One of many things I love about Doctor Who is how no genre is off limits. The horror genre being a favorite, they visit it’s themes, traits, and tropes often and with great effect. Of allllllllllllllllll the creepy, freaky, unnerving, and haunting scenes I’ve seen play out in Doctor Who – episodes watched or novels read – one scares me more than any other. One disturbs me to the very core of my being. As far as I’m concerned, NOTHING in the history of this show is ANYWHERE NEAR as scary as “Heaven Sent” (S9E11). Recently I read a post Gemma wrote over on Books Beach Bunny titled, “Blogging Confessions: Fear” and it reminded me I had an idea for a post about this episode over the summer…an idea I presume I promptly forgot because it would take me places I’d rather not visit. But, inspired by the courage of her confessional piece, I decided to tackle it. And hey, what’s October for if not scaaaaaaaary things, right?
“Heaven Sent” begins in the moments immediately after the Doctor (Peter Capaldi), powerless to stop it, watches Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) die in an act of self-sacrifice. The events that led to her death were orchestrated by Me (Maisie Williams), an immortal who, to protect the alien refugees in her charge, cut a deal to get the Doctor’s confession dial – a small device designed to allow a Time Lord to face the demons of their past as part of a ritual act of purification before their final death. The dial procured, the Doctor, barely containing his rage, is teleported away.
The Doctor emerges from the teleporter in a deserted castle. Mist covers the ground below and heavy clouds hang in the air above. Monitors are mounted all over the castle. He is impatient, edgy, spoiling for a fight. “C’mon! Chop, chop!” he shouts. “The Doctor will see you now! Show me what you’ve got! I just watched my best friend die in agony, my day can’t get any worse. Let’s see what we can do about yours.” Wandering through the castle he sees a shrouded figure watching him from across a mist-covered expanse. As they stare at each other, the Doctor notices the monitors show him what this figure is looking at. Slowly stalking the Doctor through twisting halls, the closer it gets the more flies buzz through the air. As it approaches the Doctor realizes, “I know you. I’ve seen you before.” When it corners him at a dead end, the Doctor admits, “I can’t actually see a way out of this. Finally run out of corridor – there’s a life summed up. Now this is new. I’m scared. I just realized that. I’m actually scared of dying.”
With that honest confession, the creature freezes and the castle shifts. Taking advantage of this unexpected turn of events, the Doctor slips into a bedroom where he finds, among other things, an “old, very old, possibly very, very old” oil painting of Clara hanging about the hearth. With the flies always preceding it, when the shrouded figure arrives again the Doctor understands why it was familiar, “When I was a very little boy there was an old lady who died. They covered her in veils but it was a hot, sunny day and the flies came. It gave me nightmares for years. So, who’s been stealing my nightmares? What am I here for? You’ve known about me for a very long time, right? So, what is it? Is it a trap? Is it a prison? No! Is it a torture chamber? Am I right?”
Through the entire experience – running from the shrouded figure, exploring, trying to understand where he is, theorizing on how to get out and who has him here – the Doctor talks to Clara. He sees her in his mind. She stands with her back to him the entire time, writing to him on the TARDIS’ chalkboard. He explains, “There’s a storeroom in your mind. Lock the door and think. This is my storeroom. I always imagine that I’m back in my TARDIS, showing off, telling you how I escaped, making you laugh. That’s what I’m doing right now…And I’m going to explain to you how I survived. Can’t wait to hear what I say! I’m nothing without an audience.”
Talking to Clara and continuing to move through the castle, the Doctor understands, “It’s following me. Wherever I go, it’s tracking me. Slowly though, scary lurching. Scare. These screens, everywhere, it’s showing me exactly where it is all the time. How far it’s got. How near. Because it’s trying to scare me. Putting its breath on my neck, that’s the point, that’s what it’s doing. This is theatre! It’s all about fear. Working hypothesis: I’m in a fully automated haunted house, a mechanical maze. It’s a killer puzzle box designed to scare me to death. And I’m trapped inside it. Ha, [smiling] must be Christmas.”
The truth though is far more twisted. The Doctor has been locked inside his own confession dial, his worst fears used to try and force him to confess what he knows about a creature, “the Hybrid,” prophesied to be the deadliest thing in creation. Avoiding the shrouded figure all the while, eventually the Doctor finds a way out…behind a 20’ thick wall of Azbantium, which is four hundred times harder than diamond. As the shrouded figure approaches the Doctor returns to the storeroom in his mind. In frustration he says, “That’s when I remember! Always then! Always exactly then! I can’t keep doing this Clara! I can’t! Why is it always me?!!? Why is it never anybody else’s turn?!? Can’t I just lose? Just this once? Easy. It would be easy. It would be so easy. Just tell them. Just tell, whoever wants to know, all about the hybrid. I can’t keep doing this. I can’t. I can’t always do this. It’s not fair! Clara, it’s just not fair! Why can’t I just lose?? But I can remember Clara. You don’t understand. I can remember it all. Every time. And you’ll still be gone. Whatever I do, you still won’t be there.” The Doctor realizes how long he’s been in this castle, alone and being hounded by his fear. And his lamentation? That resonates with me. I’ve cried out similar sentiments often enough when life lands me on my knees weeping in frustration, exhaustion, and fear.
In his moment of despair, Clara speaks for the first time. She turns towards the Doctor and, placing her hand on his face, Clara says, “Doctor, you are not the only person who ever lost someone. It’s the story of everybody. Get over it. Beat it. Break free. Doctor, it’s time. Get up, off your ass, and win.”
Inspired, the Doctor refuses to reveal what he knows about the hybrid. Instead, he begins to physically hit the Azbantium with his fist. The shrouded figure arrives, finally touching him, and the resulting injuries leave the Doctor too wounded to regenerate. On the cusp of death, he crawls back to the teleport room, knowing a perfect copy of himself exists within the machine. He hooks himself up to the machine, burning himself alive to generate the energy needed to turn it on. And as he dies, a new version of himself is teleported in. The Doctor continues this process endlessly, for four and a half billion years, until he’s able to smash through the 20’ wall of Azbantium.
When I first watched this episode (as well as it’s second part, “Hell Bent”), I hated it. I thought it was terrible. I thought it was confusing and complicated and it made no sense. I had no desire to watch it again (which is the exact opposite of my reaction to everything Doctor Who). Unconsciously, I think it partially put me off the Twelfth Doctor. However, this summer I found myself revisiting Peter Capaldi’s time as the Doctor and I realized I absolutely adore him! I also realized “Heaven Sent” is so damn brilliant. Watching the episode again, after having been in therapy for over a year, I understood my initial reaction to “Heaven Sent” had nothing to do with the episode itself. Rather, it had everything to do with what it touched in me.
I am a hyperverbal extrovert by nature and I live deeply within my relationships. Through regular phone calls, texts, emails, FaceTime, and all the like, I work very hard to be sure those I am closest to who live out of town are as present in my life as those who I see in person every day. My time in therapy has shown me, with new depth and clarity, how important my relationships are to me. On that note, one of the most fascinating things I’ve learned about myself in therapy is I have serious abandonment issues.
When my therapist told me this I was shocked! I’ve always felt blessed to have my loving natural supports as a central part of my life. But, as Katherine explained it to me, despite all these beautiful relationships I’ve had several very close friends abandon me over the years. In each of these instances they were there…and then they were gone. After years of being a regular, loving, trusted part of each other’s lives they just disappeared. It was traumatic. All of a sudden calls and texts weren’t returned with nothing said. No explanation was given or, in one case, a weak rationale offered. I’m not sure which was harder. In each instance I tried for about a year to keep the friendship alive, calling or texting or emailing at least once a month, because they were important to me and I don’t give up easily on those I love. But eventually it becomes masochistic to keep trying.
This left behind “a nexus of wounds,” to use Katherine’s phrasing. Because of this, distance – real or perceived – in my relationships is a trauma trigger. Feeling like I’m drifting further/apart from those I love sends up all sorts of red flags. My mind goes, “Hey! We’ve been hurt terribly like this before! This feels similar so you have to get your shit together or we’re going to experience that pain again! Be careful!” All this is to say what the Doctor experienced, being trapped alone inside that confession dial – conversing with the memory of a friend forever lost to him – is a nightmare unlike any I could ever imagine. It is my literal definition of hell. If hell is real, that’s what would be waiting for me there – alone, forever, with all those I love lost to me.
I remember being at dinner with a friend once and, as conversation turned to the past, we told tales of break-ups and losing old friends. Once she’d listened to me tell the stories of my losses she quietly asked, “What makes it so easy for people to leave you?” There was no malice or sarcasm behind her words. Rather, they came from a place of sadness and concern at the losses I’d seen. Still those ten little words cut deeply. They hit something real and something painful and they’ve haunted me in a way nothing else ever has.
This is why I hated the episode at first! I couldn’t watch the Doctor go though this! Thinking of the Doctor being trapped alone for FOUR AND A HALF BILLION YEARS was a major trauma trigger. I couldn’t watch without considering and contemplating and internalizing this. So I get, now, why I initially hated this episode. It tapped into raw fear, very real personal trauma, and opened deep wounds I’d not yet acknowledged, owned, or dealt with.
Watching this episode again, after being in therapy, I was able to appreciate it’s brilliance. And I wanted to write about that connection buuuuuuuuuuut then I quickly forgot the idea because, I’d wager, I didn’t want to examine this any closer. Then I read Gemma’s post. I was impressed by how open she was and how many fears she explored in her writing. So I decided to try and do the same. And I decided to try and push myself, to not just write about the abandonment issue and how the Doctor’s isolation scares and affects me, but to try and go deeper.
If I was in the Doctor’s place, if I was trapped in this inescapable castle maze with all my greatest fears constantly chasing me, always closing in, what fears would I find waiting for me? What would be lurking inside my own confession dial?
Hell yes, I’m scared of clowns (and don’t even get me started on mice and rats). But the confession dial goes deeper than that. They aren’t my greatest fears. They don’t touch the core of me nor shape all of who I am.
The flies which constantly buzz around the Doctor as he navigates the castle, in whatever form they’d take for me, would have to be my limitations. Limitations are natural and knowing and respecting them are essential to living a healthy life. Yet so often I find myself thinking of that scene in The Dark Knight where Alfred advises Bruce, “Know your limits, Master Wayne.” Bruce replies, “Batman has no limits.” Alfred rightly replies, “Well you do, sir.” To which Bruce says, “Well, I can’t afford to know ‘em.” I have this conversation with myself ALL THE TIME.
I don’t want to see my own limits. In fact, I wish they didn’t exist. All I can’t carry on my shoulders, all I can’t hold, all I can’t heal for those I love feels like a failure. Because of my limitations, I feel I fail those I love. I can’t help them. They are knowing pain I can’t protect them from. And that terrifies me. So the constant, buzzing reminder of my limitations would have to be my version of the flies that are always circling the Doctor – scattered throughout the castle, sometimes I’m mindful of them and sometimes they’re just out of my perception, waiting to be noticed.
My fear of my own limitations is writ large in a major experience of trauma that came during a formative time in my life, as I was becoming an adult, and as a result it shaped much of who I am. One of my best friends became pregnant when we were in our early twenties. We were always so close and, as a result, I naturally became very close with her son, too. I learned how to change diapers and work a car seat and soothe young tears with him. She was a single mom and they lived in the same town as me from when he was about three until he was seven and, due to the crazy and unpredictable nature of life, there was a time where my friend was living here with her son and working in another state – with weeks at home and weeks at work. When she was away, her son would often stay with me. I’d pick him up from school, take him to religious ed., and we’d do homework, build forts, brush our teeth with lightsaber toothbrushes, and he’d climb in bed with me when he’d have nightmares.
I don’t have children of my own but I can’t imagine I could love them more than I loved him. I’ve never loved anyone like I love him. My whole heart was his – parts I didn’t even realize I could give away. For a lot of years the three of us were very close. They were good years – some of the best of my life, in retrospect. Ultimately, they’d move. I tried to keep in contact. I called. I’d text. I wanted to keep that relationship alive but they drifted away. Eventually I stopped calling because it hurt too much to not hear back. In the almost ten years since they left, you can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen them. What I’ve learned in therapy is just how traumatic this was for me.
Here was this beautiful, brilliant, perfect little human being and all of a sudden I was gone. I was unable to love, care for, and protect him anymore. As far as he knew, I was the one who disappeared. When we opened all this up in therapy what I found in the depth of that wound was the resounding feeling that I failed. He deserved better. I wasn’t strong enough to carry the pain of so many unreturned calls so I abandoned him. I should’ve been stronger. But it was too hard for me so, for self-protection, I stopped trying. I lost that connection because I wasn’t strong enough. I failed. And I’d just like him to know I’m sorry. I’m sorry I wasn’t stronger. I’m sorry I abandoned him. I’m sorry I failed. He deserved better. I’m still haunted by my failure in losing him.
This would be my oil painting. For the Doctor, it was Clara. He was unable to protect her. He’d just seen his “best friend die in agony” and her picture hung above the mantle to haunt him. For me, it would be this beautiful boy I loved so very much whom I failed. I wasn’t strong enough to keep fighting to remain a presence in his life. I should’ve been stronger. With all the work on this we’ve done in therapy I know I didn’t fail because I had no control. There was nothing else I could do. But if I found myself trapped inside a confession-dial-turned-torture-chamber, I know it would pick at that all the same. It would tear until this trauma was exposed again and that wound reopened.
So, that just leaves us with the haunting, shrouded figure that would be slowly yet relentlessly pursuing me through the castle again and again and again and again for four and a half billion years until it either killed me again and again and again and again or I confessed. What is my greatest fear? What is my deepest trauma? What is my most open wound? Thanks to therapy, if I found myself trapped within a confession dial now, I’d no longer be surprised as to what this figure would be. Writing this piece led to some fantastic conversations in therapy and some AMAZINGLY CATHARTIC sessions. I now clearly know what shrouded being would be pursuing me through that never-ending maze of a castle. I know the face it would wear under its hood. I know the falling tears that would stain its cheeks. And I know the feeling of absolute hopelessness it would leave in its wake, what would kill me in its touch.
I’m a confessional storyteller by nature. I’ve just always been a very open person. And I don’t know how to teach without stories. That carries into my writing as well. I’ve often thought about adding a “Cast of Characters” section to the “About” page of this blog so readers can put faces to the recurring names. It’s just who I am. But this experience, this fear is a story I’ve never told – not in its entirety anyway – to anyone but my therapist. It’s mine and this one, this one story, I keep close to the vest. Still, I appreciate it. This is part of me. To say it’s the worst thing I’ve ever experienced is also to say it’s important. This has touched and shaped everything in my life. It has made me who I am and I have learned much from it. So while it hurt and it hurts and I’d prefer to never have to relive it, I love and appreciate it for all it’s taught me and how it’s shaped me. All this is to say, I’m not going to share this story here. I will describe the feelings in detail but the actual experience is for me alone.
That’s what it was. Once in my life I faced absolute hopelessness. Everything in my life – everything I’ve read, everything I’ve watched, everything I’ve heard, everything I’ve studied, everything I believe and profess – has assured me that nothing is ever truly hopeless. As I just quoted in my last post, “One thing that comes out of myths, for example, is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment, comes the light.” But I learned that isn’t always true. Things can be truly hopeless. Once I leapt into the abyss and found nothing waiting to catch me.
The best way I can describe it is it was as though the light went out in my soul. As someone who’s always taken his faith very seriously and who has spent his entire adult life studying and teaching theology, I don’t use that phrasing lightly. But I made a choice and, in the wake of that choice, there was no purpose in life. There was no meaning anymore. I’d lost it, willingly. I’d turned my back on it. I’d given it up. Even now, on the other side of it, I look back and the rest of me wants to say, “Now, that was just what it felt like. That wasn’t true. Look at us! We survived! Of course there was hope!” But the knot that grows in the center of me when I think of it, that part of me that remembers knows that is a fanciful fiction, a story told to reassure me now, not the truth of what I lived then. I would freely take feeling every heartbreak, every loss, every traumatic moment I’ve ever experienced a dozen times a day for the rest of my life as opposed to ever feeling that hopelessness again. It was only with me for four days…but it has touched and shaped everything in my life since. Those four days held an eternity of darkness, emptiness, and unrelenting pain.
And again, as I write this now, the rest of me wants to say, “That’s an exaggeration. You wouldn’t really want to feel all your other pains, losses, heartaches, and traumas a dozen times a day over feeling that same hopelessness again.” But I know that’s just another protective fiction.
So that’s my greatest fear – that sense of hopelessness, that moment meaning was so completely stripped form life that the light went off in my soul – and that is what would be under that shroud, haunting and hunting me through the twisted maze of a castle inside my confession dial. As I write, I have to make the conscious effort not to summon those feelings nor imagine them bearing down on me in a corridor with nothing but a brick wall at my back, reaching for me, threatening to consume me, leaving me to die in the inky blackness of true hopelessness.
The idea of feeling/experiencing/seeing that hopelessness once more in my life is enough to literally bring me to my knees sobbing in fear. Contemplating it, in fact, has. The idea of my living alone with it incessantly hunting and killing me again and again and again for four and a half billion years is…it’s unimaginable. I don’t think I could survive. The Doctor has done many, many heroic things over the course of their 2,000+ years of life. The Doctor has inspired hope in so many hopeless situations. But, to me, everything else pales in comparison to the strength and courage he needed to survive inside that confession dial. Pounding away at 20’ of Azbantium as your hand shatters until your worst fear kills you only to reboot the whole cycle for billions of years?
The Doctor was right. That is a torture chamber. I don’t think I could handle it. I don’t know that I’d survive. As the Doctor tells Clara when he tries to rally the strength to go on, “I’m scared and I’m alone. Alone. And very, very scared.” Because the Doctor’s the hero, of course he preservers. But I don’t think I could. I think it would break me. I’d confess or die or both. It would be a living nightmare, my own personal hell.
One of the things I love most about Doctor Who is how the show effuses hope. In a time of so much darkness, both in our fictional stories and our real world, Doctor Who never ceases to show us our highest potential…and then be bold enough to affirm we’ll reach it, no matter what missteps we make along the way. The first time I watched “Heaven Sent,” my own unrecognized deep fears and traumas kept me from seeing how brilliant this episode is let alone finding any hope in a story that felt so oppressive. Watching it now though, I feel hope.
I feel hope because I can recognize how it affects me and why. Those fears, traumas, and wounds are no longer hidden inside me. And I feel hope because I’m working to heal them, too. Despite those few friends whose losses have left a nexus of wounds behind, I am blessed with a loving circle of natural supports to stand by me in my life’s struggles and to celebrate my life’s joys. And anyone who’s talked to me for more than fifteen minutes knows I’m in therapy and how central it’s become to my life :). No matter what fears hound me, unlike the Doctor in his confession dial, I’m not facing them alone. So I know I’ll always get through that Azbantium wall because I don’t have to chip away at it by myself. Realizing that, “Heaven Sent” can’t haunt me as it once did. With loving natural supports (and all the beauty, power, insight, and strength that comes with regular therapy!) there’s always help and there’s always hope waiting to meet the fear.
 Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth. (New York: Anchor Books, 1991), 46.