Heaven Sent, by Kara Dennison; Hell Bent, by Alyssa Franke

The two next in sequence in the generally wonderful Black Archives series of monographs on particular Doctor Who stories. In general I write one post per Black Archive, but that’s partly because in general I have already written a lot of material on each story; that’s less the case with the more recent stories, and in any case these two stories are quite closely linked, so I’m giving you both of them here.

Heaven Sent is, in my completely objective view, one of the best episodes of New Who and possibly the best of the Capaldi era. It’s the one where the Doctor finds himself imprisoned in a tower, doomed to repeat the same actions over and over again until he achieves freedom; Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor is the only speaking part, though we also see Jenna Coleman as the recently deceased Clara, and the mysteriously threatening Veil (played by Jami Reid-Quarrell). It is directed by Rachel Talalay, who is one of the best directors of Doctor Who ever, and written by Steven Moffat, who sometimes dropped the ball but is fantastic when on form, and this time he is on form. It looks great and was the last Doctor Who episode to do at all well in the Hugos (coming second to Jessica Jones). I mentioned it as my top Twelfth Doctor episode in my list of recommendations for people who want to get into New Who.

Kara Dennison’s excellent monograph starts with an introduction wherein she makes the point that this is a rare, possibly unique, case of a Doctor Who story which is all about the character development of the title character. We have the Doctor grieving and guilty over Clara’s death, imprisoned in a castle which will take billions of years to break out of, learning from repetition. An extraordinary setup.

The first chapter analyses the story in Jungian terms, which after all is a pretty obvious thing to do: the rooms, the dust and skulls, the moat, the ascent and descent. This analysis mainly works because Jung was largely right, and hit on some pretty deep threads of the mind.

The second chapter looks at the only other significant presence in the story the Veil, and how it reflects the Doctor’s own personality and experience. And also Freddy Krueger from Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare.

The very short third chapter looks at how the Doctor’s repetition of the path through the castle changes both him and the path, and how the clues are laid out; is he the king or the shepherd boy? Or both? Its second paragraph is:

It is, of course, the way of the Doctor. Despite the Doctor’s constant talk of ‘fixed points,’ with everything from Jack Harkness1 to moon dragons2, he can’t claim that he’s ever left a site untouched.
1 Utopia (2007).
2 Kill the Moon.

The fourth chapter looks at the Doctor’s personality in itself, and how it has been developing since the last season of Old Who (including in Moffat’s The Curse of Fatal Death); and in particular how Heaven Sent exposes some of the flaws in his character.

The fifth chapter looks at time loops, bringing in the fascinating case of the Endless Eight anime which I was previously unaware of. (Also of course Groundhog Day and The Dark Tower.)

A final brief sixth chapter admits that Moffat may not have been thinking about Jung at all. To be honest that misses the point for me; if Jung was right (and I think he was), we are all subconsciously thinking along Jungian lines, whether we like it or not.

Anyway, a book that gave me new things to consider about a favourite story. You can get it here.

The season finale which immediately followed Heaven Sent was Hell Bent, which I do not rate as highly, though rewatching I realised that it does have a number of excellent aspects. The Doctor, having escaped at the end of the last episode, seizes control on Gallifrey, brings Clara back to life but ends up with no memories of her; meanwhile she ends up romping around the universe with Maisie Williams’ character Ashildr/Me.

On first watching, and on rewatching before writing this, I found the story a bit too convoluted to be completely entertaining. However there are some lovely bits. The regeneration of the Gallifreyan general, previously played by Ken Bones, into Tnia Miller is the first clear onscreen change of a Time Lord between apparent races and genders. It was also my first introduction to Miller, who I have since found captivating in Years and Years and Foundation.

And on the one hand, I slightly regret Moffat’s tendency not to let the dead stay dead, but on the other, I actually prefer this closure to Clara’s story than the one we got in Face the Raven; and Maisie Williams is always a fun element to add to the mix.

When I visited the Doctor Who studio in 2015, the Tardis set was still set up from this story. The books on the shelves include a lot of H.E. Bates.

Alyssa Franke (who in real life works on the staff of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand) has provided what I found a rather redemptive reading of Hell Bent, persuading me that there are indeed hidden depths to it; in particular she brings a feminist analysis to the story, which certainly made me reconsider it (in a good way). And also I have to admit that her fannish enthusiasm for Hell Bent is slightly infectious.

A brief introduction sets out her stall, quoting a glorious line from the script:

‘The Doctor is flying around the classic console, like a distinguished Scottish actor who’s slightly too excited for his own good.’

and concludes,

My hope is that you will read this and not see it as a definitive statement on Hell Bent’s feminist values, but rather as an exploration of how it explores themes of power, privilege, patriarchy, and autonomy. It’s the beginning of the conversation, not the end.

The first full chapter examines the Doctor’s patriarchal flaws, particularly of the Tenth and Twelfth Doctors, and looks at how he often erodes, or attempts to erode, the autonomy of the women who he meets and travels with. Clara’s fate is in stark opposition to Donna’s, and must surely be read as a commentary on it.

The second chapter looks at the Western genre in Doctor Who, given that large chunks of Hell Bent are set in the US desert (in a diner which turns out to be Clara and Ashildr’s Tardis) and also given the dynamic between the Doctor and the Gallifreyans. Franke makes some telling comparisons with Shane.

The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

Clara was always a character who was never content to play second fiddle to the Doctor. When Steven Moffat first wrote the character, he imagined her as a young, contemporary, female version of the Doctor, who would be ‘terribly clever’ but also have ‘a wayward ego’, reflecting both the Doctor’s strengths and flaws. And like the Doctor, she isn’t particularly suited to living an everyday, domestic life. Moffat said that Clara ‘doesn’t feel like she particularly fits in the world that she lives in’ and that ‘she’s not really very good at living a normal life.’ 1
1 Anderson, Kyle, ‘Steven Moffat on Clara Becoming the Doctor in Doctor Who Series 8’.

It looks in more detail at Clara and the extent to which she was always set up as a contrast to the Doctor – I had not noticed that Jenna Coleman is credited ahead of Peter Capaldi in Death in Heaven – and compares her arc and departure with the other New Who companions, again notably Donna, but also Rose and Amy. (Martha, who leaves completely of her own volition, is the exception.)

The fourth chapter looks briefly at Clara’s leitmotif – I like that fact that the Black Archives often do include a look at the incidental music for the show. It’s really neat that the Doctor plays it diegetically on his guitar when he meets Clara in the desert without knowing who she is.

The long, final fifth chapter mentions Hell Bent only incidentally as part of a sustained campaign by Moffat to normalise the possibility that the Doctor could be a woman, undoing the harm of his jokey introduction of Joanna Lumley in The Curse of Fatal Death. I mentioned above that my own most vivid memory of the episode is the General’s regeneration into Tnia Miller, and I’m sure that I’m not alone. But Franke goes in depth into public statements and other sources to show how the ground was prepared for Jodie Whittaker by Moffat.

So, this is the Black Archive at its best: I like it when (as with Heaven Sent) they produce good and thought-provoking analysis of a story that I already like; but I love it when they produce good and thought-provoking analysis of a story that I did not particularly care for, and prod me into reassessing the experience. You can get the Hell Bent monograph here.

Next up: The Curse of Fenric.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | Full Circle (15)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8)
6th Doctor: The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25)
Other: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The God Complex (9)
12th Doctor: Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)

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