Music & Radio

Doctor Who Series 9: Influences leave a Score to Settle

Doctor Who Series 9 Heaven Sent

Something tells me Rachel Talalay’s directing this one…


Heaven Sent broke many rules of rule-defying Doctor Who as it paved the way for the huge series finale of Gallifrey’s return. But was it such a great departure? It drew liberally from the show’s heritage, the considerable creative talent involved and the rich canvas of science fiction. Most importantly, amid the wealth of influences, it was as much a showpiece for the show’s music as it was the Doctor himself.

Trapped in a revolving door, inspired by Heaven Sent.

WHETHER IT’S THE MIDDLE PART OF A THREE PART FINALE OR A SINGLE SLICE OF ANTHOLOGY, HEAVEN SENT WILL BE LONG REMEMBERED. And apart from the evident format breaking, immediately following the departure of one of the New Series’ longest serving regulars, many strands of influences were evident in the penultimate episode of Series Nine. What’s not in doubt is that Heaven Sent is an immaculately produced piece of television thanks to those influences. And rising to the top is the mighty Murray Gold once again. In his tenth year as the show’s music director he’s once again seamlessly provided something so perfect that it’s easily overlooked. But as much as this Heaven Sent is held up as a one-hander for the Doctor, the music was with him every second of eternity.


Inherent horror

“Every 100 years a little bird comes”

The influences that comprise Heaven Sent run thick and thin. It’s a welcome return for director Rachel Talalay. Her entrance to the Who universe with the show’s first two-parter since 2011, Dark Water and Death in Heaven, made for an iconic and memorable finale in the rather downbeat Series Eight.

Heaven Sent is another adventure steeped in horror, just as Talalay’s previous episodes were. Although this time, the action moves away from crypts, the undead and body horror to a haunted house and corridors fit for a stalking veiled slasher. Heaven Sent is slasher horror in many senses of the genre. It’s strange to think of the Doctor’s nightmare as a palace of mystery with a corridor lurking monster, when it may very well have resembled a large, ornate garden in need of tending- as he takes a moment to dismiss early on.

Talalay’s worked extensively on genre television in recent years, but high on her resume is prolonged involvement in the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Production duties led to her directing debut, helming 1991’s Freddy’s Dead: the Final Nightmare. That was the deep-end: not only the closing chapter and heightened meta entry of the series but filmed in 3d.

“I’m in a fully automated haunted house, a mechanical maze”

The Veil carries the hallmarks of the slasher genre in Heaven Sent. Haunting the corridors, sticking with a never changing speed akin to Michael Myers, an unknown origin like Jason Voorhees and the product of a dream world like Krueger himself. All that was missing was the slashing, but when that arrived it did so in sizzling and quite graphic quantity. Billions of years of it. Like those single-minded icons of slasher horror, the Veil was part of a code. There was no hidden morality, but its purpose was dictated by the singular aim of unlocking the Doctor’s confession. Unlike most slasher icons, this clockwork fiend never had the capacity to rise to anti-hero.

And of course, this might well have been Dracula’s Castle. It was steeped in the gothic tradition, the bizarre camera point of view that heralded the Veil’s Ghost of Christmas Future march – an update of mirrors that catch a vampire’s likeness. Or a keen reference to Scrooged

The great house detective

“Somebody should really know better”

Doctor Who’s long tussled with the deer stalker clad shadow of Sherlock Holmes. But after the demise of the Third Doctor’s Heath Robinson action man, it was Script Editor Robert Holmes who allowed the comparison to erupt for Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor. 1977’s The Talon’s of Weng Chiang decked the Doctor out in the sleuth’s clothes during a classic Victorian caper, suggesting among other adventures that he was an influence on the creation of the Consulting Detective. Spin off novels, particularly Andy Lane’s All-Consuming Fire then pitched the Seventh Doctor into Sherlock Holmes’ world itself – the kind of crossover many fans are again clamouring for in the 21st century. More recently, Steven Moffat slyly had the Eleventh Doctor barge into Dr Simeon’s house under the guise of Holmes himself in 2012’s The Snowmen. That was sly, because recent years have pushed the two fictions closer than ever. Sharing much of the same creative team, particularly a lead writer in Moffat, it’s increasingly called the similarities into question. And now, it can’t possibly be a joke – there is no doubt that the BBC’s modern Sherlock and modern Who have influenced each other.

As for the character of the two protagonists, there’s no easy comparison despite the many shared elements that come from their mannerisms, adventuring and awkward hero status. There are notable crossovers, but how can the Doctor be little more than a space-time-hopping version of Sherlock Holmes when one can’t even say that the Fourth Doctor is the same character as the First Doctor. Still, the characterisations have been hard to pull apart on occasion.

Early on in the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure, it was acute. Straight from his feature-length debut in Victorian London, Enter the Dalek, gave the Doctor some dialogue that was interchangeable with Moffat’s contemporary Sherlock. Particularly notable in his dismissal of other characters. That was an adventure penned by reliable hand of Phil Ford, but in the brash world of an older, crankier Doctor over thinking his role in the universe, the only thing separating the legendary consulting detective and legendary Time Lord seemed to be the science fiction. Those plots pulled them apart, but come the use of the TARDIS as a mind-palace style during moments of danger in Heaven Sent, that comparison with Sherlock was back. It was distracting and frustrating how the simple removal of a companion could force this contemporary Time Lord back into that mould. While Sherlock has his ever faithful companion, he might as well not be addressing him during similar moments in his own adventures.

But perhaps it’s the framing of Series Nine that made it all the more acute. As Clara’s ascended throughout the series, the Doctor’s control fell to an all-time low during the Zygon invasion and that distortion of the traditional relationship only made the shift back to consulting detective more obvious. The TARDIS mind palace was a trick wheeled out a few times in Heaven Sent and one response to the demands of what was ostensibly a 50 minute monologue. And fortunately, by the time the episode reached its resolution those Sherlock comparisons had rotated away.

Science-fiction heritage

“Who’s been playing about with the stars?”

Come the Doctor’s arrival in Room 12, the prolonged magic of smashing through a diamond wall to escape the nightmare trap was iconic… And a straightforward adaptation of conceptual breakthrough; not only a concept that’s filtered through the show in Classic (The Mind Robber) and New Series (Turn Left), but one of the great staples of science fiction. An easy fit for morals, fables or speculative fiction surrounding crime and punishment, it’s a conceit that’s attracted a number of legendary creators.

Iain M Banks’s The Player of Games (1988) featured a labyrinth where prisoners could find escape, just as the Doctor could, although their crimes dictated their infernal depth and the distance they’d have to go. The concept was at the heart of Robert A Heinlein’s Universe (1941) to Brian W Aldiss’ 1956 Non-Stop and Harry Harrison’s Captive Universe 1969. And that’s not to ignore Philip K Dick’s Time Out of Joint (1959), Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars (1956 ) and Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light (1967), the latter of which presented an artificial heaven rather than an artificial hell. In Heaven Sent, the Doctor awaits the night to pinpoint his location. In Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall (1941), protagonists are caught in a strangely incorrect world, where constant sunlight has prevented a planet from learning about other stars.

The method of breaking through the wall of Azbantium, 400 times harder than diamond and 20 feet thick would appear familiar to readers of DC Comics, fiction’s popular home of the concept of multiple universes. Of DC’s many crises, 2005’s Infinite Crisis event found Superboy Prime (an alternative iteration of Superman from Earth-Prime, an Earth without metahumans) punching through the fabric of reality to reach the conventional DC Universe. DC posits a Multiverse of 52 universes and as with every one of the Multiverse threatening Crises, it was used to streamline the publisher’s markedly complicated continuity. Heaven Sent may not have had the lofty aim of integrating the mythology of the likes of TV21’s 1960s Dalek continuity in the way Infinite Crisis absorbed Smallville continuity, but it did serve to re-establish the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey.

Time and the Doctor

“Wrong question”

The end revelation, barely hidden in the opening scenes or the oddly ignored message briefly seen etched onto a wall (those words being the Doctor’s opening monologue) was the sole pay-off for the story. Few recent adventures have been so linear, but in doing so Heaven Sent could focus on that hard science fiction of that conceptual breakthrough. A loop of its own, defined by its own very specific internal ‘logic’, its food for thought and also a great example of the large canvas of imagination Doctor Who constantly reminds us is still has at its fingertips. It’s also a different sort of loop from the ontological paradox laid down in Under the Lake, or the cycle of sleep or death found in Sleep No More or Face the Raven.

Time and the Doctor has become far less immutable under Moffat’s direction. While the Classic Series struggled with consistency in the Doctor’s age – but his second to seventh generations roughly took up as many years as the full lifetime of his first incarnation – the last 10 years have seen the Time Lord’s age dismissed more than ever, but also extended. Trenzalore made the Eleventh Doctor the longest serving incarnation. There’s little to support the idea that the Doctor spent 4.5 billion years in the trap or is 4.5 billion years older thanks to it (or thanks to his refusal to confess). Strictly complying with the logic of the episode which states that he regains his memories at the wall, his consciousness would only extend 8,562 years by my calculation, based on that short segment of punching and realisation lasting one minute. He states elsewhere that a bird comes pecking every 100 years, meaning each cycle takes a century. That would make the body of the Doctor only 100 years older than the one that arrived in the castle come his breakthrough, albeit with a good 8,000 years of remembered exertion and memory. The confession dial itself appears to be an amalgam of Time Lord dimensional engineering and Matrix virtual reality. There is a precedent for that. While 1976’s The Deadly Assassin and Series Eight’s Dark Water held with the idea that participants only entered a Matrix construct mentally, 1986’s Trial of Time Lord showed humans and Time Lords step into a physical representation.


The Score

“There are truths that I can never tell”

Of all the influences built into the revolving structure of Heaven Sent, one deserves a special focus. Capaldi wasn’t only robbed of a true single-hander by Clara’s intrusion, but by Murray Gold’s imperious score. The Music Director’s been with the show since its return in 2005 and has never failed to match the extraordinary palette available to him. Doctor Who’s usual challenge of unlimited horizons pop up in every area of production.

Back in 2005, during a first series relying more on sampling than the orchestration that would come with the first Christmas special and second series, Gold proved his considerable value within three episodes. From the contemporary, to the past to the future. From the frenetic dance of Westminster Bridge (apparently inspired by the Pixies) to the soft romance and stirring promise of Rose’s Theme. All major characters have earned their own themes during the past 10 years, forming motifs that recur, wax and wane to match the action. Though some, and their variants seem ubiquitous, such as Series Three’s All the Strange, Strange Creatures or Series Five’s I am the Doctor, they’re soon missed when the show inevitably moves on. And that’s high praise.

Series Eight

Each Doctor’s has to have a theme now. For the Twelfth Doctor, A Good Man? Lifted Doctor’s themes to huge orchestral drama reminiscent of recent big screen superhero, particularly Hans Zimmer’s huge and growing portfolio of meta-human scores.

In many ways, Series Eight seemed to place a renewed emphasis on the music. A Good Man? was joined by the wonderfully electronic score for Into the Dalek, and the themes that entwined with the series arcs – the mystery of Missy, and the Impossible Girl motif Clara? that had officially appeared in The Bells of St John was spun out and around her burgeoning and tragic love affair with Danny Pink. An idiot with a Box was a pounding, concert filling and bombastic upgrade of A Good Man? where sharp, spiky strings, relentless percussion, and little melodic flourishes piled in. Through Last Christmas, subsequent themes such as Do you really believe in Santa? stretched A Good Man? to all the more epic proportions and  there was no doubt Series Nine would pick up the baton.

How could anyone resist all those question marks?

Heaven Sent

“This whole place is designed to terrify me. I’m being interrogated”

Heaven Sent is a transformative experience, perhaps one of the show’s most transformative experiences considering how much is anchored in the resolution. In comparison, legendary episodes like Blink alter and shift under repeated viewing but don’t have the singular aim that Heaven Sent has. It’s dripping with clues and sly nods (“I’m nothing without an audience” says the Doctor at one point, with an exquisitely timed glance that splinters the fourth wall). And of course, all the hints are there in the episodes opening. It’s that perfect essay advice; taking a conclusion and using it as the introduction. It’s a short and enigmatic counterweight to the episode’s closing montage. And as that sweeps by, it’s the score, starting with the melancholy string and wind as the as yet unknown hand burns away, that sets the pattern.

Sound effects play a major part of course. But as the Doctor materialises, gasping for breath, huge, gothic sounds of boom and echo make way for a light melody with a bass that deepens along with the Doctor’s resolve. The music is already reflecting the Doctor. It is the Doctor. The first half of the episode resolves mystery with discovery and the music matches, signals and responds to each one. I’ll take a closer look.


”I’ve finally run out of corridor. There’s a life summed up”.

There are strains of the ‘80s howls from Series 19’s Castrovalva as the Doctor takes in the exterior of the castle trap. And then comes the first light lines that recall Morricone’s Man with Harmonica – in hindsight a very early indication of where the Doctor is heading.

There are separate parts to the score that match the focus, the danger and the journey. When the Doctor’s discovering and problem solving, the pitch and tempo changes, but he’s constantly accompanied by a baroque motif. The Veil brings beat and booming bass propulsion to it. Almost a tango, befitting the two-handed chase, and that’s often merged with the buzz of flies. Later it separates, especially in the courtyard sequence when the score holds back to let the flies herald the creature’s imminent appearance.

When the Doctor first stops the Veil with a confession, that baroque theme broadens with the lilting melody mixing with some light electronica, sustain distorted, as the Doctor spies the portrait of Clara. Electronica returns with visual revelations about the Castle – notably the later wide shot that reveals it’s in the centre of a stretching sea.

Falling sounds

“Show them who’s boss. Die faster”

Perhaps the most gratuitous sound effect in Heaven Sent comes with the Doctor’s plane dive plummet. But as soon as he channels Sherlock in the TARDIS the baroque theme returns, wavering and strengthening as he thinks through the problem – and inevitably nears an answer. The strings speed up as the Doctor takes a step, or dive, closer to solving the trap. The music dictates this as a key sequence and measures the balance of strength the Doctor has in it.

While hitting the water cuts the music, awaiting the TARDIS reboot, the chalkboard scribbling inevitably brings a fairy-tale hint of the Clara? theme. One of the rare times the music stops altogether is later when Clara briefly becomes the episodes only other voice.

Under the lake, not for the first time this series, the skulls and Talalay’s cinematic shots bring the chain like tinkle of the chains of purgatory – as well as a loop that reminds of the Master’s theme from Series Three.

By the time the Doctor’s dive has bought some time and a fresh change of clothes, against the roaring fire, before the missing octagonal stone, the music hangs back before resetting to that baroque of safety and curiosity. By now, the Doctor’s playing his role, replacing items albeit with a confused look of compliance.

“Do I have to know everything?”

In the courtyard, the piano notes return with the slow strings. Before the grave where surprised by the Veil’s subterranean incursion, the fast and playful strings return us to Sherlock’s mind palace.

Clockwork later feeds in to the Baroque motif that backs the Doctor’s explanation that the castle rooms reset. Then, from halfway through the episode, there’s a shift as the Doctor starts to seize control. As the Doctor’s realisations are formed, as he returns to the point where he remembers, “always then”, what seemed vaguely familiar finally fuses into a glorious reinterpretation of the Twelfth Doctor’s theme, A Good Man?

“This place is my own bespoke torture chamber”

It’s a merciful 35 minutes before the sonic sunglasses appear, and almost immediately the Doctor’s killed for putting them on during the rising score. Well no, he’s killed as he must be when reaching the impenetrable end of the riddle. The wall of Azbantium, which heralds the prolonged montage stretching forward in time. Having lapped the story, or leapt forward of the Doctor in terms of knowledge, the new Doctor gives the same introductory speech – although the score doesn’t repeat itself. The music’s remembered what the Doctor can’t. Now it’s a more solid ballad version plays with the montage of the Doctor’s trap stretching into the far future.

The tap

“Every 100 years a little bird comes”

Heaven Sent’s score a very satisfying and impressive piece. The way the beat propels what is on so many levels a circular story, the way the throbbing beat moves from the strings of the Doctor to the percussion of the abstract, ultimately clockwork, Veil. Each confrontation is a small skirmishes of part of a greater war, each cycle suggested to take 100 years. The music responds to each moment… And as the ultimate corridor story, Heaven Sent needed a busy and brilliant score.

When the requisite billions of years have passed and the Doctor steps onto Gallifrey, the Western elements return – something that will no doubt stick. But as the camera reveals the Capitol of the Time Lords, it’s the Doctor’s theme A Good Man? rather than the romantic recall of This is Gallifrey, Our Childhood, Our Home we heard way back in Series Three. The music always focusses on the current Doctor.

“How long can I keep doing this Clara? Burning the old me to make a new one?”

Murray Gold’s music has formed a long, versatile wick through the New Series and amid the myriad influences that made up one of the New Series’ compelling format-breakers, Heaven Sent suggests that inspiration can stretch far into the future as well.

Jokerside’s Series Nine’s essays will conclude where the Series does… On Gallifrey.

Read the complete set of Doctor Who Series Nine essays.

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