06 December 2015

Doctor Who: Hell Bent

Review by Matt Michael

Has there been a truly successful series finale in the last five years? After the brilliantly twisty Dark Water, Death in Heaven paid respect to the late Nicholas Courtney by turning the Brigadier’s corpse into a Cyberman. The Name of the Doctor was fun, but felt like an extended prologue to the fiftieth anniversary special. Though it’s aged rather well, The Wedding of River Song was profoundly underwhelming at the time, largely because the Doctor’s absolutely-going-to-happen death turned out to be a whopping great lie.

Hell Bent also reminds us that ‘the Doctor lies’. All those dark hints about the Hybrid were a ruse to get access to the awesome technology of the Time Lords to rescue Clara from a fate – well, from a fate precisely the same as death, actually.

I struggled to engage with the first 20 minutes or so of the episode – the scenes where Rassilon and the High Council went traipsing out to the War Doctor’s barn went on forever with no obvious relevance to the story. Donald Sumpter was wasted, as was Clare Higgins. Whole scenes seemed to unfold just because: the General regenerated into a woman to make the point (as if Missy hadn’t already done so) that Time Lords can change sex - just so long as they aren’t the show’s lead. The Daleks, Cybermen and Weeping Angels were in the Matrix crypt because Moffat’s season finales invariably feature them all anyway. Rachel Talalay keeps these scenes moving, but neat direction’s not enough to disguise a script running on the spot. By 8.25pm I was ready to write this off as a let down, and a waste of the Big Return to Gallifrey.

Then, something weird happened, right about the time the Doctor fled the dullest planet in the universe in a stolen TARDIS. Hell Bent switched gears from lackadaisically rehashing clich├ęs to becoming something approaching magnificent. That gloriously retro 1960s control room is just the icing on the cake.

Back in Before the Flood, the Doctor raged at the Fisher King for stealing the deaths of his victims. Of course, this makes the Doctor an enormous hypocrite, and Clara, as she so often has before, calls him out on it. A woman so stubborn she’s willing to die to prove a point to a man who – as we saw in Heaven Sent – is willing to do exactly the same. What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Perhaps the last half hour of Hell Bent.

The Doctor and Clara have been dancing round each other for a long time now. But, eyeball-to-eyeball, both of them knew this was their last dance. Seeing the Doctor slowly lose control – and cool – as Clara’s heart resolutely refused to start beating, hearing them have the same conversation they’ve always had with the urgent edge that comes from the knowledge that they’ll never get the chance again, I was reminded of Moffat’s greatest work: Press Gang. This was Lynda Day having it out with Spike. With Capaldi and Coleman at their peak, it was electric.

Reintroducing Me allows Moffat do pull off the necessary exposition without having to resort to a tedious montage. More, it made explicit a point of view that’s been obvious in Moffat’s work for some time: the answers are never as interesting as the question. Does it matter whether the Hybrid is Ashildr, or the half-human Doctor (yes he is, get over it), or the Doctor’s partnership with Clara? Does it matter what’s inside Amy’s crack, or what the deal is with the Fall of the Eleventh? For many of us, yes. But I think the dialogue between Me and the Doctor sets forth the opposite view cogently.

The scene’s also impressive because Maisie Williams, who up until now hasn’t entirely convinced me, was completely compelling, as if she’s finally relaxed into the part. Ask me before today and I would have quite happily waved goodbye to Me with Face the Raven. Now – not so sure.

So much of Moffat’s era seems to be a response to Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who: not surprising, since the show’s mythology was comprehensively reimagined by Davies in a way that genuinely captured the imagination of the audience. Clara’s final end is clearly influenced by Catherine Tate’s departure, and manages to better it because while Donna’s end was tragic and dark, Clara’s manages to be tragic and light. She’s left with her memories of all those amazing adventures, changed by her experiences, and with access to a working TARDIS and the whole of time and space. Since she’s been becoming more and more like the Doctor, this felt like the proper end.

The Doctor, meanwhile, has a Clara-shaped hole in his mind, but remains fundamentally the Doctor in a way that Donna, stripped of her expanded awareness, was not. I’d say this was the best companion departure since Rose’s; certainly stronger than the Eleventh Doctor’s baffling decision to abandon Amy and Rory in the past. Crucially, Clara is not robbed of her death. It’s still waiting for her, but, as in Face the Raven, she will face it on her own terms. For me, this closed down any suspicion that this was another consequence-free resurrection.

As the conclusion to Series Nine, Hell Bent works well at wrapping up the themes of taking responsibility for your decisions, and living (or dying) with the consequences. The repeated emphasis on these ideas; Ashildr’s regular reappearances, and the number of two part stories have helped to give it a distinctive shape and consistency that’s the hallmark of most of Doctor Who’s best seasons. Like the mystery of Clara’s shop lady, it also leaves a couple of plot points open (have we really heard the last of the Hybrid? Who is the Minister of War? Where’s Rassilon going?). I’m betting Moffat will come back to them in the future – whenever that might be.

I’m of the view this is the best series since 2010, and certainly an improvement over Capaldi’s patchy first year. In a way, this episode mirrors this season: a disastrous beginning that settles down into something richer and more thoughtful than expected.

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