Peter Capaldi appeared on the Where There’s A Will, There’s A Wake podcast recently and reflected on the popularity of the Doctor Who episode, Heaven Sent, which as the Twelfth Doctor he played almost entirely as a one-hander.
The Steven Moffat-penned and Rachel Talalay-directed episode is considered one of the show’s masterpieces by many fans, and features the Doctor navigating a castle (and his grief) as he is very slowly pursued by the Veil, a near-silent creature hidden mostly from sight by its veil and played by Jami Reid-Quarrell.
To fill 54 minutes with a single actor delivering most of the script and occupying almost all of the screen time required a very special performance from Capaldi, creative directing from Talalay, and of course a script from Moffat where enough happened to maintain audience interest while also being structured in such a way where the focus was always on the emotion – particularly grief – rather than the action.
“It was very unusual. It was beautifully directed by Rachel Talalay, who’s a lovely American lady.
“You’ve got to talk about monsters and it’s a sort of circus – kids love it and everybody’s got to be entertained but actually underneath it all, there’s a sense of melancholy and death.
“That particular episode’s just all about death and I think that’s fascinating that that episode became the all-time favourite.”
Heaven Sent was even an immediate hit with audiences whose own lives meant they would have nothing to resonate with in a grief-led story, such as younger viewers. Capaldi went on:
“[Young Doctor Who fans are] smart in the sense they understand instinctively that there’s darkness and there are things around and the monsters are manifestations of that.”
“But also the fact that the central character in Doctor Who will die – even though they come back as somebody else, the one that you love has gone, and that’s a very compelling and powerful thing to have at the centre of a show.”
Capaldi, who is now 65 years old and was 57 when Heaven Sent was broadcast, is still very busy as an actor and has reasserted that he won’t be returning to the role of the Doctor on television. He very specifically cited that medium in response to Tenth Doctor actor David Tennant playing the Fourteenth Doctor in the 60th anniversary specials, so didn’t address the possibility of following Tennant into working with Big Finish for Doctor Who audio productions.