth he never had before. “I didn’t leave Gallifrey because I was bored,” he tells the Veil. “That was a lie, and it’s always been a lie. I was scared. I ran because I was scared.” It’s not the most specific confession, but it’s enough to freeze his interrogator and buy him some time. The castle rotates again.

It takes him a while — maybe a very long while — but the Doctor finds room 12, only to open the door to another dead end. He can’t move the wall without another confession. The Veil gives him his chance at the top of the tower, where the Doctor admits that the hybrid is real. He knows what it is and where it is, and he’s afraid. That does the trick; the door to room 12 opens now onto a long hallway. The light at the end of this tunnel is so bright, the Doctor needs sonic shades, and it’s coming from behind a 20-foot-thick wall of Azbantium (which is 400 times harder than diamond). The word “HOME” flashes in the wall and disappears — and the Doctor remembers. He’s been here before.

NEXT: Alas, poor Doctor