Doctor Who: 9.12 Hell Bent
The general consensus of Doctor Who series nine - this reviewer included - is that this year has been the best since the show returned in 2005. From the surprise reveal of Davros and the brilliance of Missy in the opening two-parter, the terrifying ghost story that was Under The Lake, that mesmerising final speech in The Zygon Inversion, the beauty and surprises of Face The Raven and the jaw-dropping brilliance of the Capaldi-only Heaven Sent. Even the one weak element - Mark Gatiss's Sleep No More had an interesting concept and some good chilling moments.
The big question then was whether the series finale Hell Bent would deliver. Afterall, Moffat had written three of his best episodes this year and the surprise return of Gallifrey (if you avoided the spoilery BBC synopses) held great promise. I was excited to see what happened when the angry Doctor faced the high council and indeed there were moments of sheer greatness this week. But it also became an episode that I was not prepared for; namely the return of Clara.
Now I love Clara and Jenna Coleman has proven time and again which she is such a good actress. I even preferred her with Peter Capaldi, the troubled Clara of series eight and the zealous care free Clara of series nine. But for me, her death if Face The Raven was so perfect that I didn't need to see more. Perhaps it comes down to what I was expecting and what I wanted as a viewer. I wanted to see what the Time War had done to Gallifrey. How they had escaped the pocket universe - if indeed they had - and I wanted to see what the loss of Clara would do to the Doctor in this explosive mix.
That final point was explored in surprising detail but I felt that the rest was abandoned in favour of a story that was all about the Doctor's refusal to give up on his best friend (a statement we've rarely heard from the Doctor about his companions). How did Gallifrey escape? I didn't really know by the episode's end and I was frustrated not knowing the answer.
There was a lot about the episode that felt as is Steven Moffat was having his cake and eating it. The need to drag Clara back from the moment of her death and make her a quasi immortal felt like a step too far. Like the Doctor he wasn't willing to let her go, dragging her out of that final last breath before her death onto Gallifrey and having her running to the end of the universe with the Doctor and the travelling in her own TARDIS - going back to her death the long way round. I would have been quite happy for Clara's ending to be her own Doctor in her own TARDIS, travelling across time and space but her ending had already been done.
I also wasn't particularly impressed with Moffat having the Doctor kill the general (Ken Bones) and have him regenerate from a white man to a black woman. I get the point that he was trying to make - at some point the Doctor could regenerate into a woman and / or someone with a different skin tone - but the regeneration (a massive tease in the trailer if there ever was one) felt more like a statement than a natural part of the story. The Gallifreyan guards even reacted to her with surprise - "yes...ma'am" as if this was a huge moment. But if Moffat was trying to make a point that a change of gender and skin tone was a natural trait of Time Lord regeneration, there this shouldn't have been a big deal. She was still the general - the guards should have acted on her instructions without batting an eyelid.
Many fans are probably going to have issue with the rewriting of some of the Doctor's history too, though I felt this was one of the episode's strengths. As the showrunner, it is perfectly within Moffat's purview to add new layers the direction of the show and the history of Gallifrey. After all, writer Robert Holmes and producer Peter Hinchcliffe opened up the Time Lords in a radical new light in Tom Baker's The Deadly Assassin. In fact I rather like the resolution of the Hybrid mystery (and the development of the Matrix established in that classic story) in a way that was satisfying and a resolution of the Doctor / Clara storyline established way back in Matt Smith's series seven.
Yes, the Doctor and Clara are the hybrid, two individuals who would tear time and space apart to save the other, something the Doctor was willing to do here. We've seen the Time Lord Victorious in David Tennant's The Water Of Mars but the biggest success of Hell Bent - a very apt title - was seeing just how far the Doctor would break his own rules to save Clara from her fate. Missy choosing Clara finally made complete sense, they brought out the best and worst in each other and in the latter would create chaos that could tear the universe apart. Yes, it was far more than just Gallifrey in ruins as the prophecy said, but I took this as the Time Lord's inflated sense of self importance; the destruction of time was the destruction of their world.
And there were some other fantastic moments too; the Time Lord President revealed to be a regenerated version of Timothy Dalton's resurrected Rassilon was a great twist and turned what had been a sympathetic leader in Day Of The Doctor into the villain and mastermind behind the Doctor's trap and imprisonment into Heaven Sent. I also liked the return to the barn from the 50th special too; in this place Moffat has created a piece of history that has special significance for the Doctor without massively changing his personality.
The descent into the Matrix was very atmospheric too, with director Rachel Talalay again delivering another thrilling, chilling set piece. Her ability to capture horror and drama in a powerful, emotive way make her a strong fit for Doctor Who and I look forward to seeing her continued contribution to the show. Were the Weeping Angels, the Dalek and Cyberman really that necessary though? Not really but they did add to the atmosphere of the piece.
I also loved the very retro TARDIS as the Doctor escaped Gallifrey on a stolen craft for the second time in history. The idea that it was the diner in the middle of Nevada from the opening of the episode was a fun approach too, though I'm not sure it made sense. Was the episode suggesting that the Doctor, River, Amy and Rory were sitting comparing notes in Clara's TARDIS in series six's The Impossible Astronaut? I think it could have worked had the Clara the Doctor was talking to was one of the fractured Clara's saving the Doctor after the events of The Name Of The Doctor. In fact that is what I assumed she was at the beginning; the Doctor encountering one of her 'clones' after her death
It was a lovely idea that the Doctor didn't recognise Clara and she was there to make sure he was okay again after the events of what happened after her 'death'. But it came out of the idea that the Doctor had to forget her, which definitely left a bad taste in my mouth. It happened with Donna and here it felt cheap for the Doctor to forget nearly everything about one of the most important companions in his long life. It would have been far better for the Doctor to have made the mature decision not to let the device make the decision for them by wiping on of their memories. Had he decided to circumvent prophecy and return Clara to her death from Face The Raven I would have left the episode feeling a lot more satisfied.
Ashildr returning was inevitable (though the whole travelling further than the Doctor has even gone before feels a little tired now) and I think was needed after where we last left her. She continues to remain a dubious figure and I will be intrigued to see if and when she returns and where we might find her next; I assume a version of Ashildr before this one at the end of the universe? However, her return did reveal what was one giant red herring. The Dalek-Time Lords, Ashildr, Osgood; the fact that they were hybrids ultimately amounted to nothing.
Series nine is brilliant and I did enjoy large moments of the finale - the return of Clare Higgins's Ohlia for example as the continued voice of reason - but I do feel that Moffat stumbled at the final hurdle with a messy finale that became more about Clara and less about the return of Gallifrey which arguably needs to be addressed. Where is it and why? I still have no idea. As for Clara; I am gutted that Coleman has left but the fact that I was glad to be rid of her by end speaks to the frustrations with how Moffat ended her character. Hell Bent will go down as one of the show's most decisive finales. It isn't terrible but I didn't enjoy it as much as I should. But, hey at least Peter Capaldi was still utterly amazing and how great is that new sonic screwdriver?