I am on record as being pro Capaldi monologue. The opening to last seasons’ “Listen” for example, was a herald into one of Moffat’s best episodes ever written. The “Beethoven’s 5th” quandary this season was the highlight of the episode it preceded. But each of these moments were prologue. An introduction, as it were, to the theme of this week’s adventure. Tonight’s episode attempted to expand upon it. What if the entire episode was one long Capaldi monologue?
The Doctor: “It’s funny, the day you lose someone isn’t the worst. At least you’ve got something to do. It’s all the days they stay dead.”
This is not the first time Doctor Who has given us companion-less episodes. One might even have called them something of a staple of Tennant’s tenure, as not only did most of his Christmas episodes not feature regular companions, but his entire last “season” of specials, post Donna, did not have an established traveling partner. “The Waters of Mars” even made it a major plot point: no companion meant no checks or balances on the Doctor’s ego or decision-making. But in those episodes, at least there were characters with whom the Doctor interacted with. In a few of them, he even picked up a temporary substitute companion for the hour (like Kylie Minogue’s Astrid Perth in “Voyage of the Damned.”) Here, there was no one to talk to, and nothing to interact with, other than the mysterious (and more importantly silent) creature, called “The Veil.”
The result was a tour de force performance from Capaldi. The episode rested upon his shoulders, and he carried it spectacularly. That’s no small feat either, considering that this was a brain bender of an episode. Capaldi’s “arrival” at the beginning of the episode is not in fact his first time on the merry-go-round. When we first get on and ride the circuit, it is 7000+ years in the future from the moment he left Mayor Me’s Trap Street. And yet he has not time traveled. That’s because, as Reinette Poisson once termed it in “The Girl in The Fireplace,” he is taking “the slow path.”
The Doctor: “Clearly, you can’t make an actual psychic link with a door, for one very obvious reason – they’re notoriously cross. I mean, imagine life as a door. People keep pushing past you. All of that knocking, but it’s never for you. And you get locked up every night, so if you’re just a little bit nice…”
Before we get to that revelation though, a few notes on the choices made in this episode. The “TARDIS Of The Mind” that the Doctor continually bursts into every time he is in trouble and needs to find a way out was a brilliant concept. It also gave the production a way to bring back Clara (and Clara’s theme music), with a figure dressed as Clara was on that last day, whose back is always turned, and who lives within this TARDIS of the Doctor’s mind. She does not speak (until the end), but instead communicates via chalkboard, another nice nod back to last season’s “Listen.” As to “The Veil,” the creature that the Doctor is trying to clever his way out of facing, I found myself thinking more than once that this was the type of fear the show as aiming for and completely failed to produce in “Sleep No More.” The creature was no more high budget than the Eyebooger men, but something about the grey hooded figure whose face you cannot see and its the slow, inexorable following of the Doctor was terrifying.
Capaldi has stated before that Tom Baker is one of his primary influences for his performance, but this was the first time I noticed the show call back to the old Who series in the soundtrack. The Doctor’s third escape from the Veil, as he pulls himself out of the grave pit and the clockwork castle is revealed for the first time in total, was underscored by a very 1970s/80 Doctor Who sounding synth track–so much so it was enough to pull one out of the story, and think that one should be looking around for Baker, perhaps in his head to toe purple Romana phase outfits, skulking around the castle. (I saw more than one comparison to “Warrior’s Gate” post episode.) And perhaps it was the focus on the companionless aspect of the episode, but I wondered if The Veil ever indeed did lift the veil, as it were, if a skull-like version of Missy would turn out to be underneath, as we saw The Master look in “The Deadly Assassin.”
The Doctor: “What sort of a person has a power complex about flowers? It’s dictatorship for inadequates.”
But no. Instead, like the castle itself, The Doctor’s time in this trap was a puzzle to be solved. How has the Doctor travelled only one light year, and yet the stars insist he has moved 7000+ years into the future? Because that’s how long he has lived through this puzzle over and over. Think of it this way–there is no one else there in this puzzle castle with the clockwork rotating floors. And yet when the Doctor throws himself out the window into the water that first time, there are skulls as far as the eye can see. Each of those skulls was added to the pile when the one from the parapet falls during The Doctor’s last confession to The Veil to get into Room 12. Each of those skulls were carried up to the parapet from the transporter room by the Doctor. Each of those skulls were lying in the transporter room from the last time the Doctor crawled down there to burn himself up to generate another copy. Each of those skulls belonged to the Doctor. As he says, “I’m not scared of Hell. It’s just Heaven for bad people.” No, what scares him is the slow dawning realization that he’s been in it for a very, very long time.
This twist reveal, that the Doctor has been here for centuries, living these events over and over, figuring out the same puzzle over and over, just to get to Room 12 and chip away at the wall in front of him, was the stunner of the episode, even though it was only the first twist of several. Each time The Doctor solves the puzzle and gets into Room 12, over the course of 2 billion years, he does it just a little faster, and get a little further through the wall, until he is able to tell the story of The Shepherd Boy from those wacky friends of his on the Darts team, the Brothers Grimm.
The Doctor: “There’s this emperor, and he asks the shepherd’s boy how many seconds in eternity. And the shepherd’s boy says, ‘There’s this mountain of pure diamond. It takes an hour to climb it and an hour to go around it, and every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on the diamond mountain. And when the entire mountain is chiseled away, the first second of eternity will have passed.’ You may think that’s a hell of a long time. Personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird.
Two billion years, the first second of eternity: you say tomAto, I say tomAHto. And with that the Doctor has slowly chiseled, or well, punched, his way through the diamond wall, ending The Veil once and for all. He steps through to reveal…
…Gallifrey. But you knew that. Or did you? Did you see that that’s where this was going? Did you foresee that the Doctor’s confession dial would stand open, with the same castle we’ve seen him in the whole time surrounded by the same moat, in the center? Did Mayor Me know that’s where she was sending him–into the Confession Dial she took at the end of “Face the Raven?” The Doctor has been trapped within his own confessions, each confession allowing him closer to the escape. He could have just confessed and stepped out two billion years’ worth of times, but he slowly pecked his way out instead…
The Doctor: “Rule one of dying – don’t. Rule two – slow down. You’ve got the rest of your life. The faster you think, the slower it will pass.”
…only to then confess out loud, the thing he refused to say all those two billion years. And this is where I confess I was disappointed. Who did I want “the hybrid” to be? I don’t know. I won’t pretend to have an answer. Other than “anyone but the Doctor.” It is such a Moffaty predictable outcome, after such a fantastic mindfuck of an hour, that I almost screamed.*
Next week, The Doctor has returned to Gallifrey, having taken “the long way round.” Ohila, the Sister of Karn who we have now seen a few times including “The Magicians Apprentice” is on hand. As will Maisie Williams, who, after a couple billion years will probably be “SomeOtherTitle Me” As for the conclusion of this Hybrid story arc, I can only hope that it is not a disappointing Moffaty trick of the light, after such a spectacular season.
*ETA: It has been pointed out that there is another way of reading the Doctor’s statement: “The Hybrid is me” as “The Hybrid is Me.” That’s just as annoying a trick, especially in light of the fact that the Doctor has only *ever* called her Ashildr. But at least as an answer to the puzzle, it’s the one we all assumed, and would not be the Doctor himself. So.