Sunday, 6 December 2015

Two weeks ago, I hoped Steven Moffat would let a death be a death and not bring Clara back, for fear it would ruin the impact of Face the Raven’s ending.

You know what? I take that back. I was wrong.

Though ostensibly set up as an episode about the return of Gallifrey and the prophecy of the “hybrid”, Hell Bent turned out to be something different entirely – a test of the levels to which the Doctor would go to bring back a dead friend, an interrogation of the recklessness of these lengths, and a very fitting conclusion to the story of a companion who wanted to be a Doctor.

The return to Gallifrey is actually a great backdrop to this story – what better way to show the Doctor at his worst than by confronting him with his own race, the race from whom he ran away, now a reminder of his worst war crimes? Peter Capaldi, not for the first time this series, is electrifying as Angry Doctor – sure, he leads a coup and shoots a fellow Time Lord, but the real ‘gone too far’ moment is his “I am answerable to no one!” rage. This is a hell bent Doctor, and no Doctor can be hell bent like the Twelfth.

But this episode’s not about the Doctor. It’s – like the possible solution to the hybrid mystery – about Clara and the Doctor. Though Face the Raven’s death scene was a brilliant one, Clara’s arc was about her becoming more and more like the Doctor, and so this gives us a very fitting (and much more uplifting) culmination to her story, with her saving him from his sins and simultaneously taking the opportunity to become a ‘Doctor’ herself. What's particularly brilliant is the way Moffat takes Donna’s ending from Journey’s End, which, while undoubtedly emotional, took all agency away from Catherine Tate’s character, and subverts it by allowing Clara to say no to the Doctor trying to wipe her memory – “These have been the best years of my life, and they are mine … I insist upon my past, I am entitled to that". Unlike Donna, Clara ends her story in control of her destiny.

And that’s part of why her being brought back from the dead isn’t the Angels Take Manhattan-esque cop-out I feared, and doesn’t ruin the impact of Face the Raven. In fact, Face the Raven needed to be impactful for this episode’s story to work. Not only does Clara end her story in control, she ends it more mature than she was two episodes ago. She’s aware of her recklessness, having seen its consequences and stopped the Doctor from going off the rail himself. And she’s accepting of her fate, ready to go and face the raven. This isn’t a cop out – she’s still going to die on Trap Street. Why not show that death here? Well, it’s Doctor Who – there’s always time and space for a bit of optimism. Time and space to take the long way round.

Out of all the endings Clara’s had (I count six now), this is the best.

And I haven’t even mentioned the framing story yet. Not only does it keep us on our toes with its misdirection as to who remembers what (thus making the twist that Clara's the knowledgable one here even more powerful), but it's also the most affecting element, largely due to its very clever use of music, surely vindicating the Doctor’s adoption of the guitar for those who weren’t yet convinced – his sad song called Clara, actually a diegetic rendition of her musical motif, is just pure brilliance. Plus, it made me laugh how the script acknowledged that there's only one American-style diner in Cardiff – "I've been here before, with Amy and Rory".

As well as Clara’s, Hell Bent nicely rounds off Me’s story – she finally gets the TARDIS she dreamed of in The Woman Who Lived, and, after billions of years, is now mature enough to use it for the sake of good. Now where’s the spin-off in which her and Clara meet Jenny and bond over how they’re all space-time abnormalities due to the Doctor’s mucking around? Or the one where pre-Hell Bent Me shares the final days of the universe with Jack Harkness?

What’s also deserving of praise is how, outside of the emotional backbone, Hell Bent just flows. Moffat’s finales have often been vast and epic in scale, but this one flips between genres, settings and times with a smoothness that others have been lacking – perhaps best summed up by the way the Doctor casually removes his jacket, unbuttons his waistcoat, and becomes the hero of a Western as if it’s the role he was born to play. Though it deals with Big Things (the return of Gallifrey, Me's immortality, Clara’s mortality), this is a remarkably accessible finale, never feeling muddled or over-reliant on continuity – see the confidence with which it references the TV Movie’s half-human thing in a way that works perfectly for those unfamiliar with the TV Movie, and the sense with which it doesn’t actually make the Doctor a half—human hybrid (because fuck the TV Movie, right?).

There's one thing that annoyed me, which is the return of Gallifrey being under-explained. After all we’ve had in the past ten years about it being inaccessible (and we’ve had a damn lot), the hand-wavey 'oh, it’s back now, sure' explanation is very light. Yes, Moffat’s right not to focus entirely on this, as the Doctor/Clara stuff is more emotionally interesting, but such a big twist for the Who universe deserves more. Equally problematic is the dropping of Gallifreyan politics mid-way through the episode – the Doctor becoming Lord President of this brutal society in which anyone living outside the Capitol 'doesn’t matter' and then simply swanning off is a bit of a dick move, and though this is acknowledged, it’s then never returned to. Who will fill the power vacuum he’s left behind? Nevertheless, as with the Zygon loose end in The Day of the Doctor, there’s always potential for another visit in a later series to work these things out…

A few minor points:
  • The scene about how he spent 4.5 billion years in the confession dial didn’t work for me, given that he didn’t. Approximately 4.5 billion versions of him spent approximately one year in it each. Also, didn’t Heaven Sent say it was 12 billion? 
  • It’s good, however, that it explained what a confession dial is, addressing a problem I raised last week but never expected to actually be addressed.
  • Hooray for seeing a regeneration in which the Time Lord not only switches gender, but race as well. That’ll piss off a certain sub-section of Who fandom who deserve to be pissed off.
  • How good does that ‘60s style TARDIS look? The slightly dirtied textures and subtly pulsating lights stop it from being too awkwardly clean, and I imagine Capaldi had the time of his life Doctoring around in it.
Hell Bent is the best Doctor Who finale in a long time, and series nine has been the best series in a long time, with Moffat really having upped his game. As a companion departure, this is everything The Angels Take Manhattan wasn’t – coherent, for a start – as well as, and I didn’t expect to be making this comparison, everything Journey’s End wasn’t – a story that allowed the companion to take control of their departure. As a finale, it works – epic but uncluttered, exciting, emotional. As a Gallifrey story, it perhaps lacks, offering intriguing glimpses into the Time Lord’s home planet but failing to conclude them. But that’s just one more reason to hope series ten comes sooner rather than later…

  1. The Zygon Inversion
  2. The Zygon Invasion
  3. Hell Bent
  4. Face the Raven
  5. The Girl Who Died
  6. Heaven Sent
  7. The Woman Who Lived
  8. The Witch’s Familiar
  9. Under the Lake
  10. The Magician’s Apprentice
  11. Before the Flood
  12. Sleep No More
Post-script: The ‘Next Time’ trailer for the Christmas special is the most incoherently edited trailer I’ve ever seen, seemingly slapped together on Saturday afternoon. It boggles me even more that BBC One aired a second, slightly better, trailer for it immediately after the first one. What the hell happened there?


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