Doctor Who: Series 9, Episode 12 – Hell Bent

“Nothing’s sad till it’s over. Then everything is.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

After last week’s exemplary step into experimental drama, I have to say I wasn’t overly surprised to find this week’s series finale of Doctor Who was very much back to business as usual for Steven Moffat. As ever,we had a script brimming over with fantastic ideas, many of which were never properly developed. As ever, we had a tricksy, non-linear narrative which gradually gave up the answers. As ever, there were fan-pleasing references everywhere. And as ever, the death of a major character turned out not to be so permanent after all.

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As Sister Ohila correctly pointed out,the Doctor doesn’t like endings. Neither, it seems, does Steven Moffat. Had he not made the undermining of death as a source of jeopardy such a frequent trope, Clara’s timey-wimey resurrection might well have been an uplifting,optimistic ending. As it was, I found myself shrugging and muttering, “not again.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy this, but I suspect your enjoyment level will vary according to how much you’ll tolerate that divisive ending. Perhaps even more so than usual, this was a fanboy episode – the first Gallifrey-based story since the show’s revival in 2005. Accordingly, Moffat crammed in as many references to previous Gallifrey stories as he could think of. Rassilon! The Capitol! The Shobogans! The Matrix! The Cloisters! That barn again!

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None of these were especially vital to understanding the plot proper – for non-fan viewers they probably just felt like some added colour. But I have to admit, I enjoyed them; perhaps none more so than the sight of the traditional TARDIS console room, which even made the right noise when the doors opened! I wonder if that was the set built for An Adventure in Space and Time?

However, the problem with doing an episode so steeped in the show’s history is that the continuity is devilishly difficult to sort out. There were a lot of unanswered questions here. The main one of course was, how did Gallifrey get out of the pocket dimension in which it was hidden in Day of the Doctor? That was at least addressed by Clara, but pretty much handwaved away without an answer. As it’s been painted as one of the show’s most important ongoing plotlines, it felt ridiculously convenient and contrived to suddenly not be a problem any more.

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As another ongoing reference to the past, it was good to see the ever-excellent Clare Higgins representing the Sisterhood of Karn again as Ohila (though if she’s meant to be the character from 1976’s The Brain of Morbius, her name should actually be Ohica). But besides sniping at the Time Lords, I wasn’t clear what she was actually doing there, either in-universe or as a part of the plot. Her function of admonishing the Lord President was, after all, not as decisive as that of the Gallifreyan military.

As to the Lord President himself, it was great to see prolific character actor Donald Sumpter back in the show, after 1968’s The  Wheel in Space and 1972’s The Sea Devils (he had hair back then). Presumably, this was meant to be a later incarnation of the same ‘Rassilon’ portrayed by Timothy Dalton in The End of Time. But I’m still not clear as to whether he’s meant to be the actual Time Lord founder for whom practically every artefact on Gallifrey is named. He was referred to here as “Rassilon the Resurrected”, so perhaps. And since neither he nor the High Council appeared in Day of the Doctor, I’d assumed they’d left the planet in some way before it was hidden.

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Still, it was great to see the traditional Time Lord collars (Sumpter’s barely staying on in that desert scene), now emblazoned with the Gallifreyan script established in the revived show. Rassilon made a good antagonist in the early part of the ep, as the man behind last week’s multi-billion years torture of the Doctor. Still, Clara might have been a bit less outraged at that had the Doctor explained that, from his perspective, it was four and a half billion years passed as a repeated couple of days. Or did he ultimately remember them all?

But, fan references and annoying Moffat tropes aside, this ep did work very well as a conclusion to the emotional arc of the two main characters – for that, I’d forgive him bringing Clara back from the dead, as they necessarily had to confront each other about their actions.

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I don’t get the impression that, as with previous Doctors, their relationship had any ‘romantic’ aspect. But she clearly mattered very much to him; as he kept saying, he had a “duty of care”. Inconsistent though Clara’s character has been, both Capaldi and Coleman made that very believable. It’s hard to imagine the Fifth Doctor enduring billions of years of torture to bring Adric back.

 

As ever this year, Capaldi was magnificent as the Doctor, setting out his stall early on with his contemptuous responses to the Gallifreyan military’s attempts to retrieve him. It was clear that, after his treatment at their hands, this Doctor was going to take no shit from his duplicitous people; but as ever, it was his mind that he used to beat them, the one ‘weapon’ they couldn’t take away from him.

Despite that, he was desperate enough to resort to using a gun when it came time to save Clara. That emphasised how much this mattered to him. Enough, as it turned out, for him risk “fracturing the whole of time”, something even Clara was appalled at. The obvious comparison was with the Tenth Doctor’s arrogant, even selfish, recklessness in The Waters of Mars. But then, we’ve already established that, however much he may have mellowed in this year’s season, the Twelfth Doctor has a selfish streak. It’s to Peter Capaldi’s credit that he’s managed to sell that while (unlike last year) still keeping the character sympathetic.

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The framing story, of the now partially amnesiac Doctor relating events to a Clara he no longer remembered, was both clever and emotionally affecting at its climax. Moffat even gave Clara a nice lampshade gag at his own writing style, with “you love cliffhangers, don’t you?” Mind you, when the ending was finally revealed, I did wonder how the Doctor remembered enough about the events to retell them. Though that was partially handwaved away with the marvellous line,”Stories are where memories go when they’re forgotten”.

The idea of ‘the Hybrid’ has been nicely seeded throughout this year, without the often intrusive, shoehorned plot arc references in previous years. But now it became clear that it had become central to the plot, it had a rather muddied, unclear resolution, which was a shame. As many people pointed out to me last week,the Doctor’s dramatic declamation that, “the Hybrid… is me” could have been taken to refer either to himself, or to Maisie Williams’ fellow immortal now calling herself “Me”.

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It was no surprise to see Williams back, Me and the Doctor at the very end of the universe and quite literally “standing in Gallifrey’s ruins”. But the script avoided giving us a clear answer as to whether either, or both, was the Hybrid prophesied by the Matrix. For fans, there was some obvious dancing around the issue of whether the Doctor is indeed “half human, on my mother’s side”; Moffat perhaps wisely chose to avoid definitively answering that one. But some kind of resolution would haver been nice. Yes, prophecies are usually vague, and subject to biased misinterpretation. But was this Hybrid one of them, both of them, and was it worth the Time Lords’ abject fear of it? We never really found out.

Still, the point of the story was to provide a capstone to the Doctor/Clara arc, and in that it did succeed. Since Capaldi took on the role, they’ve been painted as good friends who, nonetheless, are not good for each other. That culminated in Clara’s hubris a couple of weeks ago, her final attempt at ‘being the Doctor’ causing her death. We’ve all had friendships like that; where we truly love the other person, but recognise that we bring out the worst in each other. As the Doctor said, perhaps finally realising that, “one of us has to go”.

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The idea of saving the companion by wiping her/his memory of the Doctor is not a new one; aside from the obvious example of Donna Noble, it happened to Jamie and Zoe at the end of The War Games. But Moffat nicely turned it on its head here, with the coin toss resolution that this time, it was the Doctor himself who had to forget. As he fell and passed out, it was a genuinely moving moment; more so, in fact, than Clara’s apparent death had been.

And of course Clara isn’t dead, which I’ll admit rather soured the end of the ep for me. I was fine with the idea of the Time Lords snatching her back “between heartbeats”, and the Doctor then trying to cheat that and keep her alive. But how much better would it have been if she’d then stuck to her guns and gone willingly back to her death to preserve the fabric of time? Yes, it would have been a virtual rerun of the end of Waters of Mars, but it also would have made for better drama. This felt, not for the first time, like Moffat trying to have his cake and eat it. For that matter, does this mean that the fabric of time is screwed now? We never found out.

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Anyway, at least Clara has finally achieved her dream of becoming the Doctor; she’s got her own TARDIS, and is running away from the Time Lords to unknown adventures with her own companion. Her TARDIS is even stuck in one shape like the Doctor’s; though if you subscribe to the “Moffat is a misogynist” theory, it’s a bit dubious that two woman time travellers are now effectively stuck in a kitchen.

All in all though, a reasonably satisfying finale to a much improved series. Despite the criticisms, there was much to like here. The Doctor’s description of regeneration (“death is Time Lord for man flu”), the Time Lord General regenerating from a white man to a black woman (“how do you cope with all that ego?”); and finally, the end of the fan-baiting ‘sonic shades’ in favour of a new redesigned sonic screwdriver. Character Options will be happy.

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I’ve really enjoyed this series. Yes, there’ve been a couple of missteps; the first of the Zygon two-parter was rather clumsy, and Sleep No More was just dire. But in general I’ve found this year far more consistently enjoyable than the last, where I found myself admiring the drama, but not emotionally invested in it because the characters were so unlikeable. After a shaky start, Peter Capaldi has become the kind of Doctor I always hoped he would be. Now shorn of all his Clara-inspired angst, long may that continue.

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3 thoughts on “Doctor Who: Series 9, Episode 12 – Hell Bent”

  1. I agree it would have been better if Clara had just died, although there was really no reason given in this episode about why she had to die. If the Time Lords wanted the Doctor back on Gallifrey, why not just send for him as they have in the past? I’m sure there was something in there about a threat to Gallifrey, but that didn’t get fully fleshed out, unless I fell asleep for the middle twenty minutes, which I don’t think I did.

    At the beginning of the series it looked as if things were looking up after the last series, but it’s been very patchy again. A colleague and I were discussing this in the week and agreed that ‘Classic Who’ also had its patchy stories, so we shouldn’t be too disturbed by a few poor episodes that don’t make sense.

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  2. >if you subscribe to the “Moffat is a misogynist” theory, it’s a bit dubious that two woman time travellers are now effectively stuck in a kitchen.

    Hmmm, so if we follow your logic, any fiction which doesn’t feature a male character is mysogynistic? So much for the Bechdel Test – I’m sure Clara and “Me” will find better things to talk about than men.

    Anyway Clara’s death hasn’t been averted, just kicked into the long grass. She’s basically in the same boat now that Abigail was in at the end of A Christmas Carol where she ends the story going off for a last sleigh ride with Kazran before she dies horribly of her incurable disease. It also fits with the general theme of Clara being like the Doctor, going off for one last joyride before answering the Ood’s call in The End Of Time or ditto before going off to be shot dead by River at Lake Silencio or even the big party in the Middle Ages before getting dragged off to see Davros on Skaro. She’s not aging due to her condition so she could carry on and only finally go back once she uses up her massive lust for life. Of course it’s possible that, like the Doctor with the Teselecta, Clara will find a way out of her “fixed point in time” death – maybe one of the many copy Claras will bite the bullet in her stead – but that’s one for future writers to deal with. In the meantime, there’s always the possibility of Lady Me/Clara spinoff adventures.

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