One aspect of Steven Moffat’s writing that doesn’t get nearly enough praise is its unpredictability. In any given season, people develop theories about what will happen. Sometimes, in the broadest sense, a few folks correctly call a thing or two ahead of time. But nobody, anywhere on the planet, in any corner of the world that this show is viewed in, predicted that this season would end with Clara and Ashildr/Me flying off into time and space in a diner-shaped TARDIS. Nobody. Like so many of Moffat’s season-enders, “Hell Bent” is a highly operatic and deeply emotional affair. This may be putting too fine a point on it, but it seems likely your feelings on “Hell Bent” will largely hinge on whether or not you’ve been a fan of Clara Oswald, and whether her character development and story arcs over the past three seasons have resonated with you.
The framing device aside (which we’ll get to in due course), act one is largely concerned with the Doctor’s return to Gallifrey, and his measured, methodical dismantling of the political hierarchy, seemingly born out of anger not only over Clara’s death, but also for the four and a half billion years spent within the hell of the confession dial. Whatever one might think about the other two-thirds of the piece, surely we can all agree that the first section is glorious in scope while intimate in intent. While the scenario certainly has an Eastwood Man with No Name dynamic, I was more stuck by something else: Simply, the Doctor is a country boy who’s had enough of the city boy’s shit.
The Doctor: Every story ever told really happened. Stories are where memories go when they’re forgotten.
The city boy, Lord President Rassilon (Donald Sumpter, playing the same character Timothy Dalton played in “The End of Time”), sends one party after another to retrieve the Doctor, each of which is ignored, until he shows up to confront the country boy in person. That’s the only way the Doctor will have it, and when the city boy believes that he has the advantage over the country boy, the Doctor uses everything in his non-violent arsenal against Rassilon: “Get off my planet.” It’s thrilling, epic fare that reminds us how much the series and its central character have changed over the years – how this idea of the Time War has loomed over and informed the entire texture of the modern series. The Doctor is now viewed as a war hero, and treated with a reverence that comes with such a position. The entire planet, save for one maniacal leader, bows at his feet. Naturally, he assumes the presidency, and not for the first time in his many lives.
Even with Rassilon out of the picture, the prime concern of the General (Ken Bones) remains the elusive Hybrid, which the Doctor uses as an excuse to access an extraction chamber — a device able to enter fixed points in time. He removes Clara from her death on Trap Street, a moment before it occurred. She now exists in a state between her last two heartbeats — living, but not alive. It was always about getting to this very point to save Clara — all of it, even his navigation of the four and a half billion years in the confession dial. I was reminded of Rory Williams, the Boy Who Waited, only times a million. In an unusual display of violent bravado, the Doctor delivers a fist to the jaw of the General, disarms him, and then, after asking which regeneration he’s on, shoots him, forcing a renewal into a young black woman (T’nia Miller), which adds yet another level to the ongoing conversation about regeneration (though not one that hadn’t been previously assumed, but it’s nice to see it as canon).
The Doctor: On Gallifrey, death is Time Lord for man flu.
The Doctor and Clara make their way into the Matrix (it seems here the Cloisters are an area within the Matrix), where they encounter an array of phantoms, most effective of which are the Cloister Wraiths - haunted distortions of Time Lords long since gone. Less effective are a Dalek, a Cyberman, and some Weeping Angels, which give the scenario an unnecessary greatest hits vibe. Soon the Doctor finds what he’s looking for: a hatch that will lead to escape. But first the duo has a devastating heart to heart, in which Clara learns precisely what she’s in the middle of.
The reason this recap is titled “Duty of Care” is because when a focused Doctor painfully yet offhandedly uttered that line — “I had a duty of care” — to Clara, I lost it. And I lost it again and again as I repeatedly thought of it in the hours after first watching “Hell Bent.” I’m losing it as I type these words, days after that initial viewing. That line coupled with the tears welled up in Clara’s eyes was the moment I’d been waiting for since the end of “Face the Raven.”
Ohila: At the end of everything, one must expect the company of immortals.
We Whovians have rather unwittingly been involved in our very own Glenn/The Walking Dead “is she or isn’t she dead/alive/returning?” scenario for the last couple weeks, tempered mostly by the firm knowledge that either way Jenna Coleman was indeed leaving the show. I insisted after “Raven” that that could not possibly be the end of Clara Oswald’s story, and “Hell Bent” renders the finish of “Raven” positively transitional. We’ll probably never know precisely what Clara said to the Doctor deep in the Cloisters, nor is it necessary to hear an exchange that two such extraordinary individuals might share with each other in a private moment. It was enough to know Clara realized precisely how far the Doctor had gone to be with her once again.
Enter that gorgeous classic ’60s-era TARDIS, which in any other story might’ve been the most talked about element, yet here is reduced to window dressing, only because of the richness of everything else. The Doctor says Clara’s heart should start beating now that they’ve broken free of Gallifrey’s time zone, but it hasn’t, and we, the viewers, sense that it never will. Further, the tattoo remains. The Doctor becomes increasingly furious that things aren’t going as planned. He aims to travel further, much further, with a device called a neural block in hand. This new TARDIS comes to a stop — they’ve reached the end of time (this time, for real), and there’s a knock at the TARDIS door. The Doctor says, “It’s Me.”
The Doctor: The universe is over! It doesn’t have a say anymore. We’re standing on the last ember, the last fragment of everything that ever was. As of this moment I’m answerable to no one!
Unlike the final sting of “Heaven Sent,” this time we aren’t engaging in clever wordplay. It is indeed Me (Maisie Williams), lounging about in the ruins of Gallifreyan Cloisters (anybody else get a White Guardian vibe?), the prophesy of the Hybrid seemingly (there’s so much “seemingly” in this episode) fulfilled. The two immortals bicker about the nature of endings, as the universe crumbles before them. It’s a glorious sight to behold, and Williams, who has not been consistently on point as Me, plays the material like a pro. The culmination of the character results in what’s surely her best scene of the season.
Finally, we get to the meat of the Hybrid, which we’ve been chasing all season. The Doctor insists, as he did at the close of “Heaven Sent,” that it’s Me. She quickly refutes the assertion, and suggests that the Hybrid is in fact the Doctor, and without precisely saying as much, intimates that he is half-human, as was casually revealed in the 1996 TV movie. Notably, the Doctor does not argue that point, which will surely leave half of fandom red-faced with anger. But she moves on even from that and proposes that the Hybrid is instead composed of the intense pairing of the Doctor and Clara (brought together by Missy), and that it’s his actions — the futile attempts to bring her back to life — that are in fact tearing the universe apart. It appears to be yet another causal time loop — a bootstrap paradox — of the same kind that the Doctor detailed at the top of “Before the Flood,” as he has known of the Hybrid since childhood.
Clara: These have been the best years of my life, and they are mine. Tomorrow’s promised to no one, Doctor, but I insist upon my past. I am entitled to that. It’s mine.
His next plan is to pull a Donna Noble on Clara, and erase her memories of him, but what he doesn’t realize is that Clara’s been watching Me and the Doctor talk on the TARDIS vid scanner. She’s having none of that, and rightly so. Instead the two friends reach a compromise. They will, essentially, flip a coin, by using the neural block simultaneously. It will be a roll of dice as to whose memories end up erased. Amazingly, it isn’t Clara, and the two say a tearful goodbye as the Doctor struggles to stare into those big brown eyes for what might be the very last time, before finally going. The feels. God yes, the feels.
And now for that amazing framing device set in the diner, that’s been an obtrusive question mark for the duration of the story. On the first viewing, it felt absolutely right that in these scenes the Doctor knew who Clara was, but that she didn’t recognize him. Was she a splinter, Impossible Girl Clara, who had never met the Doctor before? Perhaps. Later, it seemed more likely that her memory had been wiped, and even later, when the Doctor talks of taking her somewhere safe and out of the way, a diner in Nevada sounded like just the right place. The surprise ending to their friendship completely changed the wraparound: It was instead the Doctor who had no clue who was before him, while Clara was in charge of the situation all along. Pardon my expletive, but what a beautiful Moffat mindfuck. On subsequent viewings, notice how cleverly the scenes are written, and how they take on an entirely different vibe once the truth is revealed.
The Doctor: Look how far I went for fear of losing you. This has to stop. One of us has to go.
In the final moments, Clara becomes the Doctor once again, perhaps the truest prophesy of her time with the Time Lord fulfilled. She along with companion Me, takes a TARDIS, and heads out into the universe, full well knowing that at some point she must return to Trap Street. But hey, what’s the harm in taking the long way around? And they’ve left a big blue gift for the Doctor behind, which includes a brand new sonic screwdriver.
It’s been a largely brilliant season of Doctor Who, possibly even the best since the new series began, though best shouldn’t really figure into it. What matters is that with nine seasons under its belt, this show is as strong as ever, has plenty of life left in it, and countless more stories to tell. As a Clara devotee, the narrative did absolutely right by her in the end, leaving her with the precise sort of strength, gumption, and know-how that’s been developed over the course of the past three seasons.
Some, maybe even many, will call foul that the show resurrected the character after killing her off (despite the fact that she remains technically dead). Having evolved on this issue since actively calling for the death of a companion back in the “Name of the Doctor” recap, my feeling now is that the narrative of this series would not have been well-served by killing off Clara for good. Doctor Who faces and showcases death on a weekly basis — there’s never a shortage of tragedy here. We continually see good and important people die right alongside villainy. What would the horrible death of a beloved companion do beyond torturing the central character, which the series explored in depth last week? It feels that what was done here with Clara was right and proper — her continued existence imbues the series with the essential sense of hope and wonder that it’s built around.
Odds and ends
- The question came up last week, and in light of this week’s episode it bears further examination. Does the amount of time spent in the confession dial count toward the Doctor’s age? I don’t see how it can. The ever-mounting collection of skulls indicated one hard death after another. Each new version of the Doctor was starting life over at the point of entry from the teleport. Though the Doctor does appear to be aware of the time spent in that state (likely due to an understanding of what it took to get through that wall), it still doesn’t seem logical that we can count him as being 2,000 years old plus four and a half billion.
- Was “The Woman,” played here by Linda Broughton, the same woman from “The End of Time” (played there by Claire Bloom), who Russell T. Davies later went on to confirm was the Doctor’s mother? They certainly seemed like very different types of women, but when dealing with a show in which a crusty old white man can instantly turn into a pretty young black woman, anything can happen. She seemed far more regal and important five years ago. Perhaps, after being disturbed and angered by the events in “The End of Time,” she went to go live in wastelands, away from Time Lord society.
- Ace bits: The sign in Nevada, “No matter where you go, there you are,” eh what, Buckaroo?; “Four knocks. It’s always four knocks.”; the various classic TARDIS sounds; the title “Rassilon the Resurrected” seemingly answers a few questions old-school fans had at the end of Tennant’s era; “Run You Clever Boy … and Be a Doctor”; the name checking of Amy and Rory at the diner; the way Rigsy’s paint flakes off the TARDIS at the close.
- Naff bits: The black jacket which the Doctor sported throughout the episode was actually pretty Doctor-y, specifically the First and Second Doctors. Honestly couldn’t come up with any other naff bits, and I was stretching it with this one.
- It was great to see Ohila (Clare Higgins) in an extended, important role. Presumably in future dealings with Gallifrey, she’ll turn up again, if not on her own with the Sisterhood. If you still haven’t seen “The Brain of Morbius,” which introduced the Sisterhood of Karn, that’s something for you to do in the coming months while you wait for season ten.
- Surely this wasn’t the last we’ve seen of Rassilon. He’ll be back, and he’ll be seriously pissed when he returns. Whatever happens then will make Act I of “Hell Bent” feel like child’s play.
- See you folks back here at Christmas, and I’m calling it right now: If Moffat doesn’t find a way to work a version of Joni Mitchell’s “River” into the holiday special, I’ll be seriously annoyed. “I wish I had a River, to skate away on…”