Hell Bent

Story No. 288 Clara Who?
Production Code Series 9, episode 12
Dates December 5, 2015

With Peter Capaldi
Written by Steven Moffat Directed by Rachel Talalay
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: The Doctor returns home to face the prophecy of the Hybrid.


"How are you sustaining it?" by Donna Bratley 18/2/19

Narrative credibility, Doctor? Erm - you're not.

On broadcast, I found Hell Bent a crushing let-down. Even though I doubted Moffat could properly kill his own creation, Clara's warped happy ending felt contrived: an embarrassing backtrack, diminishing the perfect culmination of her story in Face the Raven.

I adore Clara. I wanted her to stay dead. I still maintain it would have been a fitting end to the beautifully drawn symbiotic partnership she enjoyed with her brittle but less breakable Twelfth Doctor.

On repeated viewing, it's grown on me to the point that, as a standalone, I can find enough good that I almost enjoy it. But it's not a standalone, and that is its fatal weakness.

It's muddled, disjointed and twisted - "Clara Who" indeed, now she has a stolen TARDIS and her own deeply uncertain version of immortality. It returns the Doctor to Gallifrey after all that desperate searching, only to ignore the whole storyline - ten years of agonising! - in favour of a frenzied, futile struggle to reunite with a dead companion. And after a series-long build-up, it offers a Big Bad that doesn't really exist. The Hybrid that terrorised a planet is (possibly/probably) a metaphorical construct: the combination of Doctor and companion, a force for good turned on its head to become, potentially, the destroyer of worlds.

Actually, I think the last point may be what I do like about it.

The Doctor doesn't act like "The Doctor" - that's a complaint thrown at Hell Bent. But doesn't that make total sense? After billions of years being tortured by his own kind, how could he emerge his controlled, compassionate self?

It's even a relief. So often sci-fi puts a character through hell one week, then continues the next as if nothing happened. That grates, where this feels real. I won't say human, but definitely naturalistic.

Anyway, it's about time we saw the oft-referenced menace of the Time Lord Victorious: who better to unleash it than Mr Capaldi? He doesn't have to say a word to conquer the planet, and what he's prepared to do with his new power is genuinely shocking. Would he have gone to such extremes without billions of years' torture fresh in his mind? The High Council - who, let's face it framed Rigsy and set the immediate conditions that led to Clara's death - bring disaster upon themselves.

I'm in a minority regarding a finale again, I suspect, because I find the metaphorical hybrid vastly more interesting than any "half human on his mother's side" or "Ashildr/Me" obvious answer. It's also a solution that carries the psychological element of Clara's journey to a fitting conclusion. Two sides of the same coin: recklessly dangerous together; too tightly bonded to part. If you're going to do a "companion hero-worships the Doctor and gradually becomes ominously like him" arc, that's probably the way to wrap it.

It's the final stage that doesn't sit well. I recognised from the outset that my hope of the familiar-looking waitress being an echo/splinter was unlikely to be realised (RTD couldn't bump off his beloved Rose either), but to see the undead Clara flying off in a stolen TARDIS, the Doctor Mark II in all but name... no. It's a step too far, no matter how wonderfully Capaldi and Coleman play their final scenes.

It's notable that Clara is the more rational of the pair with regard to her (cheated) fate, begging the Doctor not to do the least Doctor thing ever. I'm sorry to see Ken Bones' General take the fall for the whole High Council, and even more disappointed Moffat uses that shocking scene for another of his "see, I'm a feminist writer, I make disparaging comments about men" moments. Women have egos too, Steven - just look at your own creation.

Clara's fury in discovering what the Time Lords have done to her friend is almost as alarming as his at their part in her demise. She's been a divisive figure within fandom (who isn't?), but I've grown to rate her as my favourite revival "carer" to date, and Jenna Coleman's performance is a major reason why. I shouldn't begrudge her a kind-of happy ending, but I do.

Her companion comes off better. Maisie Williams is hit and miss through the series, but she ends on a high: infinitely wiser, at peace with her immortality and long past being intimidated even by this Doctor, it's a satisfying finish to Ashildr's story, as long as there's not a spin-off to come one day. Some things should be left unseen, and the adventures of Doctor Oswald and Me fall firmly into that category.

The Sisterhood of Karn merit an appearance purely for Ohila's slap-down of the Doctor; seeing the awe in which he's held by the common folk of Gallifrey is moving; and the scenes in the Matrix, with the magnificently spooky sliders, are wonderfully atmospheric. It even makes sense that, having spent so much time agonising over Gallifrey's loss, the Doctor finds a reason to run away again as soon as he gets there: his own kind are insufferable pomposities, and he's never going to settle as President of anything. There's plenty of Moffat's trademark sharp dialogue, emotional punchiness and unsubtle, Gold-abetted yanking on the heart-strings.

The subtleties come in the acting, which is as ever perfectly on point, and in Rachel Talalay's assured and atmospheric direction. It's lovely to see the classic TARDIS interior of course, and the switch-around from the expected resolution (yes, I assumed Clara's memories had been wiped) is both neat and in character for the cleverest of companions. And, while it may be cheesy, I particularly enjoyed the closing moments with a chastened Doctor visibly steeling himself to obey her final instruction and be the Doctor again.

I only wish I enjoyed everything that came before as much, because, as the culmination of a truly stunning series - among the finest ever in my eyes - Hell Bent remains overall an exquisitely played, elegantly staged muddle.

A life of peace and ordered calm by Hugh Sturgess 7/5/22

This, I imagine, is what it must have been like during the Hinchcliffe era - a time when the show was swaggeringly bold and produced more than one all-time classic per season. At the height of the Capaldi era, I knew I was experiencing what would in the future be regarded as a classic era of Doctor Who, and it felt very special indeed. I couldn't have been happier where the show was in 2015, more than I'd been at any other time in the New Series' run, appropriate given that this was the tenth anniversary of neo-Who.

Yes, I've outed myself as a Moffat fan. I have things to say about That Feminism Debate, along with all his other foibles and tricks, but I think that Doctor Who was stronger artistically between 2014 and 2017 than it was at any time under Davies or Chibnall and stands now as one of the show's all-time high-points.

Russell T Davies, for all his strengths, established a formula in Series 1 he stuck to for the rest of his time on the show, because it was the safe thing to do with an enormously successful flagship show. Listening to his public statements and DVD commentaries, Davies is constantly alive to the potential mistakes the series could make. Accusations that he was a populist are, in fact, accurate: he set himself to retaining a transient audience he imagined might be scared away from anything too sciencey or too downbeat (the reason he originally had Cybermen at the end of Journey's End). Moffat instead evinces what can be called an astonishing lack of concern for the sentiments of the "casual viewer", or more flatteringly a radically higher estimation of their good taste.

Moffat has explicitly said that if things feel too safe on Doctor Who, things need a shake-up. Maybe this was a function of the later UK broadcast times, but the Capaldi era looks like an exploration of how far Doctor Who can get away from populist mass entertainment before it loses its audience, much in the same way Series 6 through A Good Man Goes to War took the "dark fairytale" vision of the series to its extreme. The run of episodes from Dark Water to Hell Bent contains Clara's astonishing betrayal of the Doctor, Danny Pink's death (twice!), Danny accidentally killing a child, Ashildr's dead babies, The Zygon Invasion/Inversion and this final two parter.

Doctor Who has come a long way from the hyperactive run of "blockbusters" of 2012 and 2013. There, the show was experimenting with how fast the stories could be told, making a statement that Doctor Who was a jumpy, fizzy, fast-paced series. The new, slower, contemplative program that emerged in Deep Breath suits its older, quieter Doctor, willing to test the assumptions of audience attention-spans and tastes, exploring the numinous and the liminal, accompanied by an acute feeling that it should try to do things simply because it has never done them before. That thinking put the Doctor in a Bergman-esque one-hander punching a wall for four billion years last week, and this week produces a Time Lord Western crossed with a feminist Orpheus and Eurydice.

It is a testament to the long dead hand of The Invasion of Time and Arc of Infinity that the prospect of an entire episode set on Gallifrey gave me a twinge of doubt. But Gallifrey works here in a way it hasn't since The Deadly Assassin, in two meanings of the phrase: it's the first Gallifrey story since Assassin that's any good, and it resurrects the Gallifrey of Robert Holmes, a world founded on terrible and hidden power, ruled by gods who are still basically idiots.

What a world Gallifrey is in Hell Bent. Wonderfully, Moffat remains faithful to virtually everything we have ever learnt about the planet. The high technology exists alongside gothic crypts, hardened Time War veterans alongside sorta-kinda Lungbarrow-style creepy relatives in the wilderness. The result is one of the most gorgeously out-there planets Doctor Who has presented. Ruled by the resurrected patriarch of their civilisation, inhabited by immortals who switch face, race and gender when they die. Despite no trippy dreamscapes, the Matrix's premise - a ghost computer built from dead minds to predict the future - has never been so creepy. This is the kind of terrible, inscrutable power you expect to find at the heart of the oldest and most powerful civilisation in the universe. The Matrix is more powerful than the Time Lords can understand, guarded by silent screaming ghouls, ensnaring intruders in vampiric cables and keeping them in terrible suffering agony.

One of the greatest things to come out of the wilderness years is a kind of Platonic ideal of the series, distinct from the often flawed, always imperfect thing that was actually shown on TV. Every fan of paleo-Who knows Gallifrey frequently sucked on screen, yet every fan also has the "proper", awesome, spooky, incredible version in their head, and we finally have something approximating that on screen.

Series 9 is rather more of a celebration of the show than the real "anniversary year" of 2013, and not, perhaps surprisingly, a celebration of the New Series. Starting with the Dalek two-parter's gorgeous Raymond-Cusick-inspired sets, the season calls back to the classic series a lot more than its own twenty-first century heritage. The season ends with the triumphant return to Gallifrey ten years after Russell T Davies blew it up so we would never have to go there again. Largely by accident, the New Series' first decade now has a clear arc: the return of Gallifrey. The End of Time, Day of the Doctor and even Listen's revelations about the Doctor's childhood give the episode's opening ten minutes post-credits - the Doctor, looking like Clint Eastwood, returning to his home village for soup and an impromptu firing squad - a weight of history. There's something incredibly nostalgic about hearing a percussive remix of Series 1's "Flavia theme" during the stand-off in the desert.

As is appropriate for a story that demonstrates by its existence Doctor Who's longevity (the tenth year of the series' second incarnation!), Hell Bent is awash with Doctor Who continuity from all sources. The Sisterhood of Karn, the Matrix, Rassilon, the Master, Donna, Amy and Rory and the '60s TARDIS interior (!) are all explicit, but what's amazing is how much everything is a subtle reference to something else. Obviously, the episode flirts with the Doctor being half-human and his real reasons for running away from Gallifrey, along with the history of Gallifrey and the nature of regeneration. Me spends her scene virtually doing nothing but indulging in fan speculation. She knocks four times and inexplicably has a chess set. All this is positively dripping in significance for long-term viewers. Clara's appearance in the diner, feigning ignorance, is clearly intended to make us remember her splintered self in Series 7, yet the script never says as much. It's all done in a deliberately ambiguous way, so that virtually any fan theory is a line or two away from being confirmed. It's almost fractal.

I think this is exactly the attitude the series should take to its own mythology when it considers the matter. Moffat likes to examine big, iconic components of the mythos - the Doctor's name, his heritage, why he ran from Gallifrey - but always stops short of saying anything definite. Instead, the implication of the series is that it's all true, something made explicit here when the Doctor tells Clara's that "every story ever told really happened".

The evolution of Clara Oswald from a generic distillation of pluck and genre-savviness to a character who has, to a degree, transcended the series itself has been a wonder to behold. Jenna Coleman was deeply charismatic from the start, turning in a brilliant performance as Oswin in Asylum of the Daleks, but the writing regularly let her down. Not a single episode of Clara's time with the eleventh Doctor informs my tentative statement that Clara is the best companion in the series to date, showing just how dramatically Moffat lifted his game on the character come Capaldi.

Whenever you have a situation in which a smart character has a less-smart companion to ask the audience's questions, and furthermore that less-smart character is a woman and the smart character a man, you have an uncomfortable situation. El Sandifer calls this "the Problem of Susan": the companion, who is overwhelmingly a female, is intrinsically placed in a subordinate role to the Doctor, and can never outgrow him without becoming too big for the series. To make sure the audience is all on the same page, the companion has to ask obvious questions like, to be frank, a complete pillock. The removal of both Liz Shaw and Romana in the old series specifically on the grounds that they were too smart speaks volumes.

The example of Donna shows how not to handle the empowerment of a companion. Via biological metacrisis, she has become too clever, she has no need for the Doctor to explain things to her or to save the day for her, so she must be hustled out of the TARDIS. It would be bad enough if the perpetrator of this was merely the author. Worse, the Doctor himself forcibly wipes her mind (which he acknowledges is effectively killing her) against her will. He reduces her to the shallow, cynical, mean-spirited ignoramus he met in The Runaway Bride, unable to ever better herself, a prospect she regards with undisguised horror, all because he thinks he knows what's good for her.

This comes very close to (indeed some might say becomes) a classically abstracted sci-fi rape. A woman has her personal and bodily autonomy violated against her will by a man. One thing the Doctor has always hated unusually strongly has been mental manipulation (see the merciless punishment he metes out to the Macra and the Silence), yet here he is rewriting a woman's mind against her will. It's frankly an awful moment that is far worse than anything Tennant does in The Waters of Mars.

The neural-block subplot in Hell Bent is the closest Moffat has so far come to an explicit rebuke of Davies. Clara reacts to the Doctor's plan exactly as Donna did: she refuses to have her past taken from her, she would rather die than lose that. The worst thing about the treatment of Donna is that the episode focusses on the tragedy for the Doctor - what a terrible burden he must shoulder, how lonely he is, etc. Hell Bent goes some ways to make amends for that by having Me (importantly, another woman) ask the Doctor whether Clara would want to have her past destroyed to "save" her, and the episode leaves us in no doubt that the Doctor is in the wrong.

(It's worth noting here that Chris Chibnall has entirely ignored this whole issue by returning the Doctor to wiping minds in Spyfall, for no clear reason - why exactly must Noor and Ada lose their memories of the future when Nikola Tesla gets to keep his of the TARDIS? - and with Ada begging her not to do so. I don't expect every showrunner to be up on fan debates, but it's a painfully obvious example of how Moffat examined and subverted every aspect of the show for eight years and then Chibnall came along and junked the lot of it.)

This is a final, brilliant result of the great experiment that is Clara Oswald, an experiment in how far you can push the companion from that subordinate role. She doesn't outgrow the Doctor, but she has become his equal. This is acknowledged by their shared decision to play Russian roulette with the neural block, and later by the iconography of stealing a TARDIS ('60s design and all) with an unearthly child for company. Call her a Mary Sue if you like - certainly she fits a lot of the particulars, though I find it hard to imagine Moffat using Clara as a vehicle for self-actualisation - but her integral involvement in the Doctor's life (seen in The Name of the Doctor, Day of the Doctor and Listen) is what is needed to accelerate a human to his level.

The series has attempted and then rejected seemingly a dozen other potential departures for Clara, each time finding it wanting. Clara should not become disillusioned with the Doctor's life (Kill the Moon), she should not be separated by misunderstanding and return to a lonely, ordinary life (the downright bleak Death in Heaven), she should not age out of contention for a companion role (Last Christmas), she should not die (Face the Raven) - at least, not yet. Leaving the series but not being forced back into domesticity or being categorically killed is the best resolution to her story. Like the Doctor himself, her story never ends.

In my review of Deep Breath, I idly compared Series 8 to Season 22, due to its similar conceit of a pricklier, less friendly Doctor in a darker series of episodes. That comparison is holding up pretty strongly, I think. The chief difference is that Season 22 was an aesthetic disaster, while the Capaldi era is a triumph. This is the sixth Doctor's era we should have seen. The Doctor has become more alien and more aloof without becoming a smug git. The companion is a compelling, charismatic character equal to the Doctor, not a tremulous-voiced object for the male gaze. The stories have become darker without revelling in violence for its own sake. It has leant on the show's past, but mostly by capturing the spirit of the series' iconography rather than venerating bland signifiers.

It's also just absolutely exceptional television. Credit for this goes to everyone involved, from the stellar cast to the crew to the director and the oft-benighted Murray Gold for a beautiful score, but Steven Moffat has to be singled out. While the contribution of Davies is pumped up by engineering the revival of the series, Moffat's output puts him in the very top tier of writers to have shaped the series, along with Davies, Holmes and Whitaker. Moffat has been producing critically acclaiming television since 1989. That he managed to reinvent a single show for the third time and make it better than ever seems scarcely possible. In Hell Bent, he is a writer at the height of his powers, both artistically and institutionally, and clearly decided to use the latter to showcase the former.

Back in 2015, I knew that one day Doctor Who would not be brave enough to do stories like Kill the Moon, Heaven Sent and Hell Bent. A correction back towards populism and more straightforward adventure was inevitable, even if the Chibnall era has managed to exceed my worst fears for it. But for one shining moment, it was at the top of its game, socially aware, willing to face up to its own past errors, willing take risks with its audience and unwilling to rest on its laurels. For one shining moment, it was the best thing ever.