The Ordeal of the Doctor


“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” – Hamlet, II.ii


The Doctor: [last words to sleeping Amelia Pond] It’s funny, I thought, if you could hear me, I could hang on, somehow. Silly me. Silly old Doctor. When you wake up, you’ll have a mum and dad, and you won’t even remember me. Well, you’ll remember me a little. I’ll be a story in your head. But that’s OK: we’re all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one, eh? Because it was, you know, it was the best: a daft old man, who stole a magic box and ran away. …..
The cracks are closing. But they can’t close properly ’til I’m on the other side. I don’t belong here anymore. I think I’ll skip the rest of the rewind. I hate repeats.

Doctor Who is a strange beast. If you try to explain the plot of the latest episode to a non-viewer their jaw will slacken and they will probably roll their eyes, wondering how such bullshit could appeal to an apparently intelligent and critical person. Yet occasionally it throws up a episode of such complexity and poignancy that it gets under your skin completely, keeping you awake at nights and haunting your waking hours. Such epsiodes are usually the ones where the Doctor suffers deeply. Peter Capaldi recently observed that the character is steeped in melancholy, and he’s spot on. The Doctor is perpetually on the run, from himself, from his past, from his powers and his memories. To be trapped alone with nobody to bounce off would be his ultimate nightmare.

In last Saturday’s remarkable episode, Heaven Sent, that’s exactly what happens to him. Mourning the death of his beloved companion – itself a remarkable departure for the show – he finds himself teleported into a castle haunted by a hideous, silent enemy, bereft of all his usual supports – companion, sonic screwdriver, the TARDIS. His grief is raw and initially expressed as vengeful, furious bravado. He finds strategies to help him survive, such as reconstructing the TARDIS control room, and his lost companion, in his mind. That helps, up to a point. But ultimately, he’s completely alone. If hell is other people, then the Doctor’s is the opposite.

And hell it is. But this realisation only creeps up on us slowly and horribly, and therein lies the episode’s power. Because the worst thing about hell is not the wheels of fire and vats of boiling pitch, it’s the idea that it never, ever stops. Most of the Doctor’s problems, no matter how overwhelming, are solved within 45 minutes, or 90 at most. The viewer unconsciously imposes that template on his predicament. He’ll find a way out. He always does. We crave that release, when the Doctor wins and we can switch off the TV and make a cup of tea. But I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers nights in childhood spent working my way up into a state of existential terror at the thought of eternity – the scary thing about it being that it is eternal, and if it ever ended, what would come after it?

Eternity – we use the word so casually, don’t we? When the Doctor was trapped and tortured by the Master for a year, that was bad enough. But that was a walk in the park compared to this nightmare. In a stroke of scriptwriting genius reinforced by some remarkably chilling and creative camerawork, Moffatt slowly steers us towards the unthinkable; the Doctor has already been in this prison for 7,000 years. And it gets a lot worse before it gets better.

What would that do to a human, or even an alien being? We think we can imagine it, but we can’t, we really can’t. We are talking God-like timescales here, as the Doctor endlessly repeats his ordeal, rebooting himself again and again, each time chipping away with agonising slowness at an impregnable wall barring his escape. The Doctor’s old friend Winston Churchill had a famous saying, “Never give up. Never, never give up. Never, never, never give up.” And for all his intellect, courage and fierce restlessness, that’s the only possible hope of release from torment for the Doctor here.

It’s not just agonising, it’s unthinkably dull. Even though he doesn’t apparently remember each Groundhog Day – unlike Bill Murray, he can only learn through cryptic clues left behind and hope he’s bright enough next time around to decode them – the Doctor is left in endless stasis, solitary confinement with no-one left to celebrate or mourn him. We don’t realise until we see this how totally he defines himself through the responses of others. In this respect, he’s analagous to the Christian God, who would rather expose his beloved child to human cruelty than exist in an echo chamber of solitude.

In fact, as the thousands of years stretch into billions, each day adding a new copy of his own skull to the pile on the seabed around the castle, the resemblance to Dante’s Inferno seem to deepen. At the deepest level, that netherworld was composed not of fire but of ice – an eternal adamantine place of stasis. The fiery torments on the upper levels are reserved for lesser sinners.

After hell comes purgatory, the long upward spiral of redemption as the sins of the flesh are burned away. There seems to be an echo of this as the Doctor repeatedly drags his dying body up flights of stairs to the teleporter where the cycle will begin again. To keep the monsters at bay, he must confess his sins, and each time the relief is temporary. The Veil will still get him in the end.

Is this ultimately a redemptive narrative? Time will tell, because when the Doctor does break through and discover his long-lost home world on the other side, he’s out for blood. And his endless, eternal torture chamber shrinks to a disk he can close up and hold in his hand. It’s impossible to believe that so profound an ordeal hasn’t affected him. And us, indeed. Everything about this strangely beautiful, yet deeply disturbing hour of television, invites sober reflection, from the echoes of Hamlet and the slow-motion dream world of Inception to Murray Gold’s Beethoven-influenced, funereal score.

If you poke the plot too hard, it will probably collapse like a house of cards into impossibilities. But the same could be said of the mythos underpinning most major religions, yet the power of such stories shapes billions of lives daily. Sometimes what matters most about stories is not how possible they are, but how deeply they affect us. This particular one will haunt my dreams for many nights to come.


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