The Doctor Who series finale Hell Bent sees our Time Lord returning to Gallifrey and breaking every principle he holds dear just to save his friend. He is a man on a mission and he won’t let even Rassilon Resurrected stop him. But how does this story hold up?

Gallifrey
Gallifrey

There’s something of a tendency I’ve noticed in some of Steven Moffat’s stories in the last few years, where the story delivered is different to the one promised. The build up, the promotional material and the trailers all pointed to this being the story of the Doctor’s return to Gallifrey, the mystery of the Hybrid, and the End of Time itself. But, ultimately, that wasn’t what the episode was about. Instead, it was about the Doctor trying to save Clara. It was about how far he would go for his friend.

This isn’t necessarily a criticism and I fully understand the desire to keep that side of the story secret, giving the audience an unexpected twist. Some may feel a tad cheated or misled, but I suspect they will be in the minority.

Misdirection is one of Steven Moffat’s favourite tools, perhaps, and this comes to the forefront almost immediately. Suddenly, the Doctor is back on Earth, somewhere in America, entering a diner where, unbelievably, Clara is working. The audience is led to believe that she either isn’t the Clara we all know (perhaps one of the duplicates created in Name of the Doctor), or that she is Clara with her memories erased. The Doctor, meanwhile, plays Clara’s theme and tells the story of what happened back in his hometown.

Gallifrey, as always, looks spectacular. The visuals, the colour schemes, and the costumes were all on absolute top form – indeed, one of the first thoughts I had was “so this is where the series’ budget went!”. Hats off also to Rachel Talalay’s direction, once again showing her skills at lighting, atmosphere and scope. It’s one thing to show a vast landscape, but it’s another to really get across the scale of a situation, and after last week’s enclosed and tight affair, this is where we breathe in the air of Gallifrey.

The Doctor defends the Outsiders on Gallifrey
The Doctor defends the Outsiders on Gallifrey

Returning to the barn (the scene not only of the Doctor’s great war crime but also the place where he hid as a child, frightened and alone), the Doctor meets some Gallifreyans who immediately take him in and protect him. Fans of the classic series will recall The Invasion of Time and the establishment of the Outsiders, who inhabit the wastelands of Gallifrey. Once again, we get the great contrast in Gallifreyan society – the disparity between the incredibly privileged Time Lords in their immense Capital, and the outsiders living in rags in the wastelands.

The disparity isn’t explored in any detail – indeed, the Outsiders barely talk at all, let alone air their grievances. The dominant voices on Gallifrey are those of the Time Lords. And it is Rassilon himself who is most eager for the Doctor to be found. Weary, wearing thin, and desperate, Donald Sumpter’s Rassilon is very different to Timothy Dalton’s performance we saw in The End of Time. This is a Rassilon who has aged, gained tremendous power and has yet to do anything with it. One wonders why he did not initiate the final sanctum once Gallifrey had been restored to reality. Perhaps he had come to his senses. Perhaps the High Council voted against him in the end. Perhaps his regeneration caused a shift in his personality.

Rassilon, Founder of Time Lord Society
Rassilon, The End of Time Part 2 (2010)

Dalton’s Rassilon was at the height of his power, one feels. Full of confident bluster, full of arrogant self-importance and self-aggrandizing. Even as Sumpter gives a speech about being Rassilon the Redeemer, Rassilon Resurrected, one feels as if his hearts aren’t really in it. Dalton would shout with such conviction, spittle flying in his desperation to survive. This Rassilon is at the end of his rope, this Rassilon is, perhaps, tired of the struggle.

As the soldiers all turn against their Lord President, the Doctor banishes Rassilon, retaking his position as President Elect of the High Council of Time Lords (again, a position he won back in The Deadly Assassin and recalled in The Invasion of Time and Remembrance of the Daleks).

I will take a moment out here, to sing the praises once again of Murray Gold. Back on top form this series, Gold has brought back a lot of motifs and themes from long ago, the old Doctor’s theme from 2005 is subtly returned, perhaps harkening back to how the Doctor thinks he is regressing back to his old self again. The moves from heights of grandeur to soft, flowing moments truly show the ever expanding range of this composer. How many awards has he won? Not enough, I say!

After some discussion and an, alas, ultimately pointless return for the Sisterhood of Khan, we dive into the actual story of this episode. The Doctor’s attempt to save Clara. The lengths the Doctor goes to in order to do this are somewhat uncomfortable viewing, especially when he shoots the General, taking one of their regenerations.

I should comment on this moment on a few levels. It does show the desperation the Doctor is going through, his complete determination to be the man who saves people, no matter what. He does terrible things, but they are calculated. He kills the General, knowing they will regenerate. But given what the Doctor has previously said about regeneration, this feels like it is still a step too far. Back in The End of Time the Doctor tells Wilf that when he regenerates, he dies.

The Tenth Doctor, End of Time Part 1 (2009)
The Tenth Doctor, End of Time Part 1 (2009)

Even then, even if I change, it feels like dying. Everything I am dies. Some new man goes sauntering away, and I’m dead.” – Tenth Doctor: End of Time Part 1 (2009)

To then dismiss the General’s death as “Time Lord for man-flu” felt very uncomfortable and shows again the desperation within him – determined to save Clara, but still determined to justify his actions.

The General regenerates as a black woman, and I was pleased that this has now been fully established as a possibility for the Doctor. There was still a slightly uncomfortable feeling that it was being played for laughs – I don’t know how much of this is the carry over from Moffat’s The Curse of Fatal Death parody where the Doctor becoming a woman was mostly used as a punchline. Also, she comments that the ‘male form’ had ‘so much ego’, but I never got that sense from the General’s character. It just seemed like an odd comment. Still, I remain cautiously optimistic about the future after this.

As the story goes on and the Doctor has to face up to what he has done for Clara the audience is told, over and over again, that Clara is very important to him and has made him a better person. Certainly, the Twelfth Doctor has changed over the past two years, he has become much kinder, much more compassionate, and much more caring. How much of this is to do with Clara specifically is, I fear, unclear.

Is it the fact that she has transplanted herself all over his timeline after the events of The Name of the Doctor? Is it the fact that she was present at the fatal moment in The Day of the Doctor?

Clara VortexIn The Day of the Doctor she told him to ‘be a Doctor’ and…? Well, that was it, really. The Doctor suddenly enacts a plan he had, apparently, been thinking about for centuries. Was Clara’s line here a prompt for it? I still don’t know, it was very unclear.

Is it the fact that she challenged his actions in Kill the Moon? Perhaps that feels truer, as that was when I started to see more of the Twelfth Doctor’s character changing. However, I have criticised the distinct lack of Clara this series and feel that it has inevitably taken away some of the impact this storyline could have had. The audience has been told that Clara is important to the Doctor, but we have been shown very little of that.

The Doctor insists that he had a duty of care, and that this is what has driven him to rescue Clara from her fixed death. This whole series has had repeated themes of the Doctor taking great lengths to rescue people, spanning vast and unfathomable periods of time in order to save even a single life.

Indeed, the idea of enduring ridiculous lengths of time to save or help someone is a very common occurrence in Moffat-Who and has only grown more and more ridiculous. The theme of ‘the long road’, taking ‘the long way round’ and waiting for centuries, is something we’ve seen ever since it was first mooted in The Girl in the Fireplace where Madame De Pompadour waited for the Doctor while he jumped ahead in time constantly. In The Eleventh Hour Amy waited almost all her life for the Doctor to return to her after a childhood meeting. We’ve seen Rory and Amy wait for thousands of years for one another in The Big Bang (Amy trapped in the Pandorica while Rory, as an auton replica, waited with her). Amy again had to wait almost all of her life again for the Doctor to return in The Girl Who Waited. And in The Time of the Doctor, it was the Doctor himself who was stuck waiting for thousands of years on Trenzalore. The theme resurfaced this year in Under The Lake where the Doctor buried himself in a stasis pod and waited hundreds of years to be dug up again.

Now the Doctor has endured over four billion years in the Confession Dial, just to defy the Time Lords and rescue Clara. In Heaven Sent, the Doctor says, “But I can remember, Clara. You don’t understand, I can remember it all. Every time.” suggesting that he remembers all of those four and a bit billion years. One wonders how that many memories (even if it is the same memories over and over again) didn’t fill up his brain!

The Hybrid, once again, proves to be something of a red herring. The Doctor didn’t really know anything about it, or at least never revealed that it had been anything at all beyond a tool he had used to convince the Time Lords that the secret was worth going to extremes to keep, and so he pushed them to go to extremes by extracting Clara from time.

After a quick jaunt through the Matrix Cloisters, guarded by ghosts of Daleks, Cybermen, Weeping Angels and dead Time Lords, the Doctor does what he does best – he steals a TARDIS and runs away. This was something of a joy and I loved seeing the 1960s style TARDIS interior again, polished and cleaned up for the modern age but still clearly the same thing (much like the show itself, har har).

Running to the end of the universe, somebody knocks four times. It is neither Wilfred Mott nor the Master, instead it is Lady Me. This was another nicely subdued scene, two timeless beings watching the universe come to an end. They discuss the hybrid as possibly being not one being but two. You know, this prophecy seems to get nothing right. Me speculated that the hybrid is born from the dangerous mixture of the Doctor and Clara being together – that they would go to such extreme lengths to save one another that it might put the universe in danger. The Doctor decides that it might be best if Clara were to forget that she ever knew him, that way the Time Lords could never track her down – though that part seemed a bit silly to me – surely the Time Lords have more effective ways of tracking people.

Tenth Doctor and DonnaNobleWhat follows is a play on the fate of Donna Noble. The roll is ultimately reversed with the Doctor being the one to forget about the companion. However, he still remembers something about her. He remembers that he cared about her enough to go to the ends of the universe, risk all of reality and time itself breaking apart just to save her. It is hard to pin down exactly what it is about her he has forgotten besides her face.

This is an interesting twist on what happened to Donna, but I feel as if it missed the mark and had nowhere near the same level of impact. The consequences of Donna forgetting the Doctor were gigantic – we had seen her evolve, we had seen her grown, and we had learned to love her at every step of the journey. To see her fall back to where she started was gut wrenching and painful. There was a real consequence to the Doctor’s actions there. Whereas here I don’t feel as if there were.

If Clara has had such a huge effect on the Doctor, surely forgetting her would mean he would change. He apparently didn’t revert back to his series 8 persona, but rather maintained the mellower, kinder, softer spoken version of himself that has developed. Clara has gained a sort of immortality, it seems, a TARDIS of her own, and is now travelling the universe with Lady Me.

So what exactly has been lost? What are the consequences of this ending? That the Doctor and Clara are no longer travelling together? That seems to be the only answer available at the moment. I could go into a longer diatribe on whether or not this is a good thing. What message is the story trying to send? What is the audience supposed to learn from this? Longer thought perhaps needs to be put into this.

80s TARDIS consoleUltimately, that is a good thing. This year I have felt that a tad more effort has been put into making Doctor Who, once again, something that invites analysis and criticism. It is becoming again a show that can make us think and make us want to delve deeper. If a script asks questions, we shouldn’t be surprised if different viewers come up with different answers. There has been a much higher standard of writing this year, and this has invited much more in depth criticism – and this is healthy.

Only a few short weeks away from the Christmas special, The Husbands of River Song.

(I promise to keep an open mind on this)

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Hell Bent
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Joel Cornah
Joel Cornah is an author, journalist, and blogger. He is the author of a number of novels and novellas including; The Sea-Stone Sword, The Spire of Frozen Fire and The Silent Helm, with the upcoming novel The Sky Slayer, expected some time in 2016. He is an editor for The Science-Fiction and Fantasy Network, head of the Doctor Who department, and member of the Tolkien Society. He is a frequent blogger for the Pack of Aces blog, focussing on issues of Asexuality in media, specialising in sci-fi and fantasy.