Doctor Who: Hell Bent

Well, the latest season of Doctor Who is over.  After the outstanding Heaven Sent, I wrote that I was a bit worried about how good this episode would turn out.

Now that it’s out, the verdict?  Um…

Well, one thing I’m pretty sure about is that Hell Bent is going to elicit some pretty divisive responses from people. (You know, spoilers ahead, and stuff)…

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Hell Bent 1.jpg

Images: BBC/Simon Ridgway/Chris Lobina

Remember Listen?  After it came out, some people called it an instant classic for the series.  Others felt like it was a wretched piece of garbage and further proof that Steven Moffat is an insidious devil who has not only wrecked the series but also left his foul stench all over the backstory of their favorite character.

(This attitude forgets of course that writers and producers have been doing this all along.  Doctor Who is not the result of any single authorship, and thus the Doctor’s story, such as it is, has cumulatively been created by  many people, including Sydney Newman, Verity Lambert, Anthony Coburn, David Whitaker, Dennis Spooner, Innes Lloyd, Kit Pedler, Gerry Davis, Terrance Dicks, Malcolm Hulke, Bob Baker, Dave Martin, Robert Holmes, Barry Letts, Philip Hinchcliffe, Graham Williams, Anthony Read, Christopher H. Bidmead, John Nathan-Turner, Andrew Cartmel, Russell T. Davies and lots of others.)

Anyway, Hell Bent features some excellent qualities.  It’s got great production values, good performances, and a sense of grandeur and importance that the series rarely aspires to.  It’s also almost traumatically emotional–particularly toward the end as we realize what is really going on in the diner–and all the more so because of the two episodes that have proceeded it.  The whole three-parter that has concluded the series, whilst being made up of very different episodes, has been a deeply personal story about the Doctor and his relationship to and with Clara Oswald.

However, with all of that, Hell Bent contributes to the overall myth of the series, even more than Listen or The Name of the Doctor or similar episodes,, and so people who don’t like Moffat’s take on the show will find much to object to here.  I personally don’t mind–I quite like these visits into the Doctor’s background which tease much but come short of spoiling everything.  I only personally find it a bit tedious how the episode works to reinforce the whole gender-swapping regeneration motif that has been building up for a while.  But that may be as much because I’m sad about losing Ken Bones as the General, as I found him much more interesting than his replacement.

For some people, they will dislike Hell Bent will because that it turned out the story was primarily about the Doctor himself and his emotional problems, rather than any sort of external threat or adventure.  I admit I found this a bit jarring.  We were all expecting some sort of epic smack-down with the Time Lords, and in a way that is what we got, except that it all ended a few minutes after the Doctor arrived.  We were expecting some sort of mythology-shattering revelations about the Hybrid, but instead we got speculations and theories.

However, they were interesting theories, especially the idea that the Hybrid was actually the combination of Clara and the Doctor:  two warrior races who became so intertwined that they threatened the future of the universe.  In a way, the villain of the story was not Rassilon (although he clearly was a villain) but rather the Doctor / Clara pairing itself, something that we saw in a way that was  character driven, and not just the result of some contrived technobabbly science fiction thing.  The Doctor finally realizes this and sees that the situation can’t continue – either he or Clara must in some way be taken out of the picture.  That’s a jarring story to tell, but it’s a fascinating one, and I’ve got to appreciate it at least this once.

Of course, the difficulty with this is the sense that the series can never show us the Doctor growing that close to anyone ever again. After all, if the Doctor turned into his own worst nightmare because of his friendship with Clara, how can we ever accept the Doctor having another close friendship in the future?  The answer of course is that the person will have to be radically different from Clara, someone with a few more safeguards built into their personalities that would keep them from the recklessness that she grew into.  We will see what that looks like next year, I guess.

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Hell Bent 2.jpg

Images: BBC/Simon Ridgway/Chris Lobina

Another point of contention for some people might be the way the episode left Clara and her status quo.   Clara’s a character who, like her creator Steven Moffat, has produced a lot of mixed reactions.  Some people love her, while others hate her and feel that Moffat was turning the series into The Clara Oswald Adventures, a criticism I could never comprehend.  So when she (spoilers!) died in Face the Raven, some were devastated, and some rejoiced.  Interestingly, I can see people in both camps having problems with Hell Bent.  Fans may feel her “revival” diminishes the emotional impact of her death.  Her detractors may feel that Moffat has done what he was threatening to all the time – elevated Clara to the point where she is basically equal to the Doctor himself–if they didn’t like Clara before, they are going to be majorly irked by the idea of her flying through time and space in a Tardis shaped liked like an American diner.

I’m somewhere in between.  I liked Clara, especially with Peter Capaldi.  I was sorry to see her die, and part of me wanted her to be saved and have a happy ending.  But we can see through the episode that her rescuing isn’t necessarily a good thing (especially after seeing the consequences of the Doctor saving Ashildr earlier this year).  Yet I was grateful that the show was able to surprise me by neither just restoring Clara wholesale, nor limiting her appearance to an illusion, a flashback, and alternate splinter self, or any of the other obvious theories. I do find the ending with her in her own Tardis a little hard to accept.  It seems like a set-up for a new recurring character, but I’ll cringe if I ever hear that we’ll be seeing Clara again in that capacity on TV.  In my personal head-canon, Clara will soon experience something on her travels that will tell her definitively that it is time to return to Gallifrey.  I like to think it might be some incident which threatens to destroy her “time-frozen” body, which she would realizes would cause a paradox that would bring to pass the destruction the Time Lords are worried about.  So she rises above her own self-interest to do the right thing.

As I said, I don’t necessarily want to see this story on TV, because I can’t imagine going through yet another heart-breaking goodbye with Clara.  At the same time, I cannot imagine a TV episode telling this story and keeping the Doctor in the dark about her identity.  However, I have to say that if Jenna Coleman ever did return to the show, this is the only story I’d want to watch.

I’m going to miss Clara (and her song).  To my surprise, she evolved over her years in the series from just the latest companion into one of the most compelling and well-rounded figures the Doctor has ever traveled with. Jenna Coleman regularly did an outstanding job with her, and at the moment its hard to imagine Peter Capaldi’s Doctor with anyone else.  And it’s sort of horrible to imagine that the Doctor can’t remember Clara at all–much worse than Donna not being able to remember the Doctor a few years ago.  There’s a terrible emptiness about it.  But at the same time, I’m ready to move on.  Hell Bent accomplished the unusual feat of rescuing Clara from death (sort of) but making her into someone I’m not really interested in seeing again.

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The Husbands of River Song

BBC/Jon Hall/Simon Ridgway

Anyway, now we’re on to Christmas and The Husbands of River Song, which the trailer at the end of Hell Bent makes to look at absolutely goofball bonkers.

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