Written by Steven Moffat
Is that the…? Yes, it is. The Doctor’s back in the Utah diner where he met with Rory, Amy, and River in The Impossible Astronaut — except this isn’t quite Utah, because Clara did something clever and they’re actually in Nevada. Oh, who cares.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In this two-parter that’s really a three-parter, if you count Face the Raven, it is revealed just who forced Ashildr/Me to trap the Doctor and take his Confession Dial off him — the Time Lords, scheming bastards that they are. The insides of the Doctor’s own personal hell, as he calls it, have a bit of a Hogwarts vibe to them, if you count shifting stair cases and rotating floors and rooms changing size — and even the mortal danger fits, actually. But there is nothing in the way of cute magic about that place. Not in the way the Doctor is actually scared for his life, or about how there is a very, very old portrait of Clara in his room. If the Confession Dial was designed to give Time Lords the chance to make peace with themselves and their regrets, then it is surely a place where they can lie, but shouldn’t — or so the Time Lords figure. So the Doctor has to tell the truth to get the thing behind the veil from tentacling him to death, and if there’s one thing the Doctor doesn’t like to do…
“I just watched my best friend die in agony, my day can’t get any worse!”
I really liked the mystery of the episode, and the way it’s set up. With the Gothic castle theme, jump scares, and fearscaping, I would have thought it had been written by Mark Gatiss, because this seems right up his alley. It’s very different from the usual Doctor Who fare. Sure, we’ve been trapped in tight spaces before, such as a submarine during the Cold War, or another spooky mansion in Hide. But this story is different in how it unfolds, because there is no way out. The only reprieve the Doctor gets is when he escapes to the TARDIS, his storeroom (his Mind Palace, if you will), seconds before he dies, again. And of course there’s a Clara in his storm room, too. We never see her face, barely see the back of her head, but we hear the tapping of the chalk on the blackboards, Clara acting as the embodiment of his intellect prompting itself with questions as to how to proceed. He has expressed, before, that he admires her as a teacher, and he brings that up again now.
“You’re asking the wrong question!”
“Always the teacher!”
Around the castle, there is nothing, just the endless sea, and there are… a lot of skulls down there. Alas, poor Yorrick…
The episode really does an amazing job at making the most of various rooms’ atmospheres and light settings during different times of day, showing us how time passes rather than having the Doctor tell us:
The brilliance of the episode is that it’s written in such a way to make us think we see the Doctor step foot out of that chamber for the first time, even though it does clue us into that not necessarily being the case because it starts with someone clearly bleeding and hurt pulling a lever that makes him appear. But the hand we see turn to dust is not the left, so I wasn’t sure (Peter never takes off his wedding band, so we’d have recognised him by that immediately). In any case, we are swept up in the story of the Doctor clearly acting as if he’s seeing the place for the first time, because he is. It’s how Moffat tricks you, you forget about the corpse for a while, if you can. If you don’t, it continues to throw you off, same as it throws the Doctor off that the stars are all wrong, and the painting is so very old, too. Using the Doctor’s fear and surprise at everything to pull you in, the script pulls the wool over your eyes just long enough. It lets the Doctor come to the same realisation as the audience at the same time, and then it speeds up time. And with every night out on the battlements, with every death he dies while punching his way through the crystalline wall that’s separating him from the TARDIS, he get a little further away, he gets a little further through the poem.
Until, one night, he’s through.
He punched his way through that wall, all the way towards the end of the Universe.
(Press pause: something just occurred to me. When Lucy shot the Master in Series 3, and Ten willed him to regenerate, but he wouldn’t… the Doctor says here that even when too badly hurt to regenerate, the body still tries, which is why it can take Time Lords days to finally die. I… I do hope the Doctor waited a while before burning the body.)
The Time Lords forced Me to trap the Doctor to torture information on the Hybrid out of him; because… obviously they couldn’t just ask him.
And mainly because Rassilon is a dick.
(Very clever line there, when the Doctor arrives and says that the one standing in the ruins of Gallifrey will be, “me.” Meaning, of course, not him but Me.)
The opening of Hell Bent is a very cold and sudden open — with the Doctor suddenly transported to the Nevada desert and entering a very familiar diner, and meeting a very familiar waitress. Aside from the instant mystery of, “Wait, how did Clara survive? Is this really Clara?”, the framing narrative immediately sets up the main conflict: forgetting. From the way they interact, it will not become clear until the very end which one of them forgot about whom, although I think most would have assumed that Clara had forgotten the Doctor and he’s checking up on her. Oh, the irony.
In two series, we haven’t gotten to know the Doctor that well, he remained guarded and mysterious. But it’s this boundless love for the first face this face saw that defines the Twelfth Doctor, and that makes him knowable. He went through his personal hell for 4.5 billion years for a chance to save her, and he will defy anyone on Gallifrey to get that chance.
The people of Gallifrey — not the ones living in the Citadel, but the ones in the wasteland, the ones that are of no consequence to Rassilon and the Council — know the Doctor. And when he turns up in the barn that we know from The Day of the Doctor, they know immediately.
“They will kill you.”
They know what he did to save them, and they won’t budge an inch even when a soldier tells them to stand aside to let him have a crack at the one Time Lord who ever gave a shit and saved them. He assumes the role as leader for now, and not just President of the World. Faced with a shooting commando, the Doctor accepts his fate (remember, they can shoot you dead, but the moral high ground is yours), but Rassilon’s soldiers remember, too. And so, the Lord President is dethroned and banished. The Doctor continues to talk to what’s left of the Council — mainly the General and members of the Sisterhood of Karn (they gave Eight the elixir to control his regeneration into the War Doctor), and they aren’t exactly impressed with what he’s telling or, rather, not telling them about the prophecies regarding the coming of the Hybrid. He thinks he knows who it is — but is he right?
The General helps him extract Clara from her time stream, in the space of a heartbeat between life and death. The Time Lords think it’s to say goodbye, but the Doctor has other plans. He actually shoots and kills the General to get away. Sure, he asks which regeneration he is on first, but… there was no other way of incapacitating him? It’s honourable of the General to not budge from the door unless shot and forced to regenerate, but come on. I understand that this is all about showing us how ruthless the Doctor can become after being tortured until the end of time, literally, and especially when faced with a companion’s death and chance of saving them, but… the Doctor and blasters is like Batman and guns, it’s just not done. Five couldn’t even shoot Davros, Twelve couldn’t kill Davros, neither the boy nor the old creature. It’s very callously done, here, and treated with… next to no emotion, no explanation. Again, I understand what Moffat is trying to do, and I think it has merit to explore that, but I’m not sure if this was the time or the place. Or particularly well executed. Pardon the pun.
Also: the General regenerates into a woman of colour (and is expressly glad at being rid of that ego, as that was her first and only time inhabiting a male Time Lord’s body, making it clear that cross-gender and cross-skin-colour regeneration is a thing, so sit down, dudebros), but sadly the last time we see her is in the Cloisters.
The Doctor fought for 4.5 billion year for a chance to save her life.
Even if it means she won’t remember him; but when he’s actually got her with him, he can’t even admit how long it’s been, or where he was. He doesn’t want her to know the lengths he went to, in fact, he doesn’t tell her much of anything. And remember, this was the Doctor’s face when he actually got to thinking about life without Clara:
In this context, Face the Raven isn’t quite redeemed, because Clara doesn’t get a lot of agency in this story. The Doctor bargains for her life with pretty much everyone but her — he even talks to Me first, he talks to Clara LAST. His plan is to take her far away in time, to the real End of the Universe, to get Clara far enough away from Gallifrey’s influence to restart her heart; then give her a neural block (think Donna after Series 4) so she won’t remember him or fracture time. Because he knows she’d try to find him.
But it backfires, because Clara will never let that go.
“I insist upon my past!”
This whole exchange is where my head starts to hurt a little. After so neatly explaining away Clara’s recklessness and easy acceptance of her death with some underlying near-suicidal death wish that Clara was supposed to have harboured since Danny’s sacrifice, now she folds so easily and agrees to take the gamble of them both using the neural block at the same time to see who gets a nice case of amnesia. She manipulates the device after hearing the Doctor tell Me the plan he’s concocted, in an effort to force him to return her to her time stream and just let her die.
But then, suddenly, she lets him cajole her into a game of Bop It, and not only that. After we find out that it was the Doctor who forgot Clara, and that she led him to the diner to test the neural block taking hold, she leaves with Me — bargaining to buy herself time before she has to go back and die. Presumably. I’m still not sure what exactly about the Doctor’s words made her change her mind. It also undercuts the impact of her order not to be vengeful.
Does it help with the pain of losing her? Knowing she’s alive, even if he can’t remember her face anymore?
Perhaps it does. And it’s nice that, for once, the Doctor can go back and save the day, when for so many companions, he couldn’t do the same.
But it is at odds with how Clara’s first goodbye was told, and it is a crying shame that this was his first return to Gallifrey. Clara knows what Gallifrey is like, of course, she’s seen it while protecting all versions of him through the ages, but she does not get to marvel at the fact that he finally found it.
I do like the fact that the Universe is a little less lonely now; and I love that Clara is now travelling with Ashildr/Me. With another TARDIS whooshing around… sure, the Time Lords tucked themselves into a little corner at the end of time, but Missy is still around, too. So perhaps there will be more adventurers from Gallifrey (or other places) out there now, exploring the stars.
As a series finale, I really appreciated the effort to try and tell a different kind of story, and also as a way of giving Jenna a decent send-off. I’m a little iffy on the way her characterisation has been (mis)handled to get the outcome that the writers wanted, especially after feeling that the writers got off to a much better start with her and the New Doctor Dynamic in Series 8 and again writing better material for her in early Series 9.
Oooh, a new Sonic Screwdriver!