Published on December 7th, 2015 | by Brad0
Doctor Who – Hell Bent
I have a whole bunch of mixed feelings about Hell Bent, the ninth series finale of Doctor Who. It’s not bitterness because all of my theories were proved to be completely wrong, I promise! There’s a hell of a lot to praise, and a hell of a lot that I think is questionable, though I can also raise good responses to those questions. Follow me below the image where we will begin spoiling the shit out of it.
So the episode opens not, as you might reasonably expect given last week’s cliffhanger, on Gallifrey, but rather in the middle of the New Mexico desert, with The Doctor arriving at a very familiar-looking diner and meeting a very familiar-looking waitress. Neither of them seems to know each other, even though we can very plainly see that it’s The Doctor and Clara. The Doctor is strumming Clara’s theme on his guitar, and he begins to tell the waitress his story.
Back on Gallifrey, The Doctor goes home to his barn previously seen in The Day of the Doctor and Listen. He’s summoned to the capital by Lord President Rassilon, previously seen played by Timothy Dalton in The End of Time and now played by Donald Sumpter, who you’ll probably know best as Maester Luwin from Game of Thrones. After The Doctor ignores Rassilon’s various summonses, the Lord President comes out to the desert to confront The Doctor himself. The Doctor, who blames Rassilon for the horrors of the Time War, the death of Clara and the billions of years of suffering he’s just endured, demands that he “Get off my planet”, enacting a bloodless coup and banishing Rassilon from Gallifrey. Rassilon’s defeat and The Doctor’s victory over the one ultimately responsible for Clara’s death is all swept aside almost completely without incident in the opening twenty minutes, which is the first big swerve Hell Bent has in store for us.
This more than anything else was why the first viewing of Hell Bent left me a little cold, and has nonplussed a significant chunk of the fan base, based on what I’ve been reading over the weekend. The season-long arc about the Hybrid, the events of Face the Raven and Heaven Sent, they all seemed to be building up to the type of big finish we’ve come to expect from Doctor Who. Indeed, The Doctor’s closing words from Heaven Sent, “The Hybrid destined to conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins is me.” (Or Me, potentially) seemed to suggest that The Doctor and the Time Lords were on a collision course. What we got instead was very light on action and very heavy on character. The Doctor’s words didn’t matter so much as how he said them; he drew the Time Lords into his trap so that he could try and save Clara. Nothing else mattered.
And why would it? If you think about it from The Doctor’s perspective, he’s just relived the day that Clara died every day for 4.5 billion years. The Doctor we see in Hell Bent is in a mental place where conventional terms like anger don’t really do it justice. And Peter Capaldi, at the risk of repeating myself, is just bloody amazing at playing it. From the opening credits to the moment he tells Rassilon to leave, he spends about fifteen minutes not saying a word – a stark contrast to last week where he spent an hour being (more or less) the only person talking – but his eyes tell the whole story for us. What Rassilon did to him is incomprehensible, and yet he dismisses him almost without a thought, so focussed is he on getting back what’s been taken from him billions upon billions of times.
Clara is brought back through a Time Lord device known as an Extraction Chamber. It plucks you from the moment of your death and freezes you in the space between your final two heartbeats. The Time Lords believe that The Doctor has saved Clara because she has information crucial to defeating the Hybrid, so focussed are they on what seemed to be the actual plot, but The Doctor has bigger plans. He and Clara escape, taking a memory-erasing device along the way. The Doctor fills Clara in on what he’s been up to since she died, and they steal a TARDIS and run away. This TARDIS is presumably the set from 2013’s An Adventure in Time and Space where David Bradley played William Hartnell in the story of the creation of Doctor Who, and it’s just bloody gorgeous, one of the big highlights of Hell Bent. His hope is that when they break free of Gallifrey’s time zone her heartbeat should restart, free of the Raven and her impending death, but it isn’t working. He decides to take more drastic measures, and flies the TARDIS to the very end of the universe. When the very collapse of time itself still doesn’t break Clara free from her inevitable fate, she tries to console The Doctor that maybe the universe needs her to die when she did, to which The Doctor responds “The universe is over, it doesn’t get a say anymore! We’re standing on the last ember, the last fragment of everything that ever was. As of this moment, I am answerable to no one!” It’s a truly terrifying performance, one that puts previous Doctors’ “overstepping the mark” moments to one side and says “No, this is the definitive one.” It’s a moment that The Doctor has been building to all series, and it’s sublime.
Into this moment steps Ashildr/Me, the last person standing (give or take – presumably Utopia was happening near one of the last few stars still going), watching the stars go out. She and The Doctor debate the nature of the Hybrid, debunking the theories that it’s her, as a cross between human and Mire, or that it’s The Doctor and that this series might be canonising the half-human remark from the Eighth Doctor’s TV movie. Ashildr then suggests that the Hybrid might be two people, The Doctor and Clara, and that their closeness will cause him to go too far and destroy the universe, which we’ve been seeing the entire episode. The Doctor knows this, too – it’s why he took the memory erasing device. He intends to remove himself from Clara’s memory, a la The Rueful Fate of Donna Noble, so that she can live safe from him. Clara won’t have this, though, and tampers with the device. Whether she’s done it right is unclear, and she and The Doctor agree to set it off together, knowing that one of them will then lose their memory of the other. Unfortunately, that’s the only way to save the universe.
Clara’s departure, in many ways, mirrors the exits of all the previous companions on Doctor Who, albeit with a twist – I hesitate to say improvement, but they certainly learnt from things that didn’t work. Like Rose she departs in tragic circumstances and returns in a seemingly impossible fashion, only to leave again; the difference being, Clara’s return is a direct result of The Doctor’s actions, whereas Rose’s was of her own accord and to The Doctor’s great surprise. Hell Bent also gives The Doctor and Clara time to talk, time to explain what they mean to each other and why they have to part, rather than Journey’s End teasing us by keeping them apart before rushing through their few brief moments of reunion in order to shuffle Rose off again. Like Martha, she leaves The Doctor because their travelling together ultimately isn’t quite right; this time, however, it’s a mutual decision rather than her dropping him and moving on. Like Amy and Rory, the grief over a lost companion is broken by someone new to him who looks like Clara Oswald; unlike Amy and Rory, he doesn’t spend a century sulking on top of a cloud in Victorian London. And, most obviously, like Donna, there’s a memory wipe involved; this time however, the companion gets a say in her fate, and it’s The Doctor whose memories are lost.
Clara’s appearances as a waitress in the diner scenes are the final misdirection. At first, we’re supposed to think they’re one of the splinter Claras from The Name of the Doctor, where she spread herself across his timeline to save him from The Great Intelligence. Then, as the memory erasing plot comes into play, we’re meant to think that this is him saying goodbye to a memory-erased Clara for the final time. That final twist is that she has actually set all this up for him; the diner is in fact the stolen TARDIS, piloted by her and Ashildr, disguised – and eventually stuck – as an American Diner. After making sure that The Doctor is going to be OK, she and Ashildr depart for adventures of their own, before she must eventually return to Gallifrey to be reinserted into her death, leaving The Doctor in the desert with his TARDIS. He sees Rigsy’s tribute and realises that the waitress who just comforted him and disappeared in a TARDIS was his lost companion saying goodbye, and he allows himself a smile.
After the unremitting bleakness of Face the Raven and Heaven Sent, then, Hell Bent ends Doctor Who series 9 on a hopeful note. I think that’s for the best. On first viewing, the way it swept the Time Lords and the Hybrid to one side and sort of undid Clara’s extremely powerful death didn’t sit especially well with me, but on reflection, it makes sense. Hell Bent combines the emotional traumas of the companion farewell episode and the immediate aftermath episode, and leaves The Doctor and the audience on the mend and ready for more fun adventures in the future. Having Clara’s story end with her running off with a stolen TARDIS is quite a neat conclusion to her becoming more and more like The Doctor, and Jenna Coleman does some of her best work in her swansong. It doesn’t scale the dizzying heights of Heaven Sent, but Hell Bent is a very fine finale to a frankly exceptional series of Doctor Who.