#stillshot is a feature in which someone discusses a frame from the moving pictures that grace our screens, and occasionally their promotional campaigns. We want to spark discussion on the visual art of film, and the world it negotiates often within a single still. Also, ‘cause there’s some well purdy viz-art shots to be dissected out there.
Doctor Who: Heaven Sent – 2015
Written by: Steven Moffat
Starring: Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS FROM THE LATEST SEASON OF DOCTOR WHO.
‘It’s funny, the day you lose someone isn’t the worst. At least you’ve got something to do. It’s all the days they stay dead.’
Every now and then an episode of Doctor Who will come along and kick me right in the gut, reminding me exactly why I fell in love with the show in the first place. This year, it was the penultimate episode of the ninth series, Heaven Sent. So good was this episode, in fact, that it has been rated the second best episode of all time on IMDb, right behind the 2007 episode Blink (yep, it was THAT good). And it’s rightly earned this spot for a number of reasons – the story was compelling, the cinematography, writing and direction was stunning, and Peter Capaldi’s performance was the BAFTA worthy peak of his run so far. All of these things captured my attention as a lover of TV, but that’s not why it’s captured my heart. The reason I care about this episode so strongly is because it provides us with a note perfect depiction of the pain and power of grief.
To quickly summarise – the Doctor has just been transported to a mysterious castle after witnessing the painful death of his best friend Clara. Completely alone and trapped, he must try and figure out a way to escape. However, his TARDIS is nowhere to be found, the corridors and rooms keep shifting and resetting, and everything in the castle is designed to terrify him with his worst fears in order to get him to confess personal secrets about himself and his past. And no matter where he goes, a chilling creature known only as the Veil follows him. And all of these tests and trials he must endure whilst also overcoming his own personal battle – the battle with his own guilt and grief after Clara’s untimely demise.
In this episode we see the Doctor stripped back – he appears broken with no one to fight for or be brave but himself, and he appears completely emotionally raw from his loss. And this is when Doctor Who is at its best. It’s all very well and good sending the Doctor on crazy and fantastical adventures through time and space, but the show is nothing without its emotional core. The best episodes are the ones that challenge and engage us by showing both the best and worst aspects of human nature, and the best moments Doctor Who has ever given us often revolve around themes of love and loss. Therefore, it’s perhaps unsurprising that this episode is so effective in tackling its heart-breaking premise. The Doctor is forced to face up to what kind of man he is in the wake of unspeakable tragedy, and we witness first-hand his struggle to overcome it.
In many ways, this episode is like a one man play. Barring only a couple of lines uttered by Clara in the Doctor’s mind, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor has the only speaking part for the whole episode. The Doctor’s isolation is therefore utilised as a powerful storytelling tool – in the absence of anyone to speak to, he essentially delivers an hour-long monologue in which the viewer is invited into his psyche, without distractions to take attention away from his character development. In an attempt to deal with his grief, the Doctor keeps talking to Clara aloud as if she were still with him. When he retreats to the safety of his own mind (which takes the form of his own TARDIS, his safe haven), the ghostly presence of Clara is always there, standing in the corner but never turning to face him. He imagines the sort of things Clara would say to him, and he uses her moral compass and mental encouragement as a way to get through his torment.
‘But I can remember, Clara. You don’t understand. I can remember it all. Every time. And you’ll still be gone. Whatever I do, you still won’t be there.’
However, coming into this episode we know that the ultimate tragedy of the Doctor is that he always ends up alone. For years, we the viewers have been reminded that the Doctor is the last of his kind (although, spoiler alert, that may no longer be the case), and we are piercingly aware that every human companion he meets will inevitably die while he goes on living. He has the ability to live for hundreds, thousands, millions of years, potentially with no end in sight, because he can regenerate when on the brink of death. It is therefore unsurprising that throughout this episode the Doctor comes dangerously close to giving up on the idea of ever escaping. He knows that even if he escapes he won’t be able to get Clara back, in much the same way that he’s had to accept that he can’t save everyone he loves. He has to go on living, enduring loss after loss whilst still trying to hold onto his happiness and his sanity. It’s no wonder he frustratedly screams at the unfairness of his lot in this episode, questioning to the air why he can’t just lose this battle for once. The inevitably off loss and heartache in his long life makes you wonder if you could ever summon the mental strength he has to in order to carry on in the way that he does. I don’t know if I ever could.
Although the whole episode from start to finish is something of a masterpiece, it is the concluding part of the episode, the horrifying denouement, which really signals it as one of the best. The Doctor eventually finds himself before a twenty foot thick wall of ‘azbantium’, a substance four hundred times stronger than diamond, and behind that wall is his only means of escape. In a devastating twist, we learn that the Doctor hasn’t been transported seven thousand years into the future as he originally believed, but that he’s actually been trapped in the same place for seven thousand years, constantly reliving the same scenario again and again. Caged within the time loop of his own personal torture chamber, the Doctor has to continually die and be reborn (as a new, alternative version of his original self) with no memory of his past attempts to escape. It’s a tricky timey-wimey conundrum to explain to someone who hasn’t seen the episode, but it essentially comes down to this – in order to escape his torment, the Doctor has to find a way to get through this wall of azbantium. And it’s going to take a very, very, long time to get there.
And that’s where this still shot comes in. The Doctor, our hero, is facing what appears to be an impossible task. His only escape is barred by a seemingly unbreakable material. And then, in the back of his mind, he remembers a story written by the Brothers Grimm. A story about the passing of eternity.
‘There’s this emperor, and he asks this shepherd’s boy, ‘How many seconds in eternity?’
And the shepherd’s boy says, ‘There’s this mountain of pure diamond. It takes an hour to climb it, and an hour to go around it. Every hundred years, a little bird comes and sharpens it’s beak on the diamond mountain. And when the entire mountain is chiselled away, the first second of eternity will have passed!’ You must think that’s a hell of a long time. Personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird.’
And that’s when the Doctor decides that he’s going to punch through the wall, knowing full well that he will be trapped in his own personal eternity in doing so. Like the bird that sharpens its beak on the mountain, with each punch the Doctor slowly chips away at the barrier between his doom and his emancipation. And on a deeper level, he’s also choosing to overcome his grief rather than to let it overwhelm him. Despite all the pain and suffering he’s endured, and will endure, he chooses to fight rather than to give up. He takes all his rage, anguish and pain, and channels it into his fists, punching repeatedly until he reaches the other side. This #stillshot says it all – his salvation is a bright light, and the suffocating agony of death and mourning stands behind him, a bleak darkness with its claws ready to conquer him. And between these polar opposites is the azbantium wall – or, if you want to think about it figuratively, the wall of grief.
Perhaps I should add a bit of context. In September 2014, I lost my Mum to cancer. It was a very quick process – I learned of her diagnosis in April that year, and six months later our lives were changed forever. When something like that happens so quickly and so suddenly, it’s hard to adjust to a life you never saw coming. When the whirlwind of chemo and hospital appointments passes and you’re left in the devastation of its wake, it’s hard to know how to act or where to begin when it comes to moving on. So watching this episode from the comfort of my bed, I suppose I saw quite a lot of myself in the Doctor at that moment. He’s spiralling in the confusion of his own sorrow, not sure of how to negotiate the aftermath of what’s happened. And his only way of escaping this personalised cage of grief is to achieve the seemingly impossible, to break through a wall that’s stronger than can possibly be imagined.
It’s a moment that rings true for anyone who’s lost a loved one. At times, it feels like the pain of the loss is something that can never be overcome. The grief that follows a death doesn’t have a clear way out, and sometimes it feels like there’s no way out at all. It’s no wonder that the Doctor feels like giving up altogether when he realises his only way out is through a wall that will take an eternity to get through.
But then he chooses to fight. Even after everything that he has gone through, every death he has witnessed, every life he has failed to save, he decides that this tragedy won’t be the end of him. Even though it ultimately takes four and a half billion years, he carries on, and he gets there.
It’s a hugely symbolic moment, and one that I feel reflects the experiences of many who have endured hardship in all of its various forms. Every single one of us in our own way has a wall to overcome – whether it be the loss of a loved one, an illness, a crisis of confidence or a dramatic lifestyle change, we constantly have to challenge ourselves to keep pushing through pain when we want nothing more than to curl up and let it wash over us. And this is why I love the Doctor. He sees this wall that’s harder than diamond, and he chooses to fight through it. No matter how much he may want to give up or resign himself to his fate, and no matter how much his hearts hurt from the loss of his best friend, he takes up his fists and he punches through. You would think that continually punching for billions of years with very few signs of progress would eventually damage his resolve, but he is unwavering in his determination.
The Doctor’s heroism comes not from his ability to fight monsters, win wars or save people. He’s a hero because he never gives up. He is a man who’s lost everything and everyone that he’s ever loved, and yet he still shows kindness, spirit and tenacity despite the pain he’s endured. And that’s why I’ve loved this character since I first laid eyes on him. He’s marked by the grief of his past, but he never lets it define him. He shows that there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, even if it feels like it takes an eternity to get there.
When the show relaunched in 2005 I was eleven years old. My Mum (knowing full well the cultural significance of Doctor Who from her own childhood) convinced me to begin watching it, and I quickly fell in love. Consequently, there has always been a part of me that has associated this show with my childhood, my upbringing through those angsty teenage years, and, perhaps most importantly, my family. Ten years later, to watch this show that I love and this character that I adore depicting something that feels so close to home moved me beyond words. Where once I watched it with my whole family on a Saturday night, I’m now one family member short and watching it alone in a cold student flat. Times change, and people change – and the tragedy is, not everyone makes it through all these changes. We lose people along the way, no matter who we are. But Doctor Who has never shied away from the uncomfortable truths about our own mortality, and it doesn’t mollycoddle or patronise us when it comes to addressing the issue of loss. What it does do, however, is show that there is always a way through it. The Doctor is a creature of grief, a man burdened by more deaths and tragedies than us humans will ever know, and yet he keeps going on. Over four billion years of suffering and heartache, and he still makes it through to the other side.
And this is why Doctor Who will always have a place in my heart. No matter where I end up in life, no matter what hardships I face, and no matter who I lose, it will still be there. The Doctor will be there. And he will continue to show me and everyone else who watches the show why life and love is worth fighting for, even amongst the sorrow and heartache we must inevitably endure. This episode is testament to the fact that there’s nothing that can’t be overcome if you have the patience and strength to carry on even when it feels impossible. So whilst I still sometimes feel like I’m floundering a bit in my own grief, I know that each day, no matter how hard it may be, is a step towards something brighter and happier. A life lived the way it should be. A life that I reckon my Mum would be very proud to know that I had lived.
Grief isn’t an end. It’s a wall. And it’s a wall that can be broken through.
Mel C is the Deputy Editor of FILM, THEATRE & TV at PTL. She uses this fact as an excuse to devote her life to Netflix. When Mel actually leaves her flat, she studies English Literature and History chez Edinburgh. She enjoys long walks, good company, and has a profound weakness for chocolate, tea and coffee. Ply her with any of these things, and you will buy her friendship.
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