Doctor Who S09E12 “Hell Bent” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on BBC One, Saturdays
Writer: Steven Moffat
Director: Rachel Talalay
Essential Plot Points:
- The Doctor topples the Time Lord President, Rassilon, and High Council of Gallifrey using the silent approach.
- But he’s still keeping shtum about the Hybrid, and convinces the General he needs information from Clara to help defeat it.
- So the Time Lords extract Clara from time just before her death; she is now a kind of time-zombie caught between the final two heartbeats of her life. She will be kept “alive” for just a few minutes…
- …Excapt the Doctor’s been fibbing. He really just wanted Clara resurrected and as soon as she is he scrapers off with her in a stolen TARDIS.
- Well, not quite right away. There’s a lot of nattering in the Matrix first. Apparently when he was a young Time Brat, the Doctor was told about the Hybrid by a Matrix Wraith, and that’s what made him scared enough to run from Gallifrey.
- Oh, and the Doctor also acquires a Time Lord device for wiping memories (painlessly) along the way. Realising he has gone too far in his quest to save Clara, he aims to protect her by wiping her memory of all knowledge of him and her adventures with him.
- For some reason he goes to the end of time to do this where he meets Me, and they play a game of, “Who can come up with the stupidest theory for what the Hybrid is?”
- When Clara learns what the Doctor plans she knobbles the mind wipe device. Knowing that it will malfunction but not what it will do now, they both use the device, and a lot (but not all) of the Doctor’s memories of Clara are wiped. Clara’s memories remain intact.
- Clara drops the Doctor off on Earth, gives him back his own TARDIS then flies off in the stolen TARDIS (stuck in the form of an American diner) with Me.
- The Doctor gets his mojo back.
For around 20 minutes “Hell Bent” is everything you could want from a series finale. After that… it isn’t. Which is both a good and a bad thing.
It’s typical of a series that has been so ready to experiment with the show’s format that it doesn’t revert to tried and trusted crowdpleasing bells and whistles for its climax. Instead it goes for an intensely personal – and intensely talky – resolution. Bold, certainly. Ballsy, you bet. Wise? Hmmm…
The key line in the episode contains just two words: “Clara who?” Or maybe that should be written, “Clara Who.” The whole subplot of the last couple of seasons has been how Clara had been becoming more of a Doctor than the Doctor, and now here she is, galavanting around the universe in a stolen TARDIS (with a sidekick), possibly immortal. Meanwhile, she’s also brought the Doctor back from the brink; the final scene, as he puts on his “Doctor-y” velvet jacket, clicks his fingers to close the TARDIS doors and discards the sonic glasses for an trad sonic screwdriver, seems to promise the end of naval-gazing “mid-life crisis Doctor” and a return to a more recognisably heroic Doctor. (We kinda hope he keeps the guitar, though.)
All of which is a lovely conceit, and there are some wonderfully uplifting moments towards the end of the episode (rare for a companion’s departure in New Who). There are also some great emotional speeches from Clara, especially the one when she points out she’d rather die with her memories intact than live in ignorance, that give the last section real resonance. (It would have had mote resonant, though, if it had been made clear that the Doctor had elected to wipe his own memories, rather than fudging the issue by just teasing the idea; the Doctor at that point needed to look like hero, with no grey areas.)
But all that would have been just as moving and emotional and memorable if it had been the last few minutes of an action-packed finale. Instead, Moffat concentrates on this subplot with pretensions for near two-thirds of the episode. So after a simply blistering and visually spectacular extended sequence with the Doctor conquering Gallifrey without uttering a word, the episode seems to lose impetus and direction. There are lots of little lovely moments, certainly, and no end of great one liners, but you keep wondering, “Where the hell is all this going?” You can follow what’s going on but often it’s difficult to grasp why.
For example, the Doctor seems to have conquered Gallifrey and seems to be de facto president now (the General follows his orders as regards banishing Rassilon), yet he scurries from his own people like an escaped prisoner. Why the need to find a secret route to the TARDISes via the Matrix if you give the orders? Even if the only TARDIS parking lot in Gallifrey is beneath the Matrix (which seems unlikely) surely as president he could demand to have a TARDIS brought to a more convenient location before extracting Clara? Maybe this all made sense in Moffat’s head but it’s difficult fathom out the exact status of things on Gallifrey following the Doctor’s coup.
So the Matrix scenes come across as so much filler (not helped by some really uninspired production design – see below), mainly inserted to provide an excuse for the Doctor to reveal his tale about his encounter with a Matrix Wraith. Oh, and to dust off (or more accurately, dust on) some old monster costumes in an attempt to make the scenes more exciting. There are a couple of creepily effective shots of the Weeping Angels, but largely this section of the episode feels either like padding or a set-up for a future storyline.
Then the Doctor decides to go to the end of time, because that always sounds impressive. But why? Did he have to make the “adjustment” to Clara at the end of time to stop some major calamity to the time line? Did he know Me would be there? It’s never very clear. You just have to accept it.
But it’d be nice to know what the temporal calamity would be. And why the Doctor is so blasé about ignoring it. And whether it’s something we should be concerned about in future series or if it has somehow all been resolved and we shouldn’t worry out little heads about it?
Then there’s the whole Hybrid question. Is the Doctor the Hybrid? He certainly conquered Gallifrey and then stood in its ruins… but he has to go to the end of time to stand in its ruins, so that seems a bit of cheat, reading the prophecy in purely literal terms. Don’t you just hate prophecies that cane be scuppered by semantic pedants?
The Doctor himself – in the final moments before his memory is wiped – claims that, yes, he is the Hybrid, but it doesn’t feel like a total clincher; we needed to see a flashback to a Wraith going, “You are the Hybrid!” to ram it home. As it is, Me and the Doctor’s theory-swapping session simply muddies the waters. Moffat previously backed himself into a corner with the whole “Doctor’s name” mystery – something which he was never going to be able to reveal. With the Hybrid, though, there’s no need to be vague; after a season of keeping viewers guessing, a definitive answer about the Hybrid would have been appreciated.
So what we’re left is an episode that starts brilliantly, ends cheekily enough to send you away with a warm glow, but largely frustrates or irritates in-between. It’s an episode that relies heavily on the assumption that most of the audience is as interested in the Doctor/Clara relationship as Moffat it; some may be, but we bet a lot of viewers wouldn’t have minded a few more answers and a few more spaceships.
- The first 15 minutes with the Doctor conquering Gallifrey without saying a word.
- The Gallifreyan warships.
- The framing device in the diner that totally wrongfoots you about who’s forgotten who (and is also really sweet at times).
- The little jiggle during the CG zoom into the Gallifreyan Capital when the virtual “camera” passes through the glass bubble.
- Donald Sumpter is brilliant as Rassilon. Let’s hope he doesn’t regenerate before we meet the character again.
- Clara’s speech to the Doctor about how she’d prefer to die with her memories intact rather than live in ignorance is bang on the nail: “These have been the best year’s of my life, and they are mine. Tomorrow is poised to no one, Doctor, but I insist upon my past. I am entitled to that.” Perhaps the Doctor should revisit Donna and give her the choice too.
- The old-style TARDIS interior is wonderfully nostalgic.
- The idea of Clara and Me dashing about the universe in a stolen TARDIS stuck in the shape of a diner is wonderfully silly and an unexpected end to Clara’s run on the show (though it means both are available for further guests appearances).
- A few more great lines:
- “What’s his plan?” “I think he’s finishing his soup.”
- “Words are his weapons.” “When did they stop being ours?”
- “The Doctor does not blame Gallifrey for the horrors of the Time War.” “I should hope not.” “He just blames you.”
- “What colour is it?” “I don’t know.” “Prophecies – they never tell you anything useful, do they?”
- “Did I miss something?” “Well, we’re several billions years to the future and the universe is pretty much over, so yeah, quite a lot.”
- “You’re on Gallifrey. Death is Time Lord for man-flu.”
- The Matrix set is incredibly unimpressive. Also, it never feels like the Time Lord guards will be in any real danger if they do stray into it; we never get to see the Matrix Wraiths do anything really nasty so they don’t feel like a threat. It feels like something was lost in translation between the Matrix in Moffat’s imagination and what we got on screen.
- Too many things happen without any real understanding why they’re happening.
- Twelve has been a truculent, grumpy, stroppy, morally dubious Doctor since his very first episode, so the whole theme of Clara wanting the Doctor to be more Doctory again loses some of its impact; unless what she really means is, “I wish you could be more like Eleven again”. Again, it feels like there’s a whole subplot that’s stronger and more clearly delineated in Moffat’s head than what appears on screen. Similarly, we’ve seen the Doctor ignore far great laws of time than we see him transgress here.
- No definitive answer to the Hybrid question.
- Too many nod, nod, wink, wink references to the Doctor’s past.
- The malfunctioning Time Lord mind wipe gizmo is a suspiciously convenient plot device (unless it’s revealed in the future that the Doctor surreptitiously fixed it to make sure he zapped himself).
- While there have been some great extended dialogue scenes this series, the finale could have done with the bit more action and a little less talk.
And The Random:
- The Matrix Wraiths look like Time Lords but glide about like Daleks – was this supposed to be a red herring as regards the Hybrid?
- So who is the old lady who comes into the barn? And are the “boys” she refers to the Doctor and the Master?
- Ohila also refers to the Doctor as, “Boy!” which earns a double-take from Clara.
- Ohila hints she may be immortal. Intriguing. Are either of these women connected to the mysterious woman from “The End Of Time?” Probably not, but hey, let’s throw it out there.
- The Doctor not only drinks soup for the second episode in a row, he also drops his soup spoon for dramatic effect for the second episode in a row. Hence forth, OMG! moments for the Twelfth Doctor will be known as SSDs – “Soup Spoon Droppers”.
- A big thing is made about how the Doctor spent 4.5 billion years in the confession dial, but as copies of himself were teleported in repeatedly – surely the final copy can only remember experiencing a weeks, maybe months, at most in there?
- “You like a cliffhanger, don’t you?” This series… Yeah!
- Rassilon’s gauntlet was last seen along with Rassilon himself (then played by Timothy Dalton) in “The End Of Time, Part 2” (2010), David Tennant’s final episode. Rassilon first appeared in “The Five Doctors” (1983) but was first mentioned in “The Deadly Assassin” (1976) as the engineer and legend who made time travel possible. He clearly had a good agent as his name went on to become a mini-marketing franchise on Gallifrey: over the years we’ve seen or heard about the Rod of Rassilon; the Sash of Rassilon; the Ring of Rassilon; the Coronet of Rassilon; the Crown of Rassilon; the Harp of Rassilon; the Black Scrolls of Rassilon; the Seal of Rassilon; the Tomb of Rassilon; the Record of Rassilon; and Rassilon’s gauntlet. And they’re just the ones from the TV show, not from the books, games and comics of the extended Whoniverse (where you’ll find such things as The Loom Of Rassilon’s Mouse).
- “Why did you banish him?” Ohila aks the Doctor. Is he being cruel? Cowardly? Doing it for his own protection? Our guess is he’s setting up future storylines.
- “Exterminate me.” Or should that be, “Exterminate Me”? Things really have become complicated since Ashildr decided to call herself that.
- “Hope is a terrible thing on the scaffold,” says Ohila. But in “The Woman Who Lived” the Doctor admired Sam Swift’s display of optimism in the face of execution, so yah boo sucks Ohila.
- “Four knocks.” The Tenth Doctor feared the prophecy of the four knocks in “The End Of Time”.
- Me looks very Black/White Guardian-y as she waits for the end of the universe, doesn’t she? (The Black Guardian and the White Guardian were cosmically opposed beings featured in the original show’ 16th and 20th series.) Well, no, she doesn’t have a beard or a bird stuck to her head, but there’s something about the chair and the attitude and the fact that she’s playing chess (black and white pieces… geddit?). Oh, but hang on…?
- …Who the hell was she expecting to play chess against?
- Donald Sumpter (Rassilon) has become a bit of a cult TV legend recently with memorable appearances in Game Of Thrones, Being Human and Jekyll & Hyde to his name. But he has previous Doctor Who form too; he was Enrico Casali in “The Wheel In Space” (1968) and Commander Ridgeway in “The Sea Devils” (1972). He was also Erasmus Darkening in The Sarah Jane Adventures episode “The Eternity Trap”.
- The pre-regen General was played by Ken Bones, who appeared in the same role in “The Day Of The Doctor” (2013). He’s also had prominent roles in Atlantis and Da Vinci’s Demons.
- The Doctor strums “Clara’s Theme” written by Murray Gold and first heard in “The Snowmen” (2012).
Review by Dave Golder