‘Black Archive #21: Heaven Sent’ reviewed

Obverse Books have done it again with this release: classy, intelligent, easy to read, thought-provoking and a bit of a thrill.

“I’ve seen people claim Steven Moffat did not understand Doctor Who or who the Doctor was, which feels baffling to me.  I’m not sure we’ve ever had a writer keener to really look at those questions with serious analysis.  Or rather, we hadn’t until this book here.”

Of all the Doctor Who stories broadcast since the show’s return to regular production and transmission in 2005, you’d be hard pushed to find one begging for an academic analysis more than Heaven Sent.  Almost entirely a solo outing for the titular Time Lord, Heaven Sent is a weighty exploration of grief, a masterclass in editing and direction, a slowly-teased mystery, a serious analysis on what makes the Doctor tick, and a lovely runaround adventure: watch as our hero runs down corridors as a slow monster lumbers after him.  We’ve come so far; we’ve travelled no distance at all.

For my money, Heaven Sent is as close to the best the show has given us since its return as you can get.  It stands shoulder-to-shoulder with perceived greats from the past: your War Games, your Caves, your Daleks’ Master Plan and suchlike.  I said as much in my review of last month’s very good Black Archive essay about Face the Raven and I reiterate that now as I am fairly sure that Kara Dennison, the author of this latest missive, agrees with me.

I do not think Peter Capaldi’s era/run was perfect: far from it.  But I think that when watched box-set style, binged almost, its themes and steady character development and journey of self-discovery yields fruit in a way that is slightly lost when digested bitesize, week on week.  What Dennison is at pains to draw attention to is how this slow shift and development of character across his three series is deliberately done and plays out with perhaps a greater skill than is first apparent.  I think the huge shift from the Doctor as he is in Series 8 to how he is in Series 9 remains jarring, but it’s also not an entirely unexpected direction after Death in Heaven.  After the events of The Day of the Doctor made him realise he wasn’t the man he thought he was, and The Time of the Doctor affords him a life he never thought he’d have, it was perhaps natural to enter a period of introspection.  In this respect, Heaven Sent is arguably the postscript to that journey and, one could posit, Steven Moffat’s as well.

I’ve seen people claim Steven Moffat did not understand Doctor Who or who the Doctor was, which feels baffling to me.  I’m not sure we’ve ever had a writer keener to really look at those questions with serious analysis.  Or rather, we hadn’t until this book here.

Boasting what is one of the most subtle but effective covers by Cody Schell yet, Dennison’s essay is, quite frankly, wonderful.  She sets out her direction early into proceedings and writes with a nice, jargon-free style (which is not necessarily easy considering some of the book looks at Heaven Sent through a Jungian prism).  She analyses the text intelligently with a focused psychological bent, reasonably arguing her justifications for making comparisons between analytic theory and Moffat’s script, to the point where the symbolism feels so neat and tidy that it would be almost staggering for it to be entirely co-incidental: but as Dennison points out near the end of her essay, perhaps I am thinking that because we all latch on to hooks on which to hang our theories? Maybe Matthew Jacobs had a point about humans always seeing patterns after all.

As well as looking at the episode with Jung in mind, she engages with it as a piece of character development (what does the episode say about Doctor Who?), on a metatextual level (what does the episode say Doctor Who?) and how it resonates within Capaldi’s era, the show overall, and the episodes either side of it.  All of these discussions raise good points, but it was the discussion of Heaven Sent with the Twelfth Doctor specifically in mind that had me nodding along the most.  She made me question my own reading of the episode and its relation to what unfolds in Hell Bent, which makes both episodes all the more rewarding.

As a range, when The Black Archive gets it right, it give us the most fascinating analyses of Who out there or superbly researched behind-the-scenes documents.  They make me wish I had the skill to write one, but I know I would be in awe of an essay such as this one were I to try.  Obverse Books have done it again with this release: classy, intelligent, easy to read, thought-provoking and a bit of a thrill and a pleasure, Kara Dennison’s essay is a more than worthy companion to one of the greatest episodes of Doctor Who ever written.  Heaven Sent? Quite possibly.


‘Black Archive #21: Heaven Sent’ by Kara Dennison is out now from Obverse Books, RRP £3.99 – £7.99

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