(Spoilers for Doctor Who Series 9).
The Doctor Who episode “Heaven Sent” is arguably the scariest Doctor Who episode ever to air. It’s the only one where the Doctor, the man who “saves us from the monsters” is completely and believably terrified. He’s trapped in a torture chamber designed specifically to frighten him into divulging a secret. It’s a horrific clockwork castle with rooms that not only move but also reset themselves at regular intervals, offering him the same nightmares over and over again. When he reaches the end of the nightmare, he dies, forgetting everything, and the whole process starts over again. It takes him four and a half billion years to escape and face the people who put him in there: the Time Lords.
It’s frightening enough on its own, but it’s also a metaphor for the Doctor’s entire existence. As a Time Lord, he was entitled to a small number of regenerations, where his old body is utterly consumed by fire and a new body is born. By the end of Series 7, the Eleventh Doctor had used them all up and settled down to a comfortable retirement. But the Time Lords stepped in to intervene, and gave him a bunch more regenerations. How many? Who knows! It could be ten, or an infinite number, or four and a half billion.
This knowledge haunts the Twelfth Doctor, as we see in the episode “Kill the Moon.” The Doctor, threatened with shooting, says,
Oh, well you’re just going to have to shoot us, then. . . You’ll have to spend a lot of time shooting me because I will keep on regenerating. In fact, I’m not entirely sure if I won’t keep on regenerating forever.
He says it with such cold fury that we see this knowledge hurts badly. In fact, it’s a plausible explanation for why the Twelfth Doctor wakes up so irritable and caustic. He knows he’s trapped.
He’s trapped, and he’s alone, just as he will be in the clockwork castle. “Immortality isn’t living forever,” he explains to Clara. “That’s not what it feels like. Immortality is everybody else dying.”
The Doctor does eventually get out of the clockwork castle trap set by the Time Lords. In the episode “Hell Bent,” which follows “Heaven Sent,” the Doctor ends up on Gallifrey. He battles the Time Lords and rescues Clara, then escapes Gallifrey, lets go of Clara, and completes his grieving process. In the end, he takes off in his TARDIS, all set for the next adventure.
But the metaphor of the clockwork castle stands. And “Hell Bent” reminds us of that metaphor through a series of visual echoes, scattered throughout the show.
The first visual echo is the Doctor eating a bowl of soup and then setting down his spoon. In the clockwork castle, he drops it in shock as he realizes he might have to go on like this forever. On Gallifrey, he uses the act of eating soup as an accusation to the Time Lords. When they ask him to “drop his weapons,” he puts down his soup spoon.
The second echo is the moment when the Doctor puts on his coat. In the clockwork castle, he comes into a room with a fireplace after having jumped into the sea. He finds a velvet coat drying on a rack, takes hold of it, pauses, and puts it on. Then he leaves his wet coat on the same rack to dry. After he dies, the next version of himself who comes out of the transporter will find that same coat. In “Hell Bent,” he enters the TARDIS without the velvet coat. He had taken it off when facing down the Time Lords, as a symbol that he was setting aside his role as the Doctor. Now that he’s in his TARDIS, he takes hold of the velvet coat, pauses, and puts it on.
The third echo is a gruesome one. In “Heaven Sent,” after he has been mortally injured by a monster known as the Veil, he returns to the transporter room, which like the other rooms has reverted to its original state and is therefore holding his pattern. It has no power, so the Doctor burns up his current body in order to provide the necessary energy. To do so, he pulls down on a metal handle that is just like the handle he pulls on in “Hell Bent” to dematerialize the TARDIS.
What is the message we are left with here? Is the universe itself an endlessly repeating hell for the Doctor? Did the Time Lords trap him in the land of the living by giving him an infinite number of regenerations?
I think that yes, this metaphor is part of the message of “Heaven Sent” and “Hell Bent.” And this isn’t the first time such a metaphor has appeared. In the sixth series episode “The God Complex,” a minotaur is trapped in a spaceship that picks up passersby, sets them loose in a maze that looks like a hotel, scares them into turning to their faith, and feeds their faith to the minotaur. The Doctor frees the minotaur, saying:
An ancient creature, drenched in the blood of the innocent, drifting in space through an endless shifting maze. For such a creature, death would be a gift.
The minotaur says something only the Doctor can understand, and the Doctor steps back in shock, saying, “I didn’t mean me!”
Despite his protests, the Doctor does understand the parallel. He also feeds on the faith of his companions, and upon occasion, they also die. He takes the metaphor to heart and drops Amy and Rory off at home, to have their own domestic adventures without him.
He tries to, at least. Like the minotaur, he can’t seem to leave his companions alone. He returns for Amy and Rory and they continue having adventures until tragedy strikes. Likewise, he keeps coming back for his companion Clara, even though he knows she’s risking her life, until she is definitively killed in “Face the Raven.” Even then, he can’t let her go.
And his inability to let go of Clara is what keeps him trapped in the clockwork castle. He could leave at any time simply by telling the Time Lords what they want to know, but instead he chooses to withhold that information for use as a bargaining chip in order to cheat death and save Clara.
In “The God Complex” and “Heaven Sent,” then, we have two visions of eternity, and both are horrible. In one, the Doctor is a monster who can’t release his companions, and in the other, he faces billions of years of torment alone. Is a third vision possible?
It definitely is, and I hope future showrunners will build it. If the Doctor has to face eternity, he shouldn’t have to face it alone. He deserves the company of equals who are also immortal — and who are not his enemy.
The Doctor has been depicted as the man who is always alone, but this is not fundamental to the mythology. In the beginning of the show, he traveled with a granddaughter and her two teachers. In other words, he traveled with family. He was almost never left alone until New Who, and his companions almost never died.
Of course, actors always leave their roles, and companions always leave the Doctor. But few of these partings have to be forever. People can reappear either on-screen or off. The character of River Song, for example, died in “Silence of the Library,” but her past self continues to show up.
Series 9 has in fact given the Doctor some company in the universe. In the episode “The Girl Who Died,” the Doctor, tired of losing people, finagles immortality for a woman named Me. And in “Hell Bent,” Clara becomes not infinite but in-between-finite. Her death is a fixed point in time. But her body has been magically paused “between one heartbeat and the next,” and she is now free to roam the universe on her way back to her regularly scheduled death.
The Doctor never has to be fully separated from River, or from Me, or from Clara. River wanders all over time and space, and he’s bound to encounter her sooner or later. Me apparently sticks it out until the end of the universe and then moves backward in time to do it all over again. As for Clara, although Clara must stay away from the Doctor, she continues to live with him as a story, or a beautiful song.
So perhaps that moment in “Hell Bent,” when the Doctor puts on his coat and pulls the handle for the dematerialization circuit, is not so grim after all. Maybe, as he’s getting ready to explore the universe, he’ll be in good company. It’s the next second of eternity, and the Doctor has barely begun.