TV Review: Doctor Who – Series 9 Episode 12: ‘Hell Bent’

The series finale of Doctor Who sees the Doctor returning to his home planet with one goal in mind: reviving Clara. reviews

★★★★☆

Image: BBC

Image: BBC

I have to admit that way back when this series started, with that two-parter with Missy and Davros and Skaro and Daleks from every era, I was somewhat curious as to what was going to happen in the finale.  How do you top that? I thought stakes wouldn’t be raised higher than that until we sent cows to Mars! Happily, the writers found a way! Turns out you bring Gallifrey back, bring the Time Lords too and pit them against a Doctor on the verge of throwing that title away completely (again).

So the plot goes thus: after the Doctor went through a four billion-year imprisonment and a few trillion deaths in ‘Heaven Sent’ (a pretty brilliant episode in its own right), he’s found the people responsible. That being the Time Lords, who are currently hiding out at the end of the Universe having somehow slipped free from their pocket universe. So the Doctor sets to work on his revenge: or so it seems. It becomes clear he’s got another plan in mind. And also there’s this prophecy, about a Hybrid destined to stand in Gallifrey’s ruins…

Many viewers will have noticed that it’s never actually explained how Gallifrey came back. The Doctor only spends about a third of the episode on the planet, but it is one heck of a good first third! In a scene mostly done in silence, the Doctor goes back to his childhood home and mingles with some common Gallifreyans, before having a Mexican standoff with Rassilon in the desert, staging a coup, and ordering the President off his planet. It’s all very awesome. We even find out about Cloister Wraiths and the Dry Lands and how a controlled regeneration works.

But if you were looking for a story that the entire new series has been leading up to, with the Doctor who has been continually defined as “the last of the Time Lords” finally going home for some big revelations… well, that plot goes out the airlock the second they bring Clara back from the dead. At which point the episode was temporarily drowned out by the little crackle of my expectations bursting into flame.

Ultimately, then, how much you enjoy this episode is going to depend heavily on how much you liked Clara, and how sick you are of Steven Moffat’s continued inability to never actually kill anyone for real. Personally, I thought ‘Face the Raven’ was a really great end for Clara’s arc; she gets brought down by her own flaws, actually acknowledges them and gets a tearful farewell as she gets to be brave. While she still will have to face the raven, like everyone does, the fact that she now gets to travel the Universe for as long as she wants in a stolen TARDIS sort of cheapens it.

(Yes, it’s odd that a human knows how to fly an insanely-complicated eldritch sentient time-ship, but the Doctor’s been giving her lessons since Series 7 and they have a manual. And admittedly I don’t know if time collapses if Clara trips over a Chumbley on her adventures and breaks her neck, or something like that, though I suppose that’s the sort of thing time can sort out itself. Wibbily-wobbily).

Yet, in actuality, by the end of the episode I wasn’t that annoyed they brought her back. Maybe because the story’s not really about Clara facing her death either… This time, Moffat spends a long time playing coy with what the story of the episode actually is.

Clara’s accepted her fate. She wants to go back. But this is another character episode for the Doctor, who just had two massive traumas dumped on him, got no time to deal with either and who now has to work through four billion years’ worth of grief. Every episode in this finale trilogy’s had a monster in it determined to track someone down whatever the cost, and this time it’s the Doctor, who’s willing to shoot one of his allies dead in cold blood and risk burning the Universe to get her back again. (Yeah, if I were Adric, I’d be feeling a little unloved right now. But I digress).

So instead of our big Gallifrey finale, we get an emotional character study about grief and death and moving on. That does call for some pretty great acting, so it’s a good thing we get that all-round. Sure, Donald Sumpter’s Rassilon wasn’t a patch on Timothy Dalton’s, but Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman knocked it out of the park, hitting emotional beat after emotional beat hard. The saddest part was a horrified Clara finding out about the Doctor’s special hell as he shakily tried to shrug it off. Maisie Williams was on top form as Me or Ashildr or the Knightmare or whoever, I still liked the General (both of them) and even Nicholas Briggs made me feel sad about a Dalek, of all things, trapped in the Matrix and begging for death. Also, no more sonic sunglasses! Get your confetti out, kids!

Miscellaneous praise: if Rachel Talalay can just come back and direct all the big finale episodes forever, that’d be excellent, because she’s done a pretty great job with the last two – we get the Western flavoured Dry Lands, creepy shots from the Matrix Cloisters and some great bits in the default TARDIS – oh yeah, they brought back the William Hartnell console room, which made my inner fan bounce up and down. Murray Gold, between this and ‘Heaven Sent’, has been composing some pretty great music as well.

So Series 9 ends with the Doctor at peace and Clara flitting about through time in the Bistromath and I have to say, it’s been a damn good run. There were some episodes that came out a bit mediocre (‘The Girl Who Died’, ‘The Zygon Invasion’) and one that was outright bad (oh hello, ‘Sleep No More’) but overall I’ve really enjoyed it. Hopefully whatever’s next can keep up that momentum and…oh. It’s a River Song episode. Well, never mind then.

4 comments

  1. 12 Dec ’15 at 3:08 pm

    Mary W. Matthews

    The stakes (of the bet) couldn’t have been higher. The steaks were marinating near the grill.

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  2. It really was very good – especially on rewatch. My only regret is that Ken Bones’ portrayal of The General is unlikely to be seen again. Ken Bones, Ken Bones, Ken dry Bones!

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  3. What’s amazing about this episode on rewatch is you realize how much has been foreshadowed in earlier episodes. And I don’t just mean this season. What was the first thing the Twelfth Doctor asked Clara? I’ll let you google that one. At first I thought it cheapened her death too but then I realized that Face the Raven was about punishing someone for aspiring to be the Doctor – a violation of the show’s mandate since day 1. So giving her a reprieve is perfectly in keeping with the concept. At the same time the sadness of her death on Face the Raven is amplified because we now know at some point something really sad is going to have to happen that will make Clara return to basically commit suicide. What did the Doctor say about immortality in “The Girl Who Died”? This episode also I think brought to a climax the entire notion of the Doctor falling in love with his companions, showing us how dangerous that can be. (There is no possible ambiguity after he says he spent 4.5 billion years punching through a wall of diamond for her.) If anything it’s the River Song episode that I fear will cheapen everything, not this one. Re: Adric. Big differences. First the Doctor was much young and less wiser then. Second, and this is something people are willingly ignoring: the Doctor’s last memory of Adric was not of him screaming in terrible agony! That was Clara and that in my opinion is what drove the Doctor to do what he did. His friend – the woman he cared for (I’ll leave the L-word out of it) died in agony. He said so in Heaven Sent. Clara asks him why he did this to himself. The answer is staring us right in the face.

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  4. This is perhaps something from me being a big fan of the 1st through 7th Doctors (with an exception of some of Davison and Colin Baker) I find Doctor Who increasingly difficult to watch. One: The Doctor would not fall in love with Clara , he doesn’t fall in love with his companions pre 8th doctor. (which for all intents and purposes was not a brilliant script even though I like the actor) It seems the writers are incapable of having a strong friendship between a male and female character without one falling in love with the other. As to the Adric being irrelevant argument , well the Doctor has never gone through this length to prevent others dying either, even people who were far closer to him than Clara. “Death has to be accepted” is the lesson that the 5th Doctor was teaching his companions in his response to Adric’s death , plus it would have been a dishonor to Adric’s sacrifice.
    There’s part of me that wants the Doctor to turn female so I don’t have to endure these stupid romance sub-plots (unless Moffat decides to do a Lesbian sub plot, which given how clumsily he writes women would be dire) . The other problem I have is the attitude towards villains, the bad guys are rarely bad guys and are often simply forgiven by the Doctor for killing innocent people , something which the Old doctor never did.
    I have other problems such as the companions becoming predestined to greatness because contrived plot device (Clara, Rose and Amy all fit that) and in the last episode it was completely unnecessary for the doctor to shoot someone, it was completely out of character, and it was only there so Moffat could turn a timelord from male to female. It felt forced and made me roll my eyes. I think that’s enough of my ranting , I probably think I’m in the minority for wanting a change of main script writer and soon.

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