Doctor Who series 9: Hell Bent review

Spoilers! Here's our review of Doctor Who series 9's finale, Hell Bent.

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.

9.12 Hell Bent

“Get off my planet”

Well, that’s an hour of telly to put proverbial cats amongst proverbial pigeons. A Doctor Who finale that goes against the grain of the character of the Doctor himself for large parts. That brings back a character who died two episodes ago, and at one stage that left me wondering if Amy and/or Rory would walk through the door.

I’d wager hard cash that the internet is noisily exploding, even as you read these very words. Good good. We’ve got a lot to talk about…

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“The man who won the Time War”

After the turning of the screw and raising the momentum to a big finale last week in Heaven Sent, writer and showrunner Steven Moffat kicks off Hell Bent by slowing things down. He’s got an hour to play with, and play with it he duly does.

As a consequence, from the off this episode feels a little different, and a two-parter more in story than style per se. It’s perhaps inevitable after the bold strides taken last week that broadening things back out from one man in a castle would feel a little more ‘usual’. Just by having more people for the Doctor to talk to, for a start.

The initial slowing down of pace hides a lot of early business. The major Clara reveal (that she’s back) – or at least the first part of it – for a start. It’s introduced quickly, to give Twitter five minutes to sort itself out whilst other matters are attended to, before we go back to spend time with Jenna Coleman’s proper swansong from the show.

That time is also spent introducing us to a familiar location from The Impossible Astronaut, and we also get the best look at the innards of Gallifrey that modern Doctor Who has ever shown us. Time on the watch by this point? Five minutes or so.

“We have to tell her. We always tell them”

The cliffhanger last week was the Doctor, implied to be the hybrid, heading back to Gallifrey to wreak some form of havoc. We didn’t know who’d put him in the Confession Dial, and the scene was set for an hour of Gallifrey-based mayhem. Which we duly didn’t get.

For as it turned out, the Time Lords turned out to be one of the least impactful parts of the episode. There’s clear nerd glee, of course, in any time we spend on the Doctor’s home planet, but Rassilon and his unpleasantness didn’t make it to the list of Hell Bent‘s top talking points. I think most of us had guessed when we saw him that the Confession Dial was his doing, after all.

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That said, the Doctor returned to the barn we first saw in Day Of The Doctor, and there was also him seeing his seeming adoptive mother (or at least the Miss Hannigan of Gallifrey), hinted at in Listen last year. We even got the four knocks of the door at one point, that pre-empted the end of David Tennant’s tenure in the TARDIS. Basically, I’m glad I’m not writing the geeky spots article for this episode, as Steven Moffat was keen to include lots of little touches for the longer-term Who fan (welcome back the Sisterhood of Karn again, for instance, along with the assorted monsters in the cloisters). Appreciated ones, too.

It’d be remiss, too, not to confess to nerdy joy at seeing the High Council of the Time Lords in all their pomp, with their impractical outfits and sense of grandeur. Fancy dress parties on Gallifrey must be a serious challenge if that’s what they wear every day.

“You’re on Gallifrey. Death is Time Lord for manflu”

But still, we all know the rules here. The Doctor ran away from the High Council for a reason, and those reasons haven’t diluted (even if they’ve changed a bit). 

Rassilon therefore – for it is he – wants the Doctor dead. Thus, we get a sequence where he orders the Doctor to be shot, and nobody shoots him, and nobody watching is surprised. It’s one of those where you know how it’s going to pan out very early in the scene. This is what Time Lords with too much power do, after all: it’s in the rule book. Granted, it was the one part of Hell Bent that felt just a little padded, but I didn’t mind. I like hanging out with the Time Lords.

Anyway: if the president of the High Council of the Time Lords followed his expected behaviour pattern, there’s one Time Lord who certainly didn’t. And you know very well ‘who’. Arf.

We’re use to the Doctor living off-piste, and breaking the rules. But breaking his own moral code? Breaking his own rules? That’s, rightly, very, very rarely trodden ground. It’s a gamble, and it’s one Steven Moffat was willing to take.

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We’ve seen the Doctor holding a gun before, of course, but that doesn’t make it a small matter when he picks one up. Come The End Of Time Part II, for instance, Ten(nant) was working out who to shoot before doing the usual Doctor thing. Just those few minutes, however, felt like they pushed at the edge of what the Doctor would do.

But if you needed proof that Twelve was a rougher sort, his killing of the General in cold, albeit ultimately regenerated blood is about as steely as Capaldi’s Doctor has ever been. And that takes some doing. Sure, he checks that there are regenerations left, but we’ve been told before that it still feels like dying to a Time Lord when they regenerate. For the Doctor to deliberately put someone through such physical pain, at his own hand? That’s icy, and uncomfortable, and the most un-Doctor-y we’ve arguably seen him for a long time.

What’s more, it’s not even Rassilon he shoots. It’s the General, the very one who has been on his side, and backing him.

The man who tries to have the Doctor killed? Nope, he doesn’t get shot. The man spouting practical things, being reasonable, and fighting the Doctor’s corner? Boom.

“As of this moment, I’m answerable to no one” Capaldi rages later in the episode. No shit.

“How many regenerations did we grant you? I’ve got all night”

The catalyst to the Doctor’s actions, of course, is a belated but ultimately reasonably successful attempt to save Clara, last seen – excluding fleeting glimpses last week – dropping to the floor and, well, dying. And she still is dead, in that her heart has stopped, she no longer breathes and she has no pulse. But thanks to an extraction whatsit from the Time Lord stock cupboard, here she is.

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Crucially, this time she sees what the Doctor’s gone through for her (superb acting too from Jenna Coleman as it sinks in, as it is when we see her overhearing the Doctor’s plan to wipe her mind near the end). How he’s spent billions of years – a number that’s hard to rationalise really; Rory’s one-time wait sounded longer, even that it wasn’t – refusing to give up on her. She’s telling the Doctor what he should – and shouldn’t – be doing. And she’s in control of some key decisions here. Including, ultimately, if she chooses to return to Gallifrey to die. Again.

And then, just to cap it, we also have the reversal of the Donna Noble moment.

For the last two series, the argument has been that Clara has taken on the Doctor role, since Peter Capaldi boarded the TARDIS. I suspect it’s no coincidence that the line “Clara who?” is uttered this week. And ultimately it’s Clara who does to the Doctor what the Doctor would be expected to do to others: she wipes his memory, or at least the part that remembers her. It’s a twist that makes things far more emotionally impactful, I thought. 

After all, it reverses the usual farewell, and makes it all the more touching that it’s the Doctor struggling to put two and two together at the end, trying hard to recall her, and failing to do so. Credit, again, to director Rachel Talalay for the delicate balance she manages, and for her willingness to apply the brakes and keep things simple for big moments like these. It’s a complex visual finale, this, and she never loses sight of the story she needs to tell. Furthermore, visually, it’s an absolute treat.

From a storytelling perspective, there’s still the argument and perhaps frustration that modern Doctor Who likes its companions too much, and thus refuses to kill them off. Which is effectively the case again here. Adric was born 30 years too early by my reckoning. He’d be sitting maths tests even to this day if he’d just hung around for a later Doctor.

That said, it’s easy to understand why the Doctor goes to such lengths to save Clara, at least to an extent. And there is a catch to his success, of course: Clara is still one heartbeat away from dying. The Doctor’s plan, in more fashionably-Doctor style, works. But not quite as expected.

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Clara, then, is left looking a lot less dead than a fortnight ago, and we leave her zooming off in a nicked TARDIS of her own now – one with a quite fetching and very familiar interior – instantly offering the show another spin-off option if Jenna Coleman fancies some more space and time travel once she’s done with Queen Victoria. She’s with Ashildr (who remembered Clara specifically from her books in Face The Raven, and now we know why), and she’s got a TARDIS instruction book, which might even make it to Waterstone’s for next Christmas.

Moffat’s almost winking at people here. Some haven’t liked how Clara became more like the Doctor. Now she’s nicked a TARDIS from Gallifrey, and is running in her own way from the Time Lords. Doesn’t sound familiar at all, that.

“One of us has to go”

There’s a question, of course, as to whether the resurrection of Clara in some way dilutes the ending of Face The Raven. Different people will have different answers to that. For me, it does a little, but it doesn’t make Face The Raven any less an episode. It does too provide an anchor for Hell Bent as well. It just makes Clara’s departure a little bit double-bagged. We’re not at Return Of The King-like multiple endings, but she’s had two good goodbyes now. Both of which set the internet alight.

I still think that for the first chunk of Doctor Who series 9, Clara’s character arc was the one ingredient that never quite gelled. But her departure has been handled, whether you agree with the story decisions made or not, exceptionally well. 

That moment, too, when the Doctor played Clara’s theme on his guitar (and Murray Gold’s score was outstanding again this week)? A lovely little touch. There were lots of those about this week.

Further questions left over?

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Well, there’s Ashildr for a start. Will she be back too? Has she got a broader role to play? Or does it all depend on how many seasons of Game Of Thrones Maisie Williams survives?

Furthermore, after the build up to discovering Gallifrey again a couple of years ago, has it been and gone now? Was that, for want of a better way of putting it, all we’re getting? Where does this leave the Time Lords? I was expecting the whole Gallifrey thing to be bigger than it was. Maybe it still will be. Those costumes can’t be cheap to make.

Still: it’s fitting really though that Doctor Who series 9 has ended on a note that’s going to please some, and upset others. Because that, for me, is what good storytelling should do. And I think we’ve been treated to an awful lot of good storytelling these 12 weeks.

Hell Bent – and I liked it a lot – wasn’t quite up the level of last week’s, in truth, but then Heaven Sent was quite special. In fact, several episodes this year have really, really stood out.

I’ve adored the boldness of this series. I’ve adored how fearless it’s been, and I’ve adored how Peter Capaldi has put in a shift that’s given me goosebumps four or five times. 

As he stood by his TARDIS at the end of Hell Bent, looking at the dedication to Clara, with a guitar over his shoulder? That man. We’ll be talking about his work in this show for years.

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Family drama, they call this. They’re damned right. But it’s family drama that treats every member of the family as someone with a brain. Hell Bent, fittingly, takes the Doctor off stage left, with barely a compromise in sight. It was creepy, moving, funny, and bristling with confidence, just as much of the series has been. What’s more, there’s a new sonic screwdriver and a high standard set for next time around. Doctor Who goes on, and thank goodness for that.

Next up? The return of River Song at Christmas. Already, it’s got a very high standard to live up to. How about we watch that whilst they ship a BAFTA to Capaldi’s house? He ain’t the only one associated with this show that deserves one, eithter…

Our review of the last episode, Heaven Sent, is here.