Spoilers beneath the cut!
You know how I said that Face the Raven would probably be my pick for award nominations? I take that back. This episode would be my pick.
Stephen Moffat often takes chances with his episodes and his season structures. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. This one worked better than I could have imagined.
The episode was a one hander. It was fifty-five minutes of Peter Capaldi being the Doctor with no audience, no other characters to bounce his thoughts off, and that would be a challenging premise even in a show that wasn’t about time travel and adventures. In a show that relies so heavily on the Doctor interacting with people and having huge adventures, an episode like this could have failed spectacularly.
It worked because the writing was so good and Peter Capaldi is such a terrific actor. The way he’s portraying the Doctor is a large part of what made this episode possible. While Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, and Matt Smith are all amazingly talented actors, their Doctors couldn’t have held this episode together. Capaldi’s Doctor can and did.
Moffat’s script took full advantage of everything Capaldi does, too. It used his full range, blending anger, grief, and fear in the right proportions at every moment. When his Doctor confesses that he ran away from Gallifrey because he was afraid, you believe it. If Ten had said that, I would have assumed there was something else behind that confession.
The other big factor in making this episode work was the set design. It was stunning and creepy, reflecting the tone of the story perfectly. One of my favourite effects was the way that the TARDIS in the Doctor’s mind was used to reflect what he was feeling. When he was coming round from unconsciousness, it slowly brightened as the lights came on. It was a lovely touch.
The chalkboards in that TARDIS were another great touch: they were the questions that the Doctor’s memory of Clara would have asked, and they kept driving the story forward. He had no one to interact with, but those questions pushed him to think, just like Clara often did. It showed how much she’s influenced him.
It was also the setting for the most heartbreaking moment of the episode: when the Doctor sat down, looking defeated, and cried for Clara. His grief was so palpable that I teared up a little. Bravo to Mr Capaldi for that.
As for the plot…it was another one that didn’t completely make sense until towards the end, but then it made so much sense that my chest hurt. I know that I complained in Sleep No More that a story needs to make sense as you’re watching it, but the problem there was that I was overly conscious that it made no sense while watching and it never hung together, even after the final reveal. This one caught me up in the action so that I never questioned what was happening, even though it wasn’t always clear where it was going, and then the reveal about the loop happened and everything came together in the best way.
I did shudder a little at learning that the skull was the Doctor’s. What a way to make the episode even more creepy in retrospect!
There was so much meat to this episode that I have a feeling we’ll be digging into it for years. I can foresee many discussions at conventions about the Doctor’s true age–do we consider him several billion years old, or do we count the last iteration of the loop as the only one he experienced?–and endless debate about whether he really could have punched through the crystal and what the rules of the castle were. The revelations about the Doctor’s fears alone could power panels for years.
For me, the really important part of this story was how well it portrayed the Doctor’s grief and his steely determination. It was tightly written, beautifully acted, and deserves all the acclaim it’s getting.
The unexpected (for me) revelation that he’d emerged on Gallifrey was the icing on an amazing cake.