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Doctor Who: Hell Bent (Review)

“Where can he run?”

“Where he always runs. Away. Just away.”

– the Time Lords finally get a grip on the Doctor

If Death in Heaven was Moffat channelling the spirit of his predecessor, then Hell Bent is a decidedly (and perhaps even quintessentially) Moffat era finalé.

The art of a Moffat era finalé seems to be in burying the lead. The key is something of a narrative shell game, asking the audience to figure out where the actual point of the story lies as it unfolds. There is a fair amount of misdirection and wrong-footing involved in this, with Moffat frequently setting up what amounts to be a traditionally “epic” science-fiction premise only to swerve sharply in the opposite direction towards something altogether more intimate and personal.

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As much as The Pandorica Opens might have teased a Legion of Doom supervillains team-up with reality itself at stake, The Big Bang devolved into a run-around with a small ensemble trapped inside the British Museum. The Wedding of River Song was less about explaining the Doctor’s demise in The Impossible Astronaut and more about reuniting the Pond family. The Name of the Doctor revealed that “the Impossible Girl” arc was just a red herring and that Clara was always a character rather than a plot point.

Even The Time of the Doctor eschewed an epic “final regeneration” story to tell the more low-key tale of “the man who stayed for Christmas.” Of course, the effectiveness of this technique varies on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes the show’s shift in focus is clever and astute; sometimes it feels a little too messy and disorganised. In many respects, the true test of a Moffat era season finalé is the fine act of balancing the epic story that has been set up with the more personal story that plays out.

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Hell Bent has a pretty big hook. Gallifrey has been a massive part of the show’s mythology for decades, becoming even more conspicuous in its absence since its destruction was first suggested in Rose and acknowledged by name in Gridlock. Gallifrey has always been coming back, something that has been particularly apparent since The Day of the Doctor. The return of the planet was inevitable in some way shape or form. The cliffhanger to Heaven Sent and the teaser trailer for Hell Bent both put a heavy emphasis on the planet’s return.

This makes the sharp turn midway through Hell Bent all the more effective. It turns out that the death of Clara in Face the Raven was never about raising the stakes for an apocalyptic Gallifrey story; the return of Gallifrey was just a background detail in Clara’s departure tale. It is a very clever and wry twist, one that works particularly well because the show commits to it so wholeheartedly.

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To be fair, Hell Bent certainly puts its work in. The episode runs to sixty-five minutes, which makes it almost an episode and a half of the show. As such, the episode has more space to draw out its big twists and to develop its starting premise. The Doctor spends about twenty minutes on Gallifrey before the possibility of resurrecting Clara is even broached. That would amount to almost half of a regular episode, but is less than a third of this particular episode. Hell Bent can spent almost a full episode’s runtime on Gallifrey and still have room for more.

It helps that Moffat is clearly relishing the opportunity to play around with Gallifrey. Hell Bent is not an epic story about the Time War reigniting; barring a few references in dialogue and a quick encounter in the Cloisters, the Daleks are largely absent from Hell Bent. None of the nightmarish possibilities suggested by the possibility of Gallifrey’s return in episodes like The End of Time, Part II or The Time of the Doctor actually come to pass. The Doctor discovers where Gallifrey is, and the universe does not change around it.

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Indeed, the Doctor succeeds quite quickly and effectively. He manages to overthrow the Lord President (“Rassilon the Redeemer! Rassilon the Resurrected!”) in a bloodless coup. He threatens to exile the High Council almost immediately, with the very next scene of a rather small council meeting suggesting that he followed through on his threat. The Doctor never actually seems to be in any real danger from the Time Lords, and they don’t seem to pose any credible threat to the rest of the universe. Even the Time Lord section of the story is not an epic.

The decision to frame the Gallifrey sections of Hell Bent as a science-fiction western prove quite clever, playing to the idea of the Doctor as a perpetual wanderer. The Doctor has been gone for so long that when he returns, he arrives in the persona of the archetypal western stranger. Sure, several Time Lord officers might remember serving with him during the Time War, but the implication is obvious; the Doctor is a changed man. This is the tale of a stranger coming to town, with the twist being that the stranger happened to be born in that town.

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Murray Gold continues to hit it out of the park, building on his phenomenal score to Heaven Sent. The soundtrack to Hell Bent is absolutely permeated with the sound of a harmonica. This allows Gold to emphasise the more traditionally western stylings of the Twelfth Doctor’s theme and to rework a western version of Flavia’s Theme. Indeed, the use of Flavia’s Theme provides a nice concrete link back to the Davies era. Hell Bent is very much a story that is engaged with both the show’s more modern history and its classical roots.

Hell Bent resolves the question of Gallifrey without really committing too strenuously on the matter. It seems that the Doctor knows where Gallifrey is, and that Gallifrey has completely escaped the Time War. At the same time, the planet now exists at the very edge of history – “the extreme edge of the time continuum.” While positioning Gallifrey at the end of history does not seem that big a deal for an alien species that has access to time travel technology and just fought a massive Time War, it does not pull them immediately back into the heart of the series.

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Then again, the ambiguity around the actual state of Gallifrey at the end of Hell Bent seems entirely appropriate. The Time Lords have always represented the death drive within the context of Doctor Who. This is true even of their iconography and imagery. The Valeyard is a Time Lord who exists in the space towards the end of the Doctor’s life. The Time Lord stalking the battlefields of Skaro in Genesis of the Daleks may as well embody death itself. The important Time Lord religious figure in The Three Doctors is called “Omega.”

However, even within the narrative, the Time Lords represent death. The Time Lords were first introduced in The War Games, an episode where they pretty much killed the show as it had existed to that point; they killed off the Second Doctor, they killed off the idea of Doctor Who as a show broadcast in black-and-white, they killed off the idea of Doctor Who as a show about an eccentric man who travelling through time and space in a big blue police box. This was only their first episode.

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In The Deadly Assassin, the Time Lords imposed an arbitrary limit of thirteen regenerations upon the Doctor. As such, they began a countdown that started ticking away almost immediately. In The Mysterious Planet, the Time Lords served to construct an overly elaborate kangaroo court that came to serve as a metaphor for the looming threat of the show’s cancellation. Even more than the Daleks, the Time Lords can be seen to represent the death impulses within Doctor Who. As a result, it makes sense that they would hide away at the end of history.

And, in a way, it makes sense that the Doctor would turn to the Time Lords when Clara faced death. Of course the Time Lords exercise a control over death. Notably, they cannot reverse it or revise it; instead, they can open a doorway to the moment of a person’s death and pull them through. The sharp twist of Hell Bent is that the episode has nothing to do with the return of Gallifrey. All the Gallifrey stuff is just blockbuster window dressing to a story about how far the Doctor would go to save the life of his friend.

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That does not mean that Moffat does not have some clever things to say about Time Lord society. While the Doctor’s description of Gallifrey as “space!Glasgow is particularly charming, the Cloisters are a genuinely clever idea that build upon the portrayal of Gallifrey during the Hinchcliffe era. Given the gothic horror of the Matrix as it appeared in The Deadly Assassin, the Cloisters feel like a logical extension. Moffat doubles down on the idea of gothic horror as a feature of Gallifrey by emphasising the connection to the Sisters of Karn from The Brain of Morbius.

Moffat does this while also integrating the admittedly cartoonish character of Rassilon into the framework of class criticism that Robert Holmes coded into the portrayal of Gallifrey in The Deadly Assassin. Rassilon casually mentions that he feels perfectly free to execute the Doctor in the planet’s “dry lands, where there’s nobody who matters.” Ashidlr even suggests that the Doctor’s class renders him as much a hybrid as any other possible contender for the title.

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Indeed, the hybrid represents the point at which the shell game becomes most obvious. The idea of the “hybrid” has been seeded across the season since Davros first suggested it in The Witch’s Familiar. It seems like the show has taken every opportunity to drop the word into casual conversation. The Doctor has suggested that it could apply to Ashidlr after the events of The Girl Who Died or to Osgood after The Zygon Inversion. Indeed, the long and brutal torture of the Doctor in Heaven Sent was designed to extract information about the “hybrid.”

In some ways, the focus on “hybrid” plays as a parody of the Davies era obsession with arc words. Strange word choices like “Bad Wolf” or “Mister Saxon” or “the Medusa Cascade” were seeded across entire seasons of television without any real context or explanation. Inevitably, the season finalé would explain these words in a manner completely unforeseeable to the audience. “Bad Wolf” would turn out to be a message to Rose from her future self in The Parting of the Ways. The Master would be “Mister Saxon” in The Sound of Drums.

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Of course, the obvious logical problem with these sorts of arc words is that they tend to happen local to the event in question. The Ninth Doctor never encounters a reference to Mister Saxon, for example. While the show has made occasional reference to “Bad Wolf”, it is not as if the Eleventh Doctor happened to stumble across some graffiti intended for one of his predecessors. This fixation on the idea of a “hybrid” is delightful esoteric. After all, one would imagine that the concept would have come up at some point while processing the Time War stuff.

Instead of providing a trite explanation for the recurring use of the word, Hell Bent is perfectly willing to let it serve as a red herring. It turns out that the Doctor does not actually know that much about the hypothetical hybrid. He has a few theories, but that is all. A lot of the angst in Heaven Sent was consciously played up as part of a larger long con to allow the Doctor to infiltrate Gallifrey. He never knew anything, but instead worked hard to convince the Time Lords that he knew everything.

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This is a very risky reveal. If it is not handled with the utmost care, it could feel like a cop-out or a shoulder shrug. After all, there is something inherently lazy about a writer shrugging their shoulders and conceding that they have no idea what their plot point actually means. However, the hybrid as a red herring ultimately works quite well, because it is vague enough that it could be applied to any number of scenarios or situations that apply to the entire course of the show’s fifty-odd year history.

Is Ashildr the hybrid? After all, she was introduced in the same season in which the prophecy was first mentioned; there is that narrative proximity again. Is the Doctor the hybrid? If so, for what reason? Is the Doctor the hybrid because he really is half-human on his mother’s side as he conceded in The TV Movie? Is the Doctor the hybrid because he crosses social and class boundaries? Is the combination of the Doctor and Clara together forming a hybrid dynamic?

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Indeed, all this talk of the hybrid could easily extend beyond the ideas actually articulated in Hell Bent. Is Susan the hybrid? Is that why the Doctor took her from Gallifrey all of those years ago? Is Dalek Caan the hybrid, a Dalek who looked into the untempered schism like a Time Lord initiate? Is it Leela, who was integrated into Time Lord society and probably watched Gallifrey burn? Is it Rassilon or Omega, and their mysterious connection to “the Other” that only exists in material beyond the show itself? Any number of possibilities present themselves.

However, no answers are provided. Only questions. Indeed, this is one of the tendencies of Moffat’s big ideas. Moffat is frequently accused of changing or rewriting the canon to suit his own needs; this is primarily a result of following Davies, who was very much about reestablishing the canon following over a decade in the wilderness. Moffat is not doing anything different than Holmes or Hinchcliffe or Dicks before him. Moffat is consciously expanding the canon. He is seeding ideas that will inevitably be explored elsewhere; maybe by his successors, or maybe in canon.

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The use of “hybrid” as an arc word is not the only reference that Hell Bent makes back to the Davies era. The finalé is absolutely packed with little continuity references and allusions to Moffat’s direct predecessor, as befitting the season finalé airing a decade after Davies resurrected the show. Indeed, The Girl Who Died went out of its way to justify casting Peter Capaldi as the Doctor following his appearance in The Fires of Pompeii. The script for Hell Bound makes a similar allusion when the Doctor nips back to rescue Clara.

While it seems quite likely that Timothy Dalton was outside the budget for a regular season finalé, Hell Bent draws quite heavily on the vision of Gallifrey presented during the Davies era; not just in its “snow globe” architecture. Rassilon still holds both the office and the gauntlet that he held in The End of Time, Part II. The Priestess’ reference to the Doctor as “boy” calls to mind all the discussion about the identity of the mysterious woman in The End of Time, Part I.

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Even the quick shot of the cherub in the Cloisters seems like a shout out to the subtle suggestion in The End of Time, Part II that the Weeping Angels were actually ancient conceptual weapons unleashed by the Time Lords during the Time War. Later dialogue suggests that the the Weeping Angels were simply trying to infiltrate the Cloisters like the Daleks and the Cybermen, but that shot does provide a very immediate and clear connection between the Time Lords and the Weeping Angels playfully suggested by Davies in his final script.

However, the most pointed engagement with the Davies era comes in writing the departure of Clara. Not only does the Twelfth Doctor go full “Time Lord Victorious” in his efforts to save his companion, but Moffat’s script engages with the larger issues around the departure of Donna Noble at the end of Journey’s End. After all, the “Doctor-Donna” has as much claim to being the hypothetical hybrid as any other possibility that the show has suggested across its entire run.

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In Journey’s End, the Doctor wiped Donna’s memory without her consent. He wiped her memories in order to save her life, but he completely ignored the fact that Donna considered the loss of those memories as a more fundamental sort of death. It might not have been the death of her body, but it was the death of Donna Noble as she had evolved since The Runaway Bride. It was (quite rightly) a controversial scene, one in which the Doctor presumed to know best and in which the narrative never really questioned him.

Given that memory is a key theme of the Moffat era, it makes sense that Hell Bent would approach the topic from a different angle. When the Doctor suggests wiping Clara’s memory to keep her safe, Clara objects strenuously. Hell Bent allows her to make her case. After all, Clara has grown a great deal in the past few years, developing in ways that would not have been possible otherwise. To lose all that would represent a massive betrayal of the trust that had developed between the Doctor and Clara.

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In fact, the decision to reverse Clara’s death from Face the Raven represents a very clear moral decision on the part of the Moffat era. At the end of Face the Raven, Clara was essentially punished for presuming to assume the role of Doctor in her narrative. With the threat of Gallifrey looming on the horizon, Clara’s death seemed punitive and reactionary. Not only does Hell Bent reverse it, it also carries the idea of Clara-as-Doctor to its logical extreme, giving her a TARDIS and a companion.

Indeed, if the Doctor’s decision to override Donna’s express wishes in Journey’s End was a gross statement of the power dynamic as it existed between them, then Hell Bent fixes things. Ultimately, the Doctor approaches Clara as an equal. The Doctor suggests that they show attempt this “like [they’ve] done everything else… together.” One of the characters has to have their memories wiped, but the Doctor accepts that his own memories of Clara are no more valuable than her memories of him.

(Of course, the logistics of all this are somewhat questionable. If the Time Lords can track Clara down by her memories, how does erasing the Doctor’s memories help? If the Time Lords can track Clara down by the Doctor’s memories, how does erasing her own memories help? The implication seems to be that the real reason for the memory wipe is that the Doctor and Clara might actually be able to part ways this time without relapsing like they did in Mummy on the Orient Express or Last Christmas.)

It is a surprisingly affecting and touching conclusion, one that is beautifully performed by both actors. Indeed, Peter Capaldi’s delivery of the “I had a duty of care” line is heartbreaking enough to justify the awkward threading of the line throughout the season to this point. Capaldi and Coleman have worked spectacularly well together, to the point that it might not be a bad idea for a bit more space before the next companion arrives; Coleman’s introduction suffered from the fact that she felt crammed in after Gillen and Darvill left.

Hell Bent is an effective conclusion to the season, but one that remembers what made Heaven Sent so successful. For all the talk of Gallifrey and Time Lords, the episode remembers what is truly important.

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7 Responses

  1. Insightful review, as always! This might be my favourite season finale yet. I liked the cheeky teases of major revelations, and I loved the way the Doctor casually deposed Rassilon and sent him packing, almost as an afterthought – a truly fitting end for a pompous tyrant. Clara’s send off is definitely the best yet for me, a perfect counterpoint to that of Donna and particularly Rose. As I said on Twitter shortly after the episode ended, I can already envision a thousand fan fictions birthed by that her scene.

    All in all, season nine has been an interesting experiment. Not always successful, but with only one true dud (Sleep No More), plenty of above average episodes, and three instant classics in Invasion/Inversion and Heaven Sent. Congratulations to Moffat, Capaldi, Coleman, Maisie Williams and all involved!

    Now the long wait for season 10 begins. 😦

    • It might not be that long. Saying “no Doctor Who in 2016” sounds more dramatic than “no Doctor Who for another fifteen or sixteen months”, after all.

      Honestly, I wasn’t overly enamored with S9, which surprises me. The consensus seems to be it was the best season in years, but I thought it lacked the sparkle of S8. (Even if I loved, as you pointed out, the ambition of it.) Then again, this is a problem with multi-episode stories. There were only two really great beginning to end stories in the season, even if they almost took up half of the year. It tends to skew the scale of the season.

  2. That was a fun story.

    I’m not sure about the use of Ashildr/Me in this story. Part of what makes her interesting is that by definition she isn’t all wise, or even particularly clever. Even in her introductory episode she advances the plot by an act of empty headed bravado and her later episodes have her as much a dupe as anything. I don’t say this a criticism; quite the reverse. It is Ashildr’s ‘finiteness’ that makes her different from a generic immortal, and in this episode she felt all too generic.

    My only other issue was eye strain from rolling them at another ‘hilarious’ Moffat patented sexism joke (“dear Lord, how do you cope with all that ego?”) Because of course a super advanced species that completely regenerates bodies and personalities would have 1990s sitcom gender roles.

    • That’s a fair point about Ashidlr. But I like that she ends as Clara’s companion rather than vice versa. That finiteness is still there, even if it was dulled in her interactions with the Doctor. (I suspect that spending almost an eternity in complete isolation gives you room to grow.

  3. Appreciate your thoughts. I poured mine out in a sort of live-blogging post last night, but didn’t assimilate much.

    After 24 hours’ reflection, it seems to me that:
    A) The first half (30 mins) of Hell Bent were large irrelevant, lots of red herrings totally unconnected to the second half (Rassilon, the trans-gender & trans-racial regeneration, the bunch of villagers surrounding the Doctor as he inexplicably stopped the plot to eat soup, “The Woman” who was possibly his foster mother from “Listen”…).

    B) Rassilon is Out There, but the Doctor has again left a huge power structure vacuum on Gallifrey, and

    C) It took 3 episodes, and tons of strenuous and Universe-altering twists and turns, just to write out Clara (and, hey, what happened to that boy she inherited from Danny Pink’s corpse last year?)… remember when companions just left, when their actors’ contracts ran out?

    • On c.), at least, I think Danny asked her to get in contact with the kid’s family. After all, it’s pretty selfish to just dump your own guilt on to your girlfriend and expect her to spend her life atoning for your mistake without consent. I think television is past the point where you can write “… and Leela is married off to a pleasantly bland member of the guest cast” as a satisfying resolution. I don’t mind taking three episodes when the three episodes are this good. (And all three worked for me, but particularly Heaven Sent.)

      • Some people hated this episode. They felt like it undermined Clara as a character by completely reversing her death. There was nothing at stake here as the Doctor didn’t learn anything and he just got some of his memories wiped. I’m still on the fence about it. I loved Heaven Sent. I just don’t know about this episode. Moffat has a tendency to chicken out and I feel like he did that here. I’m going to have to rewatch this episode and see if I can appreciate it. I didn’t like the Doctor gunning down the general even if he did regenerate. I felt that was out of character. Loved reading your review.

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