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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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