What do Peter Capaldi, Bill Murray and Tom Cruise have in common? They have all have all played characters trapped in an endless loop requiring that they get things right before they can continue.
For Murray, it was Groundhog Day; for Tom Cruise, Edge of Tomorrow. For Capaldi, it was “Heaven Sent,” the captivating Doctor Who episode presented Nov 28.
As the two films, a puzzle must be solved before the Doctor is freed from the repeating sequence of events. Unlike the films, this puzzle has been created within the grief-stricken Doctor’s own mind.
I’m not certain whether the trap has been projected into his mind by his captors, or he has constructed the trap himself. Maybe a little of both.
The story continues from the end point of the previous week’s episode, “Face the Raven,” in which Clara, the Doctor’s companion is killed. In the final scene of that episode, the Doctor has a teleportation device attached to his wrist at the hands of Me/Ashildr, who is apparently acting in a bounty hunter capacity for unknown masters.
The Doctor rematerializes in a teleportation chamber in mysterious, rotating, medieval-looking castle equipped with anachronistic video monitors on the walls. He hasn’t clue as to whether he’s in a trap, prison or torture chamber. As it turns out, all three possibilities are somewhat correct.
The Doctor is initially very combative. Despite Clara’s dying request that he not journey to the dark side, he’s on a mission to avenge her death. He demands that his captors show themselves.
“I just watched my best friend die in agony,” he declares “My day can’t get any worse. Let’s see what we can do about yours!”
The monitors soon reveal to the Doctor that he is not alone in the castle. His anger turns to fear when he sees that he is being relentless stalked by a hulking, veiled death figure accompanied by large squadron of flies (who are not listed in the end credits for their pivotal supporting roles in this episode). To be touched by the figure brings death.
I had to watch this one more than once to gain what I think is an understanding of the story being told. Clues that the Doctor was actually in a “mind trap” begin early. The death figure is drawn from from his most horrific childhood memory. The Doctor is able to “talk” a door into unlocking itself. Where were his sonic sunglasses? No answer there. Later, he dons them.
In the midst of all the action, including a plunge to his death into the waters surrounding the castle, the Doctor is able to retreat to his mental “storeroom,” the TARDIS. There, he finds Clara, with her back to him in all but one scene, coaching him on his next moves by writing on a chalkboard. Even in the Hereafter, she’s still a teacher.
The Doctor notices that each of the rooms he visits resets itself to its original state when he is not present. This proves to be the key to deciphering the trap.
Telescoping the narrative, the Doctor runs through 4 billion (give or take a few dozen) years, of repeating sequences in which he burns his dying body to re-energize the teleporter and reinitialize the cycle. The cycle ends when the death figure reaches him and grasps his head.
At the start of each cycle, he returns to a barricade blocking the exit from the castle. The wall is tantalizingly labeled “HOME” upon his first encounter.
He interprets the lettering as meaning that the TARDIS is on the other side of the barricade and reduces his hands to bloody pulp by painfully beating his fists on the wall. In each cycle, he does minimal damage. His sonic sunglass analysis reveals the barricade to be a 20-feet thick of slab Azbantium — 400 times harder than diamond. Ouch!
Watching the Doctor crawl and stagger back to the teleportation chamber, leaving a trail of blood, was difficult to watch. He knows that he has plenty of time to get to the top of the castle because Time Lords take a very long time to die.
“It’s why we like to die among our own kind,” he quips. “They know not to bury us early.”
Despite the dark tone of the episode, the Doctor manages to get off a few other humorous comments.
“I can’t wait to hear what I say. I’m nothing without an audience,” he says early in the episode, with a sly glance at the camera.
“Working hypothesis,” he reasons aloud. “I’m in a fully automated haunted house, a mechanical maze.”
“It’s a killer puzzle box designed to scare me to death, and I’m trapped inside it. It must be Christmas,” he adds with a chuckle and a grin.
“Or maybe I’m in Hell. That’s OK. I’m not scared of Hell. It’s just heaven for bad people,” he observes in another flash of humor.
Death symbols run rampant throughout the episode. Along with the ominous death figure, we have a lilies, a fresh grave, a peeling painting of Clara, and skulls, skulls, skulls. Skulls are found in the teleportation room and piled high on the floor of the sea surrounding the castle; and they all belong to the Doctor.
Then, there’s Room 12. Does that mean that the Doctor’s number is up?
I sincerely hope that Peter Capadi’s time as the Doctor is not coming to an end, as he has really risen to the role this series. The Doctor is clearly is having an extremely difficult time coming to grips with Clara’s death, so maybe that’s what the symbolism is all about.
“It’s funny. The day you lose someone isn’t the worst,” says. “At least you’ve got something to do. It’s all the days they stay dead.”
Calculating how many times the Doctor went through the cycle is beyond my ken. I guesstimate that he completed a cycle every 90 minutes for 2 billion years. You do the math.
The Doctor finally breaks through the barrier and discovers that “HOME” is not the TARDIS. It’s his home planet, Gallifrey. His fellow Time Lords are his tormentors.
A small boy appears to be his only welcoming committee. He sends the lad back to the city with a message.
“Tell them I came the long way around,” he instructs the boy. “The Hybrid destined to conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins is me.”
So, the prophesy was wrong. The Hybrid (I capitalize it because it is not “a” hybrid, but “the” Hybrid) is not half Time Lord and half Dalek.
My bet is that the Doctor’s mystery half is Human. I’ll guess we’ll find out when “Hell Bent” is presented this Saturday, Dec. 5.