This is an author add-on, but I don’t feel like figuring out what number it would be. When I saw this episode, I knew I loved it, but it took me re-watching it to realize something important about it. I’ll get into that in a minute.
Quick Recap of the show:
The premise of the show is that there is a being called the Doctor that travels through time and space with various companions to fight evil. He’s an alien from a race called the Time Lords who lives and journeys in a 60s British Police Box called the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space). Sometimes he fights aliens, sometimes he eats hot dogs, sometimes he meets famous historical figures. Honestly, he just kind of travels, but the TARDIS tends to take him where he needs to be. Sometimes he changes history, sometimes he can’t, depending on the writing. At the time of this episode, there had been 12 doctors, and the current one was played by Peter Capaldi. His companion at the time was a woman named Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman), who had been killed moments before this episode started, and he was forcibly teleported away.
The episode begins with a wounded figure walking through a castle, as the Doctor’s voice-over talks about the fact that Death is always following. You run, it walks, but it’s always coming. Then, one day you sit still too long, and it catches you. The unidentified figure flips a switch, writes the word “Bird” in the dirt, expires, and disintegrates into a skull just as the Doctor is teleported into the same room.
The Doctor speaks, assuming that whoever brought him here can hear him, telling them that they should be very afraid right now, if they had any part in Clara’s death, and that he will never stop coming for them.
The Doctor finds himself inside of a castle in the middle of an ocean which constantly reforms and shifts around him. He determines from the teleporter that he can only be within 1 light-year of the Earth, so he knows that, when the sun sets, he can use the stars to tell his location. However, he also finds out that he is not alone. There is a monstrous figure of a veiled old woman, covered in flies, which slowly comes after him. The Doctor quickly realizes that the figure is from his childhood, from a funeral of an old woman he knew, where the heat was so great that the flies attacked her veiled corpse. Someone is using his oldest fear against him.
Trapped at the end of the hallway, the Doctor confesses that he is afraid to die, which causes the Veil to stop, allowing the Doctor to escape. He realizes that the figure will stop when he confesses a deep truth. It’s not trying to kill him, it’s interrogating him. The Veil shortly catches up to him again, but he escapes by jumping out of a window.
Then, the scene shifts to the Doctor inside of the TARDIS, talking to himself. It turns out that, due to the extremely advanced nature of his brain, whenever he has to make a quick decision, he goes into a mental version of the TARDIS where he can make calculations about the situation that would take hours outside in the span of seconds. Calculating the time of impact to the water, the Doctor avoids breaking his neck and the shock.
As he awakens under the water, he sees that the ocean is filled with skulls. Mountains of skulls. He makes his way back to shore and begins investigating the castle. For days, the Doctor explores the castle, avoiding the Veil. He discovers a message to him: “I AM IN 12.” The Doctor escapes the Veil again by confessing another fact: He ran away when he was younger because he was scared. He realizes that the Veil walks so slowly that, if he lures the Veil to one end of the castle, then runs to the other, he has 82 minutes before it catches up.
After more time passes while he works to find room 12 in 82 minute increments, the Doctor returns to the starting room, and sees the word “Bird” written in the dirt, as well as the skull of the figure from the beginning. A passage opens, leading upward. The Doctor stands on the roof of the castle, looking at the stars, and observes that, by their movement, he has traveled 7,000 years into the future. He then accidentally knocks the skull into the water, when avoiding the Veil again. The Doctor confesses one more fact to the Veil: He knows the identity of the greatest fear of the Time Lords – “The Hybrid.” He doesn’t disclose who the Hybrid is, however.
This confession finally reconfigures the castle so that the Doctor can access Room 12, where he finds the TARDIS behind a wall of crystal. This crystal is Azbantium, a substance 400 times harder than Diamond, and the wall is 20 feet thick. Then, the Doctor thinks back to the word “Bird” and finally remembers everything. More on that in a second.
The Doctor realizes that “Bird” is a reference to the fable “The Shepherd’s Boy” by the Brothers Grimm. And this breaks him, causing him to beg to be allowed to lose. To quit. Not to be the hero this time. However, a memory of Clara makes him press on.
So, with the veil approaching him, the Doctor starts punching the wall until the Veil catches him, and mortally wounds him. Dying, the Doctor crawls back up the stairs to the teleporter room, and uses the re-setting of the room to create another version of himself as he expires. The new Doctor then begins to recite the speech from the beginning of the episode.
What follows is a montage of doctors re-living the same sequence we just watched, over, and over, and over again. For FOUR AND A HALF BILLION YEARS, as he slowly punches through the wall, a punch or 3 each lifetime. Then, he is mortally wounded again, and has to agonizingly limp back to start the whole cycle over with his last breath. However, we watch as the Doctor slowly tells the Veil the story of the “Shepherd’s Boy,” in one of my favorite sequences in the show’s history.
“There’s this emperor and he asks this 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! 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 must think that’s a hell of a long time. Personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird.”
The Doctor finally breaks through the wall and escapes, revealing that he’s been inside of his confession dial, basically a Time Lord will and testament, the entire time. And he sees that he’s on Gallifrey, and that his own people, the Time Lords, were the ones that put him there. He tells a small boy “Tell them I’m back. Tell them I know what they did, and I’m on my way. And if they ask you who I am, tell them I came the long way around.”
Okay, so, this paragraph will probably kill me: Peter Capaldi is the best actor to portray the Doctor thus far. I’m sorry, but I genuinely believe that. I love David Tennant, and I think he is the best Doctor, and he is definitely My Doctor, but Tennant is behind Capaldi in terms of actual acting ability. This episode proved it. Capaldi explores every aspect of the Doctor in this episode, and he does it with such a level of subtlety and skill that he manages to get you to forget how relatively little actually happens in this episode. Tennant may have loved the role enough to bring it life that no other Doctor has (sorry Pertwee, Eccleston, Smith, and the Bakers), but dammit, this episode is up there with Martin Sheen in The West Wing or Elisabeth Moss in the Handmaid’s Tale. This is the sh*t people get awards for, and it’s an episode of DOCTOR WHO, a usually lighthearted sci-fi show. It’s the same reason why I love Captain Picard the most, because Patrick Stewart could bring you in with his performances when he was the focus. Capaldi just… f*cking nailed it.
The Groundhog Day-esque loops at the end are amazing, and it really does serve to show exactly how slow the Doctor’s progress is as he punches his way to freedom. Watching him die over and over again really makes us feel uncomfortable, because this is our protagonist undergoing agony dozens of times before our eyes, and billions more offscreen.
Also, the final remembrance. That’s the part that I think sets this episode apart. See, he’s not just realizing what “Bird” means, he’s remembering all of the times he’s done this before. He’s realizing that he’s suffered this sequence thousands of times, and that he’s going to have to do it billions of times to get free. He wants to quit. He wants to give up. This is a torment that no mind should be able to bear, being chased, tortured, and killed for basically as long as the Earth has existed, but he just quickly resolves that he’ll do it, he’ll bear it, he’ll persevere and he’ll triumph, because that’s what he has to do. He even realizes that he could be free in an instant just by confessing who the Hybrid is: But he refuses to do it, because it’s an important secret that should be kept (it’s later revealed to be a friend of his). He’s willing to undergo hell to protect that secret. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield, as a better author said.
This episode is one of the best hours of Doctor Who, and it is just watching the Doctor through triumph, agony, failure, regret, and overcoming the odds, all in short order. It explores levels of the character that we rarely touch upon, and it rests largely upon Capaldi’s performance combined with some excellent writing and cinematography. Truly, this was wonderful.
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