WARNING: THERE BE SPOILERS BELOW!
“If thou canst give me an answer to three questions which I will ask thee, I will look on thee as my own child, and thou shalt dwell with me in my royal palace.”
Talking about something terrible is easy because there’s so much to critique. Watching something this close to perfection is a treat but having to write about it… what is there to say that isn’t praise. Last week’s episode was good, on further contemplation it was good until the third act when it was very good but look, sometimes all an episode of television needs do is provide one stellar third of it and perhaps under those circumstances, the first two don’t really matter. But that was Doctor Who in classic mode: The Doctor and Companion (and Secondary Companion) have a mystery to solve, there’s a twist, some running, some cool monster design but then at the end of it, it changed everything. The Doctor didn’t win, if I were being more specific he lost in more than one sense. This week was something special because it was as far from standard as possible.
Normally I’d try to fit in a wrap-up of the episode’s plot at this point but it’s a little more difficultas this week was remarkably plotless but let’s try anyway:
The Doctor turns up on the other side of the teleporter he was strapped to last week, he’s in a castle that’s best described as Hogwarts-meets Dark Souls, he’s haunted by a creature in a veil (as played by Mr.Allthesnakes himself, Jami Reid-Quarrell) that is pulled from the Doctor’s nightmares,in fact all the elements of this week’s episode are designed to torture the Doctor, he jumps out of a window and finds that the castle is surrounded by a sea of skulls, he finds a series of clues left for him to lead him to room twelve, he gets to room twelve, finds that the way out of his torture chamber is blocked by 40 feet of Azbantium (A mineral I can only assume was discovered by combining Adamantium and Inobtanium) which he proceeds to punch, the veil catches him and kills him, he crawls back to the teleporter and brings another copy of himself in who proceeds to do it all over again until after billions of years and as many deaths he manages to break through and finds himself on Gallifrey, he finds a young child who he tells to to run to the city and tell them he’s taken ‘the long way round’. When you write it down, it doesn’t sound nearly as good but believe me, it was.
“The first is, how many drops of water are there in the ocean?”
This episode was all about truth and confession, someone wanted The Doctor to face himself and the uncomfortable truths about himself. By stripping away all the trappings of a standard episode, Moffat, Capaldi and (director, Rachel) Tallalay managed to find the essence of The Doctor and in doing so, create the purest showcase not just for Capaldi’s stellar performance but who this mad-man in a box that runs around fighting space aliens and doesn’t afraid of anything is underneath the eccentric uniform. We didn’t really learn who he is as much as why he runs. It could be seen as a piece of forced pop psychology to say that The Doctor always runs because at his heart, he’s afraid of death but the simplicity of the answer is more affecting because it wasn’t even the question that we were asking at the time. This entire endeavour would fall apart if it wasn’t for Capaldi’s ability to find character in the slightest instinct. Whenever the Doctor is in danger of dying, he slows things down and goes into his own Mind-TARDIS where he has Clara ask him questions to solve the problem. It’s a nice technique (made all the more interesting by Moffatt’s involvement in Sherlock and that programme’s own issues with mind-palaces and unsolved jumps from tall heights) that also becomes slowly more heartbreaking as they get more frantic, it’s clear that the loss of Clara has affected the Doctor: every single loss he’s felt rests upon him, like a sea full of skulls and it becomes interesting to see how this is never directly addressed, there isn’t the easy cure of moving on that is often represented but instead he tells himself (through a lovely cameo by Jenna Coleman) that he needs to power through it and live with it, use that fire to fuel himself, to keep punching through that wall.
“The next question is, how many stars are there in the sky?”
I have to give special commendation for this episode to Murray Gold, I’ve never been particularly fond of his efforts, finding the score to be at best unobtrusive, backing up the action ably but never thrilling and at it’s worst, just bloody zany. Last week’s episode threatened to undo a lot of good work done by Jenna Coleman by overplaying the strings to the point-of-cliché. It is to Gold’s credit that in spite of this, he did some really beautiful work this week, using a more subdued string section and some synth and organ sounds that are very reminiscent of Zimmer’s score to Interstellar, something that befits the personal and galactic tone of both Capaldi and McConnaghey’s journey in said film. In many ways, considering how little there was going on in this episode, the score had to step up and provide an emotional journey, filling in the work normally provided by the supporting cast but luckily Gold proves capable of pulling off such a role.
If I had to pull up any complaints about the episode, it’s that this episode is probably a bit unsuitable for children: it’s slow, meditative, quite grim and did I mention before it has a SEA OF SKULLS! It’s not even so much that it’s too scary for children (because kids sat through an episode with Peter Kay, they’ve seen fear), it’s more that the way it’s written, it’s probably not going to be that interesting for them. I’m not saying all episodes have to be like last series’ Robin Hood adventure with zany (that word again) characters and moving so quickly that there’s no time to think let alone emote but this is not the kind of television often presented for children purely because it’s so slow and nothing really happens and really, it’s not exactly simple stuff, it’s dealing with some pretty complex emotional cues that may be more frightening for children than any amount of Peter Kay (though perhaps not quite as frightening as Shirley Henderson: Blowjob Slab)
“The third question is, how many seconds of time are there in eternity?”
I don’t know how many ways I need to find to say that this episode is fantastic, the best episode since The Girl Who Died and quite possibly the best single episode Moffat has done since the T.Davies era. A few weeks ago I talked about how commendable it was that Sleep No More was trying something new that it forgave a lot of its failings but this was the perfect marriage of experiment and achievement. It’s the kind of episode that can one moment have the Doctor making references to The Brothers Grimm being on his darts team and the next narrating his own body crawling to its death. Part of my criticism of over-emphasis on the two-parter format is that there aren’t many individual episodes from this series you could revisit but here you have something that stands on its own so well that I haven’t even mentioned that this is the penultimate episode of this series. If they can pull off an episode better than this one, I’ll be very impressed indeed.