[This is a review of Doctor Who season 9, episode 12. There will be SPOILERS.]
As it turns out, ‘Hell Bent’ is something of a clever ruse; it was initially presented under the pretense of being one thing in particular, and then, while the viewer was distracted, became something else entirely. Inasmuch as it performs this switcheroo with relative ease, setting up the framework of the episode by dropping the viewer into a scenario they think they know the specifics of, Doctor Who manages to turn what at first appeared to be a larger-than-life, series-defining journey home to Gallifrey into the emotional denouement of Clara Oswald’s time with the Doctor. It also has the privilege of concluding season 9 on a touching note, one that closes a narrative door but leaves a window open.
Perhaps the biggest surprise about ‘Hell Bent’ is that it ostensibly offers viewers the insight into Gallifrey’s return and what is now a nearly ten-year-long storytelling arc some sense of closure. But, like the Doctor, the episode, when face-to-face with the Gallifreyans, and especially the Lord President (Donald Sumpter), has another agenda entirely. It takes a while for the Doctor – and by extension, Moffat’s script – to get around to revealing what’s actually going on, but there are hints dropped along the way early enough that you can tell Gallifrey is not necessarily at the center of this story.
For one thing, it begins with the Doctor meeting Clara in a strangely remote and empty diner in the middle of the Nevada desert. The specificity of their interaction reads like it could be the result of any number of things: fever dream, playful banter between two friends, fantasy, or an extension of the Doctor’s Confession Dial from last week’s stellar ‘Heaven Sent.’ All these explanations immediately come to mind, and yet the script remains reserved as to what it all means. It’s unclear precisely what is going on, but it seems clear that because Moffat trusts the audience to recognize the structural cues – no matter how opaque they may be – the episode achieves a certain level of success in setting up and delivering its narrative turnaround.
The Doctor in the diner and the Doctor on Gallifrey are the same character in two distinctly different mindsets, and that is telling. So when the focus shifts to Gallifrey, and Capaldi’s mostly silent performance, those elements lead to a confrontation with Rassilon, whom the Doctor banishes. The speed with which that aspect of the plot is resolved carries the show’s season 8 and 9 baggage in two distinct ways: 1) it feels somewhat reminiscent of certain episodes in which plots and storylines were concluded too hastily, and 2) it demonstrates how confident the hour is in its decision to shift from a blockbuster-sized story to a more fulfilling one about a relationship between two people who are more alike than the universe really wants them to be.
Once the Doctor reveals his plan to use his supposed knowledge of the Hybrid to have the General (Ken Bones) pull Clara out of time, it becomes clear exactly what ‘Hell Bent’ is all about. It’s not the tale of revenge that was sold in the promos, but rather a last-minute ploy by a desperate man who “misses his friend.” From that point on, the finale is anchored by the Doctor’s grief, just as ‘Heaven Sent’ was. This causes the Doctor to do things he normally wouldn’t seem capable of, like shooting the General (who survives the blast and regenerates by switching both gender and race), so he and Clara can escape into the Cloisters and, hopefully, outrun the fixed point of her death.
What drives the hour (and some change) isn’t the plot to escape certainty; it is the audience’s understanding of the Doctor’s grief and his desperation. And in order to do that, ‘Hell Bent’ relies quite heavily on last week’s superlative hour. The result, then, is ‘Heaven Sent’ and ‘Hell Bent’ becomes the best two-part storyline the season has offered without necessarily billing it as such. Nevertheless, the four-and-a-half billion years the Doctor spent trapped in his confession dial colors the character in a way his actions throughout the hour don’t require further explanation. The Doctor is broken. Not by the time spent being chased by death and punching his way through a substance harder than diamond, but by Clara’s death. He was already broken by the time he was trapped in the Dial; the Time Lords trying to break him again was just an act of futility.
Because his grief and desperation drive him to do things he might not normally do – to risk all of time and space for the life of a single person (which has been the season’s most consistent through line) – Ashildr’s theory that the Doctor and Clara are actually the Hybrid works to explain why his memory of Clara needs to be mostly expunged. If four-and-a-half-billion years isn’t going to dull the pain of losing Clara, then nothing will. This presents a problem for Moffat, as the desire to express the emotional importance of Clara to the Doctor results in an extreme action that has to be undone by an equally extreme reaction. The series could spend the next nine seasons watching the Doctor deal with his anguish, or it could express that healing distance through the use of certain genre conventions.
Partially wiping the Doctor’s memory is another turnaround in an episode that plays fast and loose with them, but, like the others, it works. If ‘Heaven Sent’ was about the ways in which grief can feel like an endless cycle of pain and heartbreak, then ‘Hell Bent’ is about what it takes to move on. The Doctor broke through his grief, but it was also clear that, in order to take the necessary steps forward, a part of him would have to be left behind. The exact memory of Clara is gone, but he still has the story of her to sustain himself, and that’s precisely what he needs to move on.
In the end, everyone is given a chance to move on. The Doctor receives one final message from his companion, as he dons his velvety jacket and is given a new sonic screwdriver. Meanwhile, Clara and Ashildr take the long way around to Gallifrey, becoming the Woman Who Lived and the Companion Without a Pulse. There is a sense that the finale is as concerned with giving the characters what they need as it is with handing them what they want, but through it all, there is a surprisingly affecting through line about the process of loss and mourning and recovery. It is one that Doctor Who makes transformational, as it informs the title character’s arc throughout the season, as he goes from feeling more alien than ever before to becoming distinctly and affectingly more human.
Doctor Who continues with the annual Christmas Special, ‘The Husbands of River Song’ on December 25, 2015. Check out a preview below:
Photos: BBC Worldwide Limited