Interminable Progress of the Doctor

Whenever you’re slogging through some seemingly hopeless, endless task, just remember the time on Doctor Who when the Doctor was stuck in a castle for billions of years. I found myself in the mood for the Twelfth Doctor episode “Heaven Sent” last night, an episode with an impressive, almost entirely solo performance from Peter Capaldi as he tries to work out the nature of his strange, shifting castle prison.

Following the death of Clara in the previous episode, the Doctor finds himself forced to deal with that loss while also dealing with his strange, solitary predicament. It’s an appropriate story for grief with the two-fold sense of isolation in the absence of a loved one and the absence of anyone who can truly appreciate the depth of feeling in the loss.

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Much of the performance, of course, is monologue, though in some of it the Doctor pretends to be talking to Clara in his mind. He remarks on how no-one remembers their birth or their death, a comment, like many other comments he makes throughout the episode, that will take on another significance when the mystery of the place is revealed.

A story about living with grief becomes a story about living with living as the Doctor discovers just how difficult his task is. The fact that it doesn’t drive him mad is surely a testament to his fortitude. He claims at the end of the episode to remember all the time he spent in the prison in spite of a key point in the plot being that he constantly has to perform the same investigation over and over, make the same confessions over and over, because he doesn’t remember. I wonder if the memories all came back in an instant at the end, which must have been like a cannonball to the head, or if he just discovered a part of his brain where they’d been accumulating.

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I like the idea of the Doctor having to expend the energy of a past self to create a new self who is very like the old self, and I like that undergoing this process seems to cause a subtle, accumulating strain. In the modern conversation about the past needing to die to make room for a future, it’s nice to see a story that shows, whether that’s really necessary or not, the exchange is painful and comes with profound, incalculable loss. At one point the Doctor wonders why he can’t just rest, just lose this once. I can hardly blame him for feeling that way which makes his success all the more admirable.

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