The Doctor tells the world's longest story.
S9 E11
  • TV Show

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

In the room with the teleport chamber, “BIRD” is written in a pile of sand. There used to be a skull there, too, wired to the chamber’s control panel, but he took it to the top of the tower, where it eventually fell to the bottom of the moat — as every other skull has done before it, always in the exact same way. “How could there be other prisoners in [the Doctor’s] hell?” Every skull in the water is his. The Doctor has been here for 7,000 years; he just keeps dying to keep the secret of the hybrid.

The Doctor goes back to his Mind TARDIS to ask Clara whether it’s even worth it. He could just confess this time. No matter what he does, he can’t save her. But Clara (hello, Jenna Coleman!) won’t let him give up that easily. “You are not the only person who ever lost someone,” she tells her friend. “It’s the story of everybody.” Heeding her order to “break free,” the Doctor punches at the Azbantium and starts in on a story by the brothers Grimm as the Veil sneaks up behind him and grabs his face. He falls to the ground. He’s burned, but he’s not dead, because this is the one thing the Doctor has that Clara didn’t: He dies like a Time Lord. Even when his body is too damaged to regenerate, it keeps trying.

That buys the Doctor enough time to crawl his way, bleeding, back to the room with the teleport chamber. Since every room in the castle resets itself, the chamber has a copy of the Doctor saved in its hard drive. When he wires his head to the control panel and flips a switch, the energy of his burning body reactivates the program. The Doctor emerges from the chamber again, fresh off Clara’s death, and goes through the same motions: always punching a little bit further into the wall, always dying, and always burning himself to start over. The cycle repeats itself until 7,000 years become 2 billion, at which point he breaks through the last of the wall and the Veil falls to pieces (that’s a lot of trouble from a bunch of gears). The Doctor finishes his story:

“There’s this emperor, and he asks the shepherd’s boy how many seconds in eternity. And the shepherd’s boy says, ‘There’s this mountain of pure diamond. It takes an hour to climb it and an hour to go around it, and every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on the diamond mountain. And when the entire mountain is chiseled away, the first second of eternity will have passed.’ You may think that’s a hell of a long time. Personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird.”

That’s the Doctor for you: He’d rather spend 2 billion years punching a wall than give up a secret, because at least he’s sharpening his beak in the process. He could have left a different message. He could have left something more practical, but he went with a story, because he knew that its lesson would get through to him better than any other clue. The Doctor’s own body is expendable (just “something to burn”), but the story lasts even longer than that mountain.

The Doctor crosses through a portal in the Azbantium, and it closes behind him, shrinking down to fit inside his confession dial. We’ve been in the dial this entire time — and now we’re on Gallifrey. The Doctor asks a little kid to go to the city and tell someone important that he’s back. He “came the long way ‘round.” And, now that he controls the situation, he tells the confession dial what it wanted to know: The hybrid is not half Dalek. (“Nothing is half Dalek. The Daleks would never allow that.”) The hybrid “destined to conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins” is the Doctor. Is he already imagining that he’s won this one?

Background radiation:

  • Wait, are we actually going with the “half human on my mother’s side” story?
  • Peter Capaldi, director Rachel Talalay, and composer Murray Gold all turned in some incredible work with this episode.
  • “How long can I keep doing this, Clara: burning the old me to make a new one?” This feels like a comment on regeneration — and on the way the Doctor is always pushing himself to his limits — as much as on his escape plan.
  • “I’ve finally run out of corridor. There’s a life summed up.”
  • “What’s bird got to do with it?”
  • “It’s funny. The day you lose someone isn’t the worst — at least then you’ve got something to do. It’s all the days they stay dead.”
  • “I used to know a trick, back when I was young and telepathic. Clearly you can’t make an actual psychic link with a door, for one very obvious reason: They’re notoriously cross. I mean, imagine life as a door.”
  • “Are you gardeners? I hate gardening. What sort of a person has a power complex about flowers? It’s dictatorship for inadequates. Or, to put it another way, it’s dictatorship.”

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