Discussing Doctor Who: Heaven Sent

Doctor Who Heaven Sent

After a heart-pounding, mind-bending episode, it’s time to talk “Heaven Sent” with my friend Kevin Harvey, author of All You Want to Know About The Bible in Pop Culture.

Previously, we talked about “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar,” “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood,” “The Girl Who Died” and “The Woman Who Lived,” “The Zygon Invasion” and “The Zygon Inversion,” “Sleep No More,” and “Face the Raven.”

There’s a lot to discuss from this season’s penultimate episode of Doctor Who, so let’s get right into it.

Much of “Heaven Sent” happens in the mind of the Doctor and that’s very apt for this episode. What did you think of an extremely mental adventure this week?

Aaron: This episode is why Steven Moffat is piloting Doctor Who. At times, he can get lost in expansive mythology and overly complicated story arcs, but then there are episodes like “Heaven Sent” and seasons like this one and you remember why he is one of the best television writers today. (I feel safe in saying that with his work on Doctor Who and Sherlock.) The plot and the pacing of this week’s episode was virtually perfect. [We’ll discuss the plot twist later.]

Just the idea of having the Doctor retreat to the Tardis in his mind and have a conversation with Clara is sheer brilliance. It also demonstrated why he is “less breakable” than her; he is a genius. That’s not to say Clara is unintelligent, but the Doctor operates much the way Sherlock does (which several scenes this week reminded me of the world famous detective). He is able to think and process much more quickly than the average person. It looks effortless on the surface, but underneath, he is going through countless scenarios and weighing all the options before making what appears to be a “rash decision.”

Beyond the writing and directing, which was also spot on, Peter Capaldi’s performance this week was brilliant. Let me say, I loved David Tennant, enjoyed Matt Smith, and appreciated Christopher Eccleston, but I’m not sure any of them could have carried this week’s episode like Capaldi. There was such depth and mix of angry, despair, frustration, resignation, and hope. I’m not sure how you pull all that off with minimal dialogue and facial expressions, but he did it.

Kevin: I had the exact same thought after watching this episode. As much as I loved Tennant and Smith, I can’t picture either of them handling an episode like this as well as Capaldi did. I wonder if this was an idea Moffat always had but was waiting for the right actor to do so. Well, he found one in Capaldi. The way he bounces from emotion to emotion is just superb. And he even has a great voice for all the narration this episode called for. I definitely don’t think I would’ve enjoyed as much an hour of listening to any other Doctor thus far.

As far as having a significant part of the episode in the Doctor’s mind, one thing I truly appreciated was that I actually understood all that was going on. Even my 10-year-old was following along on his own just fine (although he’s a genius in his own right, I might add). I was never confused except only on whatever we hadn’t been told yet.

Even the back and forth from the “real world” to the Doctor’s mind helped the pacing and tone of the story. An hour straight of the Doctor running from the Grim Reaper would’ve probably been tougher to watch. But the Sherlockian moments in his head and his conversations with Clara added a refreshing dimension to the story.

So Clara lives on as the Doctor’s sounding board, conscience, and inspiration. If she had to die, that’s the best way she could live on, right?

Kevin: The key phrase being, of course, “if she had to die.” But let’s get past that now. It happened; I’m mourning; the sun will come out tomorrow. Maybe.

I think where Clara distinguished herself from the Doctor’s other companions is that she became his “sounding board, conscience, and inspiration” long before her death. He always cared what she thought about him, and when she decided to stop traveling with him last year (momentarily) in “Kill the Moon,” it crushed him. He wasn’t used to a companion rejecting him like that and holding him to a higher standard of morality. Remember, he asked Clara if she thought he was a good man. Not River, Amy, Rose, or anyone else. He has a different kind of respect for her, perhaps one he can’t even explain.

I know another companion will come along shortly, but I expect Clara to have an active role in his conscience for a long time. Not that we’ll actually have guest appearances from Jenna Coleman as we did in “Heaven Sent,” but she’ll be there with him, helping him in his moral crises.

Doctor Who Heaven Sent Clara

Aaron: In a way, through her death, Clara became what she could never truly be in her life—the Doctor. This week, she was the one always there looming over everything, both figuratively and literally with the giant painting over the mantle. She had all the answers and the advice. She helped someone else achieve what they never could on their own.

As I’ve made clear, I was not a huge fan of Clara’s character before this season. She’s always seemed muddled and confused. The writers never gave her a clear purpose, but this season it all clicked. She was the one to help the Doctor understand he is a good man. He saves people. That’s what defines him more than anything else.

I’m not sure how often Jenna will pop up in the future in those types of scenes, but they work well because of the investment made this season into her character, the motivations she has, and the relationship that has developed with the Doctor.

There’s so much in this episode that needs to be discussed. Just to make sure we talk about these specifically: What did you think about the torture maze inside of the confession dial and the Veil as the villain this week?

Aaron: There were so many little reveals this week (we’ll get to the biggest one next), it’s hard to keep up. But having the entire episode take place inside the confession dial was an interesting twist. It raises a lot of questions about the newly introduced item. Does it contain confessions only because it elicits them? How does that make it a Time Lord’s last will and testament? Maybe we’ll get more answers in “Hell Bent.”

The ever-changing castle was an interesting device to remove control from a Doctor who opened the episode so confident in his ability to take down whomever brought him there. And that sea of skulls … man, that will certainly give you pause.

The Veil is interesting in so far as what it is—a personification of death using a nightmare the Doctor had as a child. It’s slow-plodding, but ever-creeping nature served as an excellent foil for a frantic, crazed Doctor. As much as he ran and mused, he could never escape the creature and his own horrifically inevitable death.

Kevin: Yeah, if the genius Doctor could never outrun for long the slow-prodding Veil, then maybe we’ve been too harsh on all those idiot teenagers who could never seem to outrun Jason Vorhees in all the Friday the 13th movies. But ten minutes into the episode, the Doctor is clearly panicking more than he ever has with a villain, leading to his admission that he is truly scared. A villain who can do that to the Doctor is one to take notice of (and revisit at a later time, perhaps).

During both times watching “Heaven Sent,” I couldn’t not think of hell while watching the Doctor run aimlessly alone for two billion years inside the torture maze. I certainly do not know all that hell is like, and because of Jesus I never will, but we know it is not just “heaven for bad people,” as the Doctor said. It is eternal separation from God, perhaps eternally separated from any other soul, just as the Doctor was in this maze.

One thing I wasn’t sure of though is why every room in the maze always reset to the way it was when the Doctor first arrived, except for room 12, where he apparently chipped away a little bit more of the wall each time he arrived. Shouldn’t the wall have been made complete again each time he died?

Not to bring up bad memories for you, but how would you compare (or contrast) the twist and reveal of “Heaven Sent” with “Sleep No More”?

Kevin: Imagine what it was like when you first saw The Sixth Sense or Fight Club or some other great twist-at-the-end movie. Now picture the twist ending of a movie you fell asleep during because you were so bored.

I know you bring it up just to bug me. But even you can admit that there really is no comparing a video made by eye crust that obviously did not kill the rest of the viewing world after the Doctor and Clara left on the TARDIS (it didn’t even kill Clara, as apparently was going to happen), with the multiple reveals in this episode, not the least of which was that the Doctor had been doing this for seemingly an eternity and that all those skulls were his.

My response at the end of “Sleep No More” was, “Whatever. I wonder what college football games are still on.” During and after “Heaven Sent”? “Pretty darn cool.”

But come on… Comparing the two? Do I ask you to compare Duke basketball with my Seminoles?

Aaron: Actually, I bring it up to let you rant a bit on “Sleep No More” in comparison to “Heaven Sent.” As a standalone, I still appreciate some of what “Sleep No More” was trying to do, but the further removed we are from the episode, the more disposable and pointless it seems. Not to mention, you knew you had this twist-ending episode coming later that was much stronger.

I think Sixth Sense is a good comparison to “Heaven Sent” in that the ending completely reinterprets all that you just saw, but not in a way that seems trite. The surprise ending is organic and flows naturally from the story. It’s not tacked on or superfluous, as “Sleep No More” seems by comparison.

Understanding all those skulls belong to previous incarnations of the Doctor reveal depth to his character, it underscores the importance of his relationship to Clara, and it tells us just how adamant he was in not confessing the identity of the hybrid to the Veil and those behind it (behind the veil … get it?).

It’s probably not best to speculate, but let’s speculate anyway. The Doctor said “the hybrid is me.” How do you see that playing out as he is back on Gallifrey?

Aaron: I suppose there’s still the chance that Ashildr could be revealed as the hybrid since she refers to herself as “Me.” And to get really far-fetched, River Song, coming back for the Christmas special, is human with Time Lord DNA. Or maybe there’s some unknown person who will fill the role.

But it seems as if the Doctor will be it. I’m definitely hoping there’s more to this than the Doctor is simply “the hybrid” because … reasons. It seems odd with him talking all season long about the identity of the hybrid when it was him all along. Why ask Osgood (or anyone else) about being the hybrid if you already know you are? I’m curious to see the explanation. And after this week’s episode, I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt for now.

You had to know the return to his home planet would always lead to disappointment, but the Doctor was so thrilled that “Gallifrey falls … no more.” I hate that he has to come back home as an enemy rather than as a savior, but I suppose that is how it all works and something for our spiritual takeaway section next week.

Kevin: In a season of twists, it doesn’t surprise me to see the Doctor returning to Gallifrey as its enemy. As much as he has always regretted his actions during the Time War and rejoiced in knowing his home was still there somewhere, he’s never been “part of the team” back home. The Doctor has never been just another Time Lord, and that is what has made his journey so great to follow.

As far as him being the Hybrid, we really don’t know what that all means as of now. But despite the seeming contradictions in previous discussions concerning the Hybrid, I have complete faith that Moffat had mapped out the entire season well in advance before writing and filming. I would venture to guess this is why it was so important to the Doctor to find out which one Osgood was—Zygon or human. Because he’s asking himself the same question.

But I would bet that after next week, everything will flow better together. Or in a few months when we can binge-watch the entire season of Netflix all in one weekend.

Favorite quotes from this week?

Kevin: I don’t think there was enough speaking in this episode. It was all action … Just kidding.

“I am the Doctor. I’m coming to find you. And I will never, ever stop.” —When the Doctor says it, don’t you believe it? That is not an empty promise.

“It’s dictatorship for inadequates. Or put another way, it’s dictatorship.” — The Doctor referring to gardening

“The day you lose someone isn’t the worst … It’s all the days they stay dead.” — That hits close to home for anyone who has lost someone close.

“Doctor, it’s time. Get up, off your arse, and win.” — Clara, inspiring him even after her death

Aaron: I think you basically quoted the entire script in those few quotes. As memorable as the episode was there was not a lot of quotable dialogue.

“Have you imagined life as a door? People keep pushing past you. All of them knocking, but it’s never for you.” — the Doctor with some Jack Handy deep thoughts in his telepathic conversation with the door

“Rule one of dying: Don’t. Rule two: Slow down. You’ve got the rest of your life.” — the Doctor

What spiritual takeaways did you notice from the episode?

Aaron: Clearly by the episode title and much of the content, this week had an afterlife theme to it, with the Doctor confessing and paying penance for billions of years in his own purgatory. We often talk about positive spiritual connections, but I think this offers us a chance to contrast the Doctor with Christ. An almost endless cycle of work and confessions finally allowed the Doctor to break free of death. That more resembles Buddhism than the free gift of grace offered with Christ.

But the episode does contain a bit of the dual perspective Christians have on death. On one hand, death is our enemy and it will one day be defeated permanently, even as Christ has already removed its sting. But, for the Christian, we do not have to fear death because it has no leverage over us. We walk through it to Jesus because He has already made the journey.

This may not fit in this section, but the language for the two episode titles seems ironic. The week he spends in essentially his own personal hell is called “Heaven Sent,” while the episode he returns home is “Hell Bent.” Is Clara his “heaven sent” help this week and his vengeance is “hell bent” next? Once again, I guess we’ll find out—at least I hope we will.

Kevin: Clearly, for you and me and others with a similar Christian faith, this episode is one to place in the “it’s not a great parallel” column. Along with the seemingly endless confessions you referenced already that do not represent how Christ’s one-time sacrifice and free gift of grace has saved us, there is also a contrast to make in the comparison to hell.

While two billion years may seem like an eternity, it is infinitely smaller than an actual eternity. And an eternity in hell means just that—an eternity. Though I know there are schools of thought that say individuals can still repent in hell and escape it eventually, just as the Doctor finally does, I do not believe that the Bible supports that.

Side note: Why would the Doctor use his hand to break through that crystallized wall when he had a perfectly good shovel to whack at it with? Maybe that had to do with the “penance” you spoke of?

For more about Kevin, he blogs at BibleInPopCulture.com, where he talks about the intersection of faith and culture, and you can catch him on Twitter at @PopCultureKevin.

Join us again next week when we’ll talk about “Hell Bent,” the season finale. Here’s some previews to get you ready.


  1. As to Hell being heaven for bad people – I take that to mean that he is again questioning if he is a good man, but then technically he wasn’t actually in hell. It was more of an interrogation chamber designed to break him until he confessed. He did persevere (after billions of years) but it remains to be seen what this has done to his character.

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Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.