In ‘Hell Bent’, written by Steven Moffat, the Doctor is in Nevada telling a story to a waitress (who looks a lot like Clara) in a diner about what he did once he escaped his confession dial and how it was all connected to the prophecy of the hybrid. Yet there is a twist in this tale and nothing is as it seems.
This is a strangely small and personal finale to the series where the universe isn’t in peril but the Doctor’s identity is. It is a story made up of bluffs and double bluffs which unfortunately wastes some of its big ideas in the name of deception. Less of an end and more of a setup for many more adventures to come.
Spoilers From Here On In!
Moffat has long explored the idea of Doctor Who as a story. Whether it be a myth, legend, prophecy or tall tale he is interested in how that narrative has power and how the Doctor and his TARDIS sit at the centre of this fictional world generating new ideas (or revisiting old ones).
Within this fiction, nothing ever ends. This is particularly true where time travel is involved. Such is the case here as Clara’s death is delayed so that she can return for many more adventures in the future, just not in the company of the Doctor. Just like River Song there is not necessary a need for her stories to ever end.
This sentiment is found throughout this episode. We are used to the finale representing the potential end of the world, universe, time or reality but here it is about renewal as the Doctor returns to where it all began, on Gallifrey. We even get a return visit to the barn seen in ‘The Day Of The Doctor’ and ‘Listen’.
The desert environment fits in well with the Western inspired garb of the outsiders and this leads to a nice stand off with the high council as they try a variety of means to deal with the Doctor, first through threats, then diplomacy and finally a visit by President Rassilon.
Donald Sumpter is fine in the role of Rassilon (and it is understandable why Timothy Dalton didn’t return to the role) but it also demonstrates a major problem of this episode. The character of Rassilon used to have some weight, the stuff of legend with terrible power. Here he is an old man, all sound and fury but signifying nothing.
This may demonstrate that the Doctor’s own legend has outgrown this historic figure and indeed his own planet. When once he was insignificant (‘The Deadly Assassin’), an outlaw (‘The War Games’) or just a useful tool (‘Genesis Of The Daleks’) now the world belongs to him on basis that he is their saviour and victor of the Time War.
At the same time it also illustrates that the Doctor has lost his way. With so much weight on his shoulders he has become the very authority he once rebelled against. The power and sense of self entitlement now not only makes him think he can bargain with the universe but that it owes him what he wants, no matter the cost.
With Rassilon and the high council exiled (sure to be a potential threat in the future) the Doctor is free to deal with the fabled threat of the hybrid. Using the resources of the Time Lords he arranges for Clara to be snatched out of history (no doubt a variation of the technology used to capture the Doctor in ‘Trial Of The Time Lords’ because he claims that she has vital information.
Caught between heart beats Clara is living on borrowed time, but until she returns is technically immortal. With his beloved companion restored the Doctor reveals his true agenda was just to get Clara back even though time itself is now imperilled.
Gunning down the General the Doctor and Clara flee into the lower regions of the Capital to the Matrix. The onscreen regeneration of the General from Ken Bones (who has brought great gravitas to the role since he appeared in ‘The Day Of The Doctor’) to T’nia Miller (who brings sass and strength to her brief appearance) gives us onscreen evidence that Time Lords can change both race and gender increasing the number of potential actors who could take the role of the Doctor in the future.
The exploration of the Matrix catacombs allows the pleasing guest appearances of a Dalek, Cyberman and a Weeping Angel, establishing that even these monsters pale in comparison to the Matrix’s defence systems. it is quite chilling to hear the Dalek pleading to be exterminated.
The Matrix has monsters of its own in the form of Cloister Wraiths (or the less scary sounding ‘Sliders’). Gliding around with the holographic faces of dead Time Lords they are eerie but don’t provide much danger to our main characters. They serve more of a reminder of the dread of death.
It is apt that Clara finds herself in this foggy borderland between life and death. While the Doctor searches for an escape it gives her time to discover just what he has been through. Jenna Coleman does a good job of communicating Clara’s horror and heartbreak in finding out that he tortured himself for billions of years just to bring her back.
Capaldi also sells the Doctor’s complete conviction that the maddening lengths the Doctor went to was worth it. That he can not understand that it isn’t obvious to others that he had duty of care that this was a reasonable course of action. At that moment we glimpse how damaged he is and that despite his power he is a also very fragile and flawed.
Escaping in a stolen TARDIS (with a classic interior) the Doctor heads away from the far end of time (where Gallifrey was hiding) to the very last hours of the universe. Here they find Ashildr, the last living being in existence. Maise Williams works well here, with Ashildr every part the Doctor’s equal as she calls him on his nonsense.
The implication of the last episode turns out to be a double bluff as she denies being the Hybrid of prophecy. Once again there is the suggestion that the Doctor might be candidate (although he doesn’t confirm his half human nature) and Ashildr suggests a new theory, that the hybrid is the combination of the Doctor and Clara.
This returns to the idea that Clara is a bad influence of the Doctor. Yes she is responsible for giving him hope and allowing him to find ways out of impossible situations but she has repeatedly demonstrated that she will take extreme measures to get what she wants, including threatening and blackmailing her friends.
True to form, when Clara finds out the Doctor is going to wipe her memories of her to save her life she spitefully reverse the polarity on his mind wipe device. Thematically this harks back to the Black Archive scenes in ‘The Zygon Inversion’, as both the Doctor and Clara take a gamble on who will be affected by the device.
We learn that it is the Doctor who is affected and that the framing device of the Doctor relating his story to the waitress is his own attempts to fill in the blanks. He remembers the adventures he had with Clara but not the women herself. Moffat turned our own expectations that the waitress was a fragment of Clara or a post-memory wipe version against us.
In truth Clara was just checking on the Doctor, making sure he was okay. Her plan seems to have worked as despite his belief that he’d recognise Clara if he saw her again he fails to do so (although when he finds her picture on his TARDIS later he must surely work it out).
Sad, doomed but with plenty of time on her hands Clara leaves in the stolen TARDIS, now trapped in the form of an American Diner, exploring space and time with the equally immortal Ashildr. This then is Clara’s exit from the series (at least for the time being) but it so clearly set up for spin off adventures. The only question is whether this will take the form of a television show, books, audios or the favoured imaginations of fans.
The Doctor reclaims his TARDIS, spurred on by Clara’s words to be the Doctor, donning his velvet jacket and catching a new sonic screwdriver ejected from the console. Hopefully this signals that he will no longer need to be cared for and that he will start making amends for his reckless actions.
This is not an end but a whole new start. Gallifrey has returned and is probably not best pleased with the Doctor (and who will run the place now?), Rassilon is out there plotting revenge, the threat of the Hybrid (and its true nature) is unresolved and time won’t heal itself until Clara accepts her fate (which may take some time).
This does rob this season of having a satisfying conclusion but that plays into the fact that the Doctor and his adventures are endless. The books and audios have shown there is room for plenty more tales stretching backwards and forwards with new tales inserted in between what we know.
I was unhappy where the character of the 12th Doctor was left at the end of last season but I’m excited to see how he develops without Clara. It is a good sign when the program acknowledges what a toxic presence she’d become and hopefully there will be a determined effort in the future to avoid the mistakes of the past.
This story isn’t without its flaws. Moffat is very much writing with an awareness of what the viewer is thinking and what the internet is speculating on. In order to be two steps ahead much of the misdirection can seem to be padding. The return of Gallifrey and the Doctor’s awareness of where it was should have been huge but was really a sidenote to getting Clara back.
This impacted on the direction of the series as a whole. The introduction and importance Ashildr, not to mention the shoehorning of the Hybrid plot, was a major mistep. This led to two of the worst episodes this season and the pay off (an immortal companion for Clara) was not worth it.
Despite this the performance were great and the production design for Gallifrey was impressive. The return of the classic console room makes me hope that the Doctor will return to this for his own TARDIS. The stark, clinical white reinforces the otherworldy nature of the TARDIS interior existing in limbo rather than a cosy little living space for the Doctor.
The status quo of the universe and the life of the Doctor has changed which brings lots of exciting potential for the future. There many more stories left to tell.