Contains spoilers for the Doctor Who episode Heaven Sent that may completely ruin your enjoyment of it. If you have not seen this episode, I advise you not to read the following post. Caution: may contain traces of philosophy.
In Heaven Sent, we have what Radio Times’ TV critic Patrick Mulkern has called an “instant classic”. I tend to agree, even if I found this particular script impossibly frustrating in my impatience to get to the resolution of the current plot arc, which is only very slightly advanced by this achingly slow but brilliantly acted episode. But we also have in Heaven Sent the embodiment of current showrunner Steven Moffat’s philosophy for guiding the show, which is diametrically opposed to previous showrunner Russell T. Davies, even though they share a common vision of Nu Who as classic Doctor Who plus British soap melodrama, as I’ve suggested before.
It’s clear from his work on the show that Davies is a positivist, i.e. someone with faith in the objectivity of the sciences. He mounted all his episodes under a tightly conceived materialist conception of science fiction – very much in the tradition of Terry Nation – despite being willing to play fast and loose with elements many sci-fi fans might consider ill-considered. It was never orthodox science fiction (i.e. hard sci-fi), but it was always under its shadow. While Moffat shares Davies’ anti-religious sentiments, he is not fundamentally a positivist, and has never shown any real sign of being interested in orthodox science fiction. So while Davies pursued Nu Who as sci-fi first and melodrama second, Moffat pursues it as melodrama first and sci-fi optional. In philosophical terms, Moffat is an ontic idealist about the Whoniverse – the complete opposite of Davies’ ontic materialism – a point made abundantly clear in The Big Bang, when Matt Smith’s Doctor restores the universe largely (it seems) from nothing but his own memories. Moffat’s universe, in other words, is essentially pure thought – George Berkeley would have been proud!
With Heaven Sent I believe we can see Moffat’s priorities clearly, in that he is willing to sacrifice anything and everything in terms of the Doctor Who mythos if it makes an episode as much of a spectacle as it can be, and simultaneously provides as melodramatic a plot as possible when taken as a self-contained story. However – and here is where he becomes schizophrenic – Moffat is also far more engaged in the process of maintaining (and repairing!) the ambiguities and problems in the long-term continuity of the show than any other showrunner in its fifty year history. This tension is part of my joyous frustration with Moffat’s tenure at the top, since I must confess that I struggle to find any episodes penned by Davies that I actually liked (possibly New Earth is an exception), while I find the episodes in Moffat’s era to be stronger in almost every sense, despite struggling to find any that are as good as those that Moffat wrote under Davies guidance.
The problem with Heaven Sent is that its temporally-leaky, closed-loop plot device breaks the Doctor Who universe in an all too predictable way. It’s not that other sci-fi writers hadn’t considered using teleporters as “3D printers” (as Capaldi’s Doctor presents it) – indeed, the science fiction megatext is full of stories about this, and I’ve discussed some of these previously in the context of low fidelity immortality. But as a writer working on a long-running show, you don’t use teleporters this way without opening the big can of worms clearly labelled ‘Do Not Open’. For if all that is required to make a teleporter into a replicator of beings is a jolt of energy, then the moment anyone has transmats (as Doctor Who traditionally calls teleporters), you instantaneously have immortality for everyone, not to mention perfect instantaneous cloning, and all the intriguing problems with personal identity than Ronald D. Moore explored in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. Because energy is a generalized resource, and not that hard to come by – particularly if you can simply zap a humanoid to get it – it is simply not a sufficient barrier to prevent the vast swathe of problems that come from conceiving of teleporters in these terms.
Let’s try and be generous to Moffat and imagine that it is the regeneration energy or time energy in the Doctor’s body that is required to thread the needle and make the teleporter into an autocloner. That at least prevents ordinary humans in, say, The Seeds of Death from having instant immortality and duplication from T-Mat. But the energy put into the teleporter each time should be reduced by the amount used to restart it (if regeneration energy) or entirely expended the first time (if time energy), so neither is a very plausible way of mounting the closed loop required for Heaven Sent to work. The situation is far worse if you just ‘burn’ a body to run it a second time. The Master needn’t have spent so many years hunting down ways to get a new body in the plot arc beginning at The Deadly Assassin (clearly an influence on this episode) since he could just use a transmat and a random victim to make a new him simply by having copied himself prior to his last regeneration. I’m afraid it doesn’t work as an element of the mythos: it only works as a means of making this individual episode have a dramatic finale.
That, in a nutshell, is Moffat’s problem. He’s content to make an episode under his jurisdiction work as well as it can in its own terms, regardless of the implications for the mythos. (Kill the Moon, anyone?) But he’s schizophrenic about this, because at the same time he is so admirably dedicated to maintaining and repairing the mythology and, for that matter, integrating the best of the non-canonical Who lore into the master canon. (In this regard, does the next episode, Hell Bent, imply resolving both the so-called Cartmel masterplan and the loose ends with the 1996 TV movie? Ambitious!) I have nothing but admiration for the way that Night of the Doctor not only gave some closure to the eighth Doctor, but also made all the Paul McGann Big Finish audio plays into quasi-canonical stories by name-checking every one of his companions on screen. That’s a move so bold that I just can’t imagine anyone but Moffat daring to do it.
Perhaps this is the point: Moffat is daring – positively reckless, in fact – with Doctor Who, always trying to mount bigger, more ludicrous high concept stories atop of a rather fluid conception of continuity and long-term plotting that he simultaneously savages and painstakingly repairs. Which is precisely Heaven Sent’s problem. It’s a ridiculous piece of high concept storytelling, utterly dependent upon its opening scene not giving the game away (much like The Usual Suspects, actually), and one that opens up the teleporter wormcan and hopes that its consequences can simply be ignored. (Actually, any psychological consequences can be ignored, since to the last and only survivor of these Doctor-copies only a short time has passed!) Perhaps some future showrunner will be able to fix the complications Moffat unleashes here by reconceptualising teleporters, but I doubt it. More likely, it will remain another tear in the fabric of the Whoniverse made by Moffat in pursuit of his own standards of storytelling. I admire him. He has, as they say in New York, chutzpah; audacity – both good and bad. But I also hope and trust that he’s working on the challenging problem of who could conceivably replace him when he eventually steps down.