This review contains spoilers.
This episode was pure brilliance. I don’t think I’ve loved an episode this much since … gosh, it was probably either A Christmas Carol or The End of Time. Here we see that Steven Moffat can be a truly great screenwriter when he’s not busy blowing smoke up his own butt.
I loved seeing Peter Capaldi companion-less back in The Woman Who Lived but that barely touches on the magnificence of Capaldi’s performance when he is well and truly alone. It’s very rare to find someone who can carry an entire episode—and a phenomenally important one, at that—on their own.
The Doctor, as always, craves an audience. Even when he’s alone he can’t stop performing. In less capable hands, the continued conversation with Clara could have seemed heavy and out of place. Instead, we were invited to let our hearts break again and again as he kept realising that Clara would never answer his antics with a witty retort or delighted laugh.
It would have been so easy to show Clara in the TARDIS scenes, seemingly alive and well, and chalk it up to imagination. But her standing with her back to the Doctor, writing questions for him to read in his own voice—that was beautiful. It made Clara’s one piece of dialogue so much more poignant.
I think it’s a testament to the Doctor’s love for Clara that he could undergo near-endless torture, carried through only by his memories and the strength that he draws from her. Yes, he restarted the torture regularly and wouldn’t remember it the whole time. But at some point during his time in that death trap, he would have figured it out. The Doctor would have realised, if only for a second, that Clara had really died thousands, millions, and then billions of years ago. And yet he still manages to tap into that emotional connection with her and it keeps him going. Every. Single. Time. I want to know if everyone’s confessional dials are actually torture devices or whether someone just said, ‘And fuck you in particular’ when creating the Doctor’s.
Once again, I feel like there wasn’t enough build-up to this season’s climax. Just like with Clara’s death in Face the Raven, it feels like this episode should have happened last season. Had the writers been clearer on the direction of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor from the start rather than spending a season dipping him in various Matt Smith-esque episodes, season 8 would have been freaking miraculous storytelling. But since we can’t go back and cobble together a stronger and more cohesive storyline, we have to make do with what we have.
It will be interesting to see whether the Doctor’s time in the torture chamber will strengthen his resolve and further cement his desire for revenge or whether grieving the loss of Clara for a fraction of eternity will make him even more recalcitrant.
We’ve seen the Doctor at his worst before, and we know he sometimes needs a companion to act as his moral guide. Thankfully, we didn’t launch straight into a new companion or the usual despondent rage. No matter how much time has supposedly passed, I doubt that the Doctor is over Clara’s death. But having spent two billion years (sort of) grieving and punching through a wall, he may be well on his way.
With this episode dedicated solely to the Doctor dealing with his grief, I’m looking forward to completely new territory with the return of the Time Lords and Ashildr next week. Based on the promotional stills and the preview at the end of Heaven Sent, I have precisely no idea what the heck is going to happen but I’m excited for it.