I’ve taken the luxury of watching “Hell Bent” a few times now, savouring its courage and ambition. As a season finale it’s a curious beast, lacking the overt bombastic urgency of a universe-ending threat, instead underplaying the threat of a threat from the ill-defined ‘hybrid’ and allowing character driven action to take centre stage.
Freed from the purgatorial confession dial, The Doctor sets about exacting punishment on the Time Lords for what they have done. But how far is The Doctor willing to go? And how much immortal blood will be spilt to resurrect one mortal?
In a season which has gone out of its way to evoke various classic eras of the series’ original run, it’s kind of fitting that as a finale we’ve been treated to an old-fashioned six part epic (I’m going way back to when an episode of “Doctor Who” was a mere 25 minutes long, so the past three weeks (“Face The Raven”, “Heaven Sent” and “Hell Bent”) give us six episodes in ‘old money’. And like those sprawling six part stories of yore, it’s been a melange of competing story ideas, all generally if unevenly pulling the plot in the same direction.
The long-awaited return to Gallifrey is both welcome and satisfyingly balanced, retaining much of the cannon of old while assimilating the recent layers of backstory seamlessly (the explanation of where the Confession Dial comes in, in preparation for entering the Matrix was particularly pleasing). Gallifrey’s placement near the end of time, the end of all creation, feels appropriate; it’s the perfect place for the Time Lords to look back on the whole of creation and control, catalogue and curate it.
The confrontation with the President and High Council of the Time Lords unfortunately feels a bit rushed and the Doctor’s swift ascent to dominance means we don’t get to enjoy Donald Sumpter’s Rassilon (I assume he’s the regeneration before Dalton’s post-The Moment crazed incarnation) before he’s summarily exiled, presumably storing up trouble for the future. The absence of Missy is a genuine disappointment (there’s no reason to assume she’s on the black list of these current Time Lords) but we’re treated to a rare and unprecedented visit to Gallifrey from the Sisters Of Karn instead. While this should be a huge issue, and potentially constitutionally volcanic they quickly establish a comfortable détente with the Time Lords and by the end of the episode kind of seem to be in charge.
The revelation of the Doctor’s ultimate plan brings with it the disappointment of inevitability. Of course Clara is resurrected, plucked from her time stream at the very moment of her death. It’s therefore much more of a shock when, having achieved his aim, the Doctor flat-out murders someone in cold blood. Yes, it’s another Time Lord and The Doctor brushes it off as the equivalent of ‘man flu’ thanks to regeneration. Moffat cheekily uses this disposable regeneration to kill off two arguments with one staser blast with an ethno-gender switcheroo for the Head of the Presidential Guard (I was sad to see Ken Bones go, though – he’s such a fantastic old-school Time Lord actor). The Doctor’s actions are symptomatic of the story’s underlying point: showing how far the Doctor is willing to go for Clara, breaking every code he’s ever lived by.
After all the build-up and the hints, the identity of the Hybrid is never fully explained but with the main candidates being ruled out, we’re left with the slightly unsatisfactory statement that the real danger came from The Doctor and Clara being together and given he endured 4.5 billion years of torture to be reunited with her, it’s not hard to believe he would burn down everything to save her. The eventual resolution is heartbreakingly familiar, as he seeks to do to Clara what he did for Donna, only she manages to do a “Superman II” to him and The Doctor effectively en-Nobles himself. It’s such a neat way to resolve it without undermining everything we’ve seen before – in fact, it makes the Impossible Girl possible and avoids contradicting the events of “The Name Of The Doctor”.
The trademark Moffat framing sequence that’s only explained in the last few minutes of the episode is at first an annoying distraction but ultimately wins out thanks to the very end. Plus, I can forgive him some structural inelegancies and small plot holes in exchange for seeing the pristine classic TARDIS interior in use again and the wonderful moment when, after being told to drop his weapons, the Doctor lets his spoon fall to the table. Moffat specifically requested Russell T Davies not kill off Jenny in “The Doctor’s Daughter” and now he’s sent two other powerful women off into the cosmos. What price a spin-off cross-over team up featuring Jenny, Me and Cla-Ra The Ever-Living I wonder?
This is how this exemplary season ends: no big battles, just big moments. A slate wiped melancholically clean for the next season and The Doctor, equipped with a wicked looking new Sonic Screwdriver roaming the cosmos unencumbered by Oswaldian guilt or incitement. Like her or loathe her (or somewhere in between), Clara has been a hugely influential character in “Doctor Who” and whoever the next companion(s) may be, they’ll have to work hard to avoid Martha syndrome.
How long is it until Christmas?