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The Unlikely Validation of Steven Moffat’s “Doctor Who” by Chris Chibnall…

To be entirely fair, the twelfth season of Doctor Who offers a marked improvement over the eleventh. It has a lot more enthusiasm and ambition, a stronger sense of ownership, and a higher baseline of competence.

Still, watching the twelfth season is a surreal experience. On the most basic of levels, the season does not contain a single episode as good as either of the eleventh season’s standouts, Demons of the Punjab or It Takes You Away. The best episode of the season is Fugitive of the Judoon, which is not so much an episode as a forty-odd minute teaser. The second best episode of the season hinges its climax on the moral argument that Percy Shelley’s life is worth more than millions in the future because he’s a “great man of history.” As such, it is a fundamentally flawed season.

At the same time, there is something interesting in the season’s relationship to the Moffat era. Every era of Doctor Who has an interesting relationship with the one that preceded it. The Third Doctor’s status as an establishment figure was best read as a reaction against the Second Doctor as a wandering hobo, with the Fourth Doctor’s bohemian sensibilities itself a reaction against that. Indeed, specific stories with the Hinchcliffe era seem to exist as plays upon (or critiques of) the Letts era, most notably Terror of the Zygons.

The Moffat era was no stranger to this, involving itself in an evolving conversation with the Davies era. The fifth season adhered religiously to the structure that Davies had employed for each of his four seasons, while later seasons would become structurally ambitious. The entirety of the ninth season seemed to be built outwards from Journey’s End, from the return of Davros and resurrection of Skaro in The Magician’s Apprentice to the reframing of the Doctor’s memory wipe of companion in Hell Bent. Moffat even affectionately named the “good Dalek” in Into the Dalek as “Rusty” in honour of Russell T. Davies.

As such, it is no surprise that the Chibnall era should have something to say about the Moffat era. To be fair, historical episodes like Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror or The Witchfinders, along with attempts to ground the series in the companions’ domestic lives in Arachnids in the U.K. and Can You Hear Me?, suggest a stronger affinity for the Davies era. Still, the decision to open the twelfth season with a two-parter globe-trotting adventure (that morphs into a time-hopping adventure) in Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II feels consciously indebted to Moffat’s sixth season opener The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon.

The most striking aspect of the twelfth season’s relationship to the work of Steven Moffat is how its season premiere and finale feel like long-delayed set-ups to punchlines that Moffat delivered years ago. In particular, Spyfall, Part II feels like the premise of Let’s Kill Hitler played depressingly straight, and The Timeless Children is essentially the sort of notionally “epic” continuity-fest that Hell Bent so studiously avoided. There’s something incredibly depressing in this, a sense that the Chibnall era not only missed the point of Let’s Kill Hitler and Hell Bent, but is committed to being the kind of stories that they so roundly mocked.

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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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