Writer: Steven Moffat.
Director: Rachel Talalay.
Main Cast: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman.
Hello, Whovians! My my, doesn’t time fly? It seems like only yesterday we started and now here we are: the end of Series 9. After last week’s utterly captivating episode, the Doctor has finally come home…and he is angry. Without further ado, let’s launch into the season’s finale! This is ‘Hell Bent’! Buckle in because it’s a long one!
SPOILER WARNING: THIS IS A FINALE REVIEW. THEY’RE HERE.
The episode opens (after a brief recap of ‘Face the Raven’ and ‘Heaven Sent’) curiously enough, with a car driving down a lonely road in the USA. We cut to a diner, a very familiar one to those who remember Series 6 opener ‘The Impossible Astronaut’, and the Doctor enters. His outfit’s slightly different, and he’s got his guitar in hand. Sitting at the counter, he converses briefly with the waitress…who appears to be Clara of all people! There seems to be no recognition of him on Clara’s part, and the two have a brief discussion that leads to the Doctor playing a very familiar tune on his guitar. “I think it’s called Clara,” the Doctor says, before launching into the story of just how he got there…
It’s an unexpected scene to open with, to say the least, and certainly not what was on the minds of most viewers after the stunning cliffhanger of ‘Heaven Sent’. “Unexpected” is a good way to describe ‘Hell Bent’ in a nutshell, though…honestly, I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or not. It’s a divisive episode in just about every way, I feel, and I think that almost every viewer will come away from it with their own quite strong opinion. This, of course, is no surprise for Steven Moffat’s recent spate of episodes, most of which seem to have such a feeling behind them, but I suspect ‘Hell Bent’ will encourage it more than most. The opening twenty minutes or so will garner universal praise, and rightfully so: there are moments and scenes sprinkled throughout that are some of the season’s instant highlights. After that, however, when the episode truly kicks off and the main plot comes into effect, things rapidly shift in tone and the plot does a complete about-face. This, I think, is where the debate will come into play.
The manner in which the plot is executed is bold and different, using non-linear narrative and a quite clever framing device that only tells us as much of the story as we need to know at any given moment in time. Moffat once again shows his knack for having scenes change their meaning as the episode goes on, building on the viewer’s expectations and then suddenly subverting them. It’s one of the cleverest bits of writing in ‘Hell Bent’, and one will likely be unable to decide exactly what is happening until the inevitable reveal moment; something that’s always a necessity in a show like Doctor Who. There are a few throwbacks to previous major decisions made that show them in a new light, and these are if nothing else very interesting to witness. However, the season arc, that of the mysterious ‘Hybrid’ of legend, goes ultimately unresolved and not in a way that suggests they’re keeping it open for the future. This isn’t a case of clever subversion, this is a case of unsatisfactory resolution. It’s a plot device in the end, in essence, which would typically be fine but is rather a shame in this case for all the focus that was on it.
In fact, ‘Hell Bent’ falls victim to a lack of focus throughout. Things that should have been given a great deal more attention aren’t given it, and scenes we’ve seen play out many a time before are given the spotlight instead. I mentioned above that Moffat is playing the sleight-of-hand game quite a bit with this story, but this isn’t always a good thing. The episode fails to deliver on a couple of key promises as a result of this, and it almost feels like the wrong expectations were emphasised. The story we’re getting, one of the Doctor going to truly desperate ends to save Clara Oswald, is certainly an interesting one. The problem is that the story that was offered to us, one regarding the Doctor’s return to Gallifrey at last and exactly what that means to the Whoniverse, is an incredibly important one, and one that perhaps should have been saved until such a time as the writers were fully willing to focus on it.
As it stands, the ancestral home of the Time Lords is pushed into the background after only a brief part of the episode (glossing over some astonishingly pertinent plot points, I should add, ones that are going to come back to bite them soon) and fans that have been awaiting Gallifrey’s return for a good ten years now will be disappointed. Not unjustly, I might add: it is, after all, the single biggest change to the status quo in the modern era. Such a shift cannot be made lightly; it must be fully committed to. In this regard, ‘Hell Bent’ fails to deliver on what it should have done.
As a brief side-note regarding the visuals and cinematography on play in the story, director Rachel Talalay once again puts on an incredible show. Gallifrey looks absolutely stunning throughout the episode. Filming overseas has been used quite neatly here, giving the ancient planet of the Time Lords an otherworldly feel to it right off the bat, one that is enhanced to extreme measures by the use of some of Doctor Who’s most beautiful CGI and stunning framing we’ve yet seen in the show. Imagery ranges from the glorious to the macabre and flicks between them almost by the scene at a few points, but it never feels jarring (other than the intended effect, of course). Much like its immediate predecessor, this episode is absolutely gorgeous throughout.
We’ll move onto the cast and characters, as per the norm! In the last episode, we were promised a Doctor who was bordering on beyond redemption, rendered cold and ruthless by the ordeal he has suffered over the last two episodes. ‘Hell Bent’ definitely provides us with that. Peter Capaldi as ever is on top of his game (though, perhaps inevitably, delivers a less memorable performance than last week’s story, but that’s more of a facet of the stories themselves rather than the actor), bringing us a genuinely quite unpredictable Doctor (at first). A key portion of the episode in this regard is the opening sequence and up to about ten minutes in, where Capaldi shows us two very differing performances. In the opening sequence, he’s a lonesome wandering musician, the classic archetype who plays his way through bars and taverns. For about half the time he spends on Gallifrey, the Doctor doesn’t so much as speak. He declares a war on the Time Lords for hurting him in abject silence and potent gestures. Both are fascinating to watch, just another notch in Capaldi’s acting belt. To see the reaction of the Time Lords at last to the man who ended their greatest war is a beautiful moment. Despite his questionable actions in this tale, the Doctor is almost endearingly true to form for the duration (if somewhat awkwardly-written and hasty in terms of how it comes off), and a couple of his actions show that he has simultaneously learned from some experiences and completely failed to learn from others.
We’ll move on to this episode’s surprise returning cast member, Jenna Coleman making one final go of it as Clara Oswald. This, I think, is where the divisive element of the episode will come most heavily into play and it’s for good reason. Doctor Who in years of late has been accused of two things: sending companions off in the worst of ways, and refusing to allow death to have a meaning by way of simply bringing the dead back. It’s a catch-22 situation, there’s no doubt about it. ‘Hell Bent’ attempts to reconcile the two in a fairly unique way; bringing Clara back from the dead but giving her a very definite time limit. It’s an interesting idea, but in the context of everything that’s come before it it falls very flat to the point of actively undermining the development that has come before it.
The entire arc of Clara’s character this season, perhaps more interesting than she’s ever been before, is that she has become increasingly reckless in her attempts to emulate the Doctor. It’s been stated by everyone involved, in-show and out: Clara is trying to be the Doctor. To this point, Series 9 has made a very concentrated effort to show exactly why being like the Doctor is a bad thing for most. Even he barely manages it half the time! The promise of consequences for her increased disregard for her safety has been hanging over Clara for quite some time now, and when she met those consequences in ‘Face the Raven’, it was an incredibly satisfactory end to that character arc. In her last moments, she was more Doctor than the Doctor himself. She willingly sacrificed herself to save a friend and, more importantly to her, that friend’s child from growing up alone. She faced her death with pride and acceptance (something that the Doctor couldn’t do) and, to the very end, did her best to ensure that even in dying others would be protected from the repercussions. For a character who originally began as quite selfish and arrogant, this was a beautifully written and acted moment and possibly her standout scene in all her run on Doctor Who. While the manner in which she returns in this episode is certainly intriguing and makes reasonable sense in-story (…to a point; there’s another quite significant plot omission there), it leaves a bad taste to undermine such a powerful scene. Shades of last year’s ‘Last Christmas’ ring through here, with almost an exact repeat of events. Nobody liked it then, and not many people will like it now. It’s a real shame, but then it is a somewhat-noted problem when it comes to Clara. Once in a while, things should be left alone.
Rounding out the cast we have Maisie Williams making a brief return as Ashildr, who…has a rather drastically reduced impact on this story than we may have expected. At the very least, the story leaves things open for her to return one day and I’m quite alright with that; I’m a fan of the character and I’d like to see some more done with her at some point. On the Gallifreyan side of things we have Ken Bones returning as fan-favourite Time Lord the General, Clare Higgins appearing once again as Ohila of the Sisterhood of Karn, and venerable actor Donald Sumpter as a very certain Time Lord President! Unfortunately, the Gallifreyan members of the cast are…largely overlooked for much of the story, alongside Gallifrey itself, with Sumpter’s President in particular leading to an astounding oversight in storytelling regarding his character’s climax. The Time Lords, unsurprisingly, are the best part of the episode and it’s so refreshing to see them played as sympathetic for once! As of now, we can officially see more of them in the future due to Gallifrey’s return (which is, again, overlooked), so hopefully that’ll come. The standout scenes typically involve the General, the one in which he casts down his weapons alongside his soldiers to join the Doctor being key. He also holds the unique distinction of being the first Time Lord to change sex in regeneration on-screen, regenerating into T’Nia Miller (a regeneration that also changes her race), a noted first for the show and a great moment for it!
All in all, ‘Hell Bent’ is…a troublesome episode. Its ideas are good, certainly, but none of them are given the development they deserve. It tries to do something different but it ends up retroactively lessening the impact of much of the development that has led up to it. Finally, it utterly fails to deliver on the biggest shift in all of modern Doctor Who, overlooking it with almost casual ease, and what should have been a defining episode for the era is sullied as a result.
A disappointing end to an otherwise quite excellent series.
Join us next time for…oh. Right. Oh well. Series 9’s done, folks! Wait, no, sorry… Join us next time for the Christmas special!