Review: Doctor Who – 9.12 – ‘Hell Bent’

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Photograph: 'The TARDIS' / Phil Long
Photograph: 'The TARDIS' / Phil Long

Hell Bent, the f to an otherwise memorable, avant-garde season of the show, is a spectacular disappointment. I’ve watched it twice and cannot escape the truth that the show as we know it is over, the jig is up. Not because of a lack of acting talent, direction, (other) script writing, but because the lead writer has clearly lost his mind. Worse: there is no one big enough or wise enough left to stand up to him and tell him what works and what clearly doesn’t.

The tragedy for Stephen Moffat, lead writer and fanboy extraordinaire, is that he has tried with much success to leave an indelible mark on Doctor Who but squandered his largest and greatest opportunity to do so this week.  Genius was within its grasp and he cast it aside for lunacy. Had tearing through his own story-arcs with McGuffins and deus ex machinas been the plan all along then he should have stepped down long ago and made way for the return of the nonsensical and populist delights of Russell T. Davies. It’s better to end something than to watch it wither away.

Perhaps the problem is that the trailers and synopses are revealing an increasingly large amount of plot and story details. This has to stop; the show has enough of a following that it can generate interest and viewership on teases and assurances and not absurdly revealing snippets, as the early reveal about the return to Gallifrey did. Was the bar set too high as a result?

One has to view this in the context of a fan, something Moffat is which makes his failure worse. It’s taken 10 years of New-Who for us to return to Gallifrey. Some of the largest and most emotive plot points, not least of the 50th, have toyed with the seismic importance of finding this planet teeming with mystery about The Doctor’s actions in the Time War and the barbarity that the Time Lords themselves descended to hinted at all those years ago in ‘The End of Time’.

‘Hell Bent’ was an indecipherable mess of a plot that could only make sense to the mad or those blessed enough not to feel the slap in the face to the emotional maturity of the show and the Capaldi-era.

Indeed, the sad part of all of this is if the show has tried to move beyond the delightful immaturity of the Smith-era it has actually devolved into being a puerile exercise of convenience. Think of the utter brilliance of ‘Heaven Sent’ and compare it with tonight’s episode. What should have been a triumph to a series that has pushed the show as far as it can reasonably go before the watershed was a stuffed hour of fanboy tropes manufactured by a lead writer that has abandoned his own storytelling ability and instead become a faux RTD.

What went wrong with this episode was not so much what was said as was ignored. Too much ignored, and inexcusably so. The huge build-up and expectation of The Doctor meeting his people again was totally wasted. The ‘hero’ of the Time War gave early hope in the opening moments but fell short. The 50th anniversary question of why Capaldi’s Doctor was there with past incarnations was ignored; why Missy selected Cara to be his companion was ignored; what happened to The Master after ‘The End of Time’ was ignored; the fallout of what happens when you try to destroy and remember burning your own planet in the first instance was ignored; the reaction to seeing your own kind and feeling the earth of a home you’ve spent hundreds of years defending and looking for was ignored. Remember Twelve’s reaction last year when Missy lied about where Gallifrey was? Remember how often Ten used to cry about it and how Eleven spent 900 years defending it? Shouldn’t there be more of a reaction to all of this?

Did no one think to mention Trenzalore? Would it have been too much of a hark back to pay homage to the plot that saw The Doctor spend 900 years protecting his people? Instead, we get a passing line from Rassilon about granting him new regenerations: “How many regenerations did we grant you?…I’ve got all night,” he remarks, aiming his armoured mitt at The Doctor. Yet nothing from the General that asked a question for 900 years or about the voice of the girl who asked to save The Doctor from old age.

No family. No friends. No Missy. And we get no reference to the multiple excursions into the planet’s/the show’s past and future. No one mentions the attack on Earth, ‘The End of Time’, which occurred before ‘The Day of the Doctor’ for The Time Lords but after it for the Tenth Doctor who had no memory of it but during which time The Master died, killed the Rassilon, and seemingly escaped. This is to say nothing of the fact that Rassilon did nothing to explain why he locked The Doctor in his confession dial or how he knew about Ashildr. Who really thought the disregarding all of this history was a good idea?

None of this is to go over the top of expectation. This sort of nonsense would have been expected in the Russell T.Davies era, and even in the more plot-jumpy Smith years, and would have been forgiven and excused and explained on the internet because it was well executed and packed an emotional punch.

Here the let down is to Capaldi’s Doctor, so brilliantly built-up this year, the story of war and trauma established and explored from 2005 onwards; the brilliance of last week’s arc and ultimately to the fans.

Gallifrey just conveniently managed to unlock itself from the biggest plot point of the show’s emotional history. Was it nice to see an original TARDIS again, and Time Lords in silly hats? Of course, it was. Was nice to see Gallifrey? Of course, it was. None of it was enough to save this episode from disappointment after the trailer promised a reckoning, a catharsis, and a conclusion but instead gave us a waypoint sign pointing to an uncertain future in an uncertain direction down an uncertain road. A tease, answered with a tease, answered with a tease, is a wearisome game in a season finale.

Clara had the perfect ending in ‘Face the Raven’ and even her cameo last week was a welcome and just one. Making her ‘the Hybrid’, or one part of it with The Doctor, was meaningless given her recent departure. Is she dead or alive? Is she coming back or is she on to her own spin-off with Maisie Williams?

What will come next? Will Clara and ‘Me’ really return? There is no meaning here. The show has been here before. We’ve yet to see the return of The Doctor’s ‘daughter’ and Clara being alive, given the giveaway of her being in the opening credits, undoes much of the implacably hard work of her shocking departure two weeks ago (extractions and all that make no difference to the fact that she is out there, alive). Also, why is ‘Me’ sitting at the end of the universe? The most annoying character in the show’s history just doesn’t seem to die (if only it had been Captain Jack, imagine the shock).

To add insult to injury, we now have the most important companion in the show’s history forgotten in the mind of our protagonist. It’s the Doctor/Donna all over again and an unnecessary reset button. Why did he have to do it? What does he remember? Surely if The Doctor has forgotten Clara he will have forgotten everything that happened with her, including – as discussed last week – some of the largest plot points in the show’s history. The American cafe and the reference to Amy and Rory was forced, a pleasant reminder of days of old (particularly the glories of the 2011 season) but long have they gone. A lobotomised hero, maybe he mentions his previous companions because they are, to him, the last ones he had. It’s a mess.

There are questions of intrigue and enjoyment. It was excellent to see the barn confirmed to have been on Gallifrey but curious to see the woman who tended to The Doctor. A foster-mother perhaps? And who were the rough-looking locals living away from the city? How did the Sisterhood of Karn get to be on Gallifrey and how did they survive the Time War? Did they have a hand to play in the Time Lords manipulating The Doctor into possessing his confession dial (first mentioned in the opening episode of this season). How did The Doctor know what the device was?

If the barn was a childhood home of some sort, as mentioned in ‘Listen’ last year, it would have been wonderful if there was even a hint as to why he chose earth clothing all those years ago instead of just choosing another jacket. A mystery rather than an annoyance, but another missed opportunity.

There were also moments of pure gold. The excitement of seeing The Doctor escape with a TARDIS is as close as we, and should, ever get to knowing how he escaped it with one first time, although the reference to a repair shop was lovely. But then there’s another unresolved plot point – what happened to the version of Clara who helped him in ‘The Name of the Doctor’? If he has forgotten her, surely he has forgotten the circumstances of his departure to: ‘take this one…the navigation’s knackered but you’ll have much more fun’.

If Jenna Coleman never rises to the brilliance of her character’s original death then it is Capaldi who once again shows what it is possible for him to do in the role, even if the script is a letdown. When the general tries to stop him, and he asks about his regenerations, and grabs and kills him, you see the damage done to this character over the preceding weeks. Regeneration or not, that bit of brutality proves just how badly that billion-year torture affected The Doctor. Does he remember all of it, or is he just aware that he must have spent all those years in the cycle? I defer to the latter, but the implications are still shocking not least because it is so openly referred to as torture and this, more than any one of his previous incarnations, is what this Doctor is.

Just how far this Doctor is prepared to go to save Clara is shocking in itself, and the most redeemable part of this episode and what it should be remembered for. Breaking every law of time and running away is poignant and painful and, again, it’s the use of the word torture that gives it a meaning and not just a passing nod to last week. The truth shocks her:

“Why would you even do that?…I was dead and gone. Why would you even do that to yourself?”

“I had a duty of care,” he says, repeating a phrase he’s said before

It’s deeply sad. Actually, given his knowledge of time, fixed points and the fallout of violations, it’s incredible just how far he’s prepared to go including shooting one of his own people.

There was never going to be a satisfactory ending to this season of Clara’s story. There was never going to enough time spent on Gallifrey doing what everyone wanted, but the Rassilon story has not been resolved, and I have a suspicion there will be more of Gallifrey next year.  I suppose you never could that without revealing too much about The Doctor. The great dilemma of the show is how to progress it without losing its central mystery and if frustrating questions remain, then it continues apace yet again.

Is The Doctor truly Clara-less in his mind? An amnesiac Doctor, for a few episodes or a season, is something that would be the ultimate reset button and something touched upon here and something I hope they do again in the future.

The Doctor’s closing words to Clara could well have been his last before a regeneration:

“Run like hell because you’ll always need to. Laugh at everything because it’s always funny. Never be cruel and never be cowardly and if you ever are, always make amends.”

There was plenty to be disappointed about in this episode. I am still extremely confused as to why Clara had to be wiped from The Doctor’s mind. But there was plenty to ponder in this episode to make you wonder the next direction of the show. Barring Christmas, but that’s always a free-for-all fun fest particularly with the return of River Song. It’s good to see the return of the sonic, but a return to how things were was a little disappointing after a season that pushed the boundaries, even if the finale was a letdown.

That’s our wrap on the twelve episode run of season 9. Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you at Christmas.

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About Alastair Stewart 226 Articles
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and journalist. He was previously a press officer in the Scottish Parliament and worked in public affairs. He graduated from Edinburgh University with an MA in International Relations and writes regularly on politics and the arts in the Spanish and British press.

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