Contains spoilers. Only to be read once you have already seen the episode. You have been warned!
So that’s it. Another season of Doctor Who is complete. And for my money at least, it’s been one of the best since the last full season helmed by Russell T Davies as showrunner: stronger, more consistent and without a doubt more coherent and satisfying than it has been in years. The only question coming into this weekend was whether Steven Moffat could close it out successfully without fumbling the ball on the line.
The short answer is that he could, and rather magnificently, in a fitting finale that addresses and encompasses all the major themes of the season in a way that is both suitably epic for a season finale and at the same time wonderfully intimate and character-led.
The longer answer is by definition somewhat longer (duh!) and more detailed, and contains a few more ‘buts’ along the way. While this was perhaps the best finale since “Journey’s End” it still contains a number of flaws and imperfections and some things for us to note that the show needs to avoid in the future. But before we spoil the mood with such talk, let’s first appreciate all that worked rather brilliantly in “Hell Bent”
The key item on the agenda that the final episode absolutely had to nail was the matter of Clara Oswald’s fate. In my notes on “Face the Raven” I expressed my doubts that her death in that episode was really the end of the road for the character (a brief cameo in last week’s “Heaven Sent” notwithstanding.) The way in which Clara met her apparent death in that story was really rather excellent – a culmination of themes and threads from the entire season up to that point. What happened ended up being driven by the flaws in Clara’s nature, but redeemed by the way in which she then faced the consequences and also took her last few moments to counsel the Doctor against seeking revenge. It was an exit every bit as good as anyone could hope for from a long-running show: as much as I didn’t want to see Clara go, I also didn’t want to see that moment cheapened by some sort of big red reset button rollback undoing it all in the old ‘Oh my God, they killed Rory!’ ways.
Naturally a big red reset button is exactly what the Doctor does seek even though it takes him billions of years and overthrowing the Lord President of Gallifrey to achieve it. Of course he will stop at nothing to get Clara back – we expect nothing less of him in this sort of situation after all. Which as an aside takes me back to my long-standing criticism of “The Angels Take Manhattan” in which the Doctor doesn’t spend so much as one second thinking how he could get around the problem of the Weeping Angels in order to be reunited with Amy and Rory; it’s almost as though by that point he was actually secretly relieved to see the back of them! But let’s not reopen that old wound again and just quietly accept that the story had ended up being a bit of a dog’s dinner, and move on to this week’s far better effort.
Moffat knew that there would be a ton of fan theories about what happens next to Clara, and he systematically plays them as red herrings one after the other. He starts with the pre-title sequence in which the Doctor walks into a diner incongruously set in the middle of nowhere in the Nevada desert, where he finds a perky waitress who looks awfully like someone we used to know. At this point I figured that Jenna Coleman was playing one of the many ‘splinters’ of Clara that had been scattered through the Doctor’s timeline at the end of “The Name of the Doctor”, even though it’s been notable that the whole Impossible Girl plot line has since been marginalised and packed away out of sight up in the attic along with the candy floss iDaleks that proved equally less than universally popular.
However this is but the script’s first feint. Halfway through and we find out the Doctor’s true plan is is use the Time Lord’s temporal extraction technology to pluck Clara away from Trap Street at the very moment of her death. As bad ideas go it goes well beyond even what the Tenth Doctor attempted in “The Waters of Mars” when he tried to save the life of Adelaide Brooke despite the cost to the integrity of the time line. While it’s not spelled out, we’re supposed to be thinking of the disastrous temporal consequences explored in “The Wedding of River Song” as being the inevitable cost of the Doctor’s reckless obsession to save his companion because of his ‘duty of care’.
When the pair of them finally do realise this, a new plan is hatched: Clara can be saved, but all her memories of the Doctor must be wiped. I confess, this idea really caught me off-guard because I couldn’t believe Moffat would meekly borrow an idea from his predecessor as showrunner at such a key moment, and this was so very clearly a revisit of the fate of Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) in the aforementioned “Journey’s End”, to the extent that it’s even explicitly referred to by the Doctor in dialogue. But hey, this is Moffat we’re talking about: naturally this isn’t the idea after all but another feint, giving Clara the chance to insist that she didn’t want to be saved and to live if it means losing her best memories and her sense of self gained from travelling with the Doctor. In other words, she gets to make the choice that the Doctor previously cruelly denied Donna.
Except there’s one last twist with Clara ‘reversing the polarity of the neutron flow’ of the Doctor’s brain wipe device, a neat bit of writing shorthand which uses a catchphrase from the show’s past to do away with the need of a page full of technobabble in the script while retaining the key sense and poetry of what the moment is seeking to achieve. Even when it’s the Doctor who starts to swoon I still couldn’t quite believe that Moffat had pulled off the switch: that this time it would be the Doctor rather than his companion who would be diminished by the loss of his memories. Not only is it a wonderfully effective reworking of a seminal moment from season 4, it is the ultimate reversal of Doctor-companion roles with Clara finally surpassing her role as apprentice to become the real deal. And then of course we arrive back at the diner, and the Doctor’s conversation with the perky waitress who it turns out really is Clara after all and not a ‘splinter’ or a memory or an apparition or something from the Time Lord’s Matrix databank, but the genuine article. Sort of – there’s still the matter of a missing heartbeat.
Moffat does not in fact tamper with or overturn Clara’s death on Trap Street. That cobbled road is still where her story ends, it’s just that – rather like Life on Mars – the last second of her life is now indefinitely extended for her to do with what she likes. And in a fulfilment of her series arc of becoming increasingly like the Doctor to a dangerous degree, she now gets to be the master of her own Tardis – even to the extent of acquiring her own companion in the form of Ashildr who also finally gets her own wish of travelling through time and space having had a very, very long wait of billions of years to get to that stage, meaning that she too has gone the long way around this season. As Clara and Ashildr spin off in a camouflaged American diner (scarcely more incongruous than a 1950s British police telephone box, surely?) you sense that Moffat has created a gift for fan fiction writers the world over, since while we most likely won’t see either character again in the TV series there’s no question that they will inspire a few spin-off tales of their own.
It’s a fitting resolution to the ongoing storyline this year of Ashildr, and it’s great to see Maisie Williams back one last time who has been so good in evolving the character over her recurring appearances. Her presence here was flagged up by the Doctor’s last line in “Heaven Sent” when he revealed that the much-feared Hybrid of two warrior races that would destroy all of space and time was ‘Me’, the name that Ashildr had taken after long outliving memories of her original Viking self having been made immortal through the Doctor’s use of Mire technology in “The Girl Who Died”. Most people seemed to have guessed that one, but this too proved to be but another feint. Instead, for an awful moment it looked as though Moffat was going to reach out and grab what is to Whovians something akin to the live third rail – the idea that the Doctor is himself a hybrid of Time Lord and human (on his mother’s side) which was slipped into canon in a truly terrible misstep by the 1996 TV movie that everyone has tried very hard to forget about ever since. Notably, Moffat lets the suggestion hang in the air for a minute – the Doctor never denies the possibility of his parentage – but then darts away without confirming it. Something for another time, perhaps?
The idea that the hybrid was not one person but a partnership of two was a neat solution sitting in plain sight, the kind of answer that makes you go ‘Oh, of course, I should have seen that all along’ – which is always the best sort of reveal. Once established it made it inevitable that this really does have to be the end for the Doctor and Clara, but does so in a clear, intelligible and emotionally satisfying way that completely evaded Amy and Rory’s confused exit in “The Angels Take Manhattan.” (Sorry, I really must stop going on about that episode…)
Before Clara left however there was one last bit of business to take care of, and I’m glad they did because it had been bugging me literally for years: the answer to the question of why Missy had taken such great pains to ensure Clara was put in contact with the Doctor in the first place, as seen in “The Bells of St John”. It had been a small but crucial unexplained plot detail, one that had gone so long unanswered that I had started to assume that even Moffat was stumped on this one. Finally the observation that Missy had planned the Hybrid all along to get her revenge on the Time Lords was the perfect pay-off to a story that’s been running for over three years, moreover one that felt right and fulfilling once delivered.
“Hell Bent” was also the culmination of the modern story of the Time Lords, which arguably began as far back as April 2005 with the first mention of the Time War and then flared up again in the 2009 two-parter “The End of Time” which saw Rassilon return albeit briefly. Those threads were picked up again when Moffat took over with the 50th anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor” and the final Matt Smith story “The Time of the Doctor”, and referenced again in “Listen” and at the end of last year’s “Death in Heaven”. Finally this weekend we got the long-awaited actual return of (and to) Gallifrey, and it didn’t disappoint: in typically Doctor-ish fashion, our hero manages to overthrow Rassilon simply by drawing a line in the sand and waiting. He didn’t even have to say ‘Doesn’t he look tired?’ A terrifically effective quiet moment, which while lacking the explosions and excitement of many a science-fiction show nonetheless imparted the important life lesson that there are far better ways of achieving your ends than violence. Indeed it’s when the Doctor subsequently does pick up a firearm and shoots the General (Ken Bone) that it feels oddly like a defeat for him, even though the General is not dead but merely resting – or regenerating to be precise before waking up a new woman (T’nia Miller).
It’s a shame but entirely understandable that Timothy Dalton couldn’t be persuaded to return for a brief reprise cameo as Rassilon, but in his absence Donald Sumpter is always a most welcome and reliable presence. It was nice to see Clare Higgins return as well as Ohila from the Sisterhood of Karn, although her role here is merely to act as the Chorus to events and as the Doctor’s outsourced voice of conscience while he himself is temporarily otherwise obsessed. To be honest, though, her part could have been cut from the story without any significant knock-on effect – as could the entire sequence in the cloister crypt filled with ghoulish wraiths. Without a doubt it’s a striking set-up and atmospherically executed (more brilliant work from director Rachel Talalay; and I should also take this moment to recognise the outstanding contribution of the director of cinematography on both this episode and “Heaven Sent”, Stuart Biddlecombe) but yet another irritating example of how Moffat comes up with terrific ideas that could easily support an entire standalone episode and instead throws them away as a couple of minutes of rather vacuous side distractions in a story that didn’t need them in the first place. A stronger showrunner overseeing someone else’s script would surely have put a red line through the entire sequence, while once again some of the show’s most iconic monsters (Daleks, Cybermen, Weeping Angels) are used merely as titivating hood ornaments to disguise the fact that there’s not a lot here for the younger viewers.
One could say very much the same thing about the scenes set inside the Tardis that the Doctor steals to make make good his and Clara’s escape from Gallifrey. It’s the first time in the modern era that we’ve seen inside a Tardis that is not the Doctor’s own, so the question has to be asked what should it look like? It would make little sense for it to just happen to sport the same ‘desktop theme’ as the Doctor’s model currently utilises, so something different is required. Something new. Or rather, something very old. The sight and sound of the interior of an old Type 40 capsule might have been the single most egregiously self-indulgent thing that the show has done in years, but I loved it. It totally took my breath away to see the original console room accurately recreated looking exactly as it did in November 1963 in “An Unearthly Child,” only with all the top-notch production values that you come to expect from a 21st century television show. There was a moment when I thought ‘Oh, it’s a shame they didn’t also include the wall of computer banks behind glass panels along one side…’ and then sure enough a camera move brought them into view. For an old fanboi, I have to say that the scenes set in this sparkling new-old Tardis were somewhat like the out-of-body experience I imagine that you get when you think you’re dying and want to move toward the light. It was utterly spectacular, desperately emotional and possibly one of my favourite moments the show has pulled off in years. Better yet, for fans less steeped in the show’s history, it won’t have interrupted the story one jot.
It seems superfluous to note that Peter Capaldi was superb. In fact I think I might forbid myself to ever say that again in any further reviews since after his tour de force in “Heaven Sent” any lauding of Capaldi’s abilities is just stating what has to surely be the bleedin’ obvious. However we should also praise his guitar-playing abilities as well, as that was a very nice rendering of Murray Gold’s “Clara’s Theme” that he rattled off. Talking of whom, there’s one last opportunity to say how fabulous Coleman has been as Clara, both with her work in this episode and every story in which she’s appeared in the last three and a half years, and how missed she will be from the line-up.
That said, the last few episodes of season 9 have made me realise that it’s time for Clara to go, because the show urgently needs a clean slate.
Long-term readers of this blog (if there are such things) will know that one of the criticisms I’ve had about the show under Moffat in recent years is that it’s become too complex and high-brow, too ponderous and sombre, and most of all too self-referential to the point of starting to eat its own entrails. Doctor Who used to be a show about the places the Doctor would go, the people he would meet, the adventures that he would have; but repeatedly under Moffat it’s become a show preoccupied to a large extent about the Doctor and to a lesser degree his companion, and not much else.
If you think back, after the first episode “An Unearthly Child” it took the classic series almost two years to add anything at all to the character’s back story (with the appearance of The Meddling Monk) and another year before his first regeneration; after that, another three years before we found out about the Doctor’s people, the Time Lords; and another four years before their home planet even got a name. But in the last two years of the modern series it seems that we scarcely have a week go by without another major addition to or revision of the series lore about the Doctor’s origins.
That was all well and good in 2013, the 50th anniversary year – if there’s any moment in a show’s history where you can forgive it some industrial-scale self-reflection then it’s surely a time such as that. Even so, you may recall that I said it was a relief that Matt Smith left at the end of the year since it meant that the show could draw a line under all that introspection and get back to enjoying itself, having adventures and not picking at its own scabs all the time.
For a while that happened, but the last few episodes of season 9 have veered back into that worrying territory all over again. In fact what’s most notable about “Hell Bent” is how almost every single aspect of its 65 minute running time is based on some pre-existing element of the show: not just the culmination of this season’s themes or even of Moffat’s tenure, but right back through to Davies (for example, the four knocks on the door) and even to the classic show. More than once I’ve noted that the current incarnation of the show is becoming increasingly impenetrable and off-putting to casual viewers or to younger ones and that it needs to recover some of its crowd-pleasing accessibility that Davies was always so good at, and less about Moffat cooking up ever more fiendishly complex and clever interconnected storylines for the devout fans.
Season 8 and to a large extent season 9 seemed to have achieved such a new sense of direction, which is why the sudden fallback into bad habits at the end is somewhat frustrating. However I think I might know the underlying reason why: and it’s Matt Smith. My speculation is that he wasn’t supposed to leave as early as he did and Moffat thought he would have at least one additional season with Smith in the role of the Doctor, which would have been enough to pay off all the myriad plot lines in play at that point. Instead, Smith departed suddenly which led to the panic crush of “The Time of the Doctor” which did its best in the circumstances to wrap up as much as possible in a one-hour instalment. After that the business of the day was about introducing a new Doctor (the ‘Am I a good man?’ season) and only once that was done could Moffat return to the remaining plot lines that had been been suspended for the duration – the search for Gallifrey and the pay-offs to Clara’s character.
In my theory, Moffat’s plans then took a further knock when Coleman quit in mid-2014 forcing him to set a whole new direction and exit strategy for the character; and then she un-quit and suddenly he was free to return to some of his original trajectory after all. In many ways, I think we can see a good ten episodes scattered though seasons 8 and 9 which would have constituted the principal arc of Matt Smith’s fourth full season of the show had he stayed on in the title role as expected, and it would have been a more more compact and coherent affair if he had. That was not to be, so Moffat has done the best job he can reacting to these real-world production distractions and pieced together the story over a longer period despite having to introduce a new leading man and cope with the in-out moves of the companion at the same time.
Viewed that way, Moffat’s achievement seems not only more understandable but also significantly greater than it otherwise would. It also raises the hope that with the end of the Gallifrey arc and the exit of Clara Oswald all the business from the Matt Smith years is now finally, once and for all taken care of and that we’re able to look ahead to season 10 with a genuine brand new blank slate. Hopefully it will be one consisting of fewer head-scrambling plots and more pure enjoyment and entertainment to reconnect with the casual and younger fans – and to be honest, also with the older long-term die hard fans who just want a return to some of the fun of bouncing around the universe in a battered blue box having escapist adventures after some very heavy few years of angst and turmoil.
As ever, time will tell. Maybe the return of a jazzed-up sonic screwdriver is a signal of some sort. As it is, the haunting final image of the episode – the paint from the graffiti commemorating Clara’s death peeling off and being blown away from the outside of the dematerialising Tardis – was a perfect final image and metaphor for the episode and for the season as a whole, as Doctor Who proceeds to shed its old skin and move on to new horizons and new companions in 2016.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
The 2015 Doctor Who Christmas special airs on BBC One at 5.15pm on December 26. The most recent episodes from Doctor Who season 9 are available on the BBC iPlayer. The first six episodes of the season are available on DVD and Blu-ray now, with the latter six on sale on January 4, 2016. A complete season 9 boxset will likely be available later in the year.