Doctor Who episode 841: Hell Bent (5/12/2015)

‘I can’t be the Doctor all the time.’ Another expectation-confounding Moffat finale. Once again, the series’ “arc” turns out to be a shaggy dog story: no-one died at Lake Silencio; the Impossible Girl wasn’t, and the Doctor never became the Valeyard at Trenzalore. In fact, the Hybrid – if it is the Doctor/Clara – does stand in the ruins of Gallifrey (assuming that’s where Ashildr is waiting), and threatens to unravel the Web of Time. And in the end, none of it really matters because the true arc of Series Nine was the discovery that, ‘This has to stop. One of us has to go.’

Around this, we get the return of Gallifrey. The early scenes seem to be promising a different story as Rassilon broods on the Doctor’s intentions while the Sisterhood of Karn return to claim their ancestral home, lost since the time of the Pythia. I quite like seeing this group of characters together (although they really should have stumped up the cash for Timothy Dalton), linking together The End of Time, The Night and Day of the Doctor and The Magician’s Apprentice – it helps to establish the epic danger the Hybrid represents, while, in the background, the Doctor frees Gallifrey from the tyranny of Rassilon (presumably he and the High Council escaped the events of The Timeless Children, and are out there waiting to restore Gallifrey).

But, it turns out these assembled luminaries are merely witnesses to the Doctor hijacking the machinery of the Time Lords to snatch Clara from Trap Street, defying the Laws of Time he’s previously upheld (except for all the times he hasn’t) to save his best friend. It’s at this point Moffat establishes how far the Doctor’s grief has knocked him off course as he shoots Ken Bones’ Brigadierish General (who transforms into a woefully underused T’Nia Miller). True, the Doctor checks the General has a couple of lives left before he kills him, but even so this is a shock. And it’s meant to be, as Clara’s appalled reaction proves.

This is all essentially preamble for an extended conversation between the Doctor and Clara (already concluding, in a very Moffat way, in the framing narrative in the Lake Silencio diner when the episode begins). It boils down to the Doctor assuming he’s responsible for Clara, and Clara defending her autonomy to make her choices and own their consequences. She hates that he’s been unable to let go for billions of years, is willing to kill for her, and is even planning to Donna Noble her to protect her from further harm. In the end, the women always make their own decisions, from River sacrificing herself while the Doctor’s cuffed to Amy turning her back on an Angel. Clara’s fate has more wiggle room – she’s stolen a TARDIS and Ashildr – but the end has already been written, just as Amy and River’s are.

This largely feels like Moffat in conversation with himself, noodling on one of the regular criticisms of his work. The idea that he can’t kill off his characters without bringing them back becomes a comment on the Doctor’s hatred of endings – ‘It was sad, and it was beautiful. And it is over.’ He rejects the critique with a broad arm sweep across the show’s past: the nature of the series is rebirth, regeneration (‘Death is Time Lord for man-flu’), Gallifrey’s dead are saved in the Matrix, as ghosts – or resurrected, like Rassilon the Redeemer, who makes the point with a crucifixion pose. Perversely, it also encompasses some of the less popular elements of the show’s history – the most direct reminder that the Doctor is half-human; Donna’s forced lobotomy.

The result is very strange: an episode as long as The Time of the Doctor that’s basically a discursion on toxic relationships and the inevitability of endings. Whether it was wise to do this immediately after another long episode that was a meditation on grief is questionable. Personally, I think it’s Moffat’s best season close since The Big Bang, with some moments of beauty and heartbreak, and some very funny jokes (‘Summer can’t last forever,’ says Ashildr – which is another way of saying, ‘Winter is coming.’) I also think it’s very slow and talky; the least audience-friendly finale. Throughout the episode, the Time Lords, Ohila and Ashildr have to stand around awkwardly doing nothing while the Doctor and Clara chat. To an extent, that’s what we have to do as well – mute witnesses to Moffat’s musings. In which case, perhaps this is the perfect end for a Ninth Series that has taken its viewers’ interest and indulgence for granted.

Next Time: The Husbands of River Song


One comment

  1. Pingback: Doctor Who episode 840: Heaven Sent (28/11/2015) | Next Time...

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