Doctor Who – Season 9 Episode 11
Doctor Who approaches the finale of season 9 with an episode entirely focused on the Doctor as he navigates a maze of his own fears.
I have criticised Steven Moffat in the past for weighing Doctor Who down with unrealistic stakes that are completely detached from the emotional core of the story. He is a much better writer when he focuses on tightly constructed character driven narratives.
This is probably the best example of a character driven Doctor based story since the series returned in 2005 and this is down to a remarkable combination of all of the different elements that make up this story.
Peter Capaldi had a difficult task ahead of him in this episode as the entirety of it was focused on him without any opportunity to interact with another person. It really helps that Capaldi’s Doctor is not above talking to himself but what he says and how he says it has to be interesting. In this case the Doctor is terrified of the situation he is in as he knows of no way out and is cut off from his usual resources. He has been transported to an unknown location and the whole place seems to be geared towards scaring him. His constant talking gives the audience insight into what he is doing and how he thinks.
Throughout the story he confesses several facts about himself that he normally keeps private. He does so to appease the creature that is chasing him but it’s clear that it’s hard for him to be so honest. To outsiders he acts confident and fearless but the most important truth admitted here is that he is afraid of dying. It’s something that has come up before during David Tennant’s era but it’s interesting that the Doctor would admit this to himself here could be a sign that he is aware of his own mortality after the death of Clara.
The castle that the Doctor is in could be symbolic of the grief he is feeling after losing Clara. Grief is a powerful emotion that takes a lot of time to deal with and get to the point where people are ready to get on with their lives as they did before the loss. The Doctor working his way through the castle that he is trapped in could be a physical representation of that grief in a way that makes sense to the Doctor. He is always more content when he has a puzzle to solve and the castle is a life size one.
Capaldi plays the Doctor as being full of energy as well as being very angry throughout the episode. He blames whatever force has brought him here for the death of Clara and threatens to deal with them accordingly despite Clara’s final wishes. He points out that he doesn’t always listen and I definitely get the impression that he means what he says. There is added frustration with the fact that there is nothing physical for the Doctor to combat other than the situation. Having no physical presence he can look in the eye and blame for what has happened clearly adds to his frustration.
Structurally the episode was near perfect. Every scene complimented the last by intensifying the mystery in ways that just glued me to the screen. The episode gave some answers while asking more questions in a way that held the attention without becoming frustrating. The castle was a great setting and the various rooms were distinct. Everything was carefully set up to deliver a very precise amount of information.
It all worked really well and managed to remain consistent on both a character and story level. Many of the reveals were connected to the Doctor’s confessions which further links to the dealing with grief idea as his confessions signify the Doctor putting something behind him and being closer to moving on.
Clara played a big part in the episode without actually appearing for much of it. The Doctor talked to her as if she was there to prompt his own thinking. His need for another person motivating him is well known so it makes sense that he would try to fill that gap with his imagination.
Having him imagine he is back in the TARDIS whenever faced with a problem that needs a lot of thought is an effective device for a number of reasons. For one thing it provides a needed break from the intensity of the castle as well as providing something safe to retreat to for the Doctor. It also provides a pseudo dialogue between the Doctor and Clara as her part of the conversation is represented by key questions on a chalkboard. For whatever reason Clara doesn’t speak to him directly which suggests that the Doctor is unable to allow himself to hear her voice as a result of his guilt. She does appear briefly hinting that the Doctor is ready to move on.
There is an external force working against the Doctor in the form of the Veil, a terrifying creature that relentlessly pursues the Doctor through the castle. It follows him very slowly so he has plenty of time to work on the problem but it will always catch up with him. It reminded me of the film It Follows in that regard.. The sense of inevitability constantly plays a part throughout the episode and the Veil is an appropriately creepy presence as it resembles the traditional imagery associated with the Grim Reaper.
Beyond that there is lots of attempts to show a sense of isolation and hopelessness as the episode progresses with several long shots to remind the audience of how alone the Doctor is and how isolated the location is. Rachel Talalay’s direction is excellent at keeping the constant sense of foreboding present without it ever becoming overwhelming.
The last few minutes of the episode come with many revelations. It is revealed that the Doctor is stuck in his prison for billions of years as he punches his way through a nigh indestructible wall. Frequent reference is made to the seconds of eternity in relation to this which shows that if enough time is taken then anything can be destroyed. The montage showing the years pass as he chips away at the wall is really nicely done.
I have my reservations about the mechanism around the montage as it has the Doctor mortally wounded but restoring a copy of himself stored in the teleporter to start the process over again. It is established that the caste periodically resets itself and that also includes the Doctor who has to learn everything all over again before working on the wall again. Considering that punching the wall breaks his hand each time, luring the Veil away isn’t really an option as his ability to punch the wall doesn’t recover unless he resets. As a result it feels like a really morbid version of Edge of Tomorrow.
The problem I have with this idea is that I feel that the Doctor isn’t actually the real one any more. It seems that he is one of countless copies of the original which makes me wonder if this will come into play somehow. I did like that the fade from the Doctor’s face to one of the skulls hinted that it was the Doctor and the sheer volume of them under the water reinforces how long the Doctor is working on this problem.
Another revelation is that the idea of a Time Lord/Dalek Hybrid is complete nonsense as the Daleks would never allow that to happen. It seems that the Human Dalek has been forgotten but maybe that’s for the best. It turns out that the Hybrid had been prophesied for a long time along with the Time War. It was apparently no surprise to the Time Lords but no less devastating as it basically resulted in their destruction.
Having the Doctor turn out to be the Hybrid without actually being a Hybrid is perhaps a little predictable but I’ll reserve judgement until I see how it plays out. The Doctor being trapped in his own confession dial and having that inform the contents makes sense. I also like that he is back on Gallifrey and seems intent on taking the place over which suggests that he has gotten darker as a result of his recent experience. I thin that this will be a cop out in some way but it’s a great set-up.
I’ve read that the BBC spoiled that Gallifrey would be returning at the end of this season. I’m glad that I missed this as it was a really good reveal. One thing is for certain, I’m very excited to see the next episode.
An outstanding episode that keeps a tight focus on the Doctor as he deals with the grief associated with losing Clara.
Peter Capaldi’s excellent performance helps carry the episode as he plays the Doctor as full of both anger and energy as he works his way through this puzzle. I like the idea that the castle is built to terrify the Doctor and that he is aware of this.
Throughout the episode he confesses several facts that he would normally keep private. The most important revelation for me was the fact that he is scared of dying. It’s not something he typically admits but it suggests that losing Clara has made him aware of his own mortality.
In a lot of ways the castle itself is symbolic of the Doctor’s grief. It’s something that he needs to deal with before he can resume his routine so in that sense it’s a literal manifestation of it.
Structurally the episode is near perfect with just enough information being supplied at key points while more mystery being released in its place to keep the audience guessing without ever becoming frustrating. I found myself glued to the screen through the whole thing. Many of the story points were linked to the Doctor’s confessions which kept the whole thing linked to him on a character level.
Clara played a big part in the episode through the Doctor talking to her as if she was there. This is consistent with the Doctor’s need for companionship and allows him to think through the situation with the help of some prompting. Her influence is light as she only asks questions on a chalkboard but it’s enough to show the Doctor’s mindset. The lack of her voice suggests that the Doctor refuses to allow himself to hear her speak until the end when he is ready to move on.
The Veil is an effective threat as it looks like conventional representations of the Grim Reaper and promotes a sense of inevitability as it pursues him relentlessly yet slowly throughout the episode.
In the last few minutes of the episode a lot is thrown at the audience in terms of revelations. It is revealed that the Doctor has been in the castle for billions of years and keeps having to reset himself to start the process again before he can escape.
It is also revealed that the Daleks would never allow a Hybrid as it’s against the very nature of what they are. This allows the Doctor to be that hybrid without actually being a hybrid. It’s a bit obvious but I’ll reserve judgement until seeing what is done with it next week.
Having the Doctor be trapped inside his own confession dial and end up on Gallifrey full of vengeance and ready to take over is a great ending that will surely lead to a cop out of some sort next week. It doesn’t downplay the ending as it is very effective.