Let’s forget about the surrounding circumstances of “Heaven Sent” for a moment—not what precedes it (Clara’s death) of course, one could never forget that—but the broader stakes of what is going on in Doctor Who: all of the things having to do with Gallifrey and the Hybrid and all that. Perhaps you don’t remember, and don’t refresh your memory, because you don’t need any of that for this episode. Let’s focus instead on the story presented over the course of this hour that is also two billion years long.
How many seconds in eternity?
As “Heaven Sent” begins, the Doctor emerges from a teleportation tube, bewildered as to where he has found himself. Clara has just died, tragically, and he is angry, ready to blame whomever he encounters it would seem, although he knows all too well what’s happened. It wasn’t really some malicious enemy that killed Clara so much as her own élan vital, bolstered through her time travelling with the Doctor, that led her to think she could trick death, only to be caught in its crosshairs.
In S1E1 of the New Who, “Rose,” a conspiracy theorist type named Clive tells Rose that the Doctor’s one constant companion is death. Of course that is wrong in its spirit, but “Heaven Sent” thematizes it in its opening lines, not just for the Doctor, but for all of us:
As you come into this world, something else is also born. You begin your life, and it begins a journey towards you. It moves slowly, but it never stops. Wherever you go, whatever path you take, it will follow—never faster, never slower, always coming. You will run; it will walk. You will rest; it will not. One day, you will linger in the same place too long; you will sit too still or sleep too deep. And when, too late, you rise to go, you will notice a second shadow next to yours. Your life will then be over.
It is important that “Heaven Sent” begins in the middle, as it were. By the point we catch up with him, the Doctor has been at this game long enough for the stars to have shifted 7000 years, and the first time he plunges into the water, it is already rather full of skulls we will learn are his own. The logic of all of this may not be quite consistent, and I will have more to say on that eventually, but be that as it may I would contend that getting too caught up on the logistics of events is to risk missing the point. This is wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey deathy-weathy stuff we’re dealing with, and the power of the episode lies in its exploration of themes—the confrontation with one’s own death, the struggle for authenticity, and even more so the seemingly infinite loop of grief and mourning.
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.
I sometimes wonder what it is like to live your life without a ball of grief that forms your center. I suppose I knew, somewhat at least, when I was a small boy, before the cancer took my mother away, but every day after is a day she’s stayed dead. And then others have followed, each loss resonating with that inauguration into a life of mourning. You’ll join the club eventually, if you haven’t already, and I apologize. I’ll be sorry for your loss, the wailing and the gnashing of teeth and how no one can console you because your loved one is gone.
And then others will follow, because this is what life is at a certain level: a series of irrecuperable losses, death and hardship. Only the young know it otherwise, which can lead us to cherish youth and a certain naivete, but we’ve always known that the Doctor is neither young nor naive, even when they’ve looked it. Even Eleven had an ineffable sadness behind his eyes, as to live is to die, and worse it is have those you love leave you and never come back.
All of “Heaven Sent” can be read through this lens. It’s a slow motion time loop episode, where it is not time that loops but the life that fills it, constantly searching for a way out of it, fleeing as far as one can from death in the hope of some reprieve. And yet it stalks us as the Veil stalks the Doctor. It’s always there, over your shoulder if not before your eyes, demanding a confession of the truths you cannot tell—other people’s secrets; your own secret shame; those aspects of you that simply must remain hidden in order for you to function in the world; and most of all that grief that eludes expression. It comes out in anger, or sometimes in sadness; in the contemplation of the meaning of life or lack thereof; in the struggle to simply continue. The central truth cannot be told because there are no words for it, and no answer to the question.
Can’t I just lose? Just this once? […] It would be so easy…
The Doctor’s prison is an allegory for existence. He wanders a maze, trying to make sense of it, stalked by the figure of death. The first time I suppose he was nude for a while, since he wouldn’t have had a set of clothes to change into that he’d left for himself. It’s like being born—thrust naked and afraid into a world that does not make sense. For the Doctor this occurs over and over again—if not quite the naked part—and he is terribly alone, as we all are when it comes down to it. No one else can live this life from the inside.
And we have to imagine all of these iterations, as each time the Doctor doesn’t know what is going on. Each time he has to figure it out. Each time he stands bewildered as he looks at the stars and calculates how much time has passed. But before that he contemplates the portrait of Clara that we have to gather he himself painted some hundreds of years ago. His life stands in the shadow of her death, and if the castle isn’t a symbol for life itself, it is at least one for the time of mourning—a second of the eternity of grief that catches you in its loop.
It can be hard to get out of bed in the morning. Why? To face the day—another day where she is still dead. The problems of the world are overwhelming and you can’t solve them, but even if you could what would it matter? She’d still be gone.
The rooms revert to their previous condition, except for those marks the Doctor leaves, like the portrait, the clothing, his own skull. It is a sort of static reality, in flux but always stabilizing, his efforts erased by the passing of time. He always has to dig in the garden again.
It’s not until he faces the wall of spantium that he remembers, and he claims to remember all of it, somehow, all two billion years of punching a diamond mountain—a second of eternity. This does not make sense from a rational point of view. If each Doctor materializes from the teleporter based on the information stored therein, then each should only have the memories of that iteration, and yet we should wave our hands at this along with Doctor Who to take the thematic point—he remembers each and every time he has done this, and Clara is still gone.
It is a different sense of time at play in this moment, as that between events that are many years apart in one’s life but which nonetheless resonate with one another. The death of one’s mother with the loss of a romantic relationship, or how a smell can take you back to childhood. It is a question of memory itself, in other words, not of the day to day routine but in a broader sense—the sense which gives one’s life significance or meaning. It’s in the story one tells oneself about oneself, and so of course the Doctor remembers in that he knows, and it all hangs together in two billions years of grief distilled to a moment—a second of eternity.
Why can’t I lose? Just this once, it would be so easy. Why can’t I give up and stay in bed, or drown my sorrows looking for the bottom of a bottle? Why can’t I give up on people, the world, and myself? It would be so easy, and the temptation is always there. So in the resolve of the Doctor we should see a resoluteness in the face of life—and death—itself, even if this is simply to go on.
How does he win? By punching a diamond wall over and over again for two billion years, dying in order to use his own energy to be able to start again. It’s a cycle of perseverance mirrored in the banal act of living from day to day. Breaking through takes us back to fantasy and the high stakes of the Doctor versus the Time Lords, with something to do with Hybrid, but this is not to demean the ending of “Heaven Sent” so much as to laud the value of the fantasy.
It is both impossible and the everyday win of carrying on, not an actual escape but a resoluteness in the face of the challenge of living. Not to give in. Not to lose, which would be so easy. Nothing worth doing is easy. And so if it is a fantasy it is nonetheless authentic being that the end of “Heaven Sent” represents.
Assume you’re going to survive. Always assume that. Imagine you’ve already survived.
As dark as “Heaven Sent” is, its title tips us off that this is a propitious moment. Ultimately, the Doctor does not flee death but faces it over and over again for two billion years, an amount of time that becomes absurd and beyond comprehension. The time of grief. A second of eternity, an inescapable prison one nonetheless escapes, for that moment to dwell elsewhere, to face other challenges, to manage to get out bed and continue. He finds again how to live with gusto and to display that style of living that has drawn so many along to be caught up in his orbit of infectious enthusiasm.
2020 (and beyond) presented virtually all of us with a year much like the Doctor’s two billion. Every day, every iteration almost exactly the same. The objects in each room revert to their previous condition seemingly of their own accord, or maybe you did it one of those days and simply do not remember. Along with this the fear, the anger, the inchoate grief and recurring desire to give up, the feeling that the world is out of sorts and there is nothing you can do to fix it.
How do we muster the resolve to persevere, to take a small nick out of the proverbial diamond impasse? The bird in the Brothers Grimm tale was sharpening its beak, but the Doctor is persisting in a refusal to give in. Losing would be so easy…
And so I do not wish to suggest some kind of direct parallel between that wall of spantium and the pandemic that has affected our lives, insofar as that might suggest an analogy between moving beyond it and the Doctor breaking through solid rock one punch at a time, as if we’re going to leave this all behind us. Rather I want to suggest a general lesson to be gleaned from “Heaven Sent” and one would hope also from the hardships of the past year in the real world.
The grief will always be there, as will the fear. Those we love will continue to stay dead, and death will continue to always stalk us like a shadow. We can flee to the other side of the castle to get that 82 minutes of reprieve. We could do that over and over again and spend our lives trying to distract ourselves. Or we can face these things, though I’m afraid at a certain level each of us has to do it alone. No one can grieve for you, or face your death for you. You have to punch at that solid rock wall yourself, bloody your hand, and resolve to do it again and again.
But then we might travel together, and be companions as we flit across space and time. We can be like the Doctor, ever off on a new adventure. Who knows what is about to happen?
But let’s remember that this is also a good thing.