Heaven Sent — a letter to Steven Moffat

We’re all revelling in the joys of a new Doctor right now, as Jodie Whittaker blazes her trail through the cosmos. But I’ve been thinking a lot of a previous Doctor and a previous story. On 28 November 2015, Heaven Sent was broadcast. It was a year and a month exactly after I lost my beloved partner Becky. And the story hit me like a sledgehammer. In fact, I wrote a letter to Steven Moffat about it, and you can read it below.

Dear Steven

I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who since I was 10 years old. My oldest friend lent me some copies of his well-thumbed Target paperbacks, and I was immediately hooked. I tuned into the Five Faces of Doctor Who season, and that was it. I saw every episode from then on, and Doctor Who stayed with me all of my life, through school, through my 20s and marriage, into my 30s and through my divorce, and then into my 40s when I met a very special woman called Becky Taylor and fell in love. Despite being a lover of SF and fantasy, she had never seen Doctor Who, but she dived in to what was now the Moffat era, and became a fan of the show immediately.

And then, last year, she died. She had cystic fibrosis, so we knew that our time together may well be short. I have been grieving her loss for all of the past year. Funnily enough, she died the week before Dark Water screened. I recall complaints were made at the time about it on behalf of those who had been recently bereaved. I was essentially still in shock at that point, but I enjoyed the story and didn’t take any offence. It was Doctor Who, after all, so of course they weren’t really in the afterlife and the story was a very enjoyable, crazy adventure.

When I sat down to watch Heaven Sent, however, a few weeks ago, I had no idea that I was about to watch something that would speak to me so directly about the feelings of loss and grief I had been experiencing. It was a remarkable piece of television, utterly remarkable. A great episode of Doctor Who, certainly, but one of the finest things I’ve seen on television for a long time — and the best exploration of the experience of grief I had seen.

I saw my feelings crystallised in that line which cut me to the quick: “It’s funny. The day you lose someone isn’t the worst — at least you’ve got something to do. It’s all the days they stay dead.” There was so much about the episode that was resonant for me — the Doctor being alone, without his companion, in a landscape that doesn’t make sense. His feeling of being pursued by mortality itself. And the structure of the episode, where the Doctor has to physically and repeatedly batter away at something harder than diamond, knowing that he has to keep going even though he simply wants to give up. So, so powerful. I don’t think anyone had summed up so completely the feelings I had been experiencing for the past year. I was intensely moved by the Doctor’s reaction when he knows what he has to do, when he remembers the significance of that scrawled message, ‘Bird’: “Can’t I just lose?” That desire to give up, to simply withdraw from everything; I had certainly felt that. And the subsequent line — “And you’re still gone. Whatever I do, you still won’t be here” — communicated so clearly the helplessness and the pointlessness of grief.

I felt sure you must have lost someone very close to you to understand this, and if this is so, you have my fullest sympathy. I saw you talking about the writing of this episode at the Doctor Who Festival at the Excel, and you explained how draining a process it had been. Now I see why.

I was also very touched by the way you have developed the themes of living with loss and of love being something that must be savoured even though — or because? — it is transitory. The line in Hell Bent — “Stories are where memories go when they’re forgotten” — expressed perfectly how grief mutates. How you want to cling on so tightly to memories of someone, but inevitably they become less clear, less vivid, and then that person begins to live on in the stories you tell of them, and of your time together.

In The Husbands of River Song, the final scene that River and the Doctor shared moved me very deeply: “’Happily ever after’ doesn’t mean ‘forever’, it just means ‘more time.’” That is so true. I shared such a very happy time with Becky. She was born in 1980, and when she was born her parents were told she’d be lucky to live past 17. She was 34 when she died and I was so privileged and so very lucky to share some of the extra time she had, and to spend it sharing happiness.

And a little of that time, Steven, she spent watching Doctor Who with me. Thank you for that. And thank you for writing the stories of the past year so beautifully and taking care of Doctor Who, the friend who’s been at my side since I was a boy.

This is Becky at the Doctor Who Experience in 2011, she had fallen in love with the show very quickly!

All the very best to you and your family, and best wishes for a wonderful 2016,

Alasdair