Doctor Who: “Hell Bent”

I think season 9 of Doctor Who has generally been pretty strong. The strongest season in some time, in my opinion. The plethora of two-parters has really allowed the stories to breathe and develop much better, giving the characters and plots the time they need to properly establish themselves. It’s no coincidence that the two episodes I thought were the weakest of the season, “Sleep No More” and “Face the Raven,” were one-offs. (To be fair, I also thought the Zygon two-parter was a bit weak, but the presence of Osgood and the amazing ending make up for it. I doubt they would have had time for the Doctor’s incredible anti-war speech if it had been a one-off.)

And so we come to the end of this strong season with the episode “Hell Bent.” Of late, I find myself getting nervous for the season finales because Steven Moffat writes them, and he often seems far more concerned about flash and sentimentality than about stories making sense. So we get episodes with enormous plot holes in them, like “The Wedding of River Song,” with its cosmic insistence that the Doctor must die but it’s okay if a shape changing robot is destroyed in his place, and whose villain, Madame Kovarian, vanishes from the story entirely; and “The Name of the Doctor,” in which the Great Intelligence goes back through the Doctor’s timeline to do…something, and Clara follows him to do…something, and then there’s a spooky cave where the Doctor’s other incarnations run around or…something; and “Death in Heaven,” which involves the most overly complicated plan to create Cybermen ever, implemented by a character who has never had anything to do with the Cybermen whatsoever. So I was kind of nervous that “Hell Bent” would mess up an otherwise pretty stellar season.

It didn’t. Straight up, I liked this episode quite a lot. Yes, it has some startling plot holes, but generally its strengths more than make up for them. If this season is a sign of what’s to come, and I really hope it is, perhaps I don’t need to worry so much about Steven Moffat’s writing anymore. Because what I really liked about “Hell Bent” is how subversive it is.

*** SPOILERS FOLLOW***

What do I mean by subversive? It subverts every expectation we have of how things are going to play out.  Longtime readers know one of my complaints about Moffat’s writing is that he recycles the same stories over and over again. I thought for sure that was what he was doing here. First, with the Doctor telling the story of Clara to Clara in the diner, I assumed his plan to wipe her memory had succeeded and now he was doing the same thing he did at the end of “The Angels Take Manhattan,” where the Doctor goes to visit the young Amy and tell her stories about herself. Plus, the whole memory-wipe thing was itself a rehash of what happened to Donna (still my favorite companion of the new Who) at the end of “Journey’s End,” where he wipes her memory of her time with him to save her life. But it wasn’t any of those things! Quite brilliantly, Moffat’s script subverts all our expectations and leaves the Doctor as the one with his memories of their time together wiped. (Which leads to interesting questions about whether the story he’s telling her in the diner about their adventure on Gallifrey is accurate, but that’s a question that will only lead us down a rabbit hole we can never climb out of.) Also, I suspect that after seeing Clara at the diner and her face again on Rigsy’s memorial mural on the TARDIS, plus her note to him on the chalkboard, his memories may already be starting to come back.

Speaking of Gallifrey, holy shit we’re back on Gallifrey! I’ve been waiting for this moment ever since “The Day of the Doctor” two years go! To be honest, I was getting frustrated with how little effort the Doctor was putting into finding his home planet, but then, he’s always had a complicated relationship with his people. Even more complicated now that they tortured him for four-and-a-half billion years, but the Doctor essentially exiles Rassilon and takes over the planet in about five minutes, so there’s that. Just to make it even more fun, the Sisterhood of Karn is there, too. Ever since their introduction in the 1976 Fourth Doctor serial “The Brain of Morbius,” there have been hints about their close relationship with the Time Lords, especially how they have used their immortality-granting Elixir of Life to help Time Lords through difficult regenerations (which we get to see in “Night of the Doctor,” where they help the Eighth Doctor regenerate into the War Doctor). Seeing them actually on Gallifrey was exciting, although I was surprised Rassilon, who seemed annoyed to see them, didn’t do anything to have them removed. We also get mentions of the Matrix, the Time Lord supercomputer where the minds of deceased Time Lords continue to exist, and the Shobogans, those Time Lord dropouts who live outside the citadel, both of which date all the way back to the 1976 Fourth Doctor serial “The Deadly Assassin.” Really, all we were missing were the Panopticon and the Doctor asking after Leela and Andred! (And maybe that mysterious woman who may or may not have been his mother in “The End of Time.”)

Other things I enjoyed in “Hell Bent” include seeing Ashildr again, sitting in the ruins of Gallifrey at the end of time. (I only wish Sam Swift had been there with her. What happened to him? I suppose we’ll get a tie-in novel detailing his story at some point.) She gets some of the best lines right at the end, where she takes the Doctor to task for trying to negate Clara’s noble sacrifice, thereby taking away her agency and making it all about what the Doctor wants. I also liked that they brought up the possibility of the Doctor being half human again, which was first mentioned in the 1996 TV movie, but without making a big deal out of it. The Doctor’s question after Ashildr brings it up, “Does it matter?” is the perfect response. Yeah, I think it’s a silly idea and have thought so for the past nineteen years, but it doesn’t really matter. Also, we get a new sonic screwdriver, which I hope means we can say goodbye to those awful sonic sunglasses! How I cheered when it appeared!

But perhaps the most wonderful thing of all about “Hell Bent” is the other TARDIS. The bare-bones TARDIS that looks like the one the First Doctor took from Gallifrey. The one Ashildr and Clara are now presumably piloting around the universe, its broken chameleon circuit leaving it stuck in the shape of an American diner. (Perhaps all Type 40 TARDISes suffer from faulty chameleon circuits?) I loved that ending. It reminded me pleasantly of the ending of “The Doctor’s Daughter,” where Jenny sneaks off to explore the universe (“What are you gonna do, tell my dad?”). I find myself quite unexpectedly happy that Ashildr is still around after the end of this season, that she didn’t turn out to be the Big Bad, and that she can return for drop-ins later. (Clara can too, ostensibly, but I’d be okay with not seeing her again. No disrespect to Jenna Coleman or her legions of fans, but I was over Clara two seasons ago.)

But as amazing as the ending is, it leads directly to the plot holes I mentioned above. If the Doctor isn’t the Hybrid, and if Ashildr isn’t the Hybrid, if the Hybrid really is some vague, half-formed idea of the Doctor and Clara together, what does that mean? The prophecy says all sorts of terrible shit is going to happen because of the Hybrid, but we don’t see any of it. It’s not like Clara started to go power mad and blow shit up and kill innocent people. Her “going too far” consisted of sacrificing herself for someone else, which is a noble thing, not a terrible one. His “going too far” consisted of trying to save her from that fate, which is also a noble thing. Although I suppose shooting the unarmed General counts as going too far. But even then, as far as we can see there are no real consequences other than the General using up a regeneration. And that’s a big problem. We’re told bad things will happen because of the Hybrid, but we never see these bad things occur. We don’t even hear about them second-hand from Ashildr at the end of time. She could have been like, “Yeah, after you saved Clara every star in the universe blew up and cats were born with two heads,” but there’s not even that. There seem to be literally no consequences to this at all. Which also leaves me wondering what the consequences of Clara being taken out of time for who knows how long will have for Rigsy. Do things proceed as before from his point of view? (It must if his mural is still on the Doctor’s TARDIS.) Also, Ashildr seems pretty okay with Clara putting off going back to her fate for an indefinite amount of time despite chastising the Doctor for trying to stop her from dying.

There’s also a problem, for me at least, with the Doctor’s new reason for having left Gallifrey all those centuries ago. He claims he was a student at the Academy when he heard about the Hybrid from the cloister wraiths (a cool new addition!) and that he was so frightened by it he stole a TARDIS and fled Gallifrey. But this doesn’t quite match up with what we already know. The First Doctor was considerably older than a student (some studious fans have placed his age at 236 when he leaves Gallifrey) and he didn’t leave alone. He brought Susan, his granddaughter, with him (1963’s pilot episode “An Unearthly Child”), as well as the remote stellar manipulator called the Hand of Omega (1988’s Seventh Doctor serial “Remembrance of the Daleks”) and the destructive living metal validium, which the early Time Lords had created to defend Gallifrey (1988’s Seventh Doctor serial “Silver Nemesis”). It’s hard to match all this up with this new addition to the canon.

But enough of my nitpicks. I liked this episode, and this season as a whole, very much. Interestingly, someone online somewhere mentioned that “Hell Bent” can be seen as a sort of soft reboot of Doctor Who, and I tend to agree. Gallifrey and the Time Lords are back in the Doctor’s life, and that will change everything fundamentally from where the show was when it came back in 2005. I think next season is going to be very interesting indeed.

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