Netflix UK TV review: Doctor Who Season 9, Episode 12 (Hell Bent)
Mark Harrison | On 06, Dec 2015
This is a spoiler-free review. Already seen it? Read on at the end for spoilers.
“Nothing’s sad until it’s over. Then everything is.”
Back in the wee hours of 2010, Russell T. Davies brought his tenure as Doctor Who’s first ever US-style showrunner with The End Of Time Part 1 and Part 2. It served as a swansong for both himself and beloved lead David Tennant, taking a victory lap that brought the Doctor’s people back for the first time since the series was revived, while also closing off this incarnation of the show in such a way that gave a fresh start for the next run.
Their successors, Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi as the next Doctor-but-one, aren’t even leaving their respective jobs in the foreseeable future, but Moffat’s latest and greatest season finale, Hell Bent, has the same flavour and epic quality. For one thing, we find the Doctor back on Gallifrey after his ordeal in last week’s one-hander, whose events are estimated here to have taken place over the course of four and a half billion years.
But this is an episode that spans just as many years, if not more, taking in settings as varied as present-day Nevada, the Time Lord Panopticon and a bubble at the end of time itself. The Doctor has come home the long way round, with his mind set (as the episode title suggests) on avenging Clara, whom the Time Lords unwittingly manipulated to death.
The arc of Season 9 has largely been in the background, barring copious foreshadowing about Clara’s imminent exit from the show and the semi-regular honking mentions of a prophesied Hybrid that will conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins. So it’s with a subtler-than-usual amount of fanfare that we arrive at this finale, which takes a different tack to any of its previous counterparts.
More than the culmination of Season 9, Hell Bent is the culmination of a homecoming arc that started with the abolition of the Time Lords in the first season of the show’s revival and has come on leaps and bounds since the 50th anniversary. It has the gumption to bring that story full circle while still focusing exclusively on the fallout of this season’s break-up, with all reality-destroying consequences put on the back-burner.
Capaldi’s Doctor is still hurting from the loss of Clara and like any wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey sort, he’s going through the stages of grief in the wrong order. Acceptance seemed to come first, with denial, depression, anger and bargaining all peaking and troughing throughout the excellent trio of episodes that has closed this run.
Naturally, the finale can’t live up to the previous two instalments and like past concluding episodes, it even undercuts some of their drama by having to tie up the season. But just by osmosis from the extended build-up, this is still Moffat’s best finale to date.
Behind the camera, director Rachel Talalay makes her mark once again, giving us the best ever on-screen version of Gallifrey and the Time Lords. It’s astonishing how well she creates the desired Western feel early on, and then still keeps pace with a script that hares around the universe once the action gets going.
We see the Doctor go to lengths to which we never would have previously thought he would. Together, Moffat and Capaldi find the kind of elasticity to the character’s dark side that arguably hasn’t been present since before the new series. Even John Hurt’s war-faring mayfly incarnation might blanch at his successor’s bad behaviour here, but with Capaldi in control, it all comes naturally from character rather than plot machinations.
This is less accessible than The End Of Time in its fan service, but given Whovians’ intrinsic tendency to worry about what the general audience is making of all of this, it closes a decade-long story and the Doctor’s relationship with Clara in such a way that leaves a completely blank slate for the next season.
Overall, Season 9 has been Moffat’s finest since his first, backed up by incredible talents such as Sarah Dollard, Peter Harness, Jamie Mathieson, Rachel Talalay and, of course, the mighty Peter Capaldi. With that crew on-board and a new companion incoming, we can’t wait to see what good a refresh will do a show that, in its tenth year running, has been triumphant again and again.
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Additional notes (contains spoilers)
– Next to the perfect tragedy of Face The Raven and the stunning drama of Heaven Sent, Hell Bent is the minor part of this three-parter almost by default, rather than through any glaring flaws. But as some of the downsides have been neatly spoiler-proofed, we can get into those here.
– Jenna Coleman’s name is reinstated in the credits for one last turn, as she appears in the pre-credits sequence as an English waitress working in Nevada. In a Princess Bride-style wraparound that comes back throughout the episode, the Doctor tells her the story of Clara. It’s a heck of a story to tell too. It includes a meeting with Rassilon’s new incarnation, sadly skipping the Timothy Dalton-to-Donald Sumpter regeneration scene. And then there’s the first ever regeneration in which a Time Lord switches both race and gender, with Ken Bones’ General from The Day Of The Doctor getting straight-up murdered by the Doctor, but turning out considerably more comfortable as T’Nia Miller anyway. There are even cameos from Weeping Angels, Cybermen and Daleks (“EX-TER-MI-NATE… MEEEEE”).
– And then of course, Clara turns up in the story proper. The Doctor’s plan was always to get to Gallifrey, take control of the place and then rescue Clara at the moment of her death in a nifty Time Lord extraction chamber. He has his suspicions about who the fabled Hybrid is (welcome back, Maisie Williams) but it’s all a plan to undo Clara’s death by taking her on adventures in an everlasting pre-mortem state.
– The episode has another fine performance from Jenna Coleman, as Clara joins the chorus of people telling him that he can’t do it – not just because time will unravel but because she doesn’t want him to do this for her. It’s Me, billions and trillions of years older and wiser since the last time we saw her, who points out that the Hybrid could well be two people of great warrior races, rather than a cross-breed: the Doctor and Clara are so good at being bad for each other than they might bring about the end of everything.
– Clara has had many false outs in her time on Doctor Who, missing apparent exit points in Kill The Moon, Death In Heaven and Last Christmas, but this partly expands upon the tragedy of her death in Face The Raven, until we get a happier ending. As long as the Doctor is trying to bargain his way out of it, even at the expense of Clara’s memories of him, this is considerably more dramatic than previous time-bending cop-outs. In fact, there’s even a subversion of the last time this happened – with Donna Noble in Journey’s End – with the companion’s will to keep her memory overriding the Doctor’s plan. Instead, he gets to know what it feels like, losing all memory of Clara, as she and Me go off on adventures in a stolen TARDIS of their own, with a chameleon circuit stuck on its American diner setting. The spin-off-o-meter just exploded.
– Meanwhile, it’s interesting that Gallifrey’s return is not the main headline of the episode after all – it’s established to where it and the Time Lords could possibly appear in future episodes, particularly with the loose end of Rassilon and the High Council being exiled from the planet, presumably for an angrier return in the future. They’re best in small doses and one can only hope that Clara’s scorching rebuke about how everybody hates them informs any appearances to come.
– Clara still has to die, but like just about any other “fixed point” death in Doctor Who, there’s space to swing any number of cats in the ample wiggle room that Moffat allows his characters and we’re left to assume that everything was fine and she went back to face the raven at the right moment to stop reality collapsing like so much wet cake. But the long goodbye is worth it for the blank slate that he and Capaldi will have in Season 10. With a new sonic screwdriver and no Clara baggage, there’s only a Christmas special with River Song to go before the series can come back renewed. Is it 2016 yet?