That’s a hell of a bird: Heaven Sent and Adaptation

Co-Editor comment (Dene October): When Marcus joined the list of esteemed writers for ‘Doctor Who and History’, I was particularly excited. His monograph ‘Doctor Who and the Art of Adaptation’ is a personal favourite. Tracking the adapted sources to serials is something most of us have attempted, sometimes reluctantly fearing the show is somehow less original, but what Marcus does expertly is situate this in the changing debate about fidelity and transgression of sources. He does so in a way which is both thorough and accessible. In the fantastic piece below, especially written for this blog, he waits millennia while the Doctor punches away at a wall … which is ironic as Marcus’ book saved me so much time on a personal project exhaustively sourcing the arguments about the values of adaptation against those that once considered it a sin against literature. So thank you twice Marcus and sorry to take my time telling you.

As the story is blurted out bit by bit, DW & History contributor Marcus Harmes digs out the adaptive sources.

Heaven Sent
, the penultimate episode of the ninth season of the revived Doctor Who, was distinctive: unlike other Doctor Who stories, the Doctor was almost entirely alone, apart from a creeping but silent menace known as the Veil, a communicative chalkboard and a brief glimpse of Clara that were both figments of his imagination, and a small Gallifreyan boy at the end. But in another way he was very far from alone, as crowding around him were rich and often astoundingly inventive reworkings of different sources. I once wrote a book about heavensentthe adaptation of books, movies and television programs into Doctor Who stories, so now with each new story when I watch I’m keen to see and note the adaptations. Perhaps the most significant source of adaptation in Heaven Sent, because it informs and drives the mechanics of the plot, is the story ‘The Shepherd Boy’ by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. In this little story a wise shepherd boy answers three questions for a king, one of which was ‘how many seconds of time are there in eternity?’. The answer (like the answers to the other two questions) bypassed the question and posed an unknowable and untestable reply: ‘In Lower Pomerania is the Diamond Mountain, which is two miles and a half high, two miles and a half wide, and two miles and a half in depth; every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on it, and when the whole mountain is worn away by this, then the first second of eternity will be over.’


In Heaven Sent this little story is more than just an allusion and is intrinsic to the plot. Across four billion years the Doctor tells the story through both gritted teeth and through his pain of punching a wall harder than diamonds. In this way there is also perfect synchronicity between the story and its adaptation. It would take the bird aeons to wear away the mountain and it does take the Doctor billions of years to puncture the wall. But the Grimms’ story itself is told, bit by bit, across the millennia as each iteration of the Doctor punches out a little bit more of the wall and tells a little bit more of the story. As the wall weakens, more the story is blurted out. After punching for two million years, the Doctor has managed to say ‘And the shepherd’s boy says’. By the time twenty million years pass the Doctor has managed to say ‘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’. After 52 million years he’s managed to get out ‘Every hundred years, a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on the diamond mountain’. After a billion years he’s said ‘And when the entire mountain is chiselled away, the first second of eternity will have passed!’ Of course the answer is in any case irrelevant, as it had been to the Shepherd Boy, who was demonstrating wisdom rather than providing a definite answer. Hence the Doctor’s final comment is ‘personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird’.


What else is on offer in terms of adaptation? The Doctor is stalked through the corridors of a gothic castle by a decrepit, fly blown but menacing creature. Is that imagery and situation more from Mrs Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto or is it a faint echo of the unsettling and ambiguous events taking place in the corridors in Last Year at Marienbad? The rather opaque story telling of the two final episodes of this season are a further echo of this notable nouvelle vague film, or art house film as one reviewer commented. Digging up the grave in the courtyard again comes courtesy of gothic fiction.

houseJackThe castle is remarkable in that its internal configuration changes. A clockwork mechanism spins and whirs as corridors and rooms change position and new pathways open. The sight of a gothic structure moving and changing might suggest the moving staircases at Hogwarts but I’m not the only viewer to think the idea and the imagery has a specifically televisual lineage in The House that Jack Built, a 1966 episode of The Avengers. Mrs Emma Peel finds herself trapped in a stately old home but the interior is mechanized and rooms and doors shift, trapping her deep inside a labyrinth.


This time last year the two part season finale (also directed by Rachel Talalay) Dark Water/Death in Heaven were a similarly rich assembly of sources. The tasteless funerary facilities at the 3W Institute, including the aural ‘brochure’, hark back to the equally crass funeral home Tranquil Repose in 1985’s Revelation of the Daleks and to that story’s own source of inspiration, Evelyn Waugh’s 1948 novel The Loved One (filmed 1965). But the skeletons and scenes of hands erupting out of unquiet graves were delicious and familiar horror tropes, while elsewhere I have suggested that Missy’s demeanour and dress are quite meaningful adaptations of the Mary Poppins as written by P.L. Travers in the original books rather than the Disney creation in the 1964 film.

How does it all come together? Adaptation in Heaven Sent is more than an assembly of tropes and images. The adaptations work so well because they are participating in a story with a strong central core. The mysterious clue of ‘Bird’ written in the dust and the passage of time across billions of years bring together the Grimms’ story with the action in the Doctor Who narrative. The Grimm’s little story drives forward the plot while the delightful sinister resonances of moving corridors, a creeping monster, a grave and the skulls all participate to add to atmosphere to an extremely successful adaptation of the Grimms’ tale.



A lecturer at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia, he is the author of the 2014 monograph Doctor Who and the Art of Adaptation (Rowman and Littlefield) as well as many articles and book chapters on British science fiction and horror cinema and television. Works have appeared in the collections Doctor Who and Race and Time and Relative Dimensions in Faith and in journals including Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Science Fiction Film and Television and The Journal of Popular Television.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s